So, I finally finished watching the Fox TV series Gotham. This is the kind of show that appeals to me. It’s got a big cast of larger than life personalities. It’s got a character as the moral center of the show, but a wide variety of morality levels of the other characters, who are either at cross purposes or involved in mutual self-interested alliances. Basically, it’s Prison Break, but with more comic book operatics.
The trickiest part of the show was that it was a Batman prequel. There are a bunch of characters that have built-in plot armor. You know Jim Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth, Selina Kyle, and, of course, Bruce Wayne can’t die. So, how do you build tension then? You flirt with the lives of non-legacy characters. You challenge the legacy characters sense of self. Etc.
All in all, very enjoyable, and worth the time to finish watching all 100 episodes.
But wait, that can’t be it? No, of course it’s not! Now I have to obsessively over-analyze every iteration of the Batman mythology! After two live action series and more than a dozen movies, there have been a lot of different portrayals of all these characters. Which ones are best? I shall now decide.
(FYI, I’m leaving out any animated versions. We can all agree that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are amazing and move on. I didn’t keep up with all the CW shenanigans with these characters, so they aren’t included. Also, I haven’t watched Titans, or Pennyworth, or the 2002 Birds of Prey show, so those performances aren’t on my radar. Sorry, Dina Meyer fans.)
Also, consider this a spoiler warning for any and all of these shows or movies.
No offense to Chris Chalk (G), but Morgan Freeman (BB, TDK, TDKR) is both a nation treasure and easily the best version of this character.
The less said about Alicia Silverstone’s performance (B&R) the better. Yvonne Craig (B66) wins by default. (Sorry, random baby in Gotham. You’re not in the running.)
Honestly, I didn’t even know this was a comics character. Colin McFarlane’s performance was forgettable (BB, TDK). Peter Scolari (G) gets the win for his overall weaselly nature.
This mafia boss isn’t the most dynamic of characters. John Dorman (G) played him as a kind of world-weary pragmatist. John Turturro’s version (TB) was basically a sleazy opportunist. I’ll give it to Tom Wilkinson (BB) because his version simply seemed menacing.
Ra’s al Ghul
Should Ken Watanabe (BB) count? Probably not. He was a decoy. Still cool, though. No, it’s between Liam Neeson (BB) and Alexander Siddig (G). Siddig’s performance is nicely creepy, but Neeson wins for his sleek, cool performance, and his ability to get the audience to side with him until his true nature is revealed… just like a ninja should!
Gotham didn’t even have a single actor play the guy, switching between Charlie Tahan and David W. Thompson during the show’s run. Not a memorable performance. No, the nod here goes to the excellent Cillian Murphy (BB, TDK, TDKR) for being awesome, and also the only bad guy to feature in all three Nolan films!
Hey, remember Bane from Batman & Robin. Don’t you wish you didn’t? Thanks for that, Robert “Jeep” Swenson. Hey, remember Bane from Gotham? Didn’t see it? He was played by Shane West, of all people. Weird. No, the best Bane was Thomas Hardy (TDKR), crazy accent and all. Loved it!
Okay, I’m going to blow your mind. Mr. Freeze was played by three different actors in the 1960s Batman series: George Sanders (who?), Eli Wallach (really?), and Otto Preminger (with the WHAT now?). In that version he’s just kind of a weird, evil guy. Nathan Darrow’s performance (G) is kind of a one-note, “the world deserves this”, pathos character. Now, hold onto your socks. I’m giving the award to Arnold Schwarzenegger (B&R) for his crazy, over-the-top, pun-laden performance. (This will be the last award given to anyone in this film, I suspect.)
Look, Uma Thurman (B&R) seemed to be was having fun. More power to her. Let’s move on to Gotham, where the character was initially played by Clare Foley and Maggie Geha before aging up to Peyton List. List doesn’t have too much to do, but she pulls off sultry and menacing well enough to get the win.
I enjoyed Burt Ward’s performance (B66) as much as the next guy. And, to be fair, Chris O’Donnell (BF, B&R) may have done the best possible with what he was given. But merely the possibility of a Robin played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (TDKR) makes me happy. (Odd choice. I know.)
Now we’re getting to the big names. Burgess Meredith (B66), Danny DeVito (BR), Colin Farrell (TB), and Robin Lord Taylor (G). Wait? Who’s that last guy? He’s the best Penguin, that’s who. Never has a character suffered so many reversals of fortune, last minute escapes, or scene-chewing speeches. He was, in a real sense, the star of Gotham for five seasons.
“Russell, please tell me you’re not going to pick a guy from Gotham again, are you?” Well, let’s see. Frank Gorshin (B66)? Campy, but meh. Paul Dano (TB)? Creepy, but meh. Jim Carrey (BF)? Definitely not meh, I’ll give him that. But Cory Michael Smith (G) had the smarts, the panache, and the Gollum/Smeagol split personality to make this Riddler new and exciting.
This is a weird one. We have two portrayals of Harvey Dent with no Two-Face change: Billy Dee Williams (B89) and Nicholas D’Agosto (G). Boring! Tommy Lee Jones (BF) turns in not only his worst performance, not only the worst performance in any Batman film, but potentially the worst performance of all time. That leaves Aaron Eckhart (TDK) who wasn’t great, but was way better than his competition.
