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The Best On-Screen Portrayal of ‘Batman’ Characters
MajorJJH   |  

Week of Geek: Batman

Batman has had a very long history on our screens, making his first appearance in a 1943 serial, over 20 years before Adam West would pull on the purple Batman costume. As such, we’ve had a veritable slew of actors portraying the likes of Batman, Robin, The Joker, and other characters from the Batverse over the years. But just who are our favorites, and who should never have been?

I’ll take a look at the Batmans of the last 60 or so years, as well as a random assortment of villains and heroes that joined Batman along the way. I will say though, that to do justice to the 1960’s Batman TV series would take a lot longer than I have, given that Wikipedia has over 35 listed villain guest stars, including John Astin as the Riddler, Eartha Kitt as Catwoman, and Vincent Price as Egghead. You really can’t beat them for campy, but they don’t really match up to reality.

Batman: The Animated SeriesBatman

The battle for best Batman has long been fought, but only recently decided. Prior to Christopher Nolan‘s 2006 Batman Begins, my personal favorite (and many others would agree) was Michael Keaton. In tandem with Tim Burton, they portrayed a dark and surreal Batman that I loved. However, soon came Val Kilmer and George Clooney, who made a mockery of one of the greatest characters ever.

However with Nolan’s Batman Begins came Christian Bale, who for most, has taken the mantle as best Batman ever. He was realistic, gritty, young, and has an acting talent unlike any of the others.

But all of that being said, my title still goes to another man: Kevin Conroy. Or, maybe I should be giving the award to producer Bruce Timm, the man who is responsible for the animated version of my favorite superhero. Conroy’s voice is perfect for the role, and I still can’t get past the sheer amount of the animated Batman that I have seen.

Batman: The Animated Series, Mark Hamill's JokerJoker

Arguably Batman’s most fiercest villain, the Joker, appears in more comics than any other Batman villain. He has been depicted throughout comics and on screen in a veritable plethora of forms, from inhuman to a scarred malformed human.

Jack Nicholson portrayed the Joker in the 1989 film Batman, directed by Tim Burton. But he was more of a clown — the uncle you don’t like to have round at Christmas — than the Joker really was. He shot people, killed people, laughed, but he wasn’t… the Joker.

Now the only real choice we have, in my opinion, is once again laid at the feet of Bruce Timm, but this time voiced by none other than Mark Hamill. That’s right, for those of you not aware, it was young Luke Skywalker — or actually an older version, really — who voiced the maniacal villain in Timm’s animated TV series, and for many his voice, and in particular his laugh, has been the perfect combination.

However, I think that no one will doubt the fact that, come July 16 (for we Australians), or whatever date The Dark Knight hits your cinemas [July 18th in the U.S], Heath Ledger will soon become the best Joker we’ve ever seen. Until then, it’s Mark Hamill.

Michelle Pfeiffer as CatwomanCatwoman

This category won’t go on for long, as it exists mainly to ensure to the world that Halle Berry should not be considered even as part of the DC Universe. Her rendition of Catwoman is, in all reality, horrible, and a real black mark on DC’s record. The real competition only exists between Adrienne Barbeau who played Catwoman in the animated series, and Michelle Pfeiffer. For me, my money rests on Pfeiffer, for her fantastic, portrayal in Batman Returns. It was realistic, funny, cruel and passionate, and they are four attributes that Selina Kyle exudes.

Michael Gough as Alfred PennyworthAlfred

Without a doubt one of the most pivotal characters in the Bat-verse is Alfred the butler, who has been portrayed by a veritable mass of men. William Austin was the first to portray Alfred, and if not for a following role, he could take the win simply for the fact that Austin’s portrayal changed the way that the comic version of Alfred was drawn.

Skipping over the ’60s and into the ’90s movies, my winner is Michael Gough, who portrayed the aging butler to perfection in the four movies. An actor who has appeared in over a hundred films, Michael Gough was trustworthy and loyal to a tee, and really exemplified the father-figure that Alfred should be.

Two notable mentions are Michael Caine, from Nolan’s pair of movies, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., from the animated series. Both are much better representations of their characters than many other characters were given, and show a deep respect for the character.

