A Brief History of Actors Who Played Batman
So they was some news today, you may have heard it – Ben Affleck has been announced as the latest actor to wear the cowl. This feature isn’t here to examine whether or not this is a good casting decision. It’s pretty early to make that call. There are many variations on the Dark Knight in the comics and other media, and we don’t know what will be expected of him in the role. So let’s save that discussion for another day.
Instead we’re going to cast our gaze back over the many other performers who have lent their faces (or voices) to one of pop cultures most popular figures.
Batman’s first big screen outing was in the fifteen part serial Batman, created by Columbia Pictures. The series isn’t much more than a historical curiosity nowadays, being roughly put together and featuring a heavy anti-Japanese sentiment as a result of the second World War. Batman is not only a vigilante but a government agent working to stop a Japanese spy named Dr. Daka (usually referred to as ‘The Jap’). With a fairly generic action serial script the Wilson wasn’t given much material to work with, but he does well enough. The opening scene of the serial features the first appearance of the Batcave, so he gets that little moment.
With the popularity of both the Batman and Superman serials during the war Columbia Pictures returned five years later with another 15-chapter story called Batman and Robin. Without much thought given to continuity the role of Batman (and Robin) was recast. Lowery, like Lewis, didn’t have much to do beyond jumping through windows and swinging punches while tracking down the nefarious ‘Wizard’.
(1966 – 1968)
The 1960s saw Batman make his first appearance on the idiot box, plus a tie-in movie, with a goofy, brightly coloured version of the character. Although it’s often heavily scorned nowadays, with most modern viewers assume that the campness of the show is a product of the time rather than being intended. The show was seen as a form of escapism during a period of social upheaval, and much of the silliness was intended to parody the serials of the 1940s. For example, sometimes Batman’s cape would deliberately disappear between shots, mocking the mistakes made in the serials.
Adam West is still well remembered for the role, not surprising considering the massive popularity of the show. His goofy charm and energetic performance led the rotating cast in their weekly adventures, and West found himself heavily typecast for years to come. He was the perfect Batman for the era, and no-one else would step into the part for more than twenty years. Even Batman: The Animated Series paid homage to West, bringing him onto the show to voice Bruce Wayne’s childhood hero.
(1989 – 1992)
The success of Superman led to Warner Brothers bringing Batman back to cinemas. Wanting to put some distance between their new franchise and the camp vision of the 60s they hired Tim Burton to goth things up. With every action star (and Bill Murray for some reason) in Hollywood being considered for the part Burton and producer Jon Peters favoured the edgier quality Keaton could bring to the role. Fans responded negatively, but after Keaton took inspiration from The Dark Knight Rises he proved them wrong.
Across the two films that Burton and Keaton collaborated on Keaton put the dark in Dark Knight. He focused as much on portraying Bruce Wayne as a complex, tormented character as he did on making Batman the imposing creature of the night. Not only did Keaton shake of the existing perception of Batman from the 60s but created a new one. Some of his dialogue is still quoted to this day. Let’s face it: nobody says “I’m Batman” quite like Michael Keaton.
(1992 – 2013)
For most Batman fans Kevin Conroy IS the voice of Batman. He first loaned his gravelled tones to the Dark Knight in Batman: The Animated Series. He was noted not just for his perfect growl but also his take on the fun-loving Bruce Wayne persona. Conroy became such a staple for the franchise that he continued to work in the role in spin-off Batman Beyond, a number of straight to video movies and the popular Arkham video games.
Like many other Batman fans, Conroy’s voice is the one I hear when readin Batman comics. Most recently he voiced Batman in Injustice: Gods Among Us and Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox but reports indicate that he may be hanging up the cape for good.
When Tim Burton left the series Michael Keaton went with him. Val Kilmer was next to step into the part even though Johnny Depp, Ralph Fiennes, William Baldwin, Daniel Day-Lewis were being considered and Ethan Hawke had already turned it down. Although Val Kilmer filled the suit well enough he lacked the emotional complexity that Keaton had brought to the franchise. Although the film did address the dual roles of Batman and Bruce Wayne, and the psychological scars that Bruce Wayne carries, Kilmer didn’t quite manage the material.
With the franchise finding new feet the much publicised Batman & Robin was released with a new leading man. When Joel Schumacher admittedly had trouble working with Kilmer and the actor left the franchise. Clooney, already a rising star on the television show E.R. was signed on because, as Schumacher said, he would bring a lighter tone to the film. The movie is notoriously bad, and considered one of the worst films ever made. Although considered an immensely talented performer not even Clooney could avoid being part of the critical slaughter of Batman & Robin. Clooney has stated that he forces himself to watch the movie once a year to remind himself to listen to his gut rather than his career prospects.
(2005 – 2012)
Although the previous films had all achieved some measure of success it was the Christopher Nolan trilogy that blew all the box office records. Christian Bale seems like an obvious choice, especially with his previous performance in American Psycho, but he was up against a large number of actors trying for the role (including Heath Ledger, who would later join the series as The Joker). After extensive studies of the graphic novels and artwork Christian Bale put in a performance that Nolan noted “struck the perfect balance between the darkness and light” that he wanted for the part.
With the human and sympathetic Bruce Wayne seen in stark contrast with the animalistic and brutal Batman, Bale was a massive success. Even when matched with some incredible villains such as Ledger’s aforementioned Joker Bale kept the spotlight on the masked vigilante and delivered a version of the character that is, for many, the definitive take.
(2012 – 2013)
When Bale was ruling the big screen roost Batman was also being featured in some high quality, straight to DVD animated features. The most anticipated of these was the two-part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns. For the older, more cynical version of the character we got Robocop himself: Peter Weller. The rumbly vocal chords of Weller perfectly matched the darkest version of the character,
Other Notable Performances
Ben McKenzie matched Weller’s older version of Batman with the younger counter point in Batman: Year One (2011).
Will Friedle starred alongside Kevin Conroy in Batman Beyond, playing the young Batman of the future Terry McGinnis.
Rino Romano took over the role from Kevin Conroy in the less traditional The Batman series.
Funny man Diedrich Bader filled out the cowl for the more kid friendly Batman: The Brave and the Bold.
Jeremy Sisto took on vocal duties for Justice League: The New Frontier.