Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Scruffy Nerfherder Presents: The Top 10 Best Batmans

By Andrew Braid

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of arguably the most iconic and overwhelmingly popular superhero in comic book history: the caped crusader, the world's greatest detective, the dark knight, Batman. While his three-quarters of a century as a character in comics is massive and wildly varied, the character also has a long, diverse and very rich history in film and television, perhaps more so than any other single comic book hero. This includes 8 live-action feature films (soon to be 9 with the looming release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016), two different sets of 1940s adventure serials, a classic live-action television series, numerous animated shows, literally dozens of animated movies, and more guest appearances or cameos than you could shake a Bat-stick at. Naturally this would cause many a Bat-fan to ask a serious (and not very easy) Bat-question: which is the best version of their iconic childhood hero? There's so many versions to choose and compare that even narrowing it down to a Top 10 list is far from a Bat-picnic. But in honour of the character's 75th anniversary I plan to take on this challenge and do just that, presenting today my picks for the Top 10 Best Batmans!
First, the ground rules:
-This list is strictly regarding film and television incarnations of the character.
-Both live-action and animated versions are being included.
-This is all subjective and based on personal preference, so keep that in mind (I probably didn't need that last reminder, but you never know).

Alright, let's light that signal in the sky and kick off our countdown, starting with...

#10: Rino Romano

Appearances: The Batman (2004-2008), The Batman vs. Dracula (2005)

Look, it was either this or Val Kilmer, so deal with it. 
In all seriousness though, The Batman has always been seen as some awkward "middle child" among the various animated television incarnations of the caped crusader. Whereas the much-loved and lauded shows that preceded (Batman: TAS) and followed it (Brave and the Bold) both chose one extreme and stuck with it, The Batman felt like it was trying to find a middle ground: kind of but not really that dark (most of the time, anyway- the episodes involving the first Clayface and Robin's origin being notable exceptions), and occasionally silly without ever going into full-on silver-age camp. Mostly it was an excuse for cool-looking and fast-paced hand-to-hand action scenes with all manner of martial arts moves coming from every single character (yes, even the fucking Penguin). At the centre of it all was a younger, late 20s Batman who's still early in his career and has plenty left to learn. Experienced voice actor Rino Romano (the original english voice of Tuxedo Mask, for all you fangirls out there) takes on the role here and does a measured and all-around solid job, if not a spectacular one (though there's this one episode where he gets infected with Joker venom that lets him stretch his acting range more than usual). The distinction between his Bruce Wayne and Batman vocals is more subtle than in many other versions, but he still gives us a Batman with an edge of cool who proves plenty formidable in a fight. 

#9: Peter Weller

Appearances: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (2012/2013)

A feature-length adaptation of Frank Miller's iconic Batman story The Dark Knight Returns (live-action or animated) had been long-anticipated by many fans of the character, so casting the right actor to play an aged, out-of-retirement version of everyone's favourite crime fighter was crucial to say the least. Enter Robocop himself Peter Weller, lending the role less the feel of gruff, grizzled growling that you might expect and more the tone of a wise yet tortured veteran, one who finds out that his old habits really do die hard. His voice lends Miller's Dark Knight a sense of weariness and (perhaps particularly appropriate for this incarnation of the character) an almost-calming sense of authoritarianism. When one of the book's most famous moments comes up (the fight with the mutant leader- "This is an operating table... and I'm the surgeon"), Weller's delivery has no growls or bellows. Instead he sounds like a disappointed teacher (I do mean that in a good way): this is what Gotham has come to, this is what he has to deal with and clean up, these are the misguided faces of a new generation that he'll have to take it up on himself to whip into proper shape. It's a distinctly unique interpretation of the character, one that particularly stands out considering the iconic source material.

#8: Bruce Greenwood

Appearances: Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010), Young Justice (2010-2013)

Bruce Greenwood, probably best known for playing several U.S. movie presidents and as Captain Pike in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies, might not initially have seemed like an obvious choice to play Batman, even for an animated incarnation. But his performance for the acclaimed DTV movie Batman: Under the Red Hood turned out so good that he was asked to reprise the role for the underrated (and unfairly cancelled) Young Justice. Despite a whole different kind of story, his work on Young Justice actually feels fairly consistent with the approach he takes in Red Hood, namely how Greenwood plays Batman primarily as a stern yet loving mentor and father figure. He can play the part just as gruff and imposing as anyone else, but its that underlying paternal layer he embodies that helps make Under the Red Hood so heartbreaking, whether he's reminiscing the good memories he had with Jason Todd as a young Robin or desperately trying (perhaps in vain) to convince the resurrected adult Jason/Red Hood that murder and revenge aren't the answers to fixing Gotham's problems (their climactic moral debate is truly compelling, and far more engaging than any standard round of fisticuffs). He knows better than anyone how easy it is to cross that line, and failing to teach a son that can only take a heavy toll on his conscience. 