Gary Oldman as Commissioner James GordonJames Gordon

Another actor who, though remaining much in the background, is pivotal to the Batman story is that of Commissioner James Gordon. Absolutely central to many Batman comic arcs, Gordon has been commissioner of Gotham for longer than there has been a Robin. I will admit that I am only looking at Gordon for the sole purpose of expressing my undying love for Gary Oldman.

Though there have been others — such as the only other actor to portray the same character in all four Burton/Schumacher films, Pat Hingle — Gary Oldman portrays one of my favorite characters to a perfect tee. And though Bob Hastings from the animated series is top notch, Oldman simply cannot be beat.

There are masses of other characters in the Bat-verse, but very few who have doubled up in actors. For example, Chris O’Donnell made a complete cock-up of Robin in the last two films in the ’90s. And Danny Devito was a great Penguin, but has no one to go up against.

So for now, let us just say that Christopher Nolan and Bruce Timm have managed to pin down most of the awards, and that Tim Burton always knew what he was doing and should have been left in charge.

Got a different opinion on any of my choices? We want to hear them, so comment away people!

  • Jerry

    I know a lot of fans who feel the same way about Mark Hamil’s Joker. The more I think about the animated series was pretty top notch.

  • http://earinthefireplace.blogspot.com Daniel

    DeVito does INDEED have competition for the role, and if you’ve been watching as much of the animated series as you say you have, you should know that. Paul Williams manages to make Penguin’s baroque turns of speech sound both natural and, when called for, menacing as all hell. (David Ogden Stiers was good in “Mystery of the Batwoman”, but Williams was better.)

    For a Joker who was a very close fit to the comic book portrayal of the time, it’s hard to beat Larry Storch (who did the voice for the Filmation cartoons of the 60s). Before you sneer, Storch was a gifted comic actor who was often far better than the scripts he was given.

    But when we compare the Schumacher versions of almost ANY character with their animated counterpart, it’s the toons that win. Michael Ansara vs Arnold Schwarzenegger? Please.

  • Dan

    You are also forgetting the TV series from the 60s, with greats such as Caesar Romero (The Joker) and Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. While these two were over top, so was the whole series. Romero goes down as my favorite Joker ever.

  • Jimmy T

    Make that a second vote for Caesar Romero. My only gripe is that he should have shaved the moustache for the role. Other than that, a perfect Joker.

    Regarding your comment about the 60s show: “You really can’t beat them for campy, but they don’t really match up to reality.”

    Is “reality” really the word you meant to use there. If so, I’ve got some bad news for you…

  • AlZuben

    anybody who begins by paying homage to Tim Burton’s fetish-laden fantasies…and a 5’10 balding and 165lb soaking wet Michael Keaton as Batman is nucking futs.

    but thanks for invalidating your opinion in the opening statements so I knew better to ignore everything that follows.

    you just robert eberted yourself!


  • LL

    Robin will ALWAYS be terrible. He’s a terrible character. Chris O’Donnell was perfectly cast in the role, which says all that needs to be said about Robin.
    Bale has gone so far as to say that if Robin is scripted into future Batman films, he’s outta there.

  • Cortie

    Nice job. Mark Hamil is, and will always be, the greatest Joker in my books. Spot on with that one. But I have to point out: “most fiercest”? Really? Grammar, man. It is your friend.

  • levi

    what about adam west? :P nothing beats pot-bellied batman.

  • Andrew

    Dan you fail.

    To say that Romero’s joker is top notch is to fundamentally misunderstand what makes the Joker tick. The Sixties will always be something that the Batman mythos tries to escape from. While the lighthearted adventures of the 60s were great for kids, (hell, some of my earliest memories of Batman were watching the Adam West movie multiple times with my dad) anymore they should only serve as an easy stepping stone for children to learn about the characters before they really get into the nitty-gritty of Gotham and its protectors. The Joker is not someone to be trifled with, which something that Ledger and Nolan hit directly on the head. The campy zany version that Romero portrayed ignored what makes the Joker such a great foil for Batman. He was just a clown, not the Clown Prince of Crime, and should be treated as such.

