My Dad, although not a comic book guy, is a Superman guy. Sort of like Seinfeld. From the Adventures of Superman television series in the ’50s to the original Christopher Reeve film from 1978, the Last Son of Krypton and all of his unbridled Americana defined the era in which my father grew up in.
When that passion was passed on to me, I — like any adoring child would — took an immediate interest in the Man of Steel and everything that came with it: from costumes to lunch boxes, from Saturday morning cartoons to action figures.
But as I grew older, while I leaned into superheroes and comic books far further than my father likely would’ve ever imagined (see: me literally being paid to write about them right now), it would up being the inverse of Superman that lead me down that path: Batman.
I was born in the year 1993, which was arguably when Batman was reaching his peak in terms of the cultural renaissance the character has endured over the last 30 years. Not only had Tim Burton just released Batman Returns, the sequel to his massively successful and industry-shifting Batman, but the generation-defining cartoon Batman: The Animated Series was in the midst of its run. Plus, even as a young child, I simply found the Bat to be more interesting than the alien. “If Superman can’t die, then what’s the point? Where’s the excitement?” I remember thinking.
And that, finally, brings us to the point of this article: the content and context of the Batman character. As a child, I found Batman to not only be more interesting on a basic and aesthetic level but more relatable on a human level. “Well, he’s just a regular guy, so he’s just like me!”, I’d ration, not yet realizing that the idea of Batman and the actuality of Batman are two entirely different concepts.
In theory, Batman is a hero, protecting those who can’t defend themselves. And while he may legitimately be that sort of protector, in actuality, he’s still a potentially mentally disturbed vigilante who uses his immense wealth to accumulate an arsenal that he unleashes on the city’s population, complicit or otherwise. If someone in the real world were to do this, they wouldn’t be heralded as a savior, they’d be considered insane and persecuted by all corners of society. And that’s what Batman inherently is, for better or worse: he’s absolutely insane. The very act of dressing up like a bat and fighting both criminals and supervillains alike with your bare hands is insane. Everything about him screams insanity.
So, with that in mind, what better way to rank all the live-action Batmans (apologies for the grammatical sin but “Batmen” just ain’t flying with me) than by the very trait that defines them: insanity.
6. Val Kilmer’s Batman
Remember when Val Kilmer played Batman? Remember Val Kilmer?! Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, and Val Kilmer all prancing around in fluorescent Gotham City in full regalia. The ’90s, man. What a time to be alive.
5. Christian Bale’s Batman
Now, if this was a list ranking the actors who’ve played Batman by craziness, Christian Bale would be far-and-away at the top. The dude routinely loses and gains the weight of a teenager for shits and gigs. Forget all of the infamous on-set beratings, Bale seems to get some sort of masochistic joy out of putting his body through the wringer and that’s a red flag right off the… bat.
But, when it comes to his actual Batman, Christopher Nolan’s and Christian Bale’s distillation of the character is actually rather subdued, increasingly comical and growly Batvoice aside. In The Dark Knight, he’s ready to hang up the cape and cowl to start a life with Rachel, which is about the most rational thing I’ve ever seen Batman do in any medium. When have you ever, EVER, heard of Batman consider doing something as overtly normal as retiring from jumping across rooftops in the middle of the night and settling down with his girl-next-door childhood crush?
Hell, by the time The Dark Knight Rises‘ credits roll, he’s living off his billions and on the Amalfi Coast, sipping cappuccinos and rocking pastel-colored linen button-downs with the sexy klepto who’s into BDSM and tight black leather on his arm. Whomst among us hasn’t dreamed of living such a life? Actually, in a sense, Christian Bale himself is actually crazier than Christian Bale’s Batman, which is… sheesh.
4. George Clooney’s Batman
Before heading out for another evening of casually beating petty criminals within an inch of their life, this man looked at himself in the mirror, Bat-nipples and all, and thought to himself: “Nailed it, Bruce. These Bat-nipples look spectacular. Bad guys oughta be terrified of you, you nippled stud.” That’s all you need to know. End of discussion. Lunatic.
