So, I’m pretty sure you guys already know and are possibly tired of hearing that Ben Affleck will be Batman in the sequel to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. About a fifth of the Internet’s content since the announcement has been people either bitching about the decision, or championing it. (See our own debate between Katey and Eric here.) Regardless of whether it’s a “good” or a “bad” choice, casting Affleck was definitely an interesting choice, as were each of those chosen to take the role before him. Let’s take a look back at those previous actors that donned the cowl, and how the role figured into their careers.
Michael Keaton – Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns Before Batman: Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, Keaton rose to stardom in a variety of comedies that proved his worth as the everyman who could deliver lines with biting wit and pull off any physical comedy with aplomb. He co-starred with Jim Belushi in the short-lived series Working Stiffs, he starred in Ron Howard’s Gung Ho and Night Shift, and he absolutely killed it in Amy Heckerling’s 1930s throwback Johnny Dangerously. (Not that it’s hard to look amazing next to Joe Piscopo.) Even in something like Mr. Mom, it’s Keaton’s performance that saves what otherwise would have been a tepid commercial comedy.
When Tim Burton cast him for his macabre 1988 comedy Beetlejuice, it seemed like an odd pick, but ended up being one of the better decisions of Burton’s career. The bizarre and over-the-top antics combined with that gravelly voice make it one of Keaton’s most memorable roles, even though he’s only on screen for a little over 17 minutes. And it’s this performance that gave Burton the confidence that Keaton would be perfect as another costumed character of the night.
As Batman: While it was of course a shock to see Keaton replace the warm smiles with a brooding blankness, his performance as both the Bat and Bruce Wayne stunned the naysaying masses, rendering their previous complaints useless. In both of Burton’s films, Keaton turns out what are arguably the two of the best dramatic performances of his career, causing people to forget the slapsticky 1960s TV show and returning their attention to the comic franchise that spawned the character. It would be quite a while before we got another Batman that could realistically answer the question “Why so serious?”
After Batman: It’s a shame that so much of Keaton’s later career was spent in lackluster thrillers like Desperate Measures and White Noise, although his directorial debut The Merry Gentleman, which he also starred in, was enjoyable enough. Appearances in Jackie Brown and The Other Guys prove that Keaton is still very much in control of his comedic talents, so I can’t wait to see him in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s upcoming ensemble comedy Birdman, even if it means having to watch him in the Robocop reboot and the Need for Speed video game adaptation too.
Val Kilmer – Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever Before Batman: Unlike Keaton, Kilmer’s experience with comedy films was most limited to his first two acting gigs, the spoof Top Secret! and the teen comedy Real Geniuses. His performances in films like Willow and Top Gun were good, but he really set career high points in Oliver Stone’s wishy-washy The Doors and George P. Cosmatos’ action western Tombstone. As both Jim Morrison and Doc Holliday, Kilmer seemed to lose all traces of himself and truly became both of those iconic figures. I still get shivers when I think about Holliday’s dying, sweat-ridden body.
As Batman: There was a quite a bit of controversy once Burton and Keaton were no longer attached to the third Batman movie, and no one really knew what to expect when Joel Schumacher decided to follow up The Client with Batman Forever. Kilmer’s involvement arguably made the most sense out of all the Batman actors, given his good looks, his toned physique and his cross-genre acting chops. 18 years later, Kilmer is still the best thing about Batman Forever. With two insanely cartoonish villains (Jim Carrey’s Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face), a candy-coated set design and the awful inclusion of Chris O’Donnell as Robin, this movie could have featured Kilmer in a coma and he still would have come out on top. (Truth be told, I honestly loved this movie when it came out, and I still like it quite a bit, though it’s been about a decade since I last saw it.)
After Batman: Following a winning performance in Michael Mann’s crime epic Heat, Kilmer seemingly took on every role that was offered to him (other than Batman in Schumacher’s next flick), starring in the so-bad-it’s-almost-awesome The Island of Dr. Moreau, Red Planet, and At First Sight. While he occasionally pops up to win audiences over in movies like Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, he has spent the last decade starring in some truly heinous indie thrillers. The Thaw? Double Identity? The Steam Experiment? Here’s hoping his role in Terrence Malick’s next film brings him back to quality cinema once and for all.
