Batman is back. Again. Ben Affleck might have officially hung up his cowl in January 2019 – but you can still catch him leading the Justice League in Zack Snyder’s recut mega-movie, out this week. Gruff, battered, and bruised though his version of the Caped Crusader is, Batfleck’s grumpy dark knight was still a sight to behold as he whizzed about Gotham in the Batmobile. There’s just something inherently exciting about watching the World’s Greatest Detective duffing up bad guys on-screen, as he’s been doing for nearly 80 years.
So who’s the best Bats? Who captured the colour of the comics and the gloom of the graphic novels? Who is R-Patz going to be compared to next March when The Batman comes out? Not counting animation (because everyone knows LEGO Batman would clean-up otherwise), it’s time to sort the Batmen from the Batboys and work out who’s the greatest.
10Worst: David Mazouz – Gotham (2019)
Since we’re judging Batmen here, not Bruce Waynes, David Mazouz’s silent seven seconds in the suit land him right at the bottom of the list. Never intended to be the focus of the show, Mazouz actually turned in a decent performance as a young Wayne – fleshing out the bit of middle-backstory that always gets skipped. Gotham might have finished but series creator Bruno Heller is still pressing ahead with Alfred spin-off Pennyworth, so there’s always a chance that Mazouz might return as Batman at some point in the future. Until then, all we have is one shot of him standing on a roof.
Greatest Bat-moment: Standing on a roof, wrapping up the series finale as a gloomy silhouette.
Signature Bat-phrase: Literally nothing.
9Iain Glen – Titans (2019)
Actor Iain Glen is best known for playing exiled Northerner Jorah Mormont on Game Of Thrones, not to mention for being a very Scottish 59-year-old. Maybe not the best choice to play a super-fit American then – which is just as well since the few glimpses we get of Bats in action were actually played by stuntmen Alain Moussi and Maxim Savarias. His one saving grace is a beautifully surreal performance during season two – appearing to Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) as a sarcastic, disco-dancing ghost.
Greatest Bat-moment: Dancing ‘The Batusi’, a go-go dance made famous during the ’60s Batman TV show.
Signature Bat-phrase: (singing) “I just wanna make love to you!”
8Lewis Wilson – Batman (1943)
Batman’s first live-action outing was made during the peak of WWII, so obviously his main priority is to beat up Japanese people. Apart from the overt racism, it’s famous for introducing several key bits of Bat-lore including the Bat-Cave and Alfred the skinny butler, it actually opens with Batman brooding – hands on his head, paper bats flying around his floppy ears – pre-empting DC’s darker take on the character by a several decades. According to the opening narration, though, he “represents the American youth who love their country and are glad to fight for it”.
Greatest Bat-moment: Punching a zombie in the face before knocking an evil doctor into a pit of crocodiles.
Signature Bat-phrase: “No amount of torture conceived by your twisted Oriental brain can change my mind!” Yikes.
7Robert Lowery – Batman And Robin (1949)
Pop quiz: what was the first time Batman and Superman shared the same screen? Technically, it was Sex Hygiene, an anti-STI educational film made by the American army starring Superman’s George Reeves and the second actor to ever wear the Batsuit, Robert Lowery. His tenure as Batman ran for 15 episodes and one feature in 1949, with the post-WWII mood calling for a homegrown supervillain in the shape of The Wizard – an invisible scientist who can control people’s cars if he steals enough magic diamonds. Lowery lends the role slightly more grit and violence than Wilson, but it’s still easy to see why he only lasted a year.
Greatest Bat-moment: Any of his fights. Almost all of which start with him jumping on someone, even if he’s standing on the same level.
Signature Bat-phrase: “I haven’t got time to untie you! You’ll be alright. Don’t go away!”
6George Clooney – Batman & Robin (1997)
The problem with Clooney’s Batman is that it’s always obvious he’s not taking the role seriously. Not that everyone who plays Batman needs to keep a straight face (skip to number two…) but there’s a big difference between irony and smugness – and even the hero shots from Batman & Robin look like Clooney’s just there to sell Nespresso machines. It’s not all his fault though. Between the pointy Bat-nipples, CG panto sets, constant gay innuendos and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s treacle-thick one-liners, Batman is always the least interesting thing on screen.
