How Each Actor Handled Suiting Up as Batman: A Definitive Ranking

We consulted several comic- and movie-themed outlets as well as some self-described superfans to cobble together this definitive, yet entirely subjective, ranking. Answer our call to check it out.
By Sarah Grossbart Jun 15, 2020 7:00 AMTags
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Even before an actor gets measured for that iconic suit, the opinions roll in from every nook and cranny of the Internet. 

Fanboys, movie buffs, casual comic book enthusiasts, even those just looking for an entertaining summer flick have a hot take on just who is worthy of wearing Batman's cowl. Despite general respect for his acting ability, one opinionated gent called the casting of Robert Pattinson for 2021's The Batman as "actually heartbreaking," while late 80s/early 90s-era Bruce Wayne Michael Keaton was lambasted for his relatively diminutive stance.

At 5-foot-10, "If you saw him in an alley wearing a bat suit, you would laugh, not run in fear," one West Virginia resident reportedly told The Wall Street Journal at the time. "Batman should be 6-2, 235 pounds, your classically handsome guy with an imposing, scary image."

Holy criticism, Batman!

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But no one received quite as much abuse as Ben Affleck. Deeply unhappy that the actor would get another shot at superhero status after Marvel's Daredevil, DC fans took to the internet in droves to express their displeasure, even starting a change.org petition to get him booted from Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

"His acting skill is not even close to being believable as Bruce Wayne and he won't do the role justice," read the solicitation signed by more than 97,000 supporters. "He's not intimidating enough for the role of Batman. Batman is someone that strikes fear in the hearts of men. His portrayal of Daredevil was atrocious and he's not remotely close to an action star or a superhero. Please find someone else and deliver to the fans what they want."

No wonder George Clooney tried to dissuade him from taking the part. 

Matt Reeves/Twitter

"Before I took the role, Warner Bros. gave me a bunch of past reactions to casting and said, 'Are you sure you want to get into this? This is part and parcel of these movies now. There's a lot of active fans with a lot of opinions," Affleck recalled to Entertainment Weekly, explaining he was more than willing to face the heat. "You know what? It's great that people do care that much. They want to see the movie that much. And it is incumbent on you to honor the story. There are the Greek myths and these are the American myths. The American myths are these superheroes. People care about 'em a lot. And it's incumbent on you to do a good job and make it as excellent as you possibly can."

Which he did, fairly handily. 

In fact, each of the six actors who have slipped into the Bruce Wayne persona (we're not counting animated versions—sorry Will Arnett!) has brought something different to the role. And we'd argue each fresh nuance is valid. For example, Christian Bale, in the Dark Knight trilogy, helped shift Bruce into grittier, more realistic territory. And after Clooney suited up, they realized that maybe superhero costumes don't need nipples. 

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As with anything in life, though, some rose to the challenge better than others. And with today marking the 25th anniversary of Batman Forever and 15 years since Batman Begins (Batman Returns came out 28 years ago tomorrow, while Batman & Robin was released on June 20, 1997), it felt like a good time to judge their work.

We consulted several comic- and movie-themed outlets as well as some self-described superfans to cobble together this definitive, yet entirely subjective, ranking from worst to first. Don't @ us, but do answer the call to check out this list. 

George Clooney

It's a placement Clooney himself would agree with, the Oscar winner having said he "terribly destroyed the part" with his turn in 1997's Batman & Robin. Plus, you know, bat nipples—not the look. Having gone on to do much, much better work, the actor, at the time still starring on E.R., has said he took a valuable lesson away from his time as the Caped Crusader. Learning that castmate Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze) pocketed "like 20 times more than I was paid," he said on The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast in 2019, he began to reconsider how he picked roles.

"We worked together for one day. But I took all the heat," he noted. "Now, fair deal—I was playing Batman and I wasn't good in it, and it wasn't a good film, but what I learned from that failure was that I had to rethink how I was working because now I wasn't just an actor getting a role, I was being held responsible for the film itself." His subsequent gigs (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Perfect Storm, Ocean's Eleven) he continued, were "a very specific choice for me to find better projects."

