If you haven’t seen “The Lego Batman Movie”, you should. I took my five-year-old last weekend and was surprised by how good it was.
The highlight was undoubtedly Will Arnett’s portrayal of Batman. His performance, which builds upon his remarkable role in 2014’s “The LEGO Movie,” puts him in the upper echelon of the many actors who have portrayed Batman on TV and the big screen.
Just how do they stack up? Here’s my ranking of the top eight Batman actors.
8. George Clooney
Today he is an undeniable box-office superstar with Oscars, critical acclaim, and a film resume that all of Hollywood would kill for, but in 1997 George Clooney portrayed a campy, over-the-top Batman that fell flat with fans and critics alike. “Batman and Robin,” with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, and Chris O’Donnell as Robin, was perhaps the worst of Joel Schumacher’s nipple-armored Batman movies. Clooney wasn’t convincing as Bruce Wayne or the Dark Knight. He earns a well-deserved spot at the bottom of this list.
7. Val Kilmer
Before there was Clooney, there was Kilmer. In 1995’s “Batman Forever,” Val Kilmer took a shot at portraying the Caped Crusader. With a cast that included Jim Carrey as The Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face, Kilmer’s crack at Batman could have been great. Although it was an okay movie that did pretty well at the box office, Kilmer’s one and done performance was only a little better than Clooney’s follow-up two years later. Reports after filming indicated that Kilmer and director Schumacher didn’t get along, which helped fuel the decision to switch to Clooney for “Batman and Robin.”
6. Ben Affleck
The most recent live-action Caped Crusader, Ben Affleck has portrayed Batman in the much-maligned “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a quick appearance in “Suicide Squad,” and will star in the forthcoming “Justice League” film. He’s also on deck for a solo turn as Batman, but that movie has been continually delayed.
Affleck’s older, gruffer, more cynical take on the role has some promise. He’s not bad, but is definitely hindered by a debut in the messy, overly dark and brooding “Batman v. Superman.” Affleck has the chance to redeem himself and move up the list if this winter’s “Justice League” is a better outing than his debut.
5. Michael Keaton
The man who brought Bats back to the big screen in 1989 opposite a fantastic portrayal of The Joker by Jack Nicholson would have been closer to the top of this list just a few years ago. Although his Batsuit looked incredibly uncomfortable, the first of the two Tim Burton-helmed Batman movies reintroduced the DC Comic’s biggest star to people outside the comic book crowd.
The dark, but not too dark, serious, and not campy take on Bruce Wayne and Batman was a perfect foil to Nicholson’s marvelously portrayed Joker. Their final showdown was exactly what the series needed to kick Batman back into the public consciousness and spawn decades worth of films and TV shows.
4. Adam West
This might be the ranking many people will disagree with, but to me, Adam West gave us an amazingly entertaining take in the BAM!, BOP!, POW! campiness of his 1960s Batman. This show, which I used to watch on Nickelodeon as a kid, had cheesy costumes, hilariously over-the-top villains, and action bubbles on screen during fight scenes just like in classic Batman comics. Today’s takes on Batman mostly embrace the “dark” within The Dark Knight, but West’s light-hearted portrayal is still a funny performance more than 50 years later.
3. Christian Bale
The best of the live-action actors, Christian Bale’s three performances as Batman reinvigorated the franchise. Christopher Nolan’s modern take on Batman bucked the bright colors, cheesy aesthetics, and unbelievable villains of Schumacher’s Batman universe, and brought the dark back to The Dark Knight without overdoing it.
With villains portrayed by Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Aaron Eckhart, and Heath Ledger, Bale has had the best bad guys of any movie since Nicholson’s. In fact, Heath Ledger’s maniacal, unhinged take on The Joker is even better than Nicholson’s, which is really saying something. Affleck’s Batman incarnation is hurt by the fact that it comes so closely on the heels of Bale’s fantastic eight-year run.
2. Will Arnett
In 2014, Lego took a big risk by making a movie about a bunch of plastic mini-figures in a world of multi-colored blocks, but the amazing performances by Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, and Will Arnett made the movie a smash success that will spawn sequel upon sequel for years to come.
Arnett’s Batman, whose raspy voice was a mocking nod to Bale’s live-action Dark Knight, stole every scene he was in. Far from being plastic like his figure, Arnett’s performance was absolutely hilarious. Continued in this year’s “The Lego Batman Movie,” Arnett injects some of the campiness of West, the seriousness of Bale, and the flexibility of a massive Lego universe to produce a performance all his own. This is the comedic Batman that all future light-hearted takes on the character will be measured against. However, he’s not the best actor to portray Batman.
1. Kevin Conroy
The best Batman wasn’t on the big screen, in live-action or Lego form, but on a cartoon played by esteemed voice actor Kevin Conroy. Beginning in 1992 with “Batman: The Animated Series” and continued in other cartoons and video games, Conroy’s portrayal of Batman is, for me anyway, unsurpassed.
“The Animated Series” was a marvel. Its nighttime look came from the artists, starting with a black background, not white like traditional cartoons. Conroy used two distinct voices, one for Bruce Wayne and another for Batman, which helped sell the character as someone split between two halves, two personalities: the dark and the light.
The style of the show, which its producers termed “Dark Deco,” took influence from the Batman comics and the Burton movies. It produced a Gotham City that is second to none. For me this is the serious Batman universe that all others are judged by. Conroy proves that great acting isn’t just done though your actions, but through your delivery. His Batman, along with Mark Hamill’s Joker, make this the best of all the Batman experiences.