Batman is about to battle Superman in the biggest title fight since America stopped caring about boxing. Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the big-budget follow up to Man of Steel and the DC Comics Universe big bang, will see Ben Affleck donning the cape and cowl. He’ll be Batman, sure, but his own version of the character. Every actor tasked with saving Gotham finds a way to make that task his own.
For over 70 years, thespians have been trying to emote from beneath two pointy ears. Some have succeeded. Some have failed. One was Adam West. The only real given (white maleness aside) has been the incongruity of the portrayals. Each is substantively different and that difference is almost always codified in one very important cinematic moment. People know who Batman is, but they go to movies to find out who the new Batman is. Whether they enjoy it or not, there is always a defining moment.
These are those moments.
Lewis G. Wilson
At 23 years old, actor Lewis G. Wilson became the first man to ever play Bruce Wayne in 1943. Arriving just four years into Batman’s comic book run, the 15-chapter serial from Columbia Pictures was titled Batman and predated much of the mythology. There is no Batmobile, just a red sports car.
Since no one knew what the fuck they were doing, the most defining thing about Lewis G. Wilson’s Batman is his brooding in the Batcave, right in the beginning. The Batcave was a cinematic invention, one cool enough to make its way back into the comics. The image was powerful too. Here was a hero that emerged from darkness.
A veteran screen actor, 36-year-old Robert Lowrey — who was in remarkably better shape than his younger predecessor — took on the Batman in 1949’s Batman And Robin. It sucked. In the last chapter, Lowrey fought The Wizard, a primary villain that looked like a medieval executioner. The filmmakers were trying to define Batman as an antidote to his foes’ madness. This didn’t work because it wasn’t compelling to watch. He was just some guy.
Adam West played Batman in the delightfully campy 1966 Batman TV series (and movie), which catapulted the character into the mainstream for better or worse (better).
But what people forget about Adam West was that he defined Batman’s voice, even if it now sounds oddly chipper and paternal. Adam West wasn’t (and isn’t) a stellar actor, but as Bruce Wayne, he made Batman into a justice-crazed weirdo without ever making him threatening. He did this by being funny, cartoon-like, and in on the joke.
For a whole generation, Michael Keaton is Batman. Not was. Is. And what’s remarkable is that comic book fans protested Warner’s casting of Keaton (largely because he’d just made Mr. Mom). Now, it’s so impossible to think of Keaton as anything but Batman that starred in Birdman.
A lot of Batfans will pick Keaton’s “I’m Batman” in the opening scene as the definitive moment and arguably, it is. People doubted Keaton so Tim Burton had him just put it out there as quickly as possible. But there’s one scene from Tim Burton’s 1989 summer classic that’s woefully overlooked, and it best demonstrates Keaton’s incredible range. It’s when Keaton goes up against Jack Nicholson’s Joker and seems like the weirder, less predictable guy. This Batman felt dangerous in an unusual way.
Batman Forever was, first and foremost, a bad movie. But it’s also a fun movie, which is remarkable given Val Kilmer’s affectless performance. Kilmer’s attempts to talk like a human or project lust only made matters worse. Essentially, this version of Batman was just a pinball bouncing around neon-lit Gotham.
It sucked. He sucked. The defining moment was when he apologized for it.
Christian Bale redefined Batman, making him a more three-dimensional character while also making him less ridiculous to look at during fight sequences. And the performance mad total sense at the time. Batman was living in a harsh post-9/11 world. He had to make hard decisions. He had to fight terror. Still, it’s hard to get past Bale’s voice. Very hard. Bale sounded ridiculous when he wore the cowl.
And that’s what defined the character. He was a complicated figure in a complicated world that couldn’t quite get away from the comic book silliness. Bale came across as serious because exactly one thing about his perfectly calibrated performance was absurd.
He was a baritone Lego.
Obviously, it’s hard to say without seeing the film, but it’s fairly clear that this is going to be Angry Batman. And Angry Batman is gonna do a lot of yelling.