Big Screen Batmen: The Keaton Vs. Kilmer Vs. Affleck Debate, Solved

It's a debate that has raged on ever since Tim Burton brought the hero to the big screen in 1989: who is the best Batman? While Christian Bale will come to most people's minds, is there an argument to be made for the other men who wore the cowl? It's not an easy question to answer, since every actor who has played the Dark Knight have brought their own unique take to the role. Every single Batman actor out there has fans willing to attest to the fact that they are the singularly best Batman on film. For a lot of people, there is no other Batman than the original, Michael Keaton (okay, technically Adam West is the original, but he's in a league of his own). For others, the most recent version of Batman, Ben Affleck, tops all of the others. There are even some who go for the dark horse in the race, Val Kilmer, claiming that his performance in Batman Forever was exactly what Batman should be like.

Of course, when it comes to any of these opinions, there are claims to back up all of them. After all, nobody can really say that an opinion is wrong, especially when you're able to back it up with a solid argument. In this article, we'll examine all three of those choices as being the best Batman. You might disagree with some of the arguments in favor of Keaton, Kilmer, or Affleck, but the fact of the matter is that there are people out there who believe any one of these three actors is the best Batman ever to grace the screen. You never know -- you might just end up changing your mind.

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Before Michael Keaton took on the role of Bruce Wayne, the most recognizable live action representation of the billionaire playboy fans had was Adam West, and the whole "old chum" thing wasn't going to play with a more modern audience that had been exposed to the work of Frank Miller.

Michael Keaton changed the on-screen persona for the better. He presented a Bruce Wayne that was down to Earth, and maybe a little bit self-conscious, but was nonetheless intelligent and driven to do good. Though he occasionally had his strange moments ("You want to get nuts? Let's get nuts!"), Keaton's Bruce Wayne was the precursor to all future screen versions of the character.


Keaton opted not to return to the cape and cowl for the third film in the franchise, leaving new director Joel Schumacher to cast a new actor for Bruce Wayne and Batman. Ultimately Val Kilmer landed the role, and while he may not be as fondly remembered as Keaton (or as hated as Clooney), he did end up pleasing one very important person.

Bob Kane, one of the creators of Batman, said in an interview with Cinescape magazine that Kilmer was his favorite actor in the role of Batman. That's a pretty great honor for Kilmer to have bestowed on him, although it comes with a caveat: Kane never lived to see Christian Bale or Ben Affleck play the role.



The announcement of Ben Affleck as the latest incarnation of Bruce Wayne and Batman was polarizing, to say the least. Some people believed that the actor didn't have the talent to play the Caped Crusader, others thought that with his recent turn to more serious projects, Affleck should be given the same chance that Heath Ledger was given before The Dark Knight.

Whatever anyone thinks of Affleck as Batman, there's one thing about him that is undeniable: he almost perfectly resembles the older, more bulkier version of Batman drawn by Frank Miller. The minimalist batsuit Affleck wore was also a refreshing change of pace from the more armored up versions worn in previous films.


Michael Keaton got his start in the world of comedy. Before he played the Caped Crusader he was mostly known for his roles in films like Mr. Mom and  Night Shift. When he was cast as Batman, there was even a petition to have Michael Keaton removed from the role.

However, Keaton's comedic background may have been just the thing to help translate the character to the screen. The version of Batman seen in Tim Burton's 1989 and 1992 films is not above a quick quip, while still maintaining that signature Batman darkness, such as when he tells Catwoman to "eat floor," adding, that it's "high fibre."


While Michael Keaton ended up being great in the role of Batman, he didn't exactly have the physique for it. Keaton stood at roughly 5'9", not exactly a towering figure, even with the pointy ears on the mask. In addition, Keaton visibly did not bulk up for the role. Val Kilmer, on the other hand, stood at just under six feet when he played the role.

Not only that, but Kilmer was filming Heat at the same time he was doing Batman Forever, meaning that he stayed in good shape to carry on with both projects. This is evident in the film, where you can see that Kilmer's physique is more muscular than Keaton's. Kilmer even lost five pounds filming his first fight scene.


Another thing that fans liked about Affleck's Batman was that he definitely did not pull any punches, literally. Zack Snyder and Ben Affleck worked together to create a brutally tough Batman that throws the bad guys around like ragdolls. This is no more evident than in the warehouse fight scene of Batman v. Superman.

The earliest versions of Batman utilized a lot of gadgets and the occasional karate kicks. Christian Bale's Batman was more of an accomplished martial artist, combining fear tactics with well-placed punches. Affleck, though, was a whole different beast, who flat out destroyed anyone who got in his way.


Michael Keaton as Batman

Because of how the Batman cowl covers an actor's face, a lot of expression needs to be conveyed through the eyes. Luckily, Michael Keaton had a pair of piercing blue eyes (which is actually what Bruce's eye color is in the comics). Those eyes cut through the darkness of the cowl and conveyed Batman's humanity.

