People like to talk about Batman. Not everyone all the time, but everyone some of the time? Yeah, that’s probably pretty close. Okay, maybe not my mom. She has no interest in Batman. This one is not for you, mom!
Anyway, so let’s talk about Batman, like the people do…and let’s start with this funny thing I stumbled onto playing an old Trivial Pursuit game with my family a while back:
And of course the answer:
Man. They were SO confident when they wrote this card. They were like who is NEVER gonna play Batman? Oh, Affleck, for sure.
It sort of restores my faith in my own mistakes to know even Trivial Pursuit can be so short-sighted. Then again, maybe I have too much faith in Trivial Pursuit? A question for another day!
But really all this does is make me want to talk about the perfect Batman. As a “comic book professional” it’s literally an obligation to have a Batpinion, right?
Crap. I’m already writing bad bat puns. This is… not great.
Anyway, people like to talk about how a great Batman performance is really doing two things — a great Bruce Wayne and a great Batman. But those people are wrong. A great Batman performance is really doing THREE things — a great Bruce Wayne, a great Batman, and a great Bruce “Irresponsible Charming Billionaire Playboy” Wayne. Those are three distinct personas as far as I’m concerned.
So who did it best on film? Let’s examine (and no, I haven’t watched the new Batman because I am still in quarantine and not going to movies and Mr. Pattinson is thusly excused from this exercise, lucky boy.)
MICHAEL KEATON — BATMAN (1989), BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
I’m old enough to have a lot of nostalgia for the Burton Batman movies. And of course Burton/Keaton and the luminous Michelle Pfeiffer brought me a sublime Catwoman at a time when little Kelly NEEDED to see something like that…so yeah, I’m grateful. And I like Keaton. He’s a terrific actor. Like many, I do think he’s a weird choice, but thanks to Keaton’s talent it mostly works? He does a do a not particularly handsome or charming Bruce, but there’s a sort of reserved coolness? Like he’s a brainy outsider and doesn’t care if he’s cool… which of course MAKES him cool by default. His Batman is also solid and feels well nicely reconciled with his Batman — they definitely feel like different sides of the same guy. But his Playboy Bruce Wayne is basically non-existent — and while his writer and director may not have seen Billionaire Playboy Bruce Wayne as an important aspect of the character — they DO at least put him in tuxes and give him a chance in several scenes to be “that billionaire playboy guy” — but he doesn’t, he just plays it all like regular at home Bruce Wayne. So sorta nerdy and perplexed about things and charming in the way that sometimes awkward people are, simply because you know it’s real — it’s the real them and not a put on, which can be potent and powerful. I will say that there’s an element to Keaton’s approach I hadn’t considered before… which is that you need the Billionaire Playboy Bruce Wayne persona LESS if you’re playing Bruce Wayne as a sort of nerdy intellectual reclusive type… because that’s also a good way to throw people off the scent of you being Batman. So while I can accept that idea — and even say “well done” if that was the goal — I do prefer my Batman starter pack to also come with the Billionaire Playboy Bruce Wayne option, so while I respect the approach (if that’s indeed what they were aiming for), it doesn’t quite get it done for me. Despite nostalgia (and everything else) I think I still gotta go with: 2/3 BATMANS.
VAL KILMER — BATMAN FOREVER (1995)
I saw Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan in WILLOW at a… formative time in my life. Yeah, that’s the classy way to say it. Basically Kilmer’s Madmartigan was my first real crush. It left an indelible impression. So yeah, I’m a fan of the guy. And in fairness to him, I don’t know that ANYONE could have saved this movie. But his approach is overall a bit wooden. I’m sure he wanted to go for sort of understated given that Carrey and Jones performances are like they’re bouncing off the walls constantly. And his regular Bruce Wayne is quite good — he plays it very brooding and wounded (maye a little too much for my tastes) but it works. And his Batman is fine. Nice, solid, serious. And like Keaton — you can feel the connectivity between Bruce and Batman, which is nice. And his Batman feels nicely smart as he deals almost causally with most of Nygma’s riddles. But his Billionaire Playboy Bruce Wayne is basically non-existent. And since there were definitely opportunitites for it (there’s even a black tie gala!) I think it comes down to either the director not being interested in that aspect of Bruce Wayne or Kilmer not being interested, because the playboy persona just doesn’t exist. He’s just regular Bruce in every non-Batman scene. Or perhaps it’s a missing element because Kilmer’s take is SO serious (for both Bruce and Batman) that there’s just no room for the theatrics and charm and levity of the act that is (or should be) Billionaire Playboy Bruce Wayne? That moment we all liked in the movie — where he smiles after Nicole Kidman rejects Batman for Bruce — is so fun — but that playfulness is basically nowhere else in the performance — in any of the variations. And so it’s a bummer, because it’s like seeing a glimpse of what it could have been… maybe in a different movie? Result: 2/3 BATMANS.
