It’s a 6-way battle royale between a bunch of noble-chinned, handsome white guys who have all worn black rubber pants to work. Who will be victorious?
It feels like Batman movies have always been a part of my life. My first Batman in the movie theater was Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever starring Val Kilmer. I was thirteen and although this movie is goofy as hell in hindsight, I was completely swept away. The haunted loner hero, the psychologically twisted villains, the ravishing life of the wealthy, the neon corruption of the city, the high stakes, the fantastical setups, the Seal on the soundtrack. I couldn’t watch the two Tim Burton/Michael Keaton films fast enough, and those added a half-dead sexy cat lady and a freaky underground circus and Jack Nicholson going nuts!? Holy shit, y’all. Batman movies.
And then… Schumacher’s stinker Batman & Robin, starring George Clooney, descended upon us. I was 15 and it came right on time with the onset of true teenage angst. It was so bad that I was ashamed of my former self, so childish and naive in hindsight, so ridiculous to have been swept away by this cartoonish world of quippy one-liners and rubber nipple shots. It seemed like all the best Batman was, sadly, behind us.
But Christopher Nolan had other plans, and when I was 23, Christian Bale took over in his straight-faced, sophisticated, adult Batman series. Their three films, released between 2005-2012, redefined the possibilities for comic cinema. Batman Begins actually came out three years before Marvel’s Iron Man, and it is not a stretch to speculate that the popularity and critical success of Nolan’s Batman series made the Marvel Cinematic Universe – which would dominate popular cinema for the next 10+years – possible.
But what goes up must come down. Desperate to capitalize on the craze and rake in some more Batman billions, Warner Brothers/DC needed their own Batman like, yesterday. Enter Zack Snyder and muscular, dimple-chinned Boston blue blood Ben Affleck – for two DC team-up films in my 30s. Batman v Superman went hard and dark and completely humorless whereas Justice League was such an identity crisis of a film that the studio released two different cuts of it in 3 years. Not a high for our hero.
But the Batman train is still running as I embark on my 40s… This time, Matt Reeves (director of the Planet of the Apes series and co-creator of Felicity, one of my favorite turn of the millennium relationship dramas) is at the helm and Robert Pattinson, brooding vampire heartthrob turned beloved indie film weirdo, is prowling the streets of Gotham. Seems like a promising combo? We’ll see.
There have been many folks who have made compelling “Who is the best Batman?” arguments so I won’t rehash that here. What I’m interested in is: which of the guys who has played Batman is just the BEST. Overall. Who WINS of all the Batmans, in terms of their Batmanness, but also their overall career choices and general infamy. So brace yourself for a Battle Royale: which Batman will win?
Round 1: Popularity
In round 1, contenders face off in two dimensions: lifetime box office draw and appearance in popular blockbusters and/or franchises.
All the Batmans carry respectable blockbuster cred – I mean, you don’t get to be Batman in the first place unless you can shoulder a hugely profitable franchise. Robert Pattinson is coming into his cowled era with two already under his belt. The standout is Twilight, of course, which grossed over $3.3 billion over the 5-film series, though let’s not forget that Pattinson’s breakout film role was as supporting character Cedrick Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which grossed almost $1B on its own.
George Clooney helmed the mega-successful 3-film Oceans franchise years after his bat-time and Christian Bale mixed a little Terminator in with his; these two have also starred in a couple standalone blockbusters each – Gravity and The Perfect Storm (Clooney); Howl’s Moving Castle and Pocahontas (Bale).
Batman and Batman Returns are Michael Keaton’s only franchise films, but he did voice work in two mega-blockbusters ($1B+) – Minions and Toy Story 3 – in addition to supporting roles in blockbusters like Tim Burton’s Dumbo and Marvel’s Spider-man: Homecoming. Ben Affleck and Val Kilmer have also not starred in other franchises, but have starred in blockbuster films of their own: Gone Girl and Pearl Harbor for Affleck, Prince of Egypt for Kilmer. Plus, who could forget the Ice Man in Top Gun? Iconic.
Regarding lifetime box office returns, Keaton leads the pack – and well he should, given his 40-year career. His films have grossed over $6.4 billion, which earns him rank #173 for worldwide lifetime box office returns. Pattinson is in 2nd place, helped greatly by those Twilight movies, with $5.8B / #217. Bale is next ($5.5B / #244), followed closely by Affleck ($5.4B / #250) and Clooney ($5.1B / #288). Kilmer’s career – though long, has not been as illustrious as his colleagues. His total is less than half of Clooney’s, his nearest competitor: $2.4B / #992.
Bale and Clooney tie in the Homecoming King vote.
