BATMAN ON FILM, 'The Dark Knight Fansite!' Est. 1998.

OPINION

Grading The Bat-Men
Friday, February 25, 2005
Author: Jett


With BATMAN BEGINS fast approaching with Christian Bale in cowl and cape, I thought I’d look back at the previous men who have portrayed The Dark Knight – or the Caped Crusader, depending on who we are talking about. So here is a look back at Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and hell, I’ll even throw in a take or two about Bale as The Batman. I will give each two grades – one for Bruce Wayne and the other of course, for their portrayal of The Batman. Keep in mind that I am taking into account acting, physicality, and how the part was written and directed. (At this time, I’m am not reviewing the performances of Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery, as I’ve never seen either of the serials, and it would be unfair of me to do so).

ADAM WEST

Adam West played Batman on the ABC Television show that ran from 1966-1969. He also portrayed the character in the 1966 film BATMAN: THE MOVIE that followed the series’ first season. West did not play The Batman as “The Dark Knight” – in fact, his portrayal was about as far from dark as you can get. But you’ve got to keep that in mind when watching him. One may think that if you are a fan of the “dark” Batman – which I am – there is no way to find anything positive about West’s Batman. However, if you keep Mr. West’s portrayal in perspective, you might be able to enjoy it.

As Bruce Wayne, West does a pretty good job being the suave, handsome, accessible millionaire (I guess Bruce hadn’t yet reached billionaire status in the 60’s). Being around 6 foot tall and of a little better than average build, he was physically suited for the role. He was a more than adequate “live-action” presentation of the comic book Bruce Wayne – although he was certainly not a tortured soul. But this was yet a big part of the Batman mythos, so you have to keep that in mind. West’s Wayne – for some reason – was not nearly as campy as his Batman and came off a bit more “realistic.”


Adam West - Biff, Bam, Pow! (c. 1966)

If the 1989 BATMAN was your first exposure to a live-action Batman, West’s version is probably not your cup of tea. He is silly, campy, and certainly, he is not dark nor any sort of knight. But West took his Batman serious – which is what made it so damn goofy! You had all this zaniness and over-the-top performances, and there’s West with his damn serious, deadpan Batman! However, there isn’t a bit of disrespect towards the character. This is how Batman was back then, and West played that particular Batman.

Born in 1965, I vaguely remember the show airing on TV. But by the very early 70’s, this show was huge in syndication. I loved it! This is the Batman I cut my teeth on between the ages of three to seven – it probably is responsible for making me a Batman fan. It led me to the comic books – which featured a much more serious portrayal of Batman. Although I have always considered the “dark” Batman his definitive incarnation, that doesn’t devalue the West Batman and his importance in Batman history.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Yes, Adam West’s Batman was not the Batman we know today. Nor did he embody Bob Kane’s original dark visualization of the character. But he wasn’t meant to be that Batman either. He must be given credit for helping save Batman, as the character was dying in the early to mid 1960’s – hell, the comic book was facing cancellation right before the show debuted! How many kids do you think became Batman fans – and remain fans of the character today – because of that series? One of those kids is writing this story. And if you keep in the West Batman in perspective of what Batman he was trying to be – and that is what I’m grading him on – he was a solid Batman in that regard.

Bruce Grade: C
Batman Grade: C+

MICHAEL KEATON

I bet you’ve been waiting for this, haven’t you. You know I’ve despise BATMAN RETURNS, so you think I dislike Keaton as The Batman, right? Well that’s not totally the case.

Keaton was not a good Bruce Wayne. He doesn’t look like Wayne of the comic books in the least. And his portrayal was way off – which can be attributed to the way the part was written and how he was directed. As Wayne, he was aloof, absent-minded (particularly in BATMAN RETURNS) and sort of bumbling at times. He should come off as a well-known, fun-loving, good-looking, womanizing cad – which of course is the mask for the real Wayne. Frankly, Keaton was miscast – particularly for the role of Bruce Wayne. His physical shortcomings could not be masked or hidden as they were in the Batman costume. And I didn’t particularly like the “borderline psycho” take on the character in the Burton films.


Michael Keaton in BATMAN RETURNS (1992)

As Batman however, Keaton was very good. Again, his lack of physical prowess was troublesome and the costume didn’t help – Keaton seemed to be swallowed by the suit at times (Particularly in BATMAN). However, that didn’t affect his performance in the end. He was dark and brooding. His “Batman voice” set the standard for how Batman should sound. He was the first “serious” Batman and his contribution to the history of the character will not go unnoticed – although I think that the fact that he was the first actor to play the part in a dark and austere manner is THE significant reason why he is so revered.

