With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hitting the big screen in two days, it’s time to look back at the previous incarnations of the classic DC Comics character, Batman. Batman has been around since his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. That’s almost 80 years of the Dark Knight fighting Gotham’s worst. Rather than focus on the various comic book versions of Batman, I’m only going to focus on movies and cartoons to provide my ranking of the best Batman incarnations. I’ll also update this article after I see Batman v Superman to let you know where I think Batfleck ranks.
How am I going to be performing the ranking? Well, I am going to look at several different factors including: personality, detective skills, fighting skills, batsuit, Bruce Wayne style, and tone.
#10 George Clooney from Batman & Robin
Alright, we all know this story. Clooney even says he’ll give people refunds if they ever meet him on the streets but let’s give him some credit. Considering the writing and directing for this film, he did the best he could and I still think he makes a decent Bruce Wayne. But the bat-nipples, corny one-liners, and bat-credit card were just too much for most people to handle. Even the villains were bad in this one. The style does continue the trend from Batman Forever but takes things up a notch, which is not good in this case. Overall, this Batman is corny, cheesy, not intimidating, clumsy at times, and flat.
#09 Will Arnett from The Lego Movie
I know everyone loves Will Arnett’s Batman but in all seriousness, it’s incredibly over the top and falls into the parody category. Now, this still tops George Clooney. Why? Well, it’s simple. When Arnett’s Batman has a serious moment, it’s better, it’s darker, and it’s more believable as a Batman character. His batsuit is better, his tech is better, and his fighting skills are more impressive. Now, we get no real look at Bruce Wayne, so George has Arnett beat here but in all, Arnett’s Batman is better in every other conceivable way. He even has better villains to fight and he does so without lame fight scenes and credit cards.
#08 Will Friedle as Terry McGinnis in Batman Beyond
I love Batman Beyond and I think it’s a solid cartoon that lives up to the Batman name even without Bruce Wayne under the cowl. I drop Will Friedle’s Terry McGinnis several spots for the simple fact that it’s not Bruce Wayne and a different character all together plus he has to share screen time with an actual Bruce Wayne voiced by Kevin Conroy. You’ll see why that matters later on. McGinnis is a good Batman. He’s tough, skilled, daring, and intimidating against some of the craziest and most powerful villains the Dark Knight ever has to face. He has to put up with some intense super villains with powers most Batman never were aware of. He can even fly. His tech is amazing too. I mean, tell me that his Batmobile is not sexy.
#07 Val Kilmer in Batman Forever
Honestly, I wanted to put Kilmer below Friedle on this list but at the end of the day, at least Kilmer is a Bruce Wayne Batman, for what that’s worth. While the overall film Batman Forever is better than Clooney’s Batman & Robin, I don’t think Kilmer’s Dark Knight is really much better. The batsuit is better, of course. I mean, no bat-nipples certainly helps. In fact, I like the suit design in this film and I even like the batmobile overall. But at the end of the day, Kilmer doesn’t pull off an intimidating Batman, nor does he pull off a very convincing Bruce Wayne. Mostly, his performance is flat and uninteresting, overshadowed by the flamboyant villains in the form of Jim Carrey’s Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face.
#06 Peter Weller in The Dark Knight Returns
Alright, so I’m a huge Robocop fan (the original of course) and I loved his role in Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Terra Prime”. He’s a solid actor with a killer voice which is perfect for an animated feature. This two-part animated film is based on the Frank Miller graphic novel and depicts a very unique and different Batman character, one that is heavily leveraged in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Peter Weller is responsible for voicing a gigantic, brooding, powerful, brutal Dark Knight who smashes his way through villains with little to no detective work. His batmobile is essentially a tank and he appears to be a one-man army with the tech ready to take on Superman. We don’t get much of a Bruce Wayne in this story and he more or less disregards the detective aspects of the character but Weller is part of a fantastic re-imagining that provides a more adult, darker version of the character. The aspects of the Dark Knight becoming a myth, something of nightmares, is a really cool concept that, in my opinion, has been overlooked in most versions of the character. While many of the iconic Batman themes are left out, the movie certainly impresses and Peter Weller provides a stellar performance that leaves behind an intimidating, intelligent, and scary Batman.