Round 2: Coolness
In this round, we’ll look beyond base audience opinion and rate how cool each contender is based, of course, on the number of critically acclaimed (Metascore >65), small-budget (<$20M) films they have starred/appeared in, and the relative coolness of their regular collaborators.
Although our contenders are pretty evenly matched this round, Keaton comes out swinging the hardest – he has starred in 4 small-budget bangers, scattered throughout his career, from peak-Keaton Beetlejuice (1988) and The Paper (1994) to late-phase Keaton in Birdman (2014) and Spotlight (2015). He has made 3 films each with Tim Burton and Ron Howard – and has shared the screen three times with both Samuel L. Jackson and Danny DeVito.
Ben Affleck‘s collaboration with Kevin Smith gives him a boost this round: they have made 7 films together. Largely as a result of these collaborations, he has a long list of recurring costars including Jason Lee (4), Joey Lauren Adams (4) and J.K. Simmons (4). He has had starring roles in two hipster cred films: Chasing Amy and The Company Men, and had a supporting/small role in 3 more. George Clooney’s sheet reads similarly: he scores big with impressive collaborations, having made 6 films with Steve Soderbergh, 4 with the Coen brothers, and 3 with Robert Rodriguez, and starring in multiple films alongside Matt Damon (5) and Tilda Swinton (3). Clooney directed himself in Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and The Ides of March (2011) and starred in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011).
Val Kilmer started his career with Top Secret! (1984) and Real Genius (1985), then snuck Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in there in the mid-aughts. He worked with Tony Scott three times and has co-starred three times with Christian Slater. Although Christian Bale doesn’t have a notable director collaboration outside of Christopher Nolan (and 3/4 of their films together were the Dark Knight franchise films), he has a couple classy costars: he’s done 3 films each with Cate Blanchett and Amy Adams. He starred in Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (2002) and Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine (1998) and had supporting roles in three more low-budget, high-impact films.
Pattinson’s films of this type are all after his hard turn toward arthouse in the last 8 years; he starred in Cosmopolis (2012), Good Time (2017), High Life (2018), and The Lighthouse (2019) and had supporting roles in two more. He’s got some solid collaborations growing, though it’s still early in that guy’s career. Outside of the Twilight franchise, his most consistent collaboration to date is the three films he made with Mia Wasikowska. So how do they all stack up?
Affleck and Keaton are the co-coolest.
Round 3: Importance
In round three, contenders will be scored on the films they’ve starred in that have A) won important awards for best picture, acting, directing, or writing, and B) made an impact on the film industry. This second rating measures how much money each film made relative to its budget, influencing the types of movies that get made, distributed and promoted.
Let’s start with Ben Affleck this time – his most major prestige achievement was 2012’s Argo; this film, which Affleck produced, directed and starred in, won both Best Picture and Best Screenplay at the Oscars plus 93 other awards that year (fun trivia: fellow Batman George Clooney was a co-producer). Affleck had roles in three other award-winning films: Chasing Amy, Shakespeare in Love, and Good Will Hunting, for which Affleck famously co-wrote – and won an Oscar for – the screenplay.
Michael Keaton‘s prestige films are also Best Picture-winners at the Oscars: 2014’s Birdman and 2015’s Spotlight. George Clooney’s Gravity didn’t win Best Picture, but may have won the most awards of any film mentioned here: 237! In addition to bringing starring roles in award-winners The Descendants and Michael Clayton, Clooney won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Syriana, officially one-upping the competition so far.
But he is not to be on top for long – here comes Christian Bale folks, with a shiny Best Actor trophy for his performance in David O. Russell’s The Fighter. He also starred in award-winners The Big Short, Velvet Goldmine, and I’m Not There. Another really special honor goes to Bale here though: he is the only Batman with a high prestige award-winning Batman film. (Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for his performance in The Dark Knight.)
Up against these heavyweights with all their trophies, Pattinson and Kilmer are honestly just doing their best. Pattinson’s The Lighthouse won a prize at Cannes and Kilmer’s 1999 indie Joe the King won a screenwriting award at Sundance. And that’s kind of it for those guys.
But the story doesn’t end here: we also have impact on the film industry to consider. Kilmer‘s bang is more of a whimper; on average, his films are profitable but only make back about a third of what they cost to make. Affleck is next – his films make back 1.3x their cost; Keaton (1.6x) and Bale (1.7x) are slightly stronger. Clooney is a reliable industry shaker: his films on average make back 2x what they cost. But no one can even reach Robert Pattinson here – he is blowing Hollywood down! On average, his films make back 3.2x what they cost to make. Woah!
So we’ve got some contenders. Let’s see what the board says:
And solidifying his status as Hollywood’s last leading man, George Clooney takes Round 3.
Round 4: Artistic Merit
In this round, we’ll put aside whether the films they’ve made are cool or popular or important and examine whether they’re actually any good… and will consider each contender’s range. Sure, anyone can do drama or comedy – but can you do a great horror movie? A historical period piece? A musical?
