Before we begin this countdown of the most noteworthy Batman (good and bad), some honourable mentions:
Alan Napier, who played Alfred in Batman ’66 but dressed up as Batman a fair few times, was incredible. Rino Romano, who voiced Batman in The Batman animated series for five seasons did a great job too, but putting him in this list seemed strangely out of place. In fact, the voice casting on that show reads like a Who’s Who of top talent and it’s sad that the show isn’t viewed with as much love as Batman: The Animated Series. Speaking of great voice talent, I’m not sure who played Batman in the Graphic Audio adaptation of No Man’s Land (Buy it! It’s awesome!) but the whole cast deserve awards.
In fact, there have been countless other great Batmen, from people on stage to cosplayers.
Unfortunately, space is limited but these twelve stood out in some ways. Some better, some far worse, but all have left a mark on the legacy of Batman. The actors mentioned brought something to the table, as did the Dark Knights they played, while the writing and directing of the productions certainly influenced how Batman came across.
Now… you just know who’s in last place here. Right?
12 – George Clooney/Batman & Robin:
He may be an ac-torrr of the highest order and a silver screen heartthrob, but he’s notoriously the worst on-screen Batman of all time. Uttering lines which make him unbelievable as both Batman and Bruce Wayne, he’s like the George Lazenby of all the dark knight detectives. Except George Lazenby was unduly criticized and was really good as James Bond, while Clooney simply sucked as Batman. Granted, nobody could have made that movie good, but it’s particularly embarrassing that someone of his calibre couldn’t pull off a single good moment as Batman. His performance is more wooden than Pinocchio, making even the number 11 entry seem great by comparison.
11 – Val Kilmer/Batman Forever:
There was a time when Val Kilmer could do no wrong. He was young, talented and handsome, starring in hit films like Top Gun and Top Secret! Then he took the mantle of the bat and the rest is history. Looking completely confused throughout the entire film, his Bruce Wayne suddenly has no idea of why he dresses like a bat in the first place and even sees a psychiatrist about it – forcing fans to wonder if Batman received a concussion we didn’t know about. On the plus side, some of his interaction with Robin is pretty amusing, even if the film itself is a disaster.
10 – Lewis Wilson/Batman (serial):
Bringing a swashbuckling air to this classic old serial, Lewis Wilson made quite an impression as Batman. He may not be striking fear into the heart of criminals all the time, but he looks pretty believable and intimidates his foes by locking them in the Batcave with all his nocturnal pets. He even does some real detective work, which is more than can be said for many others. Unfortunately, this serial isn’t too well known these days due to it being offensive by today’s politically correct standards. Still, Wilson put in a good performance and has to be given credit for that.
9 – Diedrich Bader/The Brave and the Bold:
It’s a shame that Bader is ranked so low down on this list, because in Brave and the Bold he’s absolutely perfect as the voice of this particular Batman. Usually light-hearted but occasionally somber and always serious about upholding justice, it’s an awkward tightrope to walk. With Batman referring to his fists as his hammers of justice, everything Bader says conveys just the right emotion. Instead of sounding constantly grim, there are subtle shifts in his tone which let you know exactly how he’s feeling – from ironically funny to concerned to intimidating. Uttering alliterative tongue-twisters which defied normal boundaries of dialogue, Bader’s Batman is an action hero and a detective of the highest order, and serves as a narrator on this lighthearted series where he introduces viewers to some of DC’s lesser-known heroes.
8 – Robert Lowery/Batman & Robin (serial):
Taking the mantle of the bat from Lewis Wilson, Lowery had a tough time. Wearing a costume which didn’t fit him and looking like he’d eaten a few too many doughnuts, he was less of an action hero than the actor he replaced. However, as Bruce Wayne he’s distinctive, has a better look and exudes far more charisma as he deflects Vicki Vale’s quest to expose him as the Batman. Not only that but he has genuine enthusiasm every time he decides it’s time to wear the costume. He spends some time doing detective work too, has a great rapport with Robin and his undercover work is always on form. He may not be everybody’s Batman, but he was more than up for the job.
7 – Christian Bale/Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy:
Ranking Bale so low down may seem like an insult, but he’s up against tough competition. Pulling off the public Bruce Wayne as just the right sort of drunken dilettante, the private Bruce Wayne as a driven man intent on achieving his goals, and Batman as the gravel-voiced vigilante, he excels in almost every way. He occasionally does a little detective work, has strategies planned out well and dominates in fights. If only Bale could have removed that stick from up Batman’s butt and developed some sort of personality that we could like.
Also, The Dark Knight Rises drags him down. Sure, it’s hard to steal the spotlight from Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, but even against an unintelligible moron like Bane this Batman doesn’t shine. This particular Batman is so dumb that he gets involved with Talia al Ghul for no reason, loses his company, and retires just a few years into his life’s mission because his not-girlfriend dies. In other words, Christian Bale could have played the greatest Batman ever, but the writing let him down and the character looks like a quitter. And every Bat-fan knows that Batman is no quitter. Speaking of which…
6 – Bob Sessions/Batman: Knightfall (audio):
Perhaps one of the least-known Batmen, Bob Sessions voiced Batman/Bruce Wayne in the BBC audio drama adaptation of Knightfall. His performance may not be the best and can seem hammy at times, but it’s still more than good enough to be believable even in the story’s weaker moments. So why is he ranked so high? Because, thanks to the series being a faithful, almost word-perfect adaptation (yes, it covers Knightfall, KnightQuest and KnightsEnd), he’s the one Batman who’s exactly like how he is in the comic books. You genuinely believe that this is a Batman who’s put through the wringer and physically broken by Bane, before returning to greatness. Sessions pulls it off with some style and this Batman is an underrated gem.
