People used to say comic books were just for kids, but these days, playing a superhero on the big screen is an actor’s fastest way to superstardom. There aren’t many heroes more beloved than Batman, set to go from a movie superhero to a Justice League universe star. But not every actor to put on Batman’s cowl ended up a hit – and one of the most influential men to tackle the role never appeared on film at all.
Not every version of Bruce Wayne is shrouded in darkness, but Adam West's starring role in the original 1960s Batman TV show wasn't just campy – it was more profitable and popular than even modern superhero films could hope for. After comics declined during the 1950s, West’s technicolor take on the hero had entire families glued to their TV sets. As parents watched the insane hijinx of West's caped crusader and the zany villains with a smirk, the kids took every threat and villain completely seriously - just like the show's hero.
Two decades after West hung up the cape, comic fans thought Tim Burton and Michael Keaton were giving them another dose of camp with 1989’s Batman. Instead, they created a version of Batman who was funny AND terrifying. Even if he was better known for his comedy chops, Keaton perfectly captured the tortured, isolated side of Bruce Wayne, but was playful enough to make the movie fun, not grim. Jack Nicholson's Joker gave him a towering villain to match, and even without Robin by his side, Keaton was the first actor to win a Bat-sequel. Comic fans had sent 50,000 protest letters to the studio when he was cast, but it was Keaton who got the last laugh, remembered as THE definitive Batman for entire generations.
Burton and Keaton were impossible acts to follow, but director Joel Schumacher and star Val Kilmer tried their best. With Batman Forever, the twisted humor turned into out of place, cheesy gags, and most fans gave up hope after one look at the Batsuit's new nipples. Kilmer apparently butted heads with the crew and director on set, but critics agreed that his playboy persona was as Bruce Wayne was convincing. In fact, Batman creator Bob Kane said Kilmer was the closest he'd seen any actor come to his own idea of the superhero. In the end, the movie's villains were more memorable than the hero, and Kilmer showed that playing Batman on film relied on a lot more than brooding and a rubber suit.
By 2005, it wasn't just comic fans who wanted to see Batman to be taken seriously, but movie audiences everywhere. Director Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins introduced a darker, more realistic version of Bruce Wayne than any seen before, and Christian Bale was the only man able to bring the character to life. Training in martial arts and packing on muscle to make sure he looked the part of a superhero, Bale tapped into the darker, angrier side of the hero that no other actor had even tried to touch.
He still had a sense of humor, but it was the drama and tension that helped the sequel cross the billion dollar mark at the box office. Fans can debate the tone, the villains, and Bale's one of a kind Batvoice , but the actor’s trilogy of performances mean for millions, he'll always be The Batman.
Who says you need to be seen to make your mark on the Dark Knight? Looking back, it’s hard to believe Warner Bros. was on board with a cartoon aimed at an adult audience, even choosing a film noir-influenced art style for Batman: The Animated Series. But the writers made sure the stories were polished, and actor Kevin Conroy provided a voice for Batman that no fan will ever forget.
It was Conroy who realized that Bruce Wayne should be the performance, not Batman, and his voices for each character were an instant hit. The actor became the go-to voice of Batman in animated TV, movies, and the award-winning Arkham game series. To this day, the cartoon is hailed as one of the greatest Batman properties ever created, and with more than two decades voicing the hero, it’s safe to say Conroy’s place in Batman history is guaranteed.