Val Kilmer and Michael Keaton have decent range. Both have done respectable films across 3 different genres. They’ve each done 5 Action/Thrillers and one Fantasy/SciFi – Deja Vu for Kilmer and Beetlejuice for Keaton. Kilmer has also dabbled in Historical/Period films with his westerns Tombstone and The Missing, whereas Keaton took on the bard as Dogberry in Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful Much Ado About Nothing. The critics love Keaton, though – and his films clobber Kilmer’s when it comes to critical praise: Keaton’s average metascore is a quite good 62.6. Although Kilmer’s filmography has its shining moments, his average is weighed down by a long list of films that were critically panned and comes out to 54.8, not the lowest of the Batmans, but almost.
That honor goes to Ben Affleck, who hasn’t done a movie critics liked since 2014’s Gone Girl (and before that, only two of his films elicited genuine critical enthusiasm: Argo and Shakespeare in Love). His average Metascore is a terrible 52.5 (yikes). His range is similar to Keaton and Kilmer in that he’s done Action/Thriller a number of times and tried out Historical/Period once, though Affleck has also had some success as a RomCom lead in Bounce and Chasing Amy.
Robert Pattinson has limited range, but goes hard in two genres. His pale face and Britishness paved the way to 4 Historical/Period films, including The King and The Lost City of Z, though his real genre home is Fantasy/SciFi, in which he’s done 6 films including last year’s time-confuser Tenet and Claire Denis’ striking High Life. Despite the fact that his Twilight films were pretty well hated by critics, Pattinson is growing a strong rep through his work in recent years and his average Metascore comes out to a solid 61.1.
Critics are absolutely bonkers about George Clooney though: a steady stream of enthusiastic reviews boost his average metascore to a staggering 67.1. In fact the only film he starred in that was universally panned was, ironically, Batman & Robin. He sticks to those dramas like glue, though and Clooney doesn’t have much for range. He has really only successfully done films in what appears to be our Batman crew’s two favorite genres: Action/Thriller (8 films, including the Ocean’s series) and Fantasy/SciFi (Soderbergh’s Solaris and last year’s The Midnight Sky).
So that leaves Christian Bale, doesn’t it? Well, Bale isn’t messing around when it comes to his craft. He has stretched across 4 genres, more than any other Batman. He has done a bunch of Action/Thriller and Fantasy/SciFi, like his colleagues, but Bale has also done decent Historical/Period films from American Westerns (3:10 to Yuma, Hostiles) to Victorian England (The Prestige) to ancient civilizations (Exodus: Gods and Kings). He has also done Shakespeare TWICE (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Henry V) and has done a musical: Todd Haynes’ brilliant Bob Dylan portrait, I’m Not There. And, he does it all well – his average Metascore is a strong 64.5.
So how do they stack up? Let’s take a look at the board:
Christian Bale and his serious chops cut down the competition in Round 4.
Round 5: Let’s Get Personal
And now…. the all-important big final round question: who is a better person? You shouldn’t win the showdown if you’re a creep. That just wouldn’t be right.
The good news is that none of the Batmans are creeps (phew). Keaton, the oldest, and Pattinson, the youngest, bring up the middle. Neither of these guys were born rich or fancy and neither seems to have a chaotic personal life. Keaton was married once and has a son, but has been a bachelor since 1995. Pattinson is very private, after the chaos of his infamous media-plagued romance with Kristen Stewart. Both are politically active and philanthropically generous and beyond that, keep to themselves and try to stay out of the news. Here they are getting groceries:
Ben Affleck and Christian Bale get a slightly raised eyebrow from me. Let’s look at Affleck first: on the plus side, he’s very politically active and super smart. He’s testified before congressional committees multiple times on various issues and co-founded a nonprofit called the Eastern Congo Initiative. On the other hand, Affleck’s relationship history is major gossip column fodder. He dated Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lopez, married/divorced Jennifer Garner (with whom he has 2 kids), and is now dating Jennifer Lopez again. He also struggles with alcoholism, which ruined his marriage and has held him back from opportunities and may have contributed to the inappropriate behavior that led to two allegations from young ladies (for which he has apologized). He seems like a decent guy struggling in the public eye who has been having a particularly tough few years so it doesn’t feel good to pick on him… but still. Raised eyebrow from me.