George Clooney – Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin Before Batman: If there’s anyone on this list who would love to have a time machine to go back to his pre-Batman career to make a better decision, Clooney is without a doubt that guy. He cemented himself as a TV star through the 1980s and 1990s starring in shows like Facts of Life, Sisters, Bodies of Evidence and Roseanne. None of those shows, however, could possibly match his career-making role in the long-lasting medical drama ER, which he left in 1999 to re-enter Hollywood. Prior to stepping into the nippled Bat-suit, Clooney blew all expectations away as the murderous badass in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn, and then met all those expectations with the romantic drama One Fine Day.
As Batman: For any lifelong Batman fans, Schumacher’s second trip to Gotham, Batman and Robin, was a hard, careless kick in the cod piece, and there was no way even an A+ performance from Clooney would fix that. And even he wasn’t that good in it, though it may have been Arnold Schwarzenegger rubbing off on him. Almost nothing in this movie is worth remembering non-ironically, and Clooney himself has come out against the film in passing years, calling it a waste of money. But that’s an understatement. Why am I even still talking about it?
After Batman: Oddly enough, Clooney’s career has been an unstoppable force since this Bat-tragic misstep. In the two years following Batman and Robin, he turned into a bonafide movie star with The Peacemaker. Out of Sight, The Thin Red Line and Three Kings, which got him into the Coen Brothers acting stable. (So far, he’s been in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading.) He’s been nominated for six Oscars, having won two of them; one as a producer for Argo and the other for his supporting role in Syriana. He seamlessly transitions into a director every couple of years, having turned out the excellent Good Night and Good Luck and The Ides of March, having also scripted both. Next up, he’s starring in Alfonso Cuaron’s space thriller Gravity and Brad Bird’s secret-filled Tomorrowland, as well as the comedy adventure The Monuments Men, which he’s also directing.
Christian Bale – Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy Before Batman: Empire of the Sun, Newsies and Swing Kids. Take your pick for your favorite “young Bale” role. Bale is up there with Kilmer for the best actual actor to take on the role of the Bat, even if the movies he chooses to star in aren’t always on par. My favorite performance Bale has ever given (and I don’t see this changing with any future roles) was his take on Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. His smug, debonair douchebaggery for that film is always in the back of my mind when I watch him in other movies. Would Bruce Wayne try and shove a cat into an ATM? Perhaps.
Perhaps the most striking role he’s played was Trevor Reznik in Brad Anderson’s thriller The Machinist, for which Bale dropped over 60 pounds to play the emaciated sleep-deprived lead character . The fact that Nolan hired Bale for Batman Begins at this point in his career was kind of amazing, considering he had to put all that weight back on to take the part.
As Batman: Considering Christopher Nolan’s direction and co-written script were the biggest stars of the Dark Knight trilogy, it’s a wonder that Bale was able to keep up. He shined as Bruce Wayne, providing just the right amount of pompousness needed to keep Gotham’s citizens at bay. He was less impressive as Batman himself, more often than not because his warbled grumbling sounded more like dry heaving than the assertive voice a superhero needs. That said, Nolan’s movies still present Bale as the quintessential caped crusader, and it will be hard for anyone to top him.
After Batman: It’s only been a year since The Dark Knight Rises hit theaters, and Bale’s post-Batman work in Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace and David O. Russell’s American Hustle have yet to be seen. However, his work in between the Batman films yielded some of his strongest work yet, leading to a supporting actor Oscar win for Russell’s The Fighter. He was also pretty great in Nolan’s The Prestige, James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma and Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn. And no one can forget his Terminator Salvation expletive-filled rant, which was almost better than the film itself.
Adam West – 1960s Batman TV series, 1966’s Batman There is no before and after, because Adam West will always be Batman.
Who was your favorite Batman?