There have been many different big-screen versions of Batman, his associates, and his enemies over the years. The character’s world can be — and has been — interpreted in a variety of ways, from bright and colorful to dark and gloomy. It has been portrayed both dramatically and comedically, and somewhere in between on a few occasions. Part of the reason for the enduring popularity is the ability to be reinvented in new forms, by new filmmakers taking the helm.
Because these are comic book characters running around a comic book universe, so much of the movies’ success depends on the quality of the performances. When an actor knows just what to do, the results can be magic. When one is miscast or struggles to understand the nature of the well-established figure they’re portraying, it can be disastrous. That’s certainly true in the case of Bat-cinema.
Below, we’ve compiled a look at the best and worst performances in movies featuring Batman. In the best cases, the performances were a key ingredient to making the film satisfying. In the worst, they ruined the whole thing, or at least substantial parts of it. Several of the choices are admittedly pretty obvious, but others will surprise you. We’ll justify our reasoning in each case.
Here are 8 Batman Performances That Ruined the Movies and 8 That Saved Them.
16. Ruined: Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever
Joel Schumacher took over the directorial reins from Tim Burton with 1995’s Batman Forever. He was determined to move the series away from the dark tone Burton brought to it and toward something lighter and campier. Knowing that he needed some big-name stars playing grade-A villains, Schumacher cast Jim Carrey as the Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face.
Jones was on a hot streak at the time, having won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in The Fugitive two years prior. He was definitely a box office draw, but his casting was about as far off the mark as you can get. +
Two-Face is known for being half-benevolent, half-evil. Although an undeniably talented actor, Jones comes off as gruff and cranky even when he’s playing happy, thereby causing him to fail at capturing the character’s fundamental duality.
15. Saved: Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns
Many actresses have played Catwoman over the years, from Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt on the ’60s Batman TV show, to Anne Hathaway in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, to Halle Berry in that infamously awful 2004 Catwoman movie. None of them have matched the sheer sultry power of Michelle Pfeiffer, who owned the role in 1992’s Batman Returns.
Pfeiffer not only looks incredible in the requisite leather outfit, she also infuses the character’s flirtatious dialogue with a palpable edge of danger. In the actress’ capable hands, we understand why Batman is so attracted to her, even as he attempts to foil her. She also brings a wonderful madness to the role.
14. Ruined: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Batman & Robin
By the time of 1997’s Batman & Robin, a template was established that required huge stars to be cast as the Dark Knight’s famous foes. No star was bigger at that time than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Snagging him for the role of Mr. Freeze sounded okay on the surface, but the way it played out onscreen ended up being much too silly, leaving viewers disappointed.
No one doubts Schwarzenegger is a smart guy, but he’s really not credible as the brilliant scientist Victor Fries. His specialty is action, not emotion, so the scenes where he’s required to tear up at the thought of his terminally ill wife are unconvincing.
Worse, the screenplay requires him to deliver some of the lamest, most groan-inducing puns ever put onscreen. It’s hard to take Mr. Freeze’s menace seriously when he’s tossing out one-liners like a bad comedian on open-mic night.
13. Saved: Mark Hamill in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Anyone who seriously follows Batman-related cinema will probably agree that one of the best films featuring the character is animated.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was released in 1993. It was by no means a hit, earning a paltry $5.6 million at the North American box office. Home video and frequent cable airings raised its profile significantly over the years, though, causing its reputation to grow.
A significant part of that rising admiration is due to the voice work from Mark Hamill, who plays the Joker. Bringing a booming, over-the-top quality to the Dark Knight’s nemesis, the actor delivers a vocal performance that is genuinely intimidating.
For the Joker to work in any iteration, he has to be believably unhinged. Hamill is fearless in mining the character’s sociopathic nature. He turns what could have been a simple Batman cartoon into something memorable.
12. Ruined: Jesse Eisenberg in Batman v Superman
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice must have seemed like a good idea on paper. Take two of the most iconic, beloved superheroes of all time and pit them against one another. What would make these two fight, though? The answer was simple: have Lex Luthor manipulate both of them for his own personal gain.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more controversial choice to play Lex than Jesse Eisenberg, yet that’s exactly who director Zack Snyder chose. Eisenberg is a fine actor, quite adept at playing characters who are neurotic, arrogant, or a combination thereof.