5 – Ben Affleck/Batman v. Superman:
The latest isn’t the greatest, no matter what some starry-eyed fans may claim. Yes, Batman looks the part thanks to his crossfit sessions and time spent pointlessly hitting tyres with a sledgehammer. He’s buff and physically intimidating. As Bruce Wayne he’s reasonably smooth too, although he still looks scruffy even when wearing the finest suits.
Unfortunately he’s also borrowed Christian Bale’s no-fun buttstick, treats Alfred pretty poorly, and appears to have no functioning brain cells. His lack of logic and strategies implies that he’s brain-damaged, his detective skills are non-existent, and he seems to spend most of his time sleeping. A narcoleptic Batman is not what anybody needs. Sure, people were amazed at Batman wearing a cloth costume instead of the more recent padded armour ones, but it really wasn’t anything new. Robert Lowery, Lewis Wilson and our number four entry did that all the time…
4 – Adam West/Batman ’66, Super Friends:
Bounding into any fight with a two-fisted ka-pow, Adam West was Batman for many years and had no issues wearing the cloth costume. This Batman may not have looked physically imposing, but this was still a Batman who gave his all in every fight and could escape from any deathtrap. And there were a lot of deathtraps back then. Doing detective work came naturally to this Batman, he could banter using alliteration with ease and gave respect to all who deserved it. Occasionally brooding over the deaths of his parents, as Bruce Wayne he was a philanthropist and an all-around nice guy.
The series may be known for its campiness and, yes, Adam West’s Batman gave us the Batusi. Yet West almost always played it seriously. This was a friendly, polite, intelligent Batman who still kicked butt and got the job done. For some he’s an embarrassment, but Batman ’66 revitalized the comic books and introduced the character of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl so there’s a lot to be thankful for. Plus, this Batman had a real way with the ladies. His moments with Catwoman are so sexually-charged that it’s amazing it was allowed on television at all.
3 – Michael Keaton/Batman, Batman Returns:
When it was announced that Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice star Keaton would be playing Batman, fans trembled with fear. They shouldn’t have worried. These days he’s an Oscar-nominated actor, but even then he brought his A-game to the role of Batman. In the first of his two films he’s on form as a seemingly-clueless Bruce Wayne, but looks a little out of place in the Batsuit. Regardless, his Batman is the dark knight detective in every way.
It’s his performance in Batman Returns though which is truly incredible. From brooding intently over Christmas and lamenting being so alone, to some wicked grins in the Batman suit, you realise that he’s a tortured soul who truly relishes dispensing justice. Also, the chemistry between Keaton’s Batman and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is off the charts. In a great film, Keaton presents one of the best Batmans ever and gives him more depth than any live-action actor in recent years.
2 – Will Arnett/The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie:
Some hardcore Batman fans may dismiss this one. However, as Bat-Mite would say, this may be a lighter incarnation but it’s no less valid, and Batman’s rich history allows him to be viewed in a multitude of ways. The Lego Movie offered up one of the funniest characters of all time in the form of Lego Batman. Powered by Will Arnett’s ridiculously comedic gravel-voice, this Batman is so over-the-top serious it’s hilarious.
Parodying both the overly-grim Batman of recent years and the fanboy cliché that Batman is the most amazingly perfect superhero ever, he’ll throw a dozen Batarangs before one finally strikes home, and yet boast that he got it on the first try. He sings songs about how everything in his life is dark and brooding, is so arrogant that he’ll never admit to being wrong and is a complete idiot. Yet he’s still every bit Batman, and the trailer for the new film shows him brooding over the death of his parents before kicking Alfred into a piano. This version of Batman would be funny anyway, but Arnett’s voice makes this portrayal perfect. Well, almost perfect. There’s only room for one perfect Batman, and it’s…
1 – Kevin Conroy/Batman Animated, Justice League, Arkham games, more:
You can’t get better than the best. Kevin Conroy started out on the classic Batman animated series, but then there was the Justice League. And Justice League Unlimited. And Batman Beyond. And Gotham Knight. And Public Enemies, Apocalypse, Doom, The Flashpoint Paradox and Assault on Arkham. And those Arkham games. And even the new Killing Joke movie. He’s been the main voice of Batman for nearly 25 years, portraying the character for longer than any other actor.
So what makes Conroy so good? It’s because he’s never played just one definitive Batman, but pretty much every type of Batman you can imagine. He’s voiced a serious Batman, a playful Batman, an old Batman, a parallel universe Batman, a family-friendly Batman and a hardcore Batman. He’s played a singing Batman too, in JLU’s episode This Little Piggy (one of the highlights of the whole series). His rich voice always makes whichever version he’s playing work completely, reminding us that there’s a flesh-and-blood person underneath the costume. When he wants to sound intimidating, he’s more intense and terrifying than any gravel-voiced live action incarnation. And yet when he’s playing Bruce Wayne, there’s an entirely different voice with completely different tonal qualities.
His various Batmen – regardless of whichever version you favour the most – will always be just right, both due to great writing and because Conroy captures the Dark Knight Detective so perfectly. It’s simply hard to imagine anyone doing a better job. Maybe one day there will be, but for now and the foreseeable future Kevin Conroy IS the ultimate Batman.