#7: Adam West

Appearances: Batman (1966-1968), Batman: The Movie (1966), The New Adventures of Batman (1977), SuperFriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show (1984)

Once loved by millions of audiences in a fever of "Bat-Mania", then derided by many fans who desperately wanted their comic book idol to be taken seriously, the 1960s Batman television series fortunately seems to have been regaining cultural and fan appreciation over the last few years or so (and should only continue to grow with the release of this year's Complete Series box set). While credit must absolutely be given to the show's writers for their often-clever camp cheekiness, Adam West's almost magically straight-faced line delivery made sure that just about every thinly-veiled absurdity hit its mark. Despite the show's tongue-in-cheek parody approach, he truly felt like the Batman of the Silver Age comics come to life, to the point where the comics in turn tried harder to be more like the TV series. His approach perfectly reflected the era- his identity as Bruce Wayne is barely concealed yet never discovered, his Bat-gadget supply literally has no limits, his villains' plots are often as insane as they are inane, and the mind-boggling leaps of logic in his deductions are somehow always right. West played it all with only the slightest of hints that he was in on the joke, whether he danced the Batusi or laid the onomatopoeia-assisted smackdown on evildoers. While later reprisals of his role as the Caped Crusader proved decidedly lacking, we'll always have the original series to cherish for whenever we want to hear Adam West say something utterly ridiculous with only the utmost of conviction (his many appearances on Family Guy notwithstanding).

#6: Will Friedle

Appearances: Batman Beyond (1999-2001), Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)

This one is maybe kind of debatable, seeing how this isn't the standard Bruce Wayne Batman. But if you ask me it honestly doesn't matter, as Terry McGinnis (and Will Friedle as his voice) handily proved his mettle over the course of Batman Beyond's run. He's a new kind of Batman, a cocky, rebellious and surprisingly capable teenager who feels very much like he's taken a page or two from Spider-Man's book. But Terry proves to be more than just some souped-up Robin in a Batman costume: while he lacks the same kind of training, experience and detective intellect as Bruce Wayne (now an old man serving the Alfred role as Terry's mentor), he proves to be resourceful, creative and determined enough to live up to the mantle and carve out his own legacy as the Dark Knight of a new era. Thanks as much to Friedle's likable, funny and good-natured performance as it is the show's quality writing, Terry McGinnis makes for a more immediately sympathetic and relatable version of Batman, raised with a mostly ordinary (if occasionally troublesome) middle-class childhood before tragedy strikes and inspires him to don the upgraded new suit. Considering how often he has to hold his own against the practically legendary Kevin Conroy as elderly Bruce Wayne, Friedle makes it look almost easy and develops a fantastic rapport with his mentor in the process. He may not be the original we're all so familiar with, but this Batman 2.0 undoubtedly proves his worthiness. 

#5: Will Arnett

Appearances: The Lego Movie (2014)

It's no secret that Batman is a huge scene-stealer in The Lego Movie, and watching it again it's not hard to see why. Will Arnett delivers a killer parody of the Dark Knight, in particular all the more self-serious and gritty takes on the character that have mostly dominated the pop culture landscape over recent years. Lego Batman is a super-cool badass and he knows it, and can't seem to help using it as an excuse to get away with being a total egocentric jerkwad. In doing so Arnett's take on the character, matched by a Bat-voice that would probably still sound great even in a genuinely serious Batman movie, reveals the paradoxical nature of our culture's overwhelmingly huge, obsessive love for the character. We know he's a jerk, a billionaire vigilante who clings to childish ideals (and maybe even childish attitudes) as an excuse to beat up criminals and puts his vast wealth towards making anything he can slap a Bat-symbol onto. But at the same time we can't help but love him anyway, since he basically embodies what many of us wish we could be ourselves- rich, badass and awesome at just about everything.
Well, except managing a good healthy relationship.

I don't actually have a reason for putting this here, other than the fact that I can't stop laughing.

#4: Diedrich Bader 

Appearances: Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011)

This show has a Bat-musical episode. Guest-starring Neil Patrick Harris. As if you need more reasons to watch this show...

To be honest #4 and #3 are practically a tie, and I'm still mulling over which one is actually better, but the fact that they both rank so high should say plenty about the very different qualities each brings to their Bat-portrayal. First up is voice actor Diedrich Bader, who plays the caped crusader in the fantastic (possibly underrated? Wait, can we actually still call it that anymore?) animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold. The series namely played as a direct adaptation of the Silver Age era of Batman's comics history, though a lot of the time it plays like a giant love letter to the character's rich 75-year history as a whole, with every episode featuring different team-ups of heroes and villains, be they recognizable, goofy, campy, obscure or even downright weird. The series was usually comedic in tone, often pointing out its inherent absurdity while also sincerely embracing it, and Bader pitch-perfectly plays Batman as the justice-obsessed, crime-fighting straight man. He understands that no matter how silly a story or scenario gets, Batman always takes himself seriously. Hell, he's so devoted to the cape and cowl that we very rarely ever see him as Bruce Wayne throughout the show (you could count the number of episodes we see Batman sans mask with one hand). That makes it all the more impressive when the show throws us a curveball with "Chill of the Night", a genuinely dark and tragic episode where Batman tracks down Joe Chill, the man who shot his parents dead all those years ago. The show makes it clear that despite all the humour and Silver Age antics this is still the Batman we all know, and Bader nails it when he gets to go for genuine emotional turmoil. No matter what the script calls for, Bader gamely plays it completely straight and gives it his all, whether he's fighting, brooding, flirting, singing, body-swapped with Batwoman, or eating nachos. Wait...

