Since his debut, Batman has become a true cultural icon. Only a few fictional characters are treated with such reverence when a new actor is signed on to portray them.
Throughout Batman’s TV and film history, each and every man who has taken on the role has added their own take on the iconic caped crusader. Each has carved their own spot in the Dark Knight’s live-action legacy. We’re now on the verge of seeing an entirely new performer don the cape and cowl for Matt Reeves’ upcoming Batman movie. How will this Bruce Wayne be influenced by his predecessors? More importantly, what will our latest Batman bring to the bat-themed table?
Lewis G. Wilson and Robert Lowery kicked off the serial Batman and Batman and Robin films in the ‘40s, respectively. Their hard-punching, black and white portrayals embraced the early pulp crimefighting adventures of the Dynamic Duo. When Bats made a move to color TV in the ’60s, a certain handsome actor named Adam West donned the bat tights in the Batman TV series. This became the most well-known version of an on-screen Batman for generations.
The legendary performance of Mr. West helped ingratiate non-comic book lovers to the idea of a billionaire who fights crime dressed as a bat. The ultra-campy, flamboyant tone of the series had a significant impact on the character, but maybe not in the way everyone working on that series had hoped. When Batman returned to live action, the general idea was Batman had to be as dark and unlike the Adam West version as possible.
Bright Days, Dark Knights
Twenty years after West, in a hard 180-degree shift in terms of tone, Michael Keaton became the first truly dark version of Batman to grace the screen. His two turns as Batman ushered in the age of the gravelly-voiced vigilante. Batman and Batman Returns took tonal cues from influential, adult-skewing comics like The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns. Keaton brought a quiet, stoic intensity to the role, choosing to speak low and carry a big stick that probably had a bat engraved in it. His Gotham was that of dangerous criminals and police corruption and caked in a much grittier tone.
Brighter Knights, Darker Days
Batman Forever gave us Val Kilmer's turn as the Caped Crusader. He melded a bit of the darker tone of Keaton's previous run while infusing a dose of camp we had not seen since West. This early ‘90s version of Batman was quicker with the wit and more relatable as Bruce. Even the enemies lightened up and were almost modern reflections of the ’60’s rogues West tangled with. You can’t argue with Jim Carrey’s scene-stealing take as the Riddler.
In George Clooney’s run as good old Bats in Batman and Robin, he donned the cape and cowl and other infamous leather accouterments to bring us the most colorful and fashion-conscious Batman of all. Is it any surprise that when Batman made his next foray onto the screen, the pendulum swung back into the darkness farther than it ever had before?
Darker Days, Darker Knights
Launching the critically acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy, Christian Bale came in to don the cowl in 2005’s Batman Begins. Bale brought back the intensity Keaton displayed and ratcheted it up to 11. With his startlingly gravelly voice and dynamic range of motion. Bale defined the character for a new moviegoing public. A true Dark Knight who could whoop tail, turn his head AND scare a perp. The Nolan films presented Batman as the threat to criminals we were promised in the comics.
When Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was announced and Ben Affleck was cast as Batman, people had reservations. Luckily for us, Affleck's turn as Bats was the most visceral yet. He was the aged veteran who terrorized criminals for decades and returned to clean up the streets. Feeding off of the gritty Nolan movies and the more somber tone of the Man of Steel film, Affleck presented us with a tired, fed-up crimefighter who wasn’t above stabbing a few folks to save a Martha. His brutal combat style and smartly executed electronic voice (no more throat soreness) followed the darker trend Batman has followed in both film and comics.
With the latest Batman movie set to cast a younger, new-to-the-game Dark Knight, we can only wonder what this new version will bring to the mythos of the character. What bits will they bring along from previous iterations? Will they follow the same dark tone or try and infuse a little levity into the proceedings? Whatever they decide, they’ll be carrying on the near 80-year legacy of Batman in film for an entirely new generation of fans.
Carl Waldron writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, and is a contributor to the Couch Club, our weekly television column. Follow him on Twitter at @mrcarlwaldron.