Niel Hamilton (B66) wasn’t really allowed to be interesting, I guess. J. K. Simmons (JL) and Jeffrey Wright (TB) each only have a single film. They’re great, but limited. Pat Hingle (B89, BR, BF, B&R) has the most films under his belt, but he was little more than a filler. That leaves me a real Sophie’s choice: Gary Oldman (BB, TDK, TDKR) or Ben McKenzie (G). Oldman is the better actor. McKenzie got to explore the character much more thoroughly. Comes down to this. I’m giving it to Oldman (by a hair) because of the look on his face when he realizes who Batman is. McKenzie never got to play a moment like that.
Wow. There just isn’t a bad performance in this bunch. Alan Napier (B66) was the properest of English butlers, and never seemed unable to cope. Michael Gough (B89, BR, BF, B&R) was one of the best things about the Burton/Schumacher era. Michael Caine (BB, TDK, TDKR) was… Michael Caine. Jeremy Irons (BVS, JL) was a breath of fresh air in the dourest of Batman films. Andy Serkis (TB) is a wonderful calming presence in his first film. But, I guess my order of introduction gives it away. I have to give the award to Sean Pertwee (G) for being the right mix of father figure, guy-in-the-chair, and self-sufficient bad ass.
Lee Meriwether and Eartha Kitt (B66) were both fine. Julie Newmar (B66) was the best of this early bunch. But, we’re moving on. Anne Hathaway (TDKR) made Selina more relatable and a believable romantic foil for Batman. I enjoyed Camren Bicondova’s performance (G), though her shtick seemed to wear thin after five seasons. (And, for some reason, they felt the need to recast her for the series finale with Lili Simmons. That choice did not work.) To me, Zoe Kravitz (TB) took the character a little to much to the light side of the force. And we shall not discuss Halle Berry (C). I’d say the most interesting version was Michelle Pfeiffer (BR). She was sultry and broken and powerful and sympathetic, all at the same time. It’s a shame we only got the one film.
I suppose I could put a slash up there and include Batman, but they’re really different characters, right? So let’s honor that.
David Mazouz (G) played it a little prickly. Adam West (B66) was just “random guy with money”. Actually, that description could apply to Val Kilmer (BF). And George Clooney (B&R). Ben Affleck (BVS, JL) threw in a little bit of a Cassandra complex about how he’s the only one who knows how to save everything. Which was fine, I guess. Robert Pattinson (TB) was just super moody all the time.
So, we’re left with Michael Keaton (B89, BR) and his sort of hapless man-child, or Christian Bale (BB, TDK, TDKR) who was more of a douche-bag trust fund brat. It’s a tough call, but I have to go with Bale on this one. (We’ll see if The Flash changes my mind.)
This time around, we’re talking about the guy in the cape. Is he menacing? Does all of the ass get kicked?
David Mazouz (G) gets to play him for one scene. At least he’s got it on his resume, I guess. Adam West (B66) is definitely a contender here, just for the rich character portrayal that you don’t usually get nowadays, since the costume is so overwhelming. That’s why we’re going to lose Keaton (B89, BR), Kilmer (BF), and Clooney (B&R) all in one swipe.
So, does Bale (BB, TDK, TDKR) win this one as well? Hold your horses. Affleck does a really nice job in the suit, particularly in Justice League. And his warehouse fight in Batman v. Superman cannot be overlooked. (His cameo in Suicide Squad probably can be overlooked, but why would I do that.) So, Affleck gets it.
And we’re done. Wow, that took a long time.
“Uh, Russell. You forgot someone.”
I told you, I’m not going to talk about the Arrowverse! Sorry.
“No. What about… him.”
“You know… Him.”
Oh, there’s so very much to say about this character, right? I think we’re going to end up with more actors for this character than any other. Let’s do a roll call:
Caesar Romero (B66) — Sorry. If you won’t even shave your mustache, you lose. Next!
Jack Nicholson (B89) — Really? He barely played a character. He was “Jack Nicholson with green hair.”
Heath Ledger (TDK) — This is the performance to beat, right? Mysterious, menacing, darkly hilarious. Everything you want in a Joker.
Jared Leto (SS) — Ugh. Okay, at least he went for it, right? He tried something. I’ll give him that.
Cameron Monaghan (G) — Bonus points for playing two variants of the character (twin brothers). He’s definitely doing some good work, but he’s up against some heavyweights here.
Joaquin Phoenix (J) — I almost forgot about this one. I mean, it did make a billion dollars. And started a franchise. (I guess I should have included Douglas Hodge and Dante Pereira Olson in the above sections, huh? Well, whatever.) But it was a joyless exercise in dissecting the life of a homicidal incel. I can’t say it’s not good acting, but I can say I didn’t enjoy it.
Barry Keoghan (TB) — Technically, he wasn’t credited as “Joker”, but we all know the truth. You can’t have a Batman series start up without a reference to Joker, right? Right??
Why am I wasting your time. It’s got to be Ledger. He’s the benchmark from now on. Good luck, every Joker actