I’ve been watching a bunch of the Batman movies, and I started think about which actor was really the best at playing Batman. Sure, it’s mostly opinion, but it got me thinking about who I like, and then, more importantly, why I like that actor as Batman.
The way I see it, there are a few things that need to be taken into consideration. First, what’s the medium. Movies are different from television, and live action is different from animation, all that needs to be taken into consideration. Next, how good is the actor at playing the superhero. Batman has to be a fighter, but he also has to be intimidating. Lastly, how is the actor at portraying Bruce Wayne. This character has two very distinct personalities and both have to be believable.
There have been a lot of actors to portray Batman, some are well known, others are not. When discussing who was the best Batman, it’s pretty easy to eliminate a good chunk of actors.
These are the actors that played Batman in such minor or little known productions that they don’t really qualify for consideration as the best Batman. There are some others that I’ve left off even this list (like the guy who played him in a commercial, or the actor who voiced him in a radio-only production).
- Lewis Wilson (Batman 1943 Serial) – He could be considered solely because he was the first Batman, but that doesn’t mean he was good. The Batman serial has been re-released or broadcast occasionally over the years, but it’s still a relatively unknown production.
- Robert Lowery (Batman and Robin 1949 serial) – Lowery was in the sequel to Wilson’s Batman. This production was too minor for consideration.
- Jeremy Sisto (Justice League: The New Frontier 2008 animated film) – With only one voice credit as Batman, Sisto is out.
- William Baldwin (Justice League: Crisis on Two Earth’s 2010 animated film) – Again, only one voice credit, so Baldwin’s gone.
- Daran Norris (DC Super Friends 2010 animated film)
- Benjamin McKenzie (Batman: Year One 2011 animated film) – A good movie, but it’s the only time McKenzie voiced the character, so he’s gone.
- Peter Weller (The Dark Knight Returns – Part 1 and Part 2 2012 and 2013 animated films)
- Anthony Ruvivar (Beware the Batman 2013 CGI animated series) – This series only lasted one season, so I’m taking it out of consideration
This may be the category that most people are interested in. Most of the big name actors under consideration have played Batman in at least one movie. It’s not quite that simple though, since there have been a number of animated movies as well as live-action films. I’m just focusing on movies here, even though some of these actors have also played the Batman in television series, so you may see their names come up again.
- Kevin Conroy (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm 1993, Batman: Gotham Knight 2008, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies 2009, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse 2010, Justice League: Doom 2012, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox 2013, Assault on Arkham 2014, Batman: The Killing Joke 2016)
- Rino Romano (The Batman vs. Dracula 2005)
- Bruce Greenwood (Batman: Under the Red Hood 2010)
- Diedrich Bader (JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time 2014)
- Will Arnett (The Lego Movie 2014, The Lego Batman Movie 2017)
- Jason O’Mara (Justice League: War 2014, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis 2015, Justice League vs. Teen Titans 2016)
Even though all these voice actors have portrayed the Dark Knight multiple times (whether in movies or television shows), many of them aren’t really associated with playing Batman. Kevin Conroy is king here, and he’s the only one who I’ll consider from this list.
- Adam West (Batman: The Movie 1966)
- Michael Keaton (Batman 1989, Batman Returns 1992)
- Val Kilmer (Batman Forever 1995)
- George Clooney (Batman & Robin 1997)
- Christian Bale (Batman Begins 2005, The Dark Knight 2008, The Dark Knight Rises 2012)
- Ben Affleck (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice 2016, Justice League 2017)
This is the hard part. It’s pretty easy to drop Kilmer and Clooney from consideration. Kilmer did a nice job as Batman, but his Bruce Wayne was weak, and Clooney was the opposite. Neither of them were in good movies. I’m also inclined to drop Affleck from consideration since he hasn’t actually done a solo Batman film yet. That leaves West, Keaton, and Bale.
I was a little surprised at how few TV series have Batman. There are a decent number of animated shows, but only two live-action.
- Adam West (Super Friends 1984-1986, New Adventures of Batman 1977-1978)
- Olan Soule (Super Friends 1973-1983)
- Kevin Conroy (Batman: The Animated Series in 1992-1995, The New Batman Adventures 1997-1999, Batman Beyond 1999-2001, Justice League 2001-2004, Justice League Unlimited 2004-2006, Justice League Action 2016-2017)
- Rino Romano (The Batman 2004-2008)
- Diedrich Bader (Batman: The Brave and the Bold 2008-2011)
When it comes to animation, Conroy is really the only voice actor synonymous with Batman. Unlike the movies, however, he has a little competition for television. Adam West has to be considered here as well.
- Adam West (Batman 1966-1968)
- David Mazouz (Gotham 2014-2017)
The limited number of live-action tv shows makes this an easy choice, especially since Mazouz only plays Bruce Wayne, not Batman. West is by himself here.
