Movies
Next on your watch list

More actors have portrayed Batman on the big screen than any other superhero to date. Yet each has brought to life a different era of the Caped Crusader, spanning his amazing 75-year history in DC Comics. We take a look at each actor’s portrayal of the Dark Knight.

For 75 years old the Dark Knight never wore the cape and the cowl so well. 2014 marks DC Comics’ yearlong celebration of Batman, who first appeared in Detective Comics (Vol 1) #27 with a cover date of May 1939 (publication date March 30, 1939). Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, the Caped Crusader’s history is one of the most lauded in comic book history. However, most fans discovered Batman not through comics but by going to the movies. With Gone Girl actor Ben Affleck set to play Batman in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, many wonder what will be next for this famed vigilante. Affleck grapples onto a long line of Batman film actors, who each brought a part of the mythos to life. No matter which actor is your Batman, each has celebrated a different Caped Crusader. Take a look below for a thorough rundown of the Dark Knight’s history in television and film.

Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery: Vivid Vintage

Four years after his premier, Batman starred in Lambery Hillyer’s 1943 15-chapter serial simply titled Batman, with Lewis Wilson portraying the Batman along Douglas Croft as Robin. Debuting at the climax of World War II, Batman and Robin were outstanding American citizens fighting for their country against the evil Japanese scientist Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish). Even with low-budget production, Batman’s black Cadillac, dark mask and flowing cape illustrated the Dark Knight perfectly.

Wilson’s Dark Avenger was described as “Batman, clad in the somber costume which has struck terror to the heart of many a-swaggering denizens of the underworld.” Garbed sitting in his lair with fluttering large bats, the introduction of the Dark Knight spoke volumes about this pulp fiction hero. The serial’s popularity produced 1949’s Batman and Robin, with Robert Lowery as Batman and Johnny Duncan as Robin. Both influenced by the Batman’s Golden Age detective stories, Wilson and Lowery brought the importance of the Batcave, the novelty Batmobile and the character of the Batman to life.

Adam West: Outrageous Onomatopoeias

Almost 20 years since our hero starred on the big screen in black and white serials, Batman would come back action-packed with color and pizazz, complementing the pop-art era with Adam West portraying the Caped Crusader in 1966’s television series Batman. Accompanied by Burt Ward as the Boy Wonder, each week the dynamic duo would “POW!” the television audience by presenting moral lessons for the whole family while protecting the citizens of Gotham City.

With the help of reoccurring rogues such as the Joker (Cesar Romero) and Catwoman (Julie Newmar), Adam West’s Batman created a “Batmania,” making this originally pulp hero a now POPular culture icon. The show’s popularity brought the action adventure comedy to the big screen in the summer of 1966. While stopping the super villains Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman (played by Lee Meriwether), Batman also breaks out the Shark Repellent Bat Spray and has a tricky time getting rid of a bomb, creating a film crafted out of the Silver Age Batman. Today’s new viewers may be turned off by the campiness of the show but it is undeniable that Neal Hefti’s catchy theme song will always stick out in your head: “NanaNanaNanaNana NanaNanaNanaNana BATMAN!”

Michael Keaton: Nostalgic Noir

In the early 1970s, DC Comics’ creators Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams transformed Batman back to the dark pulp figure created by Kane and Finger in 1939. The Dark Knight’s shadow spread over Gotham City once more, fitting its way into the Modern Age of the 1980s with stories such as Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One (1987) and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). It was time for Batman to come back to the big screen matching his modern design. The success of Tim Burton’s 1988 Beetlejuice, starring Michael Keaton as the comedic star, gave fuel to Burton’s 1989 film Batman featuring Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman.

From Jack Nicholson’s memorable Joker to the noir architecture of Gotham, to Danny Elfman’s dynamic score, this Batman truly put the “dark” back in Dark Knight, separating itself from its POP predecessor. Tim Burton’s Batman would begin the genre of the super hero film we know today, leading to Burton’s 1992 sequel Batman Returns, reprising Keaton as Batman and including Michelle Pfeiffer’s sultry Catwoman and Danny DeVito’s gruesomely accurate Penguin. Michael Keaton’s portrayal as Bruce Wayne/Batman, billionaire playboy with a secret past, quieter demeanor and an agenda involving a utility belt and several batarangs, would be acclaimed even 25 years later, representing the first modern Batman.

