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“Batman Begins (2005), “The Dark Knight” (2008), and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) Bale had a decided advantage on the other Batguys on this list, in that he actually got to maneuver through an emotionally and satisfying character arc over the course of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, evolving from novice vigilante to living legend to happily unburdened retiree. He also had invaluable assistance from two first-rate partners in crimefighting: Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, a sage weapons master and occasional conscience, and Michael Caine’s Alfred Pennyworth, a surrogate father with a warrior past. But Bale richly deserves the top spot here primarily (though not entirely) because of his ability to persuasively portray the life-sized man behind the larger-than-life Batman. It may sound absurd at first blush to describe as realistic any element in the aggressively over-amped, even operatic “Dark Knight” films, but Bale infused just enough vulnerability into the Batman character to make it feel like every clash with every foe — not just Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” but every foe — really was a matter of life or death.
“Batman” (1966 film, 1966-68 TV series) Many comic-book purists are loath to admit it — indeed, some get downright testy when you raise the issue — but for many casual fans, West was, is, and always will be the Batman. And to a large degree, that’s because, unlike most other actors who have donned the cape and cowl, he played the senior partner in the Dynamic Duo as someone really, truly, and unapologetically enjoying the dichotomy of being a suave millionaire who moonlights as a masked vigilante. Never mind that the ‘60s “Batman” TV series had a limited novelty value in its time — it lasted scarcely two years on ABC — and, truth to tell, is better remembered than actually re-watched. Thanks to endless reruns of the series and the easy availability of the 1966 movie, West’s straight-faced yet drolly self-satirical take on the Caped Crusader — The Light Knight, if you will — remains the Batman who looms largest for the largest number of people in the pop-culture pantheon.
“Batman” (1989), and “Batman Returns” (1992) It may be difficult if not impossible for subsequent generations of Batfans to appreciate the outrage that ensued when, back in the day, director Tim Burton announced Keaton, then best known (despite his well-received dramatic turn in 1988’s “Clean and Sober”) as a lightweight comedic actor, would play the Caped Crusader. But the seemingly counterintuitive casting proved to be an inspired choice, as Keaton elevated to flood tide the undercurrents of rage that percolated just below the surface in many of his previous performances, in order to play Batman as equal parts Zorro, Dracula, and the Phantom of the Opera, with just a discomforting touch of paranoid schizophrenia thrown in for good measure. Yes, he was upstaged by Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the 1989 “Batman.” But, really, just barely.
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016), “Suicide Squad” (2016), “Justice League” (2017) Affleck tries a wee bit too hard to convey glowering and growly grit as an unshaven and possibly unstable Batguy. And it doesn’t help that in some sections of “Justice League,” his bulky Batsuit evokes images of the Michelin Man. Still, he earns points for conveying the physical and psychological toil of caped crusading. In “Batman v Superman,” he suggested an increasingly paranoid, stressed-for-success zealot edging perilously close to psychosis as Batman attempted to preemptively control Superman. And in “Justice League,” he comes across as burnt-out and borderline suicidal, even while at his most Batmanly. At one point in 2003’s underrated “Daredevil,” Affleck’s Man Without Fear raided his well-stocked medicine cabinet for a few potent painkillers after an especially grueling dust-up with bad guys. His Batman doesn’t resort to similar self-medication in “Justice League” — but after he reveals the brutal bruising he received from a revived Superman, you can’t help thinking he’d appreciate a Percodan or two to go along with a stiff drink.
“Batman & Robin” (1999) Clooney might be remembered as one of the better Batmen had he not been stuck in one of the worst Batmovies. He was quite engaging as either half of a seriously split personality — suave playboy and caped crusader — and his interactions with Michael Gough’s aged Alfred Pennyworth were surprisingly affecting. Better still, he slyly implied now and then how much fun being a masked vigilante might be for a guy rich enough to afford all the high-tech toys he needed for such a hobby. Unfortunately, the overstuffed supporting cast of heroes and villains often made Batman seem like a guest star in his own movie. And, well, yes, there was that freaky Batsuit with the big nipples …
“Batman and Robin” (1949 serial) Lowery was a B-movie mainstay throughout his decades-long movie and TV career, a journeyman actor whose resume indicates someone much more comfortable as a straight-shooting cowboy than a playboy turned masked crimefighter. Even so, he proved to be a marked improvement over Lewis Wilson in the second 15-chapter Batman serial produced by Columbia Pictures, if only because he didn’t look like he needed to be spending more time on the Bat Treadmill in the Bat Cave. Also in his favor: He was an amusingly effective smooth talker whenever Bruce Wayne cracked wise with ace photojournalist Vicki Vale (Jane Adams).
“Batman Forever” (1995) Kilmer had a tough act to follow when he took over the Batman role after Michael Keaton joined director Tim Burton in departing the franchise. Trouble is, he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do nearly enough to put his own distinctive stamp on the character. (Come to think of it, he didn’t fare much better when, two years later, he attempted to reboot another franchise as the title hero in “The Saint.”) In all fairness, though, it should be noted that anyone would have been hard pressed to stand apart unscathed from the riotous blur of chaotic excess that defined this and Joel Schumacher’s subsequent Batmovie, “Batman & Robin.”
“Batman” (1943 serial) Wilson merits at least a footnote in pop-culture history for being the first big-screen Batman, in the 15-chapter Columbia Pictures serial released just four years after the Caped Crusader made his first appearance in Detective Comics. There’s little else that can be said about his performance, however, and even less that can be described as complimentary. An inadvertently comical figure in a Batsuit that overemphasized his sizeable paunch, and a Batmask tricked out with pointy ears large enough to double as radio towers, Wilson managed to out-camp Adam West’s high-camp Batman when the 1943 serial was reissued in theaters around the time the 1966-68 “Batman” TV series premiered on ABC. Even so, the serial itself is not without some curiosity value, in that it reveals how Batman, not unlike Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and other fictional good guys, was pressed into wartime service during WWII. Here, Batman and Robin (Douglas Croft) serve as government agents pitted against Japanese superspy Dr. Daka (played by the conspicuously non-Asian J. Carrol Naish).
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