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Who is the best movie Batman? Fans debate the best Dark Knight all the time, but it’s only half of the question. Batman couldn’t exist without Bruce Wayne, and every actor who has donned the cowl has also played an orphaned billionaire playboy. Which actor was the best Bruce Wayne?
There are several ways to approach Bruce Wayne. Is, as is sometimes argued, Bruce really the mask while Batman is the character’s “true” self? Or, is being a Wayne important? How distinct should the two be from one another? With last week’s release of The Batman, which adds Robert Pattinson to the competition, it seems a fine time to rank all the Bruce Waynes.
It is weird, though: You never see ranked lists of Batman actors and Bruce Wayne actors in the same place. I wonder if… no… couldn’t be…
6. George Clooney (Batman & Robin)
Batman & Robin is a hot mess of a movie, but there’s something novel about seeing a big screen, blockbuster like this that’s intentionally fun and wacky. The Dark Knight doesn’t always need to be dark and brooding. Many Batman comics are a madcap hoot rather than crime noir in a costume, and the Adam West Batman was intentionally comedic. (West is not on this ranking because he’s more of a TV Batman despite the one movie, but he’s a pretty good Bruce Wanye while we’re on the subject.)
Look past the desire for a fun Batman movie, though, and you have to accept that Batman & Robin is just not very good, and a big part of this is due to George Clooney, who seems too apathetic and embarrassed about being the Caped Crusader to even be in on any jokes. His Bruce Wayne is the worst of the bunch because, for as little effort as he puts into his Batman, Clooney puts the same lack of effort into the character’s alter-ego. Both Bats and Bruce have the same laziness — they make the same sorts of half-baked wry remarks about whatever they’re doing. There is fundamentally no difference between Clooney’s Bats and his Bruce, and that’s especially bad because his Batman stinks.
5. Robert Pattinson (The Batman)
Robert Pattinson is similar to George Clooney in that there’s not much distinction between his Batman and Bruce Wayne, However, in Pattinson’s case, that’s a feature, not a bug.
Set during Bruce's second year as the Batman, Matt Reeves' new film presents a Bruce who honestly and truly does not care about being a Wayne — at least at first. He’s damaged, throwing everything he is and has into his nighttime crime-fighting, and that leaves him little time or interest in being Bruce. When we do see him in public, out of costume, he’s a man of few words. He’s basically trying to get this over with so he can go back to being Batman.
That there’s not much distinction between Bruce and Bats is key to who he is at this stage in his crime-fighting career. It’s kind of the point of the movie rather than laziness, as it is with Clooney’s take on the character. But, The Batman also functions as the point at which Batman will, hopefully, take off the mask. His understanding of what the Wayne name means gets upended when he learns about his father’s mistakes, and it’s implied that this fuller understanding of his family legacy will prompt Bruce to actually invest in what it means to be a Wayne on his own terms.
More importantly, Alfred’s near-death experience reminds Bruce that there are people he cares about — and who care about him. The Batman gives us Bruce Wayne at his most marginalized and ends with the possibility of him opening back up. It’s a good Bruce, but since Bruce’s actual role in the movie is so small compared to that of the titular Batman, it’s hard to rank this one too high.
4. Michael Keaton (Batman, Batman Returns)
Michael Keaton’s Batman is kind of a low-key psychopath, which is a totally valid take on the character. His parents were killed in front of him and he decided to cope by dressing up as a Bat and punching bad guys in the face. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that his Bruce Wayne would also be kind of a psycho, but it’s still a bit of a shock that he jumps from zero to sixty and shouts “You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts!”
Keaton was an unpopular choice when the casting for Tim Burton’s take on Batman was first announced — and this was back in an era before fanboy outrage was as omnipresent as it is today. For a Batman, he’s kind of short and kind of, well, normal-looking. He overcomes these perceived shortcomings for three reasons. One, he’s a great actor. Two, he has an incredible chin. And three, he leans into a twitchy, simmering rage-filled take on the character. Those all apply to his Bruce, too, but there’s something unsettling about the way his Bruce operates as though he’s never really seen a real human interaction before, but he’s read about them on his Bat-puter. It’s an effective, but stunted, Bruce Wayne.