Lex Luthor, on the other hand, is neither of those things. He projects supreme confidence and a hostile worldview that underlies his suave exterior. Eisenberg couldn’t meet those qualities, leading to a performance full of irritating mannerisms. It’s like watching a child try to play grown-up.
11. Saved: Michael Cera in The LEGO Batman Movie
The LEGO Batman Movie is an absolute delight. The film is packed with wall-to-wall inside jokes, including a lot of references to other films featuring the character. You have to watch it more than once to catch them all. On that count alone, it would be a worthy Dark Knight story. The thing that makes it special, however, is the work of Michael Cera, who provides the voice of Robin.
Cera plays the Boy Wonder in a way we haven’t seen before, namely as an overly-earnest, hyperactively enthusiastic kid. He’s absolutely hilarious, bouncing nicely off the incessant seriousness of Will Arnett’s Batman.
Even better, Cera gives the movie some heart that elevates it beyond being just a joke-fest. His Robin longs to be adopted, to be part of a family. The actor hits that emotional beat in a manner that’s surprisingly touching.
10. Ruined: Katie Holmes in Batman Begins
In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Katie Holmes plays Rachel Dawes. Quick: what can you tell us about her? Are you struggling to recall anything? Let us help you. Rachel is an assistant district attorney who desperately wants to nail one of Gotham’s most notorious mobsters, Carmine Falcone.
Aside from being a thinly-drawn, unmemorable character, Rachel is here largely to be a stereotypical damsel in distress. She gets a dose of the Scarecrow’s fear-inducing drug and has to be rescued by Batman. To be fair, it would be tough for any actress to make such a one-dimensional figure pop off the screen, especially when surrounded by more colorful, engaging characters. Holmes seems too young and inexperienced to be a DA, which just compounds Rachel’s overall blandness.
9. Saved: Adam West in Batman: The Movie
Adam West wasn’t the first actor to play Batman onscreen — there were pre-feature serials all the way back in the 1940s — but he’s definitely the first actor to be commonly associated with the role. That’s because his take on the character was the gateway for a lot of kids to get into the Dark Knight. They loved him forever.
West played Batman on television, but also in 1966’s Batman: The Movie. We all know this particular iteration is very broad and campy, with an emphasis on kid-friendly humor. It’s about as far a cry from, say, Christopher Nolan’s vision as you can get.
It works and has had such a long-lasting impact, though, because West really understands how to extract laughs from the material. He takes the role seriously enough to earn the audience’s investment, while also subtly letting them know that he is in on the joke.
8. Ruined: Alicia Silverstone in Batman & Robin
Fans wanted to see Batgirl onscreen for a long time, so when it was announced that Alicia Silverstone was going to tackle the role in Batman & Robin, they went wild. The hit comedy Clueless and a series of Aerosmith music videos made her the top young star of the moment. Once the public saw her in the final product, it was tragically clear that this promising casting was a bust.
To be fair to Silverstone, this isn’t exactly her fault. The movie’s script doesn’t know what to do with the character. It takes forever for her to finally put on the costume, and she’s frequently skirting the periphery of the main plot.
Batgirl/Barbara Wilson isn’t given much of a personality, which means Silverstone is left trying to fill in the gaps. Her youth and relative lack of acting experience at that time rendered the task virtually impossible.
7. Saved: Michael Caine in The Dark Knight Trilogy
Whether in comic books, on TV, or in the movies, Alfred has always been right there by Bruce Wayne’s side, keeping his secrets and offering some gentle advice when needed. In many ways, it is a thankless role. Alfred doesn’t get to dress up in a cool costume or participate in any action sequences. Nevertheless, Michael Caine is so good playing the famed butler in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy that he doesn’t need to.
Caine is one of those actors who projects tons of dignity. He’s classy, wise, and compassionate. That’s what makes him a formidable Alfred. He gives the character such authority that you pay attention to him, even when he’s standing right next to one of the world’s greatest superheroes. Gravity of that magnitude ensures that we believe he is not only worthy of Bruce’s trust, but also absolutely intent on preserving it.
