Forget Batman, who played the best Bruce Wayne ever?

Batman is easy to make interesting. He has a cool suit, loads of gadgets, the best fictional car that isn’t ECTO-1, and he’s really, really good at punching goons up in endlessly entertaining ways. Bruce Wayne though? It’s ironic that he’s so often overlooked as part of the cinematic Bat-equation, because while he’s deceptively hard to get right, he's really, really worth it when you do.

Far more complex than a simple billionaire playboy, Bruce embodies a great many traits that are hard to convincingly balance, before you even start trying to bond him with Batman. There’s the intelligence and the capability, which borders on arrogance at times. But then there’s the tortured self-doubt and guilt. And the upbeat, cocky wit that naturally comes with knowing you’re almost always the sharpest man in the room. And also the rage. And the uncompromising dedication to self-control. Bruce Wayne is potentially very, very interesting indeed. But has anyone ever got him right on screen? History is littered with a lot of highly variable performances, so I’m going to take this opportunity to go through the lot, and see who, so far, is the best Batman-when-he’s-not-Batman.

Starting with…

Lewis Wilson – Batman, (1943)

Expecting Adam West first? Sorry, he was the second Batman by nearly twenty years. There’s every chance you’ve never heard of Lewis Wilson, but he’s actually one of the most important men in bat-history. Wilson, you see, was the very first on-screen Batman that there ever was, appearing in the 1943 cinematic serial that kickstarted the entire 70-year bataptation craze that currently adorns our homes with far more cool plastic tat than we’d ever admit in most social circles.

Not only that, but his iteration of Batman introduced a few of the key tropes that we all (mistakenly) think of as being drawn from the comics. Skinny, moustachioed Alfred, for instance, was a product of the serial’s casting, actor William Austin rather removed from the contemporary portrayal of a portly butler. The Batcave, too, was invented for the adaptation. Previously the comics had only included references to a secret tunnel from Wayne Manor to the barn that housed the Batmobile.

But enough history. How does Wilson’s Bruce stack up against those who came later? Well actually, pretty well, considering the naïve, hokey vibe of the period and medium. You know that fake-asshole schtick that Christian Bale plays with in the Nolan trilogy in order to keep people distant? Wilson is all over that, playing it more as lighthearted, decadent lounger than hedonistic jerk, but snapping between the public persona and the real Bruce rather effectively. Okay, the man behind the mask(s) isn’t anything like as intense or driven as later Waynes, but given the nature of the serial, he’s not bad.

There is, however, one thing holding this Bruce Wayne back. While the ’43 serial informed multiple, now-canonical elements of the bat-universe, one thing we categorically did not hang onto was the trope of good old fashioned bat-racism. Because Japanese villains. In 1943. Moving on…

Adam West – Batman TV series, (1966)

Arguably the most charismatic of all Bruce Waynes. While the ‘60s Batman series was openly built upon a rampantly goofy vibe – it was actually conceived as a parody of the ’43 serial, following its 1965 re-release – it wouldn’t be half as joyful if the jokes and nonsense weren’t amplified by West’s stone-cold, deadpan delivery. Very much in on the joke, but doing an incredible job of pretending not to be, West took the ‘intense’ and ‘stoic’ elements of Wayne’s personality and went nuts like a squirrel dinner party.

To be fair, there is actually a fair old seam of ‘proper’ Bruce Wayne at the core of West’s portrayal – he’s strong, capable, quick-witted, and more than a bit pleased with himself – it’s just that like everything in the ‘60s series, the key qualities of the source material are dialled up to pantomime proportions. Were we able to watch the West series through a magical ‘scale it back’ lens – not that you’d ever want to – he’d actually be a pretty accurate Bruce for the period. Somewhat lacking in psychological trauma and brooding, regretful angst, admittedly, but the smart playboy side of things was well and truly covered.