Each of the following actors has a legitimate claim as the “best” Batman. I’m going to look at three things for each actor, their believability as Bruce Wayne, how they are as Batman, and then any other factors that may be relevant.
The 60s were a very different time. West’s Bruce Wayne was low-key and seemed to spend most of his time sitting in a parlor waiting for the bat signal. He isn’t really shown as being much of a businessman either, though his philanthropy is often on display.
Conroy’s a little tough to place since all we have is his voice. That said, Conroy’s Bruce Wayne is a nice balance between a savvy businessman and a slightly foppish socialite. When voicing Wayne, Conroy’s voice is a little higher pitched and has a light-hearted aspect to it, like he’s smiling. The biggest knock on Conroy really has to be the fact that he’s only half of the character (with the other half coming from the animators).
Keaton portrayed Wayne as a relatable billionaire. He’s casual in his wealth, maybe even indifferent to it. He was also a bit of a jerk, mostly toying with Vicki Vale rather than showing any sincerity. That makes sense given his double life, but it doesn’t help make the character likeable. Batman Returns shows him as being involved in his business, but only briefly, and without much poise. Keaton does a fine job overall, but it was always a little hard for me to believe that he was one of the wealthiest men on the planet.
Bale spent more time than any other actor as Bruce Wayne, so he was able to really develop this aspect of the character. In his first movie, Bale started with Bruce being an angry young man. He really got to show Wayne’s transformation into the Batman. By the end of his movies, he even played Bruce as a Howard Hughes type recluse. Of the live-action actors, Bale’s the only one that was really able to explore the character in depth, and he does a great job of it.
West’s Batman was the only one who wasn’t a vigilante. He openly worked with the Gotham police and was officially deputized. That means he could work during the day and he was a public figure who routinely met with Gotham officials as Batman. West’s Batman is also one of the few that showed a focus on actual detective work. On the downside, West’s Batman is not particularly intimidating. His all-cloth costume, propensity to dance, and everyman physique didn’t make for the most fear-inducing combination.
Conroy perfected the Batman voice. When Conroy is the Batman his voice is deep, harsh, and menacing, but remains clear and easy to understand. I always felt, as well, that Conroy’s Batman spoke more naturally, and that Bruce Wayne was the affectation. That really helped sell the character and made it more believable when he was showing off the more intellectual side of the character.
Keaton was the first actor to play a serious Batman. Tim Burton’s movies are iconic, and Keaton is a big part of why. He brought the more gothic Batman of the Modern age comics to the big screen. Despite his background as a comedic actor, Keaton was able to bring a certain menace to Batman. He does have some issues. Namely, the fact that he blatantly kills people, which isn’t really in line with the comics. He also doesn’t do any real detective work.
Bale’s Batman struggles in a couple of places. One is his voice. The gravelly, strained voice made him a little hard to understand at times. I didn’t have an issue with the idea, but the execution was a little rough. The other difficulty with the character was his reliance on others to do his detective work. He was able to do a few things, but Alfred and Lucius Fox do a lot of the work. It’s more realistic, but not really true to the comics. Where Bale does really well is showing how Batman uses fear as a weapon. He’s also the most physically intimidating of all the actors. He’s legitimately large and in excellent physical condition.
West easily has the most variety. He played the Batman on film, on live-action television, and voiced him in an animated series. He’s also played Batman for a long time, making appearances from 1966 to 1986. Twenty years is a long time to play a character. The campy nature of West’s Batman is both a pro and a con. It completely fits with the comic book character of the time, but it’s been a long time since any Batman comic used that tone.
Conroy leads the pack in animated portrayals. He’s also ahead of West in duration. Conroy started voicing Batman in 1992 and is still going strong, having voiced the character in Batman: The Killing Joke in 2016 and in Justice League Action which is still on the air. That’s over 24 years of playing Batman.
Keaton’s movies have held up well, and were high quality to begin with, securing three Oscar nominations, and winning one. Nostalgia also factors in to Keaton’s performance. He was really the first actor to bring Batman to the big screen, and he did so in spectacular fashion that’s well remembered to this day. Keaton’s acted in over 70 films and tv shows spanning 5 decades, and he’s still best known for being Batman.
One thing that really helps Bale is that his Batman movies are easily the highest quality movies. The Dark Knight is regularly considered the greatest comic book movie of all time, and despite being in somewhat of a niche genre, Bale’s three movies garnered a total of nine Oscar nominations, with two wins.
So Who Wins?
The diplomatic answer is this:
All of them are the best Batman.
It’s a bit of a cop out, but no matter which of these four you prefer as Batman, you’re right. It all comes down to preference, and I wouldn’t argue against a single one of them as being the best. (Though if you go outside of these four, you may get an argument.)