  • http://webescape.wordpress.com/ http://webescape.wordpress.com/

    Nicholson made a decent joker, my fave ever is probably Julie Newmar as Catwoman because you could totally see how Batman would get taken in by that body and face.

  • Chris

    What about Two-Face?
    I can say that without seeing the new movie that Aaron Eckhart will be the best Two-Face. Tommy Lee Jones was horrible.
    Allow me to ask something of all of you though- Who was the real killer of Batman with “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin”?
    Joel Schumacher is the answer. Honorable should go to Akiva Goldsman as he was responsible for the writing on both. The acting was nasty in the films but actors can only do so much.

  • Pingback: MichellePfeiffer.us

  • Joey Diggs

    Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill win by a landslide for Batman and the Joker. Ledger was okay, but he sounded like he was doing a Christian Slater impersonation half the time – his voice never hit the lows and highs like Mark Hamill.

  • Tom

    Hey Chris,

    What about Richard Moll’s performance in the animated series? I say he beats Aaron Eckhart only because he changed his voice for both Harvey and “Big Bad Harv”/Two-Face. He was a perfect choice for that role.

  • Tom

    I also disagree with Major’s choice for Alfred. Caine beats Gough hands down. If Gough had better writers who understood Alfred better, than it would be more of a competition. Saying that Major, how could you think that Gough showed any fatherly qualities? He portrayed the character as a servant and nothing more. Caine actually is more of a father to Bruce in Nolan’s movies than Gough ever was.

  • Amol

    (“soon came Val Kilmer and George Clooney, who made a mockery of one of the greatest characters ever.”)

    1. Bale is leaps and bounds ahead of all other ‘Batmen’.

    2. Kilmer had everything correct about him except one: he was in a Bad Movie. One simply canNOT refer to Bad scenes in a Badly scripted Bad Movie by a Bad Director to explain why the actor was not good to play his character. I understand, Kilmer could have never replaced Bale, but he would have easily replaced Keaton (who even though was a good Batman, WAS a wimp Wayne).

    Even if we forget that Keaton was the least good looking and had the least physicality required for an ideal Wayne/Batman respectively, we still cannot forget that he never had the ideal Wayne magnetic personality to attract females. He was a plain idiotic wimp as Wayne. And females never get attracted to a ‘jerk’ which the Wayne in ‘Batman(1989)’ and ‘Batman Returns(1992)’ clearly was. But maybe the female-leads in those movies were paid by the producers to do so.

    Whereas while Kilmer was definitely muscular/handsome of the two, his was unfortunately limited by the Bad Movie itself that he worked in that did no justice to the character of any roles in it, least of all Batman. Also, we can’t forget that Kilmer did play a very good playboy-Wayne of whatever the script allowed him to. That is what is important (where Keaton failed). Because once you’re inside the caped costume, it does not matter who is inside it, because nobody’s going to recognise you anyway. So the character that must be given more priority is of ‘Wayne’ where one can’t hide behind a costume.

    Remember, Kilmer was a good Wayne/UNDERUSED Batman in a bad movie by a bad director. Keaton was a good Batman /wimp Wayne even in an overall OK movie by a very good director. Even worse was that, unlike Keaton who got two opportunities as Batman under the very good director to prove himself as Wayne and yet failed on all points as Wayne, Kilmer never got a second chance to prove himself as Batman even though he had proved himself as Wayne, no… not even under the same hellish director.

    MY POINT: If the physically strong, play-boyish Kilmer was that good as Wayne under the hellish Schumacher, imagine how great he could have been in costume (Batman) under the very good Burton.

    3. As for ‘Batman & Robin’, every thing was wrong about it and so was Clooney who only played ‘himself’ both as Batman/Wayne. Anyway, except when the movies are called ‘Syriana’, ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ and ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’, Clooney is all himself everywhere. I seriously hope they destroy all records/sources of that B&R-crap and pretend it never existed.

  • Tatiana

    Can someone help me out, i vaguely remember a character from the animated series…it was a batman fanboy…he was chubby and he too wanted to be a superhero…he would dress up and try to save the day but always fail miserably…was it ratman? batboy? i cant remember any help and a picture would be greatly appreciated! =]

    email me: starenyt@aol.com

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