A History of Batman on TV and in Film

The DC comics superhero known as Batman is personally my favorite comic book character of all time. Being such a huge fan, it’s a wonder why I haven’t written an article about the legend himself until now.

As the millionaire playboy by day, Bruce Wayne is a calm man mostly keeping to himself in his home with his servant and longtime comrade of the Wayne family, Alfred Pennyworth. When danger threatens his home of Gotham City, he transforms into Batman, a dark-costumed crime fighter who relies on his wit and tact (and array of amazing weapons) to combat evil. Why named after the flying mammal? Because it’s the one animal that frightens Bruce the most and helps him face the perils that he and his city fear. Why do I prefer him above the hundreds of adrenalized comic book characters? Well, Batman is a more realistic approach to the modern day hero, possessing no actual superpowers and relying more on his mind than his fists. I enjoy that aspect overall since as a kid I really believed I could be Batman one day. From his inception in the illustrations of the comic world, like most popular things, the caped crusader eventually made his way into television and big-budget Hollywood. Now as we await to witness how actor Ben Affleck will fare as the savior of Gotham City himself in 2016’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, let’s take a look at the several men that have donned the black mask for the screen. With a character who spans eight decades, let’s see how they hold up.


Adam West (1966-1985)


The first iconic portrayal of Batman occurred on the 1960s popular eponymous television series. Actor Adam West wore the grey suit in this lighthearted interpretation of the character. A huge departure from his time in print, the show used tons of humor, even producing a lot of cheesy catchphrases that are still used today. The formula did have such ridiculous scenes as Batman and the Joker surfing together and Batman escaping the clutches of a really phony looking shark. West played the dark knight up for laughs with exaggerated acting including the titles of sounds effects of him attacking enemies appearing on-screen. As Bruce Wayne, his range was so over-the-top that it was akin to a soap opera. This wound up being memorable for a lot of viewers but not popular among avid comic readers who knew the character well. The series aired for three seasons and had amassed a huge following. It even produced a film in 1966, the same year the show debuted. Batman: The Movie followed and I will give West credit though, “sometimes you just can’t get rid of a bomb” was a masterful line. Adam West then moved Batman to the animated world in the 80s with The New Adventures of Batman and Superfriends (which I remember watching since it ran in syndication on Cartoon Network in the 90s). He’s still active with voice acting in the comic book world today – even working with Marvel. I respect West for the time and effort he put into the character, but this really isn’t how I view Batman.


Michael Keaton (1989-1992)


In the late 1980s, director Tim Burton was tasked with directing a reimagining of the Batman character. Best known by that point for the horror/comedy, Beetlejuice, Burton had a lot to live up to. After already working with him in Beetlejuice and seeing his riveting performance in Clean and Sober, the visionary director knew Michael Keaton can pull off a much harsher demeanor under the mask in a more serious adaptation of the character. This version of Batman, now wearing an all jet black suit with the yellow logo and utility belt from the Adam West days, was received a lot better by audiences and was a box office hit. This was due to not only Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker but also Michael Keaton’s performance as our main protagonist. Alhough Batman ‘89 contained a lot of the silliness and camp that the character was previously known for, Keaton played our hero straight, with that look of unpredictability that complimented the persona of a hero along with his facial expressions and quirky dialogue. He looked calm as Bruce Wayne but also looked ready to snap at any minute, becoming his darker persona. I will also add that I thought Keaton has the best interactions with Bruce Wayne’s love interests. His scenes with both Vicki Vale and Selina Kyle felt natural and not boring and forced like most of the character’s other on-screen romances. These qualities made him memorable in a film that’s praised for its villain. He reprises the role in the sequel, Batman Returns. Batman actually had even less screen time in this movie and was pushed aside in favor of Catwoman and the Penguin. He still pulled off some memorable scenes though such as the dancing scene with Selina Kyle, the initial fight with Catwoman, and ruining Penguin’s mayoral election speech. For a lot of people, this is the definitive live action Bruce Wayne/Batman.