But screw that. ‘60s Batman naught but a force of the purest good, and we must not sully it with talk of grimness. Let’s leave that to…

Michael Keaton – Batman, (1989) and Batman Returns, (1992) 

Right, I’m cutting straight to this, because you need to know. Michael Keaton is possibly the most underrated Bruce Wayne of the lot. After a vast, spurting torrent of butt-hurt fanboy outrage at Tim Burton’s casting of a ‘comedian’ as Batman, many were simply relieved that he turned out to be such a decent straight actor. But Keaton’s Wayne is really good. The capable, no-nonsense way he commands conversations. The distracted, not-quite-there vibe he gives off at the same time, like his mind is always on crucial matters that he can’t quite get to because he’s wearing the wrong clothes. The intense focus on something-more-important-than-this, layered with that discordant sense that he could shatter at any moment if he doesn’t maintain his concentration.

And of course, there’s the ‘Let’s get nuts’ scene. One of the few cinematic scenarios in which Wayne almost fails to keep his day and night personas separate, the daylight showdown between not-quite-Batman and now-identified-Joker is brilliant. Bruce has tracked down the clown, knows his secret past, and is in a position to take him out. Except that he’s not, because it’s happened when he’s the wrong Bruce, and the boundaries between his two sides – not to mention his lack of armour and gadgets – stop him from acting.

Bruce and the Bat clash internally, until a frustrated, still-green Wayne explodes, partly out of the infuriating nature of the situation, partly to distract the Joker from Vicki Vale, in lieu of being able to properly protect her, Dark Knight-style. It’s a marvellous, economical study of the character’s duality, and far better than Burton’s more blunt retread of the idea in Batman Returns.

Kevin Conroy – Batman: The Animated Series, (1992) 

The Don. The boss. The absolute king of on-screen Bruce Waynes and Batmans. Sorry I’ve rather spoiled the rest of the article, but I’m not going to dishonour Kev by holding back. Conroy, you see, effortlessly conveys each and every facet of Bruce, in every appearance in The Animated Series. And you never even need to see his face.

Grim, stoic focus? It’s there all the time. Wry sense of humour, underpinned by the aforementioned grim, stoic focus? Yep. When Conroy’s Bruce has moments of weakness and uncertainty, they always sound like the controlled breakdown of a man whose primary instinct is to never break down. And crucially, he perfects the element of Bruce Wayne that few other actors ever have – despite it being fundamental. The sheer, damn nobility of the guy.

Because forget that ‘80s-inspired, angry, snarling psycho-bloke version of Batman. That’s not who he is. That’s – as Grant Morrison points out in his notes on his Arkham Asylum graphic novel – perhaps who he might have become if he hadn’t become Batman, if he hadn’t learnt all the discipline, and self-control, and selfless, codified restraint that that required. But that’s not who he is now. And Conroy exhibits that fact constantly, his every word and deed dripping with propriety and decency, whatever personal turmoil or conflict he might be dealing with on the inside.

Val Kilmer – Batman Forever, (1995) 

Here’s where we hit the awkward period of ‘potentially good Bruce Waynes ruined by being in clatteringly awful films, because oh my God, Joel Shumacher’. Of these Waynes, Val Kilmer is easily the most interesting. And not just because his Batman movie actually contained flashes of potential and deliberate fun, before Batman & Robin spiraled things down a black hole of ‘cynically hilarious if watched while rambunctiously drunk’.

For starters, Kilmer is the landmark case for actors being able to play Batman or Bruce, but not both. When you cast Batman, you’re effectively casting two roles that need to be tied together with clever writing and performance. That’s why casting Batman is tough. And with Val, we have a classic example of that. Great, underrated Bruce Wayne, entirely forgettable Batman. But this article is about Bruce Wayne, so let’s focus on that part.