Both Keaton and Jack Nicholson were actors known for their eyes (and their eyebrows) when they appeared in Batman. Both of them found ways to use their eyes to their advantage and to make the characters their own. Keaton especially was able to change a lot of minds after people saw his portrayal.


It wouldn't have been easy following Michael Keaton in the role of Batman, so there was understandably a lot of pressure on Kilmer in regards to how he would play the role. One option would have been trying to emulate Keaton's performance to keep the character consistent. However, with a new director, Kilmer knew the film would be different.

Kilmer wanted to make the role his own, and have his performance be something different from Keaton's portrayal. It's most obvious in the way he portrays Bruce Wayne as a more confident and self-assured person than Keaton, who played Wayne as more of an awkward outsider.


Batman has garnered a lot of nicknames over the years, but the one that has seemed to float in the background, at lest in regards to the films, is that he is the world's greatest detective. Batman has deductive skills far beyond any detective. While there were shades of that in the earlier films, including some high tech ballistics and forensic work in The Dark Knight, it was Affleck who most ably brought that particular aspect of Batman to the screen.

Affleck's Batman does the legwork of a real detective. He follows leads, puts facts together, and utilizes all of his intelligence to figure things out. It's pretty great that Affleck's muscular physique was backed up by a muscular intellect as well.


When Tim Burton and Michael Keaton began shooting scenes for Batman, Keaton immediately saw there was a problem. He realized that if he was just using his regular voice, then people would obviously figure out who he is immediately. There were also discussions of using contact lenses and other means to disguise Bruce as Batman, but ultimately it came down to the voice.

Ultimately Keaton decided to drop his voice while wearing the suit, thus inadvertently creating what would become known as the "bat-voice." While some actors would take this voice too far, others would barely change their voice at all. Still, Keaton was the man who said that Batman and Bruce Wayne should definitely sound different from each other.


Val Kilmer Batman

While some actors have taken the bat voice to the absolute extreme (looking at you, Christian Bale), Val Kilmer took a decidedly more relaxed approach to the voice of the caped crusader. While it sounds like he dropped his register slightly, there is not a huge difference between Batman's voice and Bruce Wayne's.

Some people might consider that a weakness on Kilmer's part, but it actually resembles the way Kevin Conroy played Bruce Wayne and Batman quite a bit. In the animated series, the difference between Batman's voice and Wayne's is subtle and definitely not overdone. Kilmer takes the same approach to the character in Batman Forever.


Every time we've seen Batman on-screen, he's been fairly new to the whole superhero thing. In 1989's Batman, Bruce warns one of the criminals he beats up to tell all his friends about him, like he's the new kid in town. Batman Begins, as the name suggests, was the beginning of Batman.

Affleck's Batman, however, has been around for a while -- he's already figured out the whole Batman thing. He's feared by criminals, he's well known on the streets, and he is firmly established in his identity. This version of Batman has been hardened over time, and knows that sometimes principles need to be compromised to save people.


Another way that Keaton and Burton worked to separate the Batman and Bruce Wayne personas was to have Batman be more of the strong silent type to Bruce's talkative, fidgeting loner. This was accomplished by having Keaton play Batman in a way that recalled the heroes of classic silent films.

In the commentary for Batman Returns, Burton says "it goes back to kind of like silent movie acting. I like when people sort of just look. It’s a movie so you kinda get more between the lines then you do [from] the actual lines." This silent portrayal of Batman was a far cry from Christian Bale asking (and practically roaring) where the other drugs were going.


Joel Schumacher and Batman toys

In directing two of the worst Batman films ever made, Joel Schumacher drew the ire of Bat-fans from around the globe. No one, not even the cast of those movies, look back on them fondly. After the disaster that was Batman and Robin, Hollywood refused to release another Batman movie for over eight years.

While most people don't remember Val Kilmer as being their favorite Batman, there was one thing he and the fans could agree on: they did not like Joel Schumacher. The director and Kilmer were constantly butting heads on set, and Schumacher even described Kilmer as "the most psychologically troubled human being" he had ever worked with. Still, Schumacher says Kilmer is his favorite on-screen Batman, for whatever that's worth.


Ben Affleck as Batman in DCEU

In the past, Batman actors have always faced the same question: are they better as Bruce Wayne, or are they better as Batman? Everyone has their own opinions on which of the many actors who have worn the cape and cowl, but it always comes down to the fact that they seem to play one half of the role better than the other.

This is not so for Ben Affleck, who appears to play both sides of Batman with equal comfort. He easily switches into Bruce Wayne mode, schmoozing with the other rich folks and playing the rich fool. On the other side of the coin, he is all menacing business when he puts on the bat suit. Overall, Affleck nailed down both sides of Bruce better than anyone else.

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