3. Ben Affleck’s Batman
First things first, this is the only murderous Batman on this list and that’s got to represent some level of insanity, no? Just out here laying waste to the streets of Gotham, racking up millions of dollars of infrastructural ruin and a body count like he’s crushin’ fifty-cent wings at happy hour.
Not only is Affleck’s Batman murdering nameless henchman and goons six ways to Sunday (whether it be via car, gun, or fist) but he tries to murder Superman — the Superman! — of all people. You know how patently insane you have to be to watch Superman take town skyscrapers like a game of Jenga and shoot laser beams like he’s had lightsabers installed directly into his cranium and then think to yourself… “you know what, I gotta fight this dude”? INSANE! And he makes this decision before learning of Kryptonite’s existence, literally the one thing that can weaken this Swiss army knife of a demigod. Ben’s Batman was ready to go into battle hungover, overweight, and out-of-shape with nothing but a thick metal suit and a couple of gadgets that his Brooklyn-looking version of Alfred made in the Batgarage. What a psycho.
2. Robert Pattinson’s Batman
I don’t even have to see The Batman to know that Robert Pattinson’s version of the Dark Knight is going to be an absolute psycho. Despite the fact that only 25% of The Batman has been filmed, it’s 100% clear that Pattinson’s take on the Gotham Knight is going to be the most twisted yet, as his version of Bruce Wayne seems to be more troubled and perhaps disturbed loner than he is billionaire playboy — dude’s pasty white complexion literally makes it look as though he’s been living in the Batcave his whole life. You know the incels that the media was worried Joker would unleash? Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne looks like one of those people, up all night on 4chan or whatever. Would somebody please get this guy a cheeseburger and a spray tan?
Then, of course, there’s that truly epic 7-second-beatdown he lays upon a poor hapless criminal, resulting in, by far, the most brutal and visceral depiction of Batman’s hand-to-hand combat skills that we’ve seen on the big screen yet. Playing judge, jury, and pseudo-executioner in one fell swoop, Pattinson’s Bat leaves a simple street thug with millions of dollars in medical bills and lifelong brain damage. Finishes him off with a couple of skullcrushers for good measure. “Since then, he kind of developed a speech impediment,” type stuff. Can’t be a murderer if he technically dies a week later, right Bats?
1. Michael Keaton’s Batman
“The eyes, Chico. They never lie.”
Have you ever looked into Michael Keaton’s eyes, particularly whilst he’s playing the Caped Crusader? If Keaton played Superman, they wouldn’t even need to CGI the laser beams that come out of his eyes — Keaton would probably be able to do it naturally. As the legend goes (I’m, like, 95% sure this is factual, I just can’t find the proper source), Keaton’s overly expressive eyeballs are one of the main reasons Tim Burton cast him in the role. After all, while wearing the Batman mask, the eyes are really all the actors have in their arsenal when it comes to expressing emotion.
And that’s what it all comes down to, really, the eye test. Sure, Clooney’s Batman may be out there that he finds nipples threatening, and yeah, Pattinson Batman basically crushes the skulls of pot-selling teenagers with the veracity of a man who’s in the midst of turning into a zombie, but simply looking into Keaton’s eyes will tell you all you need to know. Not to mention the iconic “let’s get nuts!” line sounds as though Keaton’s Bruce Wayne has been desperately waiting, for decades, for the opportunity to get nuts without the cover of the costume.
Let’s say you’re a criminal, right? And you’re roaming the streets of Gotham, doing criminal stuff. Batman pulls up and you know you’re screwed, regardless of which version it is. Which would you prefer: a Batman like Bale’s that shows no emotion and knocks you out cold before you can even react, or a Batman like Keaton’s that stares into your soul with the eyes of a bloodthirsty cannibal who’s got enough combat skills to make the incoming ass-kicking painful but not enough to make it efficient? Exactly.
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