Who is the Batman?
From the swinging sixties to the twenty-twenties, the caped crusader has been cast and recast for the cinema over-and-over again, each time holding up a mirror to the world from which he was created.
To date, six actors have donned the Dark Knight's cape and cowl on the big-screen, with a seventh new dawn arriving in 2021 in The Batman.
We know the Batman is Bruce Wayne, but which is the ultimate cinematic incarnation of Bruce Wayne's alter-ego?
Here's the lowdown on all the Batman actors in order, from Adam West to Robert Pattinson.
Sporting a light-grey bodystocking Batsuit and what can only be described as silky, tactical Granny pants, Adam West’s Batman patrolled a sunny and un-Gothic Gotham for 120 episodes of campy, unintentionally hilarious crime fighting from 1966-1968.
He and his ward, Robin (Burt Ward) also made a move on the big-screen with 1966’s Batman: The Movie, making him the first feature-length cinema Batman.
West’s Batman could scarcely be more different from later, darker incarnations, but many of the details of his Batman’s adventures would become part of our shared cultural shorthand for the World’s Greatest Detective to this day.
Plus, no other Batman is responsible for a global dance craze. Don’t believe us? Google ‘Batusi’ and thank us later.
Adam West’s Batman: filmography
Bats’ first feature-length big-screen outing is a tale as old as time: a quartet of classic supervillains – Joker (Cesar Romero), Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether) - turn the United World Organisation Security Council’s members into dust with an experimental dehydrator.
It’s up to Batman and Robin to get the dust, separate the dust and rehydrate everyone. Oh, and Batman makes a shark explode with Shark Repellent Bat Spray.
Love or loathe West’s Batman, you can’t deny the iconic performances by Romero and Meredith in particular. They’re clearly having a blast being bad.
For anyone who’s grown up knowing Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes/Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming it may be hard to believe that his casting in 1989 as the Dark Knight in the first blockbuster Batman of the modern era was very controversial.
Before he donned the batsuit, Keaton was known primarily as a gifted comedic actor (Beetlejuice, She’s Having a Baby). Could he really pull off director Tim Burton’s proposed dark vision of the Batman mythos? 50,000 letters of complaint from fans suggested no.
But Keaton nailed it. Banishing the campy tone of 1960s TV Batman for good, Keaton’s take on Bruce Wayne/Batman was pitch perfect – by turns, charming and funny, but capable of focused menace and a hint of dangerous instability that spoke to Wayne’s childhood trauma. Subsequent actors would reach for even darker takes, but they all have Keaton’s Batman to thank for showing them the way.
Michael Keaton’s Batman: filmography
Featuring a dark, polluted and oppressive vision of Gotham that’s practically a character in its own right, Tim Burton’s Batman touches on Bats’ origin in flashback, neatly linking the murder of the boy Wayne’s parents directly to the vicious mobster (Jack Nicholson) who – thanks to an unscheduled dip in some very nasty chemicals – becomes the Joker.
And so, as Batman fights to stop Joker from giving everyone rictus grins with tainted beauty products we learn that superhero and supervillain have, in effect, created one another.
With hindsight, Burton’s Batman created the template for all blockbuster superhero movies that followed, but that may not have been the case if its sequel, Batman Returns, hadn’t shown the blockbuster comic-book adaptation had legs.
Set in a wintry Gotham and centred on a trio of villains – Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer), Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) – each with their own compelling narrative arc, Batman Returns is surprisingly thoughtful for such a big-budget action movie.
After two Gothic and – for some younger viewers – a little too gruesome Tim Burton Batman movies, it was decided to nudge the Dark Knight back towards his more kiddie-friendly TV origins. Michael Keaton wasn’t up for this shift in tone, so new director, Joel Schumacher cast Val Kilmer.
Fitting in nicely with the breezier vibe and more colourful set design of the resulting Batman Forever, Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne seems a lot less tortured than most of his fellow Bats. In fact, it looks like he really quite enjoys being Gotham’s dark avenger.
VAL KILMER’s Batman: filmography
Rejected by his boss, Wayne Enterprises inventor Edward Nygma loses the plot and becomes The Riddler (Jim Carrey), joining forces with former district attorney-turned-psychotic-villain, Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones).
As the pair plot to unleash Nygma’s mind-sucking device on Gotham, Batman teams up with psychologist Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) and an orphaned circus performer Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) to protect the city and Bruce Wayne’s secret identity.
Stylistically and tonally, history has not been kind to Schumacher’s two Batman films, but his first was actually pretty successful at the box office. In fact, Batman Forever’s global box office is only a shade less than Christopher Nolan’s franchise-rebooting and beloved Batman Begins.
And so, when Batman and Robin (1997) came around, Schumacher didn’t just replicate the cartoony, campy tone of Batman Forever, he doubled down on it. But without Val Kilmer returning to don the signature cape and cowl, it was time for another leading man to step into the batsuit (this time, infamously, sporting nipples).