Val Kilmer: Honorably Human

Batman Returns was too dark for marketing success. Due to this concern by the studio, Tim Burton was discarded as director and replaced by Joel Schumacher. Burton’s absence led Keaton to take off the cowl, opening the door for actor Val Kilmer in 1995’s Batman Forever. Inspired by Batman comics of the early 1950s to the late 1970s, Schumacher made a drastic transition from Burton’s bleak Gotham City to a more “kid friendly” scene, featuring equally brightly costumed villains such as Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey). Michael Keaton’s Burtonverse Bruce Wayne intensely brooded over the death of his parents, paving the way to being the dark vigilante. While Kilmer as Bruce Wayne received mixed reviews, critics stating his sorrows weren’t as elaborate as the previous Batman, in a Cinescape interview, Batman co-creator Bob Kane claimed Kilmer’s performance was one of the most true interpretations of the masked hero. For some Batman fans, Carrey’s comedic Riddler performance stood out more than our Caped Crusader grappling the skylines, but Kilmer’s subtle sadness proved to represent a Batman not seen on film, a human hero from the comics of the Golden Age, hand-drawn by the Dark Knight’s creator.

George Clooney: Courageously Campy

Schumacher’s Batman and Robin from 1997 was the last Batman film in its franchise. Once Kilmer stepped down from the role feeling usurped by the heroes’ rogues, real-life Bruce Wayne actor George Clooney was casted. Complaints ranged from the Batsuit’s Bat-nipples, to Mr. Freeze’s chilling puns, to Banes slim to none vocabulary and to the overall humor of film. Mainly, Batman and Robin lacked the connection to the serious Batman comics of its time period. Seen as homage to Adam West’s campy 1960s Batman, fans outwardly preferred their Dark Knight to be, well, dark. Batman and Robin was the least successful, causing the next film, Batman: Triumphant, to be cancelled. Even if it is dubbed as ‘”he worst Batman movie,” Clooney’s performance radiated the charisma of civilian Bruce Wayne, playing a Batman right from the panels of a 1960s Gardner Fox tale. In other words, Clooney was Batman and paid tribute to maybe not your favorite Batman, but a Batman in the character’s mythos nonetheless.

Christian Bale: Resounding Realism

In 2005, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight film trilogy began, issuing in the modern Batman for the next decade. Batman Begins starred actor Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, a billionaire with a fear of bats who channeled his guilt from his parents’ murder into becoming the dark vigilante of Gotham City, assuring criminals will be brought to justice. Schumacher’s vibrant plots and scenery eight years prior presented the comic book Batman many grew up reading.

Nolan’s approach in all three films, including the sequel The Dark Knight (2008) and the concluding The Dark Knight Rises (2012), illustrated a realistic Dark Avenger, highlighting the meaning of morality and the struggle between good and evil. The audience related to both the man and the mask, discovering that the Caped Crusader was an attainable ideal, a literal symbol, more than a man with vengeance in his heart, a cool car and valuable time to himself at night. Bale’s modern take on the fictional character unknowingly set the bar for our next actor to portray the Batman in theaters.

Ben Affleck: Seasoned Savior

In 2013, Academy Award winner Ben Affleck was casted by Zack Snyder to play the new Batman in the film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, set to release in theaters on March 25, 2016. What us fans have to look forward to is quite historical. Said to be a more seasoned hero, Affleck alongside Henry Cavill as Superman will bring the world’s finest in live action for the first time. Frank Miller’s popular Batman: The Dark Knight Returns will have its live action debut through the new Batsuit design, something comic book fans are rejoicing. We have to wait and see the dynamic between the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight, the personality of Affleck’s Bruce Wayne and the vigilante style of the Batman. But what we already know is that Ben’s Batman will bring something refreshing to this character’s live action history on film simply by virtue of his acting credentials.

What it all Means

Whether you prefer the darkness of Keaton, the camp of West, the realism of Bale, or even the Bat-nipples of Clooney, we all have our favorite Batman. Whichever you choose, all have made history on the big screen, each bringing a different legend of the Dark Knight straight from the comic pages to life. This history of the Batman will continue on in Ben Affleck’s portrayal as the Caped Crusader in 2016, continually celebrating this DC Comics’ character as a cultural icon.

Written by Londyn Jackson for Highsnobiety.com

What To Read Next