Many actors have played Batman since 1943, when the Dark Knight first leapt out of the comic books in a 15-part Columbia movie serial to thwart Dr. Daka, a Japanese saboteur. (FYI: That sadly forgettable first Batman was Lewis G. Wilson, whose other big role was Trent in 1951’s Wild Women of Wongo.)
Two of the actors who donned the cowl will be at the Lexington Comic & Toy Convention this weekend: Val Kilmer will be there Friday through Sunday and Kevin Conroy will be there Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are available through the web site.
Of the on-screen Batmen (Batmans?) from the last half-century or so, who is your favorite?
A look at the major contenders:
Adam West starred in the goofy, technicolor Batman television series (1966-68) and movie (1966) that defined the hero for Baby Boomers and many of their kids and grandkids, who still catch the reruns today. Giving a deadpan performance but never taking himself too seriously, West kept his Bat-tongue placed firmly in his Bat-cheek. When Robin asks him, “Where’d you get a live fish, Batman?” he replies: “The true crimefighter always carries everything he needs in his utility belt, Robin.” Well said, old chum.
Olan Soule was your Batman if you grew up eating Captain Crunch and watching the animated Super Friends on Saturday mornings during the 1970s. (“Meanwhile, at the Hall of Justice ...”) Soule’s full run as the voice behind the cowl stretched from 1968 through 1983 and included several different versions of shows featuring Batman, Superman and other DC Comics heroes. Fun but simplistic.
Michael Keaton donned the first black rubber Bat-suit in 1989’s box-office smash “Batman,” directed by Tim Burton and set in a dark, violent, art deco Gotham City where murderous lunatics danced to the Prince soundtrack. Keaton and Burton stayed for the even murkier, less successful sequel, “Batman Returns” (1992), then departed. While he growled from under the cowl (his menacing “I’m Batman” is now iconic), Keaton also brought a cool intensity to Bruce Wayne that the playboy alter ego sometimes lacks.
Kevin Conroy is the longest-serving Batman, starting with his stint as lead voice actor on “Batman: The Animated Series” (1992-95) and continuing through today with many follow-up TV shows, movies and video games. This animated franchise was developed by artist Bruce Timm and based in part on the 1989 live-action movie, with a dark 1930s-style cityscape. And the stories are more sophisticated than children’s cartoons. In one episode, for example, “I Am the Night,” police Commissioner James Gordon gets shot.
Back on the big screen, Val Kilmer replaced Keaton in the rubber Bat-suit in “Batman Forever” (1995), which proved to be a misnomer because he only lasted for one film. Several new characters were introduced — Robin, Two-Face, the Riddler — making this two hours of stitched-together origin stories.
George Clooney stepped in for “Batman & Robin” (1997). Nipples appeared on the Bat-suit and another round of characters crowded onto the screen (Batgirl, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, Bane). It didn’t help that a smirking Clooney never seemed that interested in the job. This flop killed the franchise for nearly a decade.
Christian Bale reignited the Batman movies in 2005 with “Batman Begins,” directed by Christopher Nolan. Popular with critics and mass audiences, Bale came back for “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012). This version of Batman was fanatically driven and gargled gravel while delivering his lines. Batman’s spine is snapped in half. Wayne Manor is burned to the ground. Gotham City is laid waste by bloodthirsty terrorists. And these were the bleak trilogy’s cheerier bits.
Diedrich Bader is best known as a funny guy on TV series like “The Drew Carey Show,” but he also used his baritone pipes to voice the Caped Crusader on the animated “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” (2008-11). The series — cartoonishly drawn and vibrantly colored — was a tribute to the long-running comic book of the same name, which likewise teamed up Batman with different DC heroes in each installment. Bader’s Batman was a protective big brother-type usually paired with someone who would try his patience.
Another TV comedian, Will Arnett, did something new by delivering laughs as Batman in “The Lego Movie” (2014) and several successive 3-D animated projects. Arnett’s Batman revels in his macho Batman-ishness. When a teammate warns him that their spaceship is about to crash into the sun, Batman shrugs and says, “Yeah, but it’s gonna look really cool.”
Ben Affleck brought us an older, wearier Batman limping toward his twilight for “Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) and its sequel, “Justice League” (2017). Of course, Affleck is only 46, but when your job involves getting shot, stabbed and blown up every day, you wear out faster than you would have, say, selling cars. Although these movies got a lukewarm reception overall, many fanboys said Affleck’s Batman and Bruce Wayne came the closest to putting the comic book characters on screen.