Bale is very private about his personal life – he’s been married for 21 years and has two kids. He isn’t particularly philanthropic or politically active, though he did refer to Dick Cheney as Satan once in an interview, and went on a wild publicity blitz to draw attention to the protest of Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng while he was on house arrest in 2011, though that guy ended up becoming a vocal Trump supporter in 2020, so…. ? S’pose that’s not Bale’s fault – he can’t see the future. At least two things are probably his fault though. For one, the police were called on him in 2008 – presumably by his mother or sister – regarding a domestic dispute in a hotel. And the other is slightly more famous: his totally wild recorded temper tantrum in which he accosted the crew on the Terminator set for disrupting his very important acting concentration. He has since “unreservedly” apologized for that – but yikes. Taking yourself a little seriously buddy (raised eyebrow). Here these two are getting groceries:
And here is Val Kilmer getting groceries. This guy is a verified, grade A weirdo. According to the folks who worked with him at his peak, Kilmer is notoriously hard to work with. Tombstone co-stars describe him as so method that they never actually met him. On the set of The Island of Dr. Moreau, he was, by all accounts, a total asshole – apparently he intentionally burned a crew member by burrowing his cigarette into his sideburn between takes (see Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau for some more good stories). Joel Schumacher described him as “psychotic” after their experience working together on Batman Forever. His activism/philanthropy is a real mixed bag too. On the one hand, he has given generously to environmental protection, indigenous rights, and Hurricane Katrina relief. On the other, he’s a devout Christian Scientist who lobbied for the EACH Act in 2013, which would have granted folks religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to have health coverage – which is kind of ironic since Val himself has received all sorts of healthcare since his cancer diagnosis. So apparently it’s cool to lobby against health care for all as long as you have a rich guy “get out of jail free” card. Not a total creep, but Kilmer posts a couple red flags for me. Decide for yourself, though, a documentary about him comes out next month.
Finally, our hero George Clooney, who makes us wonder if Mark Ruffalo was really all that great anyway. (JK, he is.) Clooney grew up in Kentucky with middle class parents; his Mom was a city councilwoman and his Dad read the news on TV. He worked many different degrading, regular person jobs (sales, warehouse, labor, etc.) while doing the Hollywood hustle for a full 15 years before his big break came: a little show called E.R. when he was 33. His first marriage lasted 4 years; he was then a bachelor for 30 years before marrying brilliant international civil rights attorney, Amal Alamuddin, at 53 (they have two kids). Clooney is very politically and philanthropically active – although he supports progressive American political leaders and important causes like gun control and GLBT rights, his real passion is international human rights work – especially genocide watch and prevention. He has co-founded multiple NGO relief and advocacy organizations including Not On Our Watch and The Sentry, a new investigative initiative focused on dismantling the networks that are financing international conflicts and human rights atrocities, as well as the Clooney Foundation for Justice, which advocates for justice through accountability for human rights abuses throughout the world, which he founded with his wife. Pretty badass. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a picture of Clooney getting groceries, but I DID find this picture of him carrying his elderly dog, Millie, up a flight of stairs.
Let’s consult the board!
And the Batman who is most likely to tell me if I have something in my teeth is…
BONUS ROUND: Best Batman
It wouldn’t be a battle of the Batmans if we didn’t consider which of these guys was the best at BEING BATMAN, would it. This assessment is based solely on facts: of the Batman film(s) each actor made, which were most popular at the box office (adjusted for inflation) and which were most highlight rated by critics. For actors who have made multiple Batman films, we based their rating on the average of these.
First things first, since Robert Pattinson’s Batman film isn’t out yet, he gets straight average rankings in this category: no bonus, no penalty.
Let’s talk box office first. The Schumacher Batmans were the low point, though they were still huge hits (I mean, it’s still Batman). Clooney’s bomb, Batman & Robin, did the worst, making nearly $400M in 2021 dollars and Kilmer’s Batman Forever is next with $588M. Burton’s films starring Michael Keaton made more than $700M on average. Despite their quality, everyone was already programmed to go see Zack Snyder’s Affleck Batmans (even though his standalone Batman film got yanked) – on average, these two films made $831M. The king of the Batman box office, though, is Christian Bale, whose films with Christopher Nolan made $1 billion, on average.
Now for quality! Clooney loses points here too: Batman & Robin was the worst rated, with a terrible 28 Metascore. Zack Snyder’s enthusiasm for comic lore unfortunately couldn’t salvage Affleck’s bat-films, which have an average Metascore of 44.5 and Kilmer follows closely behind: Batman Forever has a Metascore of 51. So duking it out are Keaton and Bale, and Bale comes out on top again! The Nolan trilogy has a very high average Metascore of 77.33, compared to the Burton duo, which has a respectable 68.5.
Here’s how it all stacks up:
And the best at being Batman is… CHRISTIAN BALE.
So who won?
Christian Bale WINS the Battle Royale!
Congratulations on being the best of the guys who have played Batman, Christian Bale!
I would say I’m surprised, but I told you all this guy was one to watch back when MMT began. Remember? Anyway. Called it.