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By design, Batman is one of the darkest superheroes. His whole schtick is dressing up as a icon of fear, to scare his enemies. Unlike Superman, who’s powered by the sun and strikes a reassuring figure, Batman is a creature of the night. There’s some complicated psychology there, which offsets the inherent silliness of the hallmarks the character comes with: the bat eared cowl, the gruff voice, the eyeliner…
So what’s it like stepping into the Caped Crusader’s, well, cape? We’ve dug through the archives to see how the different actors who played Batman approached the role when it was their turn:
Thousands of fans wrote letters of complaint to Warner Bros when it was announced that Michael Keaton had been cast in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Their concern was that Keaton wouldn’t take the role seriously, playing it too campy or cartoony.
But they needn’t have worried. Having already worked with Burton on 1988’s Beetlejuice, Keaton was already tuned in to the director’s gothic sensibilities, and he also took inspiration from Frank Miller’s version of the Bat in The Dark Knight Returns to inform his performance. For Keaton, it was all about finding the humanity behind the mask.
As he told Backstage’s In The Envelope podcast, “It was always Bruce Wayne. It was never Batman. I knew from the get go it was Bruce Wayne. That was the secret. I never talked about it. Batman, Batman, Batman does this, and I kept thinking to myself, ‘Y’all are thinking wrong here.’ Bruce Wayne. What kind of person does that? Who becomes that?”
Given the film’s focus on the Bat as a symbol, the answer has got to be: a deeply traumatised one.
Keaton’s successor, Val Kilmer, seems to have had a radically different experience. For him, much of his Batman experience was defined by the suit itself, which he found cumbersome and limiting.
Acting opposite Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey, both huge personalities given licence by their villainous characters to play everything even larger than life, he felt flat, empty. Some of his friends and co-stars asked him to meet their kids in character, but that made things worse – Kilmer seems to have felt like a walking action figure toy. In a recent interview with the New York Times, his disillusionment spilled over, resulting in him claiming that “There is no Batman.”
According to Kilmer, the Dark Knight is basically a blank slate for fans to project onto: “That’s why it’s so easy to have five or six Batmans. It’s not about Batman. There is no Batman.” Not sure many people would agree…
If Val Kilmer thought he had regrets about signing up to play Batman, he could at least count himself lucky that he didn’t do Batman & Robin. Poor old George Clooney, then in the middle of making the transition from small screen to silver screen, ended up taking that role, and getting all the stick for it forever more.
In the film’s defence, it’s nowhere near as bad as everyone tends to remember. It’s just camp, and while Batman fans in the 1960s might’ve been used to a brightly coloured and slightly silly Batman, by the late ‘90s it wasn’t what audiences were looking for.
It’s interesting, though, that Clooney’s thinking about the character largely mirrored Keaton’s. They just came to wildly different conclusions. Clooney looked at the man behind the mask and, rather than a troubled soul struggling to overcome his childhood trauma, he saw a playboy with enough money to do whatever he wanted – including creating whatever bat-themed toys he wanted.
And while Clooney didn’t find the suit any comfier than Kilmer had done, he did like the toys. “I wanted to pocket every last gadget,” he told Entertainment Weekly at the time. “If I could get my hands on a Batarang… but they take those suckers away from you the minute after your shot’s done.”
Sweeping aside all that had gone before, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a highly acclaimed fresh start for the Defender of Gotham. Casting Christian Bale, then probably best known for his unforgettable turn as Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s adaptation of American Psycho, was a good first start. Bale’s Batman was many things, but you definitely couldn’t accuse him of being camp.
Once again, it came down to interpreting Bruce Wayne. “In the early Batman films, even the Tim Burton movies, there was always that moment when, as Bruce Wayne came into shot, the audience would groan,” Bale told GQ in 2012. “The perception was that without his mask Batman was bloody boring, so we had to develop him into something more engaging. With Batman Begins that's just what we did.”
Bale got to develop Bruce over the course of three films – and, crucially, he seems to have managed to enjoy it too. Discussing a helicopter stunt he’d insisted on performing himself, he remarked to GQ, “You can’t play a superhero and not enjoy it, right?”
In perhaps the most controversial casting since Keaton in 1989, Zack Snyder chose Ben Affleck to be his Batman. Even Affleck himself wasn’t initially convinced, after having had a bad experience with Daredevil (2003). But Snyder’s take was sufficiently different from the Bale Batman (and, whisper it, from the Clooney and Kilmer ones) that Affleck eventually got on board.
So, in Snyder’s cinematic universe, we get a slightly more seasoned, slightly more cynical Batman, one who’s been fighting crime for a while and isn’t impressed with the younger and more impulsive Superman. If only the films had been less dour, it could’ve been a really interesting take.
Still, in a rather more positive echo of Kilmer’s experience, Affleck told Variety that, “I did Batman because I wanted to do it for my kids.” Turns out sometimes kids are interested in who’s inside the Batsuit!
Affleck continued, “I wore the suit to my son’s birthday party, which was worth every moment of suffering on Justice League.”
All of which brings us to our newest Batman – or maybe we should say The Batman? – Robert Pattinson. Bearing in mind Pattinson’s tendency to say things in interview with his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek, it sounds like we should be in for an interesting new take.
A lifelong Batman fan, Pattison, along with director Matt Reeves, have figured out what makes their Bruce Wayne tick. Pattison told Total Film, “He’s got this enormous trauma inside him, and he’s built this intricate, psychological mechanism to handle it. It’s like a really, really, really bad self-therapy, which has ended up with him being Batman at the end, as self-help.”
How does that work? You’ll just have to grab a ticket for The Batman to find out.