3. Ben Affleck (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League)
Ben Affleck is not a very good Batman.
In BvS, his Batman has no sense of mission or interiority, he’s just grim, brutal, and violent. He fares a little better in Justice League, especially the more tonally consistent Snyder Cut, though Batman as a “team leader” is a somewhat odd fit. And Justice League never fully squares this version of Batman with the one who went berzerk until he learned that two moms can have the same name.
However… Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is actually very good. Playing an older, gruffer version of the character than we’ve seen in past movies, Affleck’s Bruce seems surprisingly fully realized as a man. He may be losing it as the Dark Knight, but this Bruce is confident and comfortable in his own skin, weary as it may be. He has clear investment and care for the Wayne Enterprise employees and he’s able to parlay his Bruce Wayne-ness for access to a LexCorp gala without it seeming like an awkward costume. In the context of BvS and Justice League, this is the only live-action Bruce Wayne who lives in a world with honest-to-god superhumans. Affleck’s Bruce is certainly concerned about this, but not overly worried. He’s duty-bound — clearly shaped by years of experience.
Affleck’s Batman is a mess, but his Bruce is a great example of what Bruce would be like after years of caped crusading. He’s molded by the Bat, but not consumed by it.
2. Val Kilmer (Batman Forever)
Val Kilmer’s fairly reserved Batman gets more flack than it deserves, but his take on Bruce Wayne is quietly great.
Amidst all the absurd camp of Schumacher's first Batman movie, Kilmer actually gets more to do without the Batman cowl than most actors. Seemingly a mid-career Batman, Kilmer’s take on Wayne is outwardly confident. Consider how he politely listens to Edward Nygma’s pitch for a wildly invasive invention and then kindly, but firmly, tells the scientist he won’t have any part of it. He has the charisma of a successful businessman backed by the strength of moral character that comes from being a caped crusader at night.
There’s more to Kilmer’s Bruce than this collected appearance, though. Kilmer’s Bruce more openly grapples with self-doubt than most others, like when he’s haunted by repressed memories of his parents murder, or concerned that Dr. Chase Meridian will either realize who he really is or that she’ll choose “Batman” over him. And, by being one of only two Bat-actors to share the screen with a Robin, Kilmer gets to play Bruce, the father figure, for the first time. Chris O'Donnell is a little bit older than a typical Boy Wonder, but Kilmer still protects and guides his ward, and it's to the actor’s credit that we believe that Bruce has life lessons to teach Dick Grayson in addition to Batman’s crime-fighting tips.
1. Christian Bale (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises)
What makes Christian Bale the best Bruce Wayne is that he’s not just playing “Batman” and “Bruce Wayne.” Bale is actually playing three distinct personalities. There’s Batman, of course. There’s the “real” Bruce Wayne, a man who actually has internal desires and conflicts beyond just vigilantism. And then there's the Bruce Wayne he pretends to be — the selfish billionaire playboy. By making the public think that Bruce Wayne is a spoiled failson, he gives himself extra cover as Batman.
The best example of Bale’s three characters in one comes in Batman Begins, when Ra's al Ghul returns and threatens Bruce and his guests at his birthday party at Wayne Manor. (That Bruce would have a self-indulgent birthday party is an act itself.) To get his guests out of harm's way, Bruce acts like a drunken ingrate, telling them all off and demanding they get off his property. It’s believable behavior from somebody who is spoiled rich, and his departing guests are disappointed but not surprised. There’s a brief moment, as they leave, when the real Bruce shines through. The idea that he’s tarnishing his family name hurts him. Being a Wayne is important to Bale’s Bruce, something that can’t be said for many other actors’ take on him.
And yet, as important as the Wayne reputation is, it’s not as important as Batman’s mission, and we quickly see Bruce shift into his other alter-ego, the Dark Knight, to take on this threat to Gotham.