Which of These Nine Men Played Batman Best?
Batman will return to us soon in The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final movie of Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed trilogy depicting the life of the Caped Crusader. While it may be easy to think that this Batman was arguably the greatest of all screen representations, one must delve into history to see how truly epic this evolution was. How did his vision of Batman stack up against other film versions? Glad you asked, as we have compiled a history of Batman in film to say farewell to this latest version, and ponder the direction the next Batman will take.
1) Lewis Wilson
Appearances: Batman (1943 serial)
Only the most loyal fanatics of Batman may know that The Caped Crusader hit the silver screen well before Adam West. During the height of World War II, Columbia Pictures put out a 15-part serial in theaters, because that’s how you watched television shows back then: in a theater.
Lewis Wilson portrayed Batman as a swinging playboy by day, moonlighting as a bat-eared detective who could throw down with criminals, so long as he was able to get back to his lady-friend Vicki Vale.
The plot, however, was a little less tongue-in-cheek. Batman was actually a government agent hired to track down and neutralize Dr. Daka, a Japanese scientist plotting to turn the world into mindless zombies who looked strangely like Cesar Romero’s Joker. With plenty of anti-Japanese sentiment and other racial stereotypes, the serial has been labeled as war propaganda like other films of its decade.
In terms of gadgetry, the only thing Batman had was The Batcave, his hidden sanctum deep below his remote estate . Like Bob Kane’s preceding strips, Batman’s gadgetry was minimal, using the utility belt as a pretty way to hold up his tights and driving an old limousine around as he searched for clues. Nothing is more hilarious, however, than how Batman and Robin change into their alter egos: they just get changed in the backseat of their car. At least Bob Kane’s Batman had the foresight to drive around in his costume.
2) Robert Lowery
Appearances: Batman and Robin (1949 serial)
What does a studio do when they come up with a good film serial? If you said, “strip it down to a bare bones budget, find an even more over-weight actor, and repeat footage over and over again to get a fifteen part serial completed,” you’d be correct.
While the 1943 Batman series suffered from a theme of war propaganda, Batman and Robin of 1949 suffered even more from diminishing returns.
With Robert Lowery playing The Caped Crusader, Batman and Robin battle The Wizard, who has stolen a machine that controls motorized vehicles up to 50 miles away. The Wizard’s criminal exploits continue, as he must steal diamonds to keep the machine running. Hold up right here. There’s a magic machine that can find, target, and control any motor, and its fuel is DIAMONDS?
Whatever. Batman and Robin come to the rescue, while trying to keep Vicki Vale from learning that they are really Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson.
The story itself is not bad, except for having more “Whodunnit” twists than a whole season of Scooby-Doo. The problem lies in production. The sleek limousine is replaced by a 1949 Mercury convertible; Batman’s utility-belt finally gets some use by magically vomiting up a full blowtorch; Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are now changing into Batman and Robin on the side of the road as well as the backseat of the car; repeated scenes of The Wizard going through the motions of letting visitors into his hideout via submarine happen at least twice every fifteen minutes.
3) Adam West
Appearances: The Batman television series (1966), Batman: the Movie (1966)
Love him, hate him, or be confused by him, there is no mistaking that Adam West was the first mainstream Batman on film. While the series was considered campy and nonsensical by many, the story lines were actually quite coherent for an action-mystery series. Suspense was driven by the “cliffhanger” approach of ending an episode in the middle of dire circumstances for Batman and Robin, to be solved and finalized in the next episode later in the week.
Unlike the past characterizations, Adam West created polar opposites of Bruce Wayne and Batman from the serials of the 40s. His Bruce Wayne was grim and serious, while his Batman was more flippant than earlier, (and later) versions of The Dark Knight. Did you ever think you would see Batman get drunk and dance at the disco, then get his keys taken away by the police? Neither did I, and that was only the first episode of the series. While Adam West looked a little bit more like Batman would in terms of physique, the applied eyebrows to the Bat cowl eradicated any critical acclaim for even the costume.
In terms of gadgetry, no one did it like Adam West. Instead of having a change of Bat Clothes in the trunk of his car, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson would see the Bat Signal, drive to their mansion from Nova Scotia if need be, slide down poles that automatically changed their clothes into superhero costumes, and be out in the Batmobile, racing to meet Commissioner Gordon to find out what was going on. They would then proceed to use a variety of Bat Merchandise that would keep licensed toy companies in business for decades: Batcopters; Bat Boats; Bat Gliders; Bat Poles; Bat Ladders; all this to thwart the crimes of The Riddler, The Penguin, The Joker, and Catwoman while still trying to keep a straight face.
While many of Batman’s gadgets can be joked about, nothing can touch the design of the Batmobile, a marvel in engineering that would make even Jay Leno drool.
4) Michael Keaton
Appearances: Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992)
It took a long time, but in 1989, history was made in the world of Batman when director Tim Burton, comedic actor Michael Keaton, and Academy Award winner Jack Nicholson got together and made a blockbuster superhero movie that future films would strive to be equal to. That movie was Batman.
While many critics found that Tim Burton gave much more character development to The Joker and later The Penguin, the snub actually works in creating a certain brooding, displaced attitude for Bruce Wayne and Batman. You can only get the feeling that, because of the deaths of his parents, this detachment helps Batman focus on his goal of vengeance to criminals everywhere. Sure, there’s a bit of a love story, but who could possibly neglect Kim Bassinger for very long?
In terms of gadgetry, the Batmobile and Batwing became technological marvels of commercial marketing. They are vehicles any adult would want to ride around in, and easily became toys that every kid would want to play with, to then become adults who would actually want to ride around in. In terms of personal gadgets, gone are the ridiculous Bat-Merchandising products, replaced by good old-fashioned stealth products like smoke pellets, napalm, a grapple gun, and Batarangs to give a hint of Batman flair.
5) Kevin Conroy
Appearances: Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Does a superhero automatically lose credibility when following a successful, dark, live-action movie with a cartoon? Batman: The Animated Series, growls from the shadows with a resounding “NO.” Kevin Conroy voiced the Dark Knight Detective in a cartoon that merged flat-detailed animation with the shadowy effects of film noir.
In hindsight, Batman: The Animated Series seemed almost a bridge in the movie franchise from the dark action movie of Batman and Batman Returns to the live-action cartoonishness of Batman Forever. The enemies are more colorful, but the henchmen almost all look like gangsters from the 1950s, so there’s still a hint of the human element.
Kevin Conroy continues the lineage of vague, brooding Batmans that Michael Keaton began, however there is much more character development. There better have been, considering the series had four seasons.
Gadgetry stayed on par with its recent predecessor. The Batmobile is pretty bad-ass, just a little sleeker than the last one, and that shadowy film noir flavor really makes one wonder if it’s a jet on wheels. Unfortunately, it’s a cartoon car, so we’ll never get a chance to sit in it at a Hollywood museum, much less give it a test spin.
And then things got ugly. Continue to page 2 to read the Terrible Tale of Bat-nipples! –>