GEORGE CLOONEY — BATMAN & ROBIN (1997)
There’s a world in which George Clooney is an awesome Batman — but it would have to happen in a different and far less ridiculous movie. I actually think he came kind of close. Because I think Clooney does a terrific Billionaire Playboy Bruce Wayne — he’s got that slightly smarmy charming thing — where he clearly thinks he’s better than everyone else in the room (and he is!) and it’s sort of perfect for a fake Bruce Wayne persona. So we get that in spades. But what we never get with Clooney is the heart of REAL Bruce here. Even the attempts to humanize him and make him tragic are played a bit like jokes here. And again, I don’t really blame Clooney — there’s no room for real emotions or real Bruce in this movie. Hell, he doesn’t even have a legitimate love interest in which to gloomily flail against. This movie is heavily loaded toward Batman and not Bruce Wayne…and that holds Clooney back time and again. I think his Batman is okay, even if it feels a bit too much like his Billionaire Playboy take on Bruce. In a better movie I think we would have seen a more fully rounded take. Unfortunately for Clooney he was in this overstuffed monstrosity. Results: 2/3 BATMANS.
CHRISTIAN BALE — BATMAN BEGINS (2005), THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
Bale had a lot of advantages over all these other guys. Most notably he had Christopher Nolan. Those movies, for my money, are the best Batman movies we’ve ever gotten. And also the most consistency we’ve ever gotten — in tone, in character, in world-building, and even in character ARCS. Nobody else has played Batman for three massive films before — nobody else has gotten to explore a full Batman arc like that. And it shows. Bale is the only one of the Batmans that nails all three roles as far as I’m concerned. But at least PART of why this is true, is because the movies gave him the room to do that. We get Billionaire Playboy Bruce, sprinkled throughout as a clear performance by Bruce — hell, some of the smaller plot stuff hinges on how hard it is for him to act like a dumb asshole in public (i.e Rachel doesn’t respect him, etc.) — which I love, because that would be a really hard thing to do — to let the whole world believe you’re a sort of beautiful rich dum-dum, when really you’re the world’s greatest detective! That’s real sacrifice and it’s the kind of thing that I love to see explored (like in these films) and I hate to see papered over (all the other films?) We also get a magnificent Batman here. Yes, I know a lot of people hate “the voice” — but I don’t. It makes complete sense. It’s smart, consistent, and given how Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS starts — with Bruce discovering the cave and literally creating little batarangs by fucking hand — it makes all the sense in the world to also adjust your voice. It’s a practical and almost obvious solution. And for a Batman world that’s more anchored in reality and less “cartoonish” than some others, it would be almost foolish NOT to do change your voice. Moving on. Here we ALSO get a deeply tragic Bruce Wayne — we can feel his loss so well across these three movies. We know who he is, what he wants, what breaks his heart. It’s wonderfully fleshed out. So Bale is the one guy that nails all three roles. But in fairness to everyone else, I think he had the most help from everything around him and he was given the most time to do it (although in truth he had it locked down from the jump, so maybe that’s not so much of a factor. Result: 3/3 BATMANS
BEN AFFLECK — BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016), JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)
What’s true for Clooney is doubly true for Affleck. I’m not going to comment on Snyder stuff too much because I don’t want to rile people up. But I think we can all agree — love it or hate it — it’s a much darker take than even the Nolan films. There’s little to no room for Billionaire Playboy Bruce Wayne in this version of Batman. And that’s maybe okay and makes some sense given the context surrounding things (i.e. he’s older, things are extra grim, etc.) But the movie(s) don’t really do anything to help us understand how this darker/grittier Bruce came to be. Sure, we can get there by inferring that things have been bad and hard and he’s been affected by that, but it’s not the strongest approach to me I guess? And whether you like the darker/older/grittier take or not, it does leave viewers without that third dimension of Bruce that I’m always wanting to see. I do think Affleck is a disarmingly ruggedly handsome Bruce Wayne, citizen at large among absolute chaos. He plays him very tragic and wounded and it works given context and everything else. I think it’s a great Bruce actually, all things considered. His Batman is… a bit rough for me. But again, context is king here, a lot of what I don’t love of the performance (too much super intense/gritty/violence/pro-guns/lack of care about bystanders/etc) is all pretty reasonable for the world we find Bruce in, so I can’t be too hard on it. And with all that understood, I’m going to give him passing grades on both his excellent regular tragic Bruce and his super intense Batman, but there’s no third dimension here. Results: 2/3 BATMANS.
The funniest thing about writing this post is that I’ve been ranting to people about this whole “A great Batman performance isn’t two roles, it’s three!” thing for years. And nobody EVER cares. Some people look at me like I’m crazy (fair). And then when I was pulling some images for this post, I came across this recent piece from SyFy Wire — which talks about exactly what I’m talking about in the Christian Bale section! Which made me feel happy (I’m not crazy!) and also annoyed…because I wrote this whole dumb thing already!
I was going to just scrap the whole post, but the Substack demands content! (And also possibly my blood?) So you’re getting it anyway!
Annnnd now it’s over, so I hope you enjoyed it?
I WOULD very much like to hear what you guys think about my “three-pronged-Batman” theory (which is what I have just now decided to name this) and who do YOU think has the best three-pronged-Batman, and why is it Christian Bale? Hee hee.
If you think there’s a better Batman than Bale… convince me, and please show your work, kids! No copying from the back of the book because I only assigned you the odds (does anyone else get that reference? Only me? Great).
All right. Make sure to SUBSCRIBE now so you don’t miss Chapter 3 of BLACK CLOAK which drops on Monday! And if you haven’t read the first chapter yet, you can read it here for free!
Enjoy the rest of your weekend if you’re getting one! <3