Val Kilmer

Taking over for Michael Keaton in 1995's Batman Forever, the original star leaving with director Tim Burton when it became clear the studio was seeking campier comic book fare, the Top Gun alum, like Clooney, only took one turn in the cowl. As such, though he wore the hell out of Bruce Wayne's tux, he never fully put his stamp on the role. And while some blame can be attributed to Joel Shumacher's more lighthearted vision—and the strained relationship between the director and his star—as Kilmer himself has admitted, he never really took to his superhero status. 

A moment of clarity came when he was tasked to do a meet-and-greet with investor Warren Buffett's grandkids and made notice of the fact that they were more interested in the props than the real-life, costumed Batman in front of them. "That's why it's so easy to have five or six Batmans," he explained to The New York Times last month "It's not about Batman."

Adam West

The OG Batman, West fully embraced the campy '60s feel of the comic book character. We're talking gamely committing to the underwear-over-leotard look and myriad sound effects of the short-lived ABC series and 1966 film. That, in itself, deserves praise.

Even if this sillier Batman take isn't really your bag, there's something to be said about a star who truly relishes taking on the role of a smooth millionaire with a side gig as a masked detective. His ability to play straight man to the various over-the-top villains with a healthy serving of self-awareness about just how ridiculous it might be to say, dance the Batusi, makes for an enjoyable watch. 

Ben Affleck

Ah, Batfleck. The two-time Oscar winner leveraged all of the outrage over his casting—the petition, the fired up tweets, the epic collapse experienced on certain comic-themed corners of the Internet—into a pretty solid performance in 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Critiques that, at 43, he was well past his Batman prime proved unfounded with the star possessing both the life experience and the acting chops to nail director Zack Snyder's more road weary version, a hero that's borne just a bit of psychological damage from all that caped crusading. 

Physically, he certainly answered the call, beefing up considerably, both for the gratuitous look-how-I-can-do-pull-ups-with-tires-chained-to-my-torso scenes and to realistically portray the stunningly over-the-top battles he faced in both Batman v Superman and the subsequent Suicide Squad and Justice League

Michael Keaton

The first modern-era Bruce Wayne, Keaton kicked off the trend of comic book fans melting down over casting choices. But the comedic actor, who'd worked with director Burton on 1988's Beetlejuice, demolished expectations, deftly taking the role from hammy to the dark vigilante we know and love.

Leading a cast of Jack Nicholson (as a deliciously over-the-top Joker) and Kim Basinger (love interest Vicki Vail) in 1989's Batman and the 1992 follow-up Batman Returns (with Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman), his work as the socially awkward, perhaps a bit crazy Bruce and the solidly stoic Batman set the stage for every star that would step into his boots thereafter. 

Christian Bale

In the eight years between the Batman & Robin flop and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins reboot, a long list of notables, we're talking Joshua Jackson, Eion Bailey, Hugh Dancy, Billy Crudup, Cillian Murphy, Henry Cavill and Jake Gyllenhaal, auditioned for the role, but Nolan found his guy in Bale.

Treating his rich character arc across the 2005 to 2012 trilogy with as much deference as his other Oscar nominated work, the actor's gravelly-voiced, complex, grittier turn as the Dark Knight paved the way for the more realistic superhero fare that would follow. (Frankly, holding his own against Heath Ledger's genius Joker might be enough to earn the top spot.) 

"We knew we had to reinvent it," Bale told the Toronto Sun in 2019. "I literally had people laugh at me when I told them we were doing a new kind of Batman. I think that the reason it worked was first and foremost Chris' take on it." Perhaps, most importantly, he knew when to hang up the cowl. Feeling satisfied with the opportunity to complete the full trio of films, he and Nolan balked when talk of a fourth cropped up: "I said, 'No. We have to stick to Chris' dream, which was always to, hopefully, do a trilogy. Let's not stretch too far and become overindulgent and go for a fourth.'"

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