THE BOTTOM LINE: I think that the Michael Keaton was miscast as Bruce Wayne/Batman. In fact, I believe that if BATMAN was being cast today, he wouldn’t even be in the running. The main reason that he is held in such high regard among fans is because he was the first serious Batman. However, he did a heck of a job as The Dark Knight and he should be given credit for that. His portrayal showed people that The Batman was a dark, serious, and emotionally deep character. And Mr. Keaton seemed to respect and care about the character. Keaton’s Batman legacy is more than secure. I will always hold Keaton’s Batman in high esteem – as will Batman fans.

Bruce Grade: C-
Batman Grade: B+

VAL KILMER

Val Kilmer replaced Keaton when the former decided not to reprise his role in BATMAN FOREVER. Kilmer was much more physically suited for the role than his predecessor. He possessed “leading man” type looks that should be a requisite for Bruce Wayne. His Wayne – in public – seemed stiff. But the main point here is that he was portrayed as a public figure. He was in the news, on TV, and prominently on magazine covers –as Bruce Wayne should be. But his Wayne outside the public eye was not as stiff. He was sort of like…The Batman. Notice the difference in Kilmer’s private Wayne voice and one he used as Wayne in public. Kilmer was also given much more to work with – from a scripting aspect – as Bruce Wayne. In fact, BATMAN FOREVER was much more of a case study about why Bruce became Batman than any of the “Burton/Schumacher” films. Kilmer did a fine job in these scenes and would have been more effective if many of them had not be edited from the final cut of the film.

Kilmer’s Batman was nothing to write home about, but it certainly wasn’t awful either. He looked the part more so than his predecessor – he was taller and possessed a bit more of an athletic build. He also had the best costume – the “panther suit” – of the four previous films, which added to his effectiveness as The Batman. Kilmer’s Batman was more of an “action hero” – and perhaps more heroic – than the Keaton or Clooney version.


Val Kilmer in BATMAN FOREVER (1995)

THE BOTTON LINE: Yes I think Kilmer was more physically appropriate for the role than Keaton or Clooney. And yes I think he did a fine job as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. I even respect Kilmer for pulling out (or getting himself fired) of BATMAN AND ROBIN. But something just didn’t sit right with me with Mr. Kilmer – how serious did he take this role? Did he respect the history of the character, or did he just do FOREVER to boost his career? Perhaps I’m being petty.

Bruce Grade: B-
Batman Grade: B-

GEORGE CLOONEY

Let me preface my take on Clooney by saying I understand that he was burdened with a horrible script. Not an excuse, mind you, but I certainly understand. I am of the opinion that Clooney could have made a pretty good in-his-prime Batman. But unfortunately, I can’t grade Clooney on what could have been.

Clooney’s Bruce Wayne was tolerable. He looked the part – although he was not as much a physical match as his predecessor Val Kilmer. His Wayne was again portrayed as being very public – much like he was in FOREVER (but not as good). Clooney’s scenes with Michael Gough’s Alfred were done well and probably the best thing about the entire film (and that’s not saying much). But the Clooney Wayne was certainly not a tortured soul – what’s the point of being Batman? There was just nothing of substance to Mr. Clooney’s Wayne and this was a huge negative in the film.


George Clooney in BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997)
Clooney’s Batman was terrible – of course he was given nothing to work with but crap, but come on! There was absolutely no difference between his Wayne and Batman – same mannerisms and voice. He was silly and campy, but not in a respectful way like Adam West. His portrayal just smacked of making fun of the character – as did the whole movie.

THE BOTTOM LINE: This was not Batman. This was making fun of Batman. While Clooney’s Batman was garbage, I lay most of the blame on director Joel Schumacher.

Bruce Grade: D+
Batman Grade: F

CHRISTIAN BALE

Hands down, Christian Bale is the best Batman ever on the big screen. He is the most physically suited for the role, and actually looks like the Bruce Wayne of the comic books. And for the first time in a Bat-film, we actually care about Bruce Wayne.

Bale’s Batman was scary , intimidating, and animalistic. He was a badass - someone who criminals would clearly fear. Bale was believable as The Batman as well - he simply was The Batman . Much more than just a guy in a suit.

Bale’s Bruce Wayne - or should I say Bruce Waynes - was terrific. He nailed both the public Bruce Wayne and the real, private Bruce. If we were not in on the “joke,” the public Wayne would be someone we would dislike tremendously. But we know that this is his mask, and not the real person.

Bruce Grade: A+
Batman Grade: A+


Christian Bale (c. 2004) - The best Bat yet?

So who was the best? Christian Bale without a doubt.

"Jett" is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of BATMAN ON FILM.
You can reach him at BOF_MAILBAG@MSN.COM.

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