#05 Bruce Greenwood in Young Justice
While a significantly more minor character than the other Dark Knight incarnations on this list, Bruce Greenwood still stands out each time his character is on screen. This Batman, though animated, is mysterious, confident, a little cocky, and definitely prepared for just about anything. I think Greenwood’s voice also lends itself well to the cowl. It’s a rich voice with dark tones and when working with animation, voice is everything. The overall design of this incarnation is solid too. The grey suit has some cuts that provide a somewhat armored look while keeping the classic yellow utility belt. I think the cowl is awesome too. The ears are tall but not too tall.
#04 Adam West in Batman
Alright, so if you have never seen Adam West’s 1966 film or the TV series, just stop reading and go watch it. I’ll wait. Now, this version is no Dark Knight. It’s cheesy, corny, way over the top, and plain silly most of the time but West does something nearly all other incarnations simply leave out, detective work. Remember, Batman started in Detective Comics. He’s a detective first, a fighter second. Over the decades, he’s become meaner, tougher, and more overpowered, but Adam West portrayed Batman as a detective first with fun and imaginative ways of stopping bad guys, like bat-shark repellent. In my opinion, no live action or animated version of the character ever pulled off the same or better level of detective work and for that alone, I bump West up to #4. Aside from that, he provided a very family and child-friendly version of the character that included many of the classic characters such as Robin, Batgirl, and a slew of villains. Additionally, tell me that his batmobile isn’t just the coolest car.
#03 Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Trilogy
Christopher Nolan set out to provide a hyper-realistic version of the Dark Knight, even naming two of the films with the moniker and having the whole trilogy leverage the name. Bale does a solid job, making a decent Bruce and hero, but what sells it is everything around him. The suit, the tumbler, the bat-pod, the gadgets, they are all explained in somewhat realistic ways that provide a sense of possibility to what is going on. All-in-all this version of Batman seems to be the most likely to actually ever happen, aside from the entire plot of The Dark Knight Rises, of course. The addition of Freeman’s Fox character to provide explanations for where the cool stuff comes from really helps fill in the gaps that no other version really cared to focus on. Bale does a good job showcasing the inner battle of the character, constantly fighting himself over where the line should be, how far is too far, and his performance in The Dark Knight still stands as one of the greatest superhero films to date.
#02 Michael Keaton in Batman and Batman Returns
How can you overlook the first actor to play a serious version of Batman on the big screen? Keaton helped bring a solid comic book version of the character to life, with the help of Tim Burton. The suit looks like it hopped off the pages of a comic book and as impractical as it and Keaton’s batmobile were, they were visually spot on. Tim Burton’s style provided a solid dark and creepy tone to both films and brought the franchise to a more adult level. Keaton does a good Bruce Wayne but a better Batman. His voice is one of the best out there, perhaps only second to my #1 spot. He had to put up with some great bad guys in the Joker, Catwoman, and the Penguin. His gadgets were fun but not overused and unlike Bale’s Dark Knight, this version had an actual batcave through both films.
#01 Kevin Conroy in various animated incarnations
Is anyone really surprised that Conroy sits high at the top of my list? No one has played the character more. He voiced Batman in over 20 different projects through the end of 2015 between TV and film and is slated to return with Mark Hamill this year for an animated version of the classic graphic novel, The Killing Joke. He’s had to play several different versions of the same character and each time, he brings it. He is incredibly convincing with a voice that can only be Batman’s. He’s tough, mysterious, confident, intelligent, daring, and scary at times. He pulls off the work of everyone else on this list and some. If you watch animated DC Comics films, you know that his consistency brought to the character has been a cornerstone for DC Comics’ success in the industry for over 20 years. At the end of the day, just look at Batman: The Animated Series and the Justice League cartoons. He even plays old Bruce perfectly in Batman Beyond. Oh and while I’m not looking at video games for this ranking, if my explanation isn’t enough for you, remember that he voices the character in 11 different video games including the entire Arkham trilogy
There are several one-off animated films featuring the Batman character that I have not seen. My list focuses on everything I have seen. If someone did not make the list, it is quite possible I have missed that particular animated film. For example, I have not seen Batman: Year One with Ben McKenzie voicing the character.
Please come back on Friday, March 25th to see where I think Ben Affleck’s Batman from Batman v Superman lands.
What do you think of my ranking? Comment below!