Battle of the Batmen: West vs Keaton vs Kilmer vs Clooney vs Bale!
So- whoís going to see THE DARK KNIGHT RISES this weekend? I know, I know- NO ONE, right? Getting real for a second, the fact that THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is going to be a megahit is a given, to the point that all the studios are giving this a major berth at the box office- with only ICE AGE 3 daring to open the week before (hardly the same audience), and Sony waiting two full weeks to bow TOTAL RECALL.
I think we can all agree that Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale have totally reinvented the character for a new generation, and created one of the truly iconic big-screen heroes of our era. But- Christian Bale was not the first man to don Batmanís cowl on the big-screen, and we here at JoBlo.com thought it might be fun to round up some of the other big-screen (live-action) Caped Crusaders.
Aside from the cheesy forties serials, the first actor to play Batman in a major film was Adam West. BATMAN: THE MOVIE, which hit theaters in 1966, and was a spin-off of the popular TV show, co-starring Burt Ward as Robin, and folks like Cesar Romero as The Joker (complete with a painted over mustache), Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, and Julie Newmar as Catwoman.
How does West hold up? Well- first we need to realize that BATMAN: THE MOVIE is cheese, and intentionally so. Back then, the studios assumed the only way to do a comic book adaptation was to do it tongue-in-cheek, so here we have a puny, beer-bellied Batman who fights a rubber shark (with his trusty Batspray), and lectures about the ills of alcoholism. Itís essentially unwatchable unless youíre baked out of your mind (in which case it becomes HIGH-larious). Oh well, at least he avoids breaking out the Batusi.
After SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE became a hit in 1978, Warner Bros., decided to finally bring the Caped Crusader to the screen in an all-out blockbuster, but before settling on a more serious take from Tim Burton, the plan had been to turn BATMAN into a comedy, with Bill Murray even being attached at one point. Once Burton decided to go another way, he signed Michael Keaton, who was known as a comic-star. While he had one dark drama under his belt (CLEAN & SOBER), he was mainly thought of as BEETLEJUICE, or the star of THE DREAM TEAM, & NIGHT SHIFT. The fans were outraged until the first teaser hit theaters, reassuring them that this black-clad cold-blooded Batman was unlike anything theyíd seen before.
Watching the two Burton Batmanís, itís clear that Keaton was really on to something as the tortured Dark Knight. In the first film, heís totally overshadowed by Jack Nicholsonís Joker (some argued the film should have just been called JOKER), heís still impressive, with his haunted, possibly unbalanced Bruce Wayne, and his almost totally silent Batman. In the second film, he once again takes a backseat to the villains (Burton always had a taste for the grotesque, and didnít seem interested in a square-jawed hero), but thereís enough juicy bits for Keaton to really make an impression. My favorite shot is of the sullen, pensive Wayne, sitting in the darkened Wayne manor, seemingly waiting for the Bat Signal to be lit- only to finally show some real purpose once it starts shinning.
Of course, itís not a perfect performance. For one thing, Keatonís not physically intimidating in the films, and one assumes that once heís wearing the cowl itís more often than not a stuntman (although the same could be true for any of the Batmanís). I also found it strange in the films how Batman always rakes up a huge body-count, with him killing most of the bad guys- even casually setting a baddie on fire with the engine of the Batmobile in RETURNS. Still, Keatonís by far the best pre-Bale Batman, and his performance stands the test of time- particularly towards the end of RETURNS once he rips off his mask to reason with Michelle Pfeifferís Catwoman. Heís highly underrated in the part, and IF Warnerís decided to reboot the Batman franchise post-Nolan (which is inevitable)- they could do worse than film Frank Millerís THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS with Keaton as the aged Batman.
While many thought Keaton was nuts to quit the part after BATMAN RETURNS, in hindsight, this was probably the right move, as Joel Schumacherís campy take on the franchise was only slightly less ridiculous than the old TV show. Val Kilmer was the first to inherit the part for BATMAN FOREVER, and while the film is a mess, Kilmer is reasonably good. The problem with Kilmer is that, back then, he was a character actor who just happened to have the face of a leading man. As Jim Morrison or Doc Holiday, he was great. As Batman or The Saint, he was bland.
Still, heís not a bad Batman or Bruce Wayne, and given the right material, he might have been able to make it work. Sadly, between FOREVER in í95, and BATMAN & ROBIN in í97, Kilmerís career imploded, thanks to the (apparently well-earned) noxious reputation he picked up on the set of FOREVER, and the cataclysmic ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. Schumacher refused to ever work with him again, so WB ditched him, and brought it George Clooney. BIG MISTAKE.
Clooney is a disaster as Batman. While Clooney probably has a better body of work than any of his contemporaries, he himself would probably admit that prior to OUT OF SIGHT in í98, he wasnít all that great an actor. He was full of ďcooler than coolĒ mannerisms that he gradually ditched over time, but heís given free reign by Schumacher to play the role in a wink-wink way thatís kinda like what it would have been like had Burt Reynolds circa-SMOKEY & THE BANDIT taken on the part.
To be fair to Clooney, even at the top of his game, BATMAN & ROBIN would have been a disaster, with Schumacher giving in to every cheesy impulse to make this a campy nightmare of a film- that was bad enough to all but destroy the franchise for eight years. Itís probably not easy trying to play the role even half seriously when youíre wearing molded, anatomically correct fetish wear, with a codpiece that comes down to the knees. That said, even in a serious Batman film, Iím not convinced Clooney would be right for the part (heís much better as relatable, real world guys as opposed to those who exist in heightened reality).
Which brings us to...
I think the general consensus is that Baleís Batman is by far the best- and Iím not going to argue with that here. His method approach and dedication to the part are an essential part of whatís made Nolanís films work as well as they have. Like Nolan, Bale takes the material seriously and doesnít play it down. Heís just as invested in Batman has he was in films like THE MACHINIST, and THE FIGHTER, and it shows. Some have criticized the guttural growl he uses for Batman, but for me this has always worked- in that it effectively disguises his identity, in a way thatís a lot more convincing than any of the other actors that played the part.
While he was overshadowed a bit by Heath Ledger in THE DARK KNIGHT, one of my favorite things about the film was how different Baleís performance was compared to the last film. Compared to BEGINS, the Batman of TDK is a worn down, battered man- having seen and done too much to ever allow him to resume any kind of normalcy. I canít wait to see what he does with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.
I imagine we can all agree that Baleís Batman is iconic in a way that none of the other actors have quite managed- although Keaton was quite good for his time. If he had the same kind of material as Bale- who knows? While THE DARK KNIGHT RISES will undoubtedly be Baleís swan song in the part, itís inevitable that sooner or later Warner Bros., will reboot the franchise. If the JUSTICE LEAGUE movie ends up happening, itís very unlikely that Bale will once again don the cowl- so I suppose weíll see a new take sooner than later.
|Extra Tidbit:||Props to Kevin Conroy- who made a great Batman in the animated series and THE MASK OF THE PHANTASM.|