GEORGE CLOONEY’s Batman: filmography
As a result, new Batman, George Clooney, found himself cast in what is currently the most lightweight Batman movie this side of the 1966 fun-fest.
With the production going all-out with the return of Chris O’Donnell’s Robin, the addition of Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl and three new super villains Mr Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Bane (Robert Swenson), Clooney’s Batman is really just there for the ride, throwing out one-liners and wrangling his young charges.
More than any actor before him, Christian Bale's tenure demonstrated the graft and sheer force of will it takes for Bruce Wayne to evolve from pampered-but-lost billionaire playboy into the focused and feared Batman.
Just like the trio of Christopher Nolan films he starred in, Bale’s Batman rooted the comic-book hero in reality. His Gotham playground is exaggerated, sure, but not a million miles away from any major North American city, and his Bruce Wayne struggles to put meaning to his childhood trauma in a way that’s genuinely engaging.
Including Bale, the trilogy's assembled cast of allies and adversaries reads like a Nolan alumni: Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Ken Watanabe.
Christian Bale’s Batman: filmography
It’s surprising when you realise that Batman Begins marks the first big-screen Bats adventure that told any version of the Dark Knight’s origin story.
It does it well, too. Rebooting the franchise with a dark, gritty and believable tale of Bruce Wayne’s literal and figurative journey towards Bat-hood. At first under the tutelage of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), and then facing off against his former mentor and the League of Shadows as they plot to bring Gotham to its knees, in league with the mind-altering menace, Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy).
If 1990s Batman movies were a steady march towards cartoonish excess, 2000s Batman crept ever further into the shadows. Arguably, into neo-noir perfection in The Dark Knight.
It’s a tale of heroes and villains, hope and hopelessness, as Heath Ledger’s brilliantly unpredictable Joker tries to throw Gotham into anarchy with a crime spree that tarnishes one hero - the mob-bothering district attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) - while elevating a misunderstood hero into a dark legend.
Director Christopher Nolan’s (and Christian Bale’s) last Batman comes out fighting.
With Bane (Tom Hardy) literally breaking Batman and destroying Gotham’s bridges to create an isolated kingdom of crime, Bruce Wayne slowly fights his way back to health, realising that Batman is more than a man – he’s a symbol around which Gotham’s beaten residents can rally around.
Heavily inspired, we suspect, by the grizzled, disillusioned Batman of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Ben Affleck’s Batman isn’t a ton of fun, but that’s kind of the point. His Batman is well into his career – a Dark Knight with a grimly fatalistic and suspicious worldview fuelled by a twilight existence spent mixing it up with the worst of humanity.
What marks 'Batfleck' out amongst his fellow crime fighters of the night, is his part in the expansion of the DCEU as we know it now. Standing up to the Avengers level threat offered by Marvel's MCU, DC's darker direction for their titans led by Henry Cavill's Superman and Ben Affleck's Batman, offered a refreshingly grittier take on superhero ensembles, and paved the way for the box-office blitz from Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and the forthcoming The Flash (Ezra Miller).
Ben Affleck’s Batman: filmography
Trust Affleck’s moody incarnation of Batman to find a way to make superpowered golden boy, Superman into an opponent. But, to be fair to Bruce, his logic is sound: if Superman were ever to go rogue, who if anyone could possibly bring him down?
Batman is who. Throw an unhealthy dose of arch meddler Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) into the mix, and you have the makings of an almighty showdown that might be great for Gotham property developers but could well kill everyone involved.
Spoiler alert! Superman is dead! Or is he?
While still not a solo Affleck Batman movie (it seems unlikely to happen), his grim ‘n’ grumpy Batman is the catalyst for the creation of the Justice League, a group of metahumans (plus one very rich human vigilante) formed to take down the existential threat known as Steppenwolf and his legions of Parademons.
Younger, leaner and notably more emo than his predecessors, we’ve only glimpsed Robert Pattinson’s Batman in the teaser trailer for 2021’s The Batman, so far, plus an internet-alighting camera test shared by director Matt Reeves on Twitter.
But we already know he can handle himself in a fight, and – with the Riddler running rings around Gotham’s authorities – he appears to be leaning into Batman’s other title – the world’s greatest detective. MMA Goth Batman with a side order of Sherlock? Don’t mind if we do.
Robert Pattinson’s Batman: filmography
Directed by Matt Reeves (War of the Planet of the Apes), Gotham is again being populated with a stellar cast.
Andy Serkis plays Alfred, Zoë Kravitz (Divergent) is Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Jeffrey Wright (TV’s Westworld) is James Gordon and Paul Dano (Prisoners) is Edward Nashton/Riddler. Colin Farrell, meanwhile, will be playing Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin, and John Turturro will take on the role of Gotham gangster kingpin, Carmine Falcone.
The Batman is due in cinemas 1 October 2021 and will exist, for now, outside the main DCEU.