Kevin Conroy (1992-Present)


Kevin Conroy is a favorite among fans for his version of Batman even though he himself has never appeared in costume as the superhero. No, Conroy is famous for voicing Batman in several cartoons and animated films, his most famous being 90s favorite, Batman: The Animated Series which ran for three years. His deep voice was perfect for the character and soon, no one could imagine Batman sounding like anyone other than Conroy. He reprises his role in the cult 1993 animated film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and went on to lend his voice talents to Batman Beyond as an older Bruce Wayne mentoring a young justice seeker. He subsequently starred in Batman Beyond movie, Return of the Joker, which was also very well received by fans. Conroy is still voicing the dark knight to this day even lending his vocals to video games starring the caped crusader such as the rave reviewed Batman: Arkham series. He doesn’t look to be letting up anytime soon so if you ever hear Batman in animated form today, chances are he’s voiced by Conroy.


Val Kilmer (1995)


After disagreements between Tim Burton and studios, Batman returned to the more comical tone of the Adam West days with Batman Forever, now with Iceman himself, Val Kilmer at the helm as Bruce Wayne. Joel Schumacher was now in place as director and tried his best to mix elements of the humorous days of the hero with the much darker and brooding. Years ago when I started really getting into film, I hated this movie with a passion but I’ve grown to accept it over time. It’s not a great feature by any means but it’s tolerable and I can understand what they were trying to go for. The Batsuit now had a more defined design but didn’t quite look like the cartoony contraption our main character would wear in the next film. In terms of Kilmer, he actually wasn’t a terrible Bruce Wayne at all. He’s no Keaton but he services himself decently considering what he had to work with. Many people only remember Jim Carrey’s colorful portrayal of the Riddler but I don’t feel we should discredit Kilmer’s performance. Seriously, the scene where Two-Face causes the murder of Robin’s parents showed some damn fine range by Val.

Now as for a terrible Batman…


George Clooney (1997)


Batman & Robin was a film where ideas just kept getting thrown to the wall to see what would stick. Schumacher returned as director and gone was Val Kilmer. Resident Hollywood heartthrob, George Clooney, is now wearing the cape as Gotham City’s avenger and boy did he do nothing for the character other than stand there in costume with its bat nipples. Way too much misused star power, an incoherent script, and nonsensical action among other problems make this the most universally hated Batman film. Clooney was not yet the huge star he is today, though he was well on his way and he’s lucky his talent and charisma were able to sweep this disaster under the rug. He basically was just George Clooney under a mask and not making any effort to become Bruce Wayne. Batman & Robin’s woes are endless but Clooney certainly didn’t help.


Christian Bale (2005-2012)


Christian Bale was the first actor to portray the dark knight on-screen who wasn’t American. In this Christopher Nolan-directed trilogy, the Wales native first assumed the role of Batman in the origin story, Batman Begins, in 2005. This time, producers were determined to nail the character exactly right and return Batman to its gritty roots which worked out perfectly. Bale’s youthful, good looks helped him accurately portray a young Bruce Wayne but once suited up, he was criticized for trying too hard to sound threatening by using what has become known as the “Batman voice” where Bale snarls in a gravelly tone to anyone he addresses. While it can be distracting sometimes, I don’t find it much of an issue beyond that. Christian Bale is one of my favorite actors and I actually favor his performance of the character over Keaton’s but opinions have been mixed on which incarnation people prefer. Both have their strengths and weaknesses but I’ll take Bale’s Batman because he’s a much better actor and helped the character hold up in a much more realistic approach that is much closer to the source material than anything before it. Another thing I loved about Bale’s portrayal was the evolution he gave the character and the story it told over the course of the three films. Bale subsequently went on to star again in 2008’s The Dark Knight and while the late Heath Ledger delivered an absolutely amazing performance as The Joker, Bale more than held his own.  He finished up the trilogy with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. Bale was reportedly offered an obscene amount of money and was begged by studios to return in Dawn of Justice but he thankfully refused.

Do you think Ben Affleck will deliver? Though pictures have been released of the actor in wardrobe, no footage of the movie has been released thus far. What are your concerns about his inevitable performance? Let me know in the comments section below!


Written by Matthew Reine

is a New Yorker with a strong passion for film and television. Also the biggest Keanu Reeves fan you know.

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