For all the Technicolor camp on show in Batman Forever, Kilmer’s Wayne remains largely grounded. He’s thoughtful and sombre without being angsty. He’s stoic, but not emotionless. He’s charming without being flamboyant. He’s a centred, down-to-business Bruce Wayne, but he’s also entirely human with it. He really seems to get it, basically, to the degree that Batman creator Bob Kane actually cited him as his favourite on-screen Wayne of all time. It’s entirely arguable that Kilmer’s portrayal of Batman without the Batsuit goes a decent way toward holding the film’s tonal excesses together.

But then we got…

George Clooney – Batman & Robin, (1997) 

Oh, Clooney-Wayne, we hardly knew ye. And that’s a damn shame, because on paper, George Clooney is Bruce Wayne. He’s intelligent, pithy of wit, has exactly the right calibration of dark-eyed good looks, and oozes enough charm to fill a moderately-sized paddling pool in around half an hour. With the right script, Clooney could not fail to deliver a perfect Bruce Wayne. Unfortunately, the script he got was the product of two days spent writing ice puns, before shoving said puns in a bag and shaking them up a bit.

Batman & Robin is a mess. A total, unremitting car crash of careless film-making, seemingly under the impression that if you play Gotham for laughs, it doesn’t matter how ham-fisted your narrative, visual design, continuity, character motivation, or discordant tonal clashes are, Because comedy, right? Oh Joel…

But yeah, long story short, George did his best, and had a couple of scenes that showed the potential he had, if only he could have been cast in a serious Bat-flick. But every step of the way, he had his legs swept out from under him by Bat-credit-cards, airborne snowboarding, and the fact that Arnold ‘nightmarishly miscast’ Schwarzenegger got top billing over the guy who played Batman. Clooney eventually took the blame for the film’s wretched nature, but the tragic fact is that he was actually its one shot at quality. Alas, that spark was smothered under a pillow of the finest, downy incoherence.

Christian Bale – The Dark Knight trilogy, (2005 - 2012) 

Bale is a tricky one to judge. On the one hand, he’s the longest-running, live action movie Wayne, with easily the most complete and interesting character arc. And he’s also in the best films. But I’m not convinced he’s a great Bruce Wayne in himself. Rather, I always feel that the brilliance of the Nolan trilogy is down to the creative moving parts around the central character, rather than the man himself.

Not that Bale isn’t great at times. His Young Bruce stuff adds a great deal of emotional weight to Batman’s early, faltering steps in Batman Begins, and he has some convincing moments of pensive musing along the way. He’s also the only on-screen Wayne to really ramp up the ‘cocky, self-indulgent jerk’ persona in order to increase his distance from others, so that’s nifty. It’s just that at his core, Bale’s Wayne isn’t 100% convincing. Yes, the Nolan trilogy isn’t exactly intended to be a pure adaptation of the comics, but rather a stripped back, more realistic remix. In fact, that’s its greatest strength. But whatever flaws the trilogy intends to paint, there’s just a lack of likeability in Bale’s Bruce that makes him hard to warm to. Behind the mask, he’s great – whatever you think of the voice – but without the Bat to hide behind, he’s not always that strong a presence.

Ben Affleck – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, (2016) 

Jury’s out ‘til the weekend, obviously, but I just want to throw in a bit of early support for Batfleck. Because you know what? I actually think he’s got massive potential. For multiple reasons, I’m far from hyped about the overall quality of Batman v Superman – character bloat, instantly punchable Jesse Eisenberg, and the awfulness of Man of Steel chief among them – but those shots of Affleck’s Bruce Wayne? Damn, he looks promising.

Evoking all the confidence, focus, and grim-faced arrogance of a mid-career, mid-40s, peak-Batman – interestingly, the quintessential version of Bats, but one we’ve never seen in live-action – I’ve got really high hopes that if nothing else, Bats v Supes will deliver us some seriously solid bedrock for Affleck’s hopefully-still-happening, standalone Batman film. The guy’s a good director, so if he can craft a great Wayne here and then build upon him in his own movie, the future of Batman could actually be a fair bit healthier than many currently fear.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.

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