6. Ruined: Stuart Allan in Son of Batman
Son of Batman is a 2014 direct-to-DVD animated adventure in which we learn that Talia al Ghul, daughter of Ra’s, gave birth to the Dark Knight’s son, Damian. The plot finds the kid shipped off to Gotham City so that he can get to know his dad. Being the grandson of Ra’s al Ghul, he arrives well-trained in fighting and weapons use. He’s also got a huge chip on his shoulder.
That promising story is partially undone by a problem with the voice work. Damian is supposed to be a tough, angry, vengeful kid. Stuart Allan, the child actor who portrays him, has difficulty making that work. Allan clearly has talent. That said, his voice is too peppy and cheery to make Damian’s brooding quality authentic.
5. Saved: Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger had big shoes to fill. Jack Nicholson played the Joker so memorably in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman that it was widely presumed no one could ever top him. Clearly not one to back away from a challenge, Ledger not only took on the part, he also did such a phenomenal job that he outshone Nicholson and won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor.
The Joker is, by design, an exaggerated figure. The genius of Ledger’s work is that he goes so deep into character that the Joker seems weirdly real. The late actor made the rage palpable and the psychopathic madness threatening.
Best of all, his interpretation is vastly different from the cartoonish way Nicholson and Caesar Romero (from the ’60s TV show) played him. This one of the greatest, most original performances in any comic book-based movie ever.
4. Ruined: Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises
We are fully aware that this will be the most controversial entry on this list, but hear us out. For the epic conclusion of his Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan chose Tom Hardy to play Bane, the hulking villain who represents the biggest physical threat of all Batman’s villains. Hardy is an intense actor, which made him an ideal selection.
Except that it’s tough to understand what he’s saying in the picture. Hardy’s performance — which is good overall — is severely hampered by the fact that he gives Bane a weird trick voice. Penetrating that voice is difficult enough. That Hardy also wears a mask for much of the film makes comprehending his dialogue a Herculean task.
3. Saved: Christian Bale in The Dark Knight
Batman has been played by many actors over the years, sometimes well, other times poorly. When Christopher Nolan took control of the character’s cinematic representation, he wanted to make something with intensity. That meant finding an actor who was forceful, but also convincing-looking in the suit.
Christian Bale was just perfect. While the actor is good in all three of Nolan’s pictures, his work in The Dark Knight stands out. Bale brings a strong moral center to Batman that makes the movie’s theme — the importance of sacrificing for the greater good — hit like a sledgehammer. Batman’s desire to do what’s best for Gotham shines through thanks to the actor’s humanity. He looks darn intimidating in the Batsuit, to boot!
2. Ruined: George Clooney in Batman & Robin
It’s a sign of how bad George Clooney is in Batman & Robin that even he openly acknowledges the fact. There’s only one reason he got the role. Clooney was massively hot in 1997 thanks to the wildly successful TV show ER. That program, like the Batman franchise, was based at Warner Bros. The company’s chief executive wanted to find a big movie for his big star.
Buying him as playboy Bruce Wayne is pretty easy. The problem comes when he puts on the outfit. You never see Batman, you just see George Clooney in a Batsuit. The actor relies on the charming, head-bobbing mannerism that was his trademark at the time, which is completely wrong for the character. Put another way, Batman basically has George Clooney’s personality.
1. Saved: Michael Keaton in Batman
When it was announced that Michael Keaton was cast as the title character in Tim Burton’s Batman, comic book fans protested. This was in the days before the internet, when such things were much harder to do. About 50,000 letters opposing Keaton’s casting were sent to Warner Bros. Pictures. The actor was known solely for comedy at that point, which raised concerns that he wouldn’t take the role seriously.
Boy, were those fans ever wrong! Keaton used the opportunity to show that he could be much more than a funny guy, delivering a performance that was strong, focused, and entirely respectful of Batman’s history. Even the most hardcore skeptics were won over by his work.
Not only did Batman go on to become the biggest hit of 1989, but Keaton is, to this day, considered by many to be the best of the cinematic Dark Knights.
What’s your favorite performance in a Batman movie? Which one do you like the least? We want to hear all your opinions in the comments.
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