Look, I just couldn't help it. Can you really blame me?

#3: Michael Keaton

Appearances: Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992)

Still the definitive live-action Batman for many growing up in the late 1980s and 90s,  Michael Keaton surprised many when he donned the rubber Batsuit (complete with its infamous inability to turn one's head while wearing it- seriously, watch the movie again and you'll totally notice). Thought of namely as a goofy comedic actor in roles like Mr. Mom and Tim Burton's previous film Beetlejuice, many were sent into an uproar over the initial casting announcement. But famously all those quick-to-jump detractors soon ate their words when they were treated to the first truly serious and gothic screen iteration of Gotham's dark knight. As Bruce Wayne he was an awkward, brooding loner, with a puzzled, uncertain face that can say so much despite his lack of words. But when he dons the suit he brings a truly intimidating presence, one who strikes fear into the hearts of criminals without even having to raise his voice (I still can't remember a single moment where he ever shouts, screams, yells, or  utters anything a decibel louder than average speaking volume). The intense focus on the character's duality makes scenes like this one all the more surprising, lending a sense of genuine unpredictability to what this Bruce Wayne guy is really capable of. It's for good reason why many 80s kids like Seth Rogen will still attest that Keaton is the best Batman.

#2: Christian Bale

Appearances: Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Alright, I'll address the elephant in the room upfront here: yes, Bat-Bale's famous/infamous raspy growl of a voice is oh so very easy to make fun of to this day, and probably for all time (and having Bane impressions to bounce off of has only made it worse). But when it comes time to watch the movies on their own, in the context of their gritty, sprawling crime saga and epic action, the Bat-voice weirdly fits right in. Despite having a less gothic and more grounded approach to the character and to Gotham City itself, Bale's Batman still handily proves both imposing and fearsome as a shadow of the night (it helps that, much more so than any other live-action portrayal so far, this is a Batman who looks like he could seriously kick your ass in a fight). More importantly however is Bale's full-throttle commitment to the role, truly throwing himself into the character and just how effectively he builds himself as Bruce Wayne first before Batman. We truly feel his pain, his loss and confusion as to who he wishes to be, and we're allowed ample time to see him ponder and wrestle with himself (particularly when he seeks Alfred's devoted yet reluctant guidance). Both his socialite billionaire Bruce Wayne and his raspy-voiced warrior Batman come off overtly like a man doing a performance. Because we've seen the real man behind the masks, we can see right through his overplayed rich jerk and his infamous Bat-growl. He's both Bruce and Batman, but at the same time he's also neither- underneath all that is a man lost in longstanding trauma and guilt, a man who wishes to follow in his parents' footsteps and save the city they helped build.
Whereas previous live-action Batman movies often allowed the villains to steal the show and overshadow Batman himself, Christian Bale's performance makes that all but impossible in the game-changing Nolan trilogy. Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight was already an iconic force of nature, but when he finally gets to be face-to-face with Bale's Batman? Bat-Bale goes toe-to-toe with Ledger, and as Joker himself says in the same scene, he didn't disappoint- it reminds one of the famous diner scene in Heat, two legends finally staring each other down as they embody the duelling sides of law and chaos. Bale's Dark Knight becomes more than just a man over the course of Nolan's epic trilogy- he becomes a legend. And it takes a legend to anchor a series like this one.

#1: Kevin Conroy

Appearances: Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995, 1997-1999), Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero (1998) Batman Beyond (1999-2001), Justice League (2001-2004, 2004-2006), Batman: Gotham Knight (2008), Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009), Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010), Justice League: Doom (2012), Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013), Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014)

Honestly, could it be anyone else? From the beginning of the revered 90s animated series to present day in DC Animated features and the Arkham video game series, Kevin Conroy has been, continues to be, and pretty much simply IS Batman. His Batman voice is perfect to the point of being definitive- dark, brooding and commanding without ever feeling forced or overplayed. Not only that, but he's done by far a better job than anyone else of distinguishing Bruce Wayne as a separate performance, a public playboy facade cleverly concealing the damaged and driven soul underneath (the ways he so seamlessly shifts between the two voices in many scenes is often downright remarkable). He adapts to whatever kind of scene he needs to with utmost ease, whether it's a deadpan joke or a somber musing, a howling scream of fury or an earnest insistence of hope. He even grows over time along with the rest of the DC Animated Universe, whether its as the Justice League's would-be loner or as a grizzled old mentor in Batman Beyond. No matter what the situation, no matter which movie or TV episode, you always hear the same thing from Kevin Conroy:
You hear vengeance.
You hear the night.
You hear BATMAN.

Plus, as it turns out, you also hear a great set of pipes. Close us out, Batman!

Thanks for reading, everyone! And Happy Bat-iversary!