SO MANY MEN have inherited Gotham’s dark cape and cowl that “The Lego Batman Movie,” which opens today, doesn’t even have the most well-known plastic incarnation of the character.
No, that dubious honor goes to 1997’s “Batman & Robin,” in which director Joel Schumacher unleashed a molded, infamously rubber-nippled suit that George Clooney was forced to live down, in a critical bomb so bad that it plunged the entire franchise into an eight-year deep freeze.
Nothing, though, can kill the cinematic Bat. For nearly 75 years, the Caped Crusader has kept reemerging on screen, forever luring a new, strong-jawed face into its twisted, villain-rich world.
So where does Will Arnett — who first voiced the breakout toy interpretation of the Dark Knight in 2014’s “The Lego Movie” — rate among the many dudes who have donned Bruce Wayne’s duds?
Here are our rankings of the top 10 Bat-men:
10. George Clooney: Before embarking on an upward career arc that has yielded eight Oscars nominations (with two wins), Clooney was saddled with a Bat-disaster that was nominated for a whopping 11 Razzie Awards — including “worst screen couple” for Clooney and Chris “Robin” O’Donnell. This high-camp extravaganza lacks even the winking charm of the ’60s series. As evil Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) says: “If I must suffer, humanity will suffer with me.” Oh, the humanity, indeed.
9. Lewis Wilson: Just four years after Bob Kane and Bill Finger‘s character debuted in Detective Comics in 1939, Bruce Wayne made his screen debut in 1943’s 15-part serial “Batman” — in which our hero must battle Dr. Daka, a Japanese mastermind who wields his own death ray (as the racial overtones of the World War II era, 18 months after Pearl Harbor, rear their head). Making his screen debut here at age 23, Wilson faced criticism for his chunky physique and strong Boston accent — setting up a long legacy of Batman actors enduring public drubbings.
8. Robert Lowery: An athletic actor fit for such action films as 1940’s “The Mark of Zorro,” Lowery inherited the cape for 1949’s “Batman and Robin” — setting up a long tradition of performers first donning the dark cowl while in their 30s. Lowery had the requisite physical flair for the heroic role, later becoming better known for Westerns.
7. Val Kilmer: Three decades after Adam West went from playing Doc Holliday (in TV’s “Colt .45″) to eventually playing Batman, Kilmer made the identical pivot — taking over the superhero role after director Schumacher liked the actor’s turn in “Tombstone.” But Kilmer — who appeared in the excellent “Heat” this same year — was a one-and-done after 1995’s “Batman Forever” (despite the high praise of co-creator Bob Kane).
6. Ben Affleck: The easy joke here is that “Batfleck” — while playing the Caped Crusader so far in last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” (with “Justice League” due in November) — has been even a stiffer performer than a piece of Lego plastic. But the truth is that Affleck found some resonance as an older, graying Batman with gravitas — the actor is generally better now at conveying internal conflict than over-emoting — and he was one of the stronger aspects of the much-flawed “Dawn of Justice.” Yet it will likely be a Batman solo film that ultimately determines how his run on the character is judged.
5. Adam West: It can be harder now to fully appreciate just what West accomplished five decades ago. Many Bat-fans may belittle the high camp of the mid-’60s TV series — which wore thin by its third and final season — but West struck the perfect vocal tone: commanding but warmly amusing, as if his baritone were forever delivering a fourth-wall wink to the audience. That helps explain why West today is so beloved on the geek convention circuit (such as at last year’s Awesome Con D.C.).
4. Kevin Conroy: In much the same way that we relish Mark Hamill’s vocal work as the Joker, we hold Conroy’s quarter-century of service as the voice of the animated Batman in very high regard. As such, we must rank him above such other worthy Bat-voices as Olan Soule and the shorter-term Rino Romano, Diedrich Bader, Will Friedle and Jeremy Sisto. Still, we can’t quite give him the edge over …
3. Will Arnett: Pixar knew from the outset with “Toy Story” that when voicing plastic, emotionally resonant vocal performances are crucial. And so with the Lego films, Arnett emerged as the ideal Batman, hitting that sweet spot between a gruff and gravely spoof of Christian Bale’s half-asthmatic Batman and the wrinkles of winking comedy. As long as Lego Batman lives, Arnett has earned a gig for life.
2. Christian Bale: And speaking of Bale, he was an ideal choice for reviving the franchise in 2005 — uncannily inhabiting the suit like a cinematic Tom Brady to director Christopher Nolan’s Bill Belichick. Bale weathered blowback for the sometimes near-indecipherable husky rasp of a delivery, yet somehow it worked opposite Nolan’s inspired villains, particularly Heath Ledger’s immortal Joker. Nolan had to bring Batman back from the cinematic dead with much gravity and, generally, only darkly dry comedy; on that count, Bale was a beast.
1. Michael Keaton: Would Keaton have even been given a fan’s chance in an age of social media? As it was, the criticism was brutal. But director Tim Burton knew in 1989 what so many could not see: Keaton had the rare ability to walk the line between comedy and drama with the deftness of a Wallenda; being a bit under 6 feet tall doesn’t much matter if you can pull off the Batsuit; and beneath that cowl, Keaton happened to have the perfect chin for the job. Keaton could have taken it on that chin; instead, he became entirely iconic over two Batman films, and still casts the longest shadow for all big-screen Batmen going forward.