If the initial backlash to an actor’s Batman casting is any measure of future success, then Robert Pattinson is in the best of company.
When it was announced in 2019 that Pattinson would inherit the Dark Knight’s cape and cowl to star in a solo DC extended-universe movie, the online scepticism was predictable — at least as lobbed by those who hadn’t been paying much attention to the actor’s intriguing post-‘Twilight’ career.
The blowback was reminiscent, though, of how some Bat-fans responded three decades earlier, when Michael Keaton — whose ‘80s run as wiry comic actor included ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘Mr Mom’ — was cast to be Tim Burton’s strong-jawed crime-fighter. Even in an era before social media, the pre-trailer casting criticism managed to spread like fear through Gotham.
In two films, of course, Keaton would set the standard for the role. Now, the brooding “Battinson” acquits himself quite well in Matt Reeves’s ‘The Batman’, out now in cinemas.
The comic-book Bat-world first created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in the ‘30s has spawned an entire tireless industry of screen adaptations, from mid-century movie serials to ‘60s TV camp to animated titles — with Kevin Conroy and Will ‘Lego’ Arnett especially shining as the voice of Gotham’s odd nocturnal knight. But for the sake of fair comparison, let’s rank the actors who have portrayed a live-action Batman in Warner Bros./DC’s modern film franchise since 1989. Without getting so serious, here is our freewheeling assessment of the Dirty Half-Dozen:
6. Ben Affleck
Films: ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ (2016), ‘Suicide Squad’ (2016), ‘Justice League’ (2017)
Vibe: Can a human vigilante find his place among the superpowered?
Batsuits: Armoured for supernatural warfare. Long live the giant logo!
Oh, if only Affleck had first received a solo Batman movie like the other actors on this list. But strapped to the storytelling of sometimes lumbering team-up flicks with his fellow superheroes, “Bat-fleck” never quite got cinematic justice. You couldn’t fault the suit designs, in which Affleck looked the part. But the actor, when not labouring to convey a world-weary Batman, always appeared more comfortable portraying Bruce Wayne — the self-assured, wealthy playboy side of the role. Perhaps the takeaway was that big-screen Batman generally works better alone. Oh, well — we’ll always have the Sad Affleck meme.
5. George Clooney
Film: ‘Batman & Robin’ (1997)
Vibe: Slow-moving train wreck.
Batsuits: We’re getting into a weird area here.
The Caped Crusader might be narratively unkillable, but director Joel Schumacher’s 1997 Batman — he of the infamous rubber nipples, more prominent than on Val Kilmer’s 1995 suit — sure drove the big-screen franchise into dormancy till halfway into the next decade. Clooney’s Batman/Bruce Wayne portrayal was too seamless for our tastes — the actor used virtually the same voice for both sides of the character — and his suave superhero never seemed too bent on the requisite sense of vengeance. Exhibit A: Just how polished was Clooney’s crime-fighter while in costume? Well, to the best of fan knowledge, he’s the only Batman to keep a credit card in his utility belt.
4. Val Kilmer
Film: ‘Batman Forever’ (1995)
Vibe: Putting the “dynamic” in Dynamic Duo.
Batsuits: Masterful in their menace.
The mid-’90s question was crucial: Who could take over the role after Keaton? For his first outing, Schumacher decided the Dark Knight should be inhabited by blond ambition. Thankfully, Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne was comfortable in his sophisticated skin, but the biggest franchise change-up was the inclusion of his sidekick: Chris O’Donnell’s Robin the Boy Wonder. The father/son dynamic clicked, as Robin was indoctrinated into an underworld of masked vengeance. Kilmer was a one-and-done Wayne, but ‘Batman Forever’ is highly rewatchable, largely because Kilmer fulfilled the studio mission of brightening Batman after Burton.
3. Robert Pattinson
Film: ‘The Batman’ (2022)
Vibe: What brooding dudes do in the shadows.
Batsuit: Precisely built for function over form.
So can the actor who first gained global fame playing a tween-friendly vampire now bring the gravitas as a bare-knuckled Bat-freak skulking in the aesthetic of Nirvana-backed noir? The good news: Pattinson and director Matt Reeves succeed in establishing a grim detective who’s learning on the job in a case worthy of a David Fincher thriller. This Batman is obsessed with his masked identity — and disinterested in being Bruce Wayne. Pattinson somehow conveys his pain — and his attraction to Zoe Kravitz’s Selina Kyle — beneath the mask while also finding his voice (nodding to Sergio Leone’s taciturn yet emotive gunslingers). A rookie Bat-performance hasn’t been this strong since Keaton in 1989.
Reeves told The Washington Post he cast Pattinson because he admired the actor’s recent work: “He’s got such a dangerous, out-of-control, driven, mad quality” while also possessing “a Montgomery Clift-Marlon Brando vulnerability under all of that.”
“And so it was that combination that I thought, Well, that’s perfect for this version of the character, as I see it, where he’s still in the early days and is not quite in control of himself and is kind of like in turmoil,” Reeves added. “And so I just I started writing the movie for him without knowing if he’d ever want to play the role.”
2. Christian Bale
Films: ‘Batman Begins’ (2005), ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008), ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012)
Vibe: True grit.
Batsuits: The mobility improved over time — the underwhelming logo did not.
The shape-shifting Bale — playing the only modern live-action Batman to complete a trilogy arc — helped bring the superhero into the “real” world of director Christopher Nolan’s grounded approach. A highlight: Bale delivered one of the best Batman movie lines ever — “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me” — with fitting dramatic flair. A lowlight: Bale was saddled with the worst modern Batman suit. Still, even when Bale’s low growl was almost unintelligible, this characterisation was a tour de force.
1. Michael Keaton
Films: ‘Batman’ (1989), ‘Batman Returns’ (1992)
Vibe: Putting the “goth” in Gotham.
Batsuits: A never-topped vision in dark rubber.
Christopher Reeve was a virtual unknown when cast as DC’s Superman, yet by the time the studio needed a big-screen Batman about a decade later, an established actor was needed to hold his own opposite Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top Joker within Burton’s signature vision. Keaton was more than up to the assignment, inhabiting a shadowy and often silent Batman who intimidated with imagery (those winged bat silhouettes!) and dark whispers. Keaton conveyed some of the layered depth that has carried him throughout his varied illustrious career — including his Screen Actors Guild Award win last month for ‘Dopesick.’ Now, we look forward to Keaton’s anticipated return as Batman in ‘The Flash’ film.