Greatest Bat-moment: Pushing a long, lingering close-up of the leather-clad Bat-bum into faces of an entire generation of children.
Signature Bat-phrase: “This is why Superman works alone”
5Michael Keaton – Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992)
There’s an argument to be made for Tim Burton’s Batman movies being the best of the franchise – two gloriously gothic slices of fairy-tale fantasy that still look and feel utterly unique. At the middle of them both is Michael Keaton, an actor Burton fought for after directing him in Beetlejuice (1988). It’s a shame that he never brings the same level of manic energy to the role, instead giving us a semi-serious, slightly-bland Bats that only occasionally flashes a bit of Dark Knight dynamism in the shadows of Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Danny DeVito’s Penguin.
Greatest Bat-moment: Using one Batarang to take out four killer clowns (and an exploding poodle).
Signature Bat-phrase: “You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!”
4Val Kilmer – Batman Forever (1995)
“There is no Batman. It’s not about Batman. That’s why it’s so easy to have five or six Batmans.” Of all the takeaways from Val Kilmer’s insanely honest 2020 interview with The New York Times, his defence of Batman Forever felt the least off the wall. Looking back at his performance it’s fair to say he got a bad rap at the time – a heavyweight actor in a lightweight movie, and a role that was unfairly coloured by a neon background that actually looks pretty stylish now in comparison to Batman & Robin.
Greatest Bat-moment: Driving the coolest Batmobile in the Bat-verse – like a big art deco stiletto with wheels and wings.
Signature Bat-phrase: “It’s the car, right? Chicks love the car”
3Ben Affleck – Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016), Suicide Squad (2016), Justice League (2017), Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Some people hate Zack Snyder. Some people love him. Some spend their whole life obsessing over what might be in his director’s cuts. Whatever you think of Dawn Of Justice, it’s hard to disagree about Batfleck himself – a bruised and bruising psychopath who looks and moves like a flying tank. Possibly the only Batman to sell the idea that he can take out a hundred mercenaries without a single superpower, Affleck also gave us a Batman in pain that felt like a genuine antihero. Just a shame the film was a bit shit…
Greatest Bat-moment: The big fight: Batman strapping into a giant metal Terminator suit so he can punch Superman in the kiss-curl.
Signature Bat-phrase: “Do you bleed? You will…”
2Adam West – Batman (1966-68), Batman: The Movie (1966)
Batman has always had two sides to his character. Half vigilante, half billionaire, half graphic novel, half comic book. Half Christopher Nolan cool, half defeating a roomful of goons with a dance so damned funky they literally can’t help but drop their guns and join in. Until he got mean and moody in the ’80s and ’90s, there was only one true Batman, and that was Adam West. Slightly podgy, very tongue-in-cheek and always keen to remind kids to stay in school, West brought DC’s punchy panels to life with a big “Kablam!” written in Starburst letters across the world’s television screens. Without West, Batman would be a right downer.
Greatest Bat-moment: Dancing the Batusi? Surfing with the Joker? Slapping a tiger? Chatting with Santa Claus? There’s just too many to choose from.
Signature Bat-phrase: “Good grammar is essential, Robin.”
1Best: Christian Bale – Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
In 2005, Batman finally grew up. After years of struggling with his identity, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy gave the character proper definition with a believable psychological portrait of a man who decides to dress up as a bat to try and work out his daddy issues. The credit isn’t all Nolan’s though, and somewhere between his epic vision, Heath Ledger’s performance and that bass-melting score, it’s easy to forget just how good Christian Bale is in the trilogy. Just as great in the suit as he is out of it, Bale somehow managed to convey layers of nuance and depth behind a rubber cowl and a voice full of gravel. Unless Robert Pattinson does something truly amazing next year, this is still the Batman to beat.
Greatest Bat-moment: Riding off as an outlaw at the end of The Dark Knight. Easily one of the greatest exits in history.
Signature Bat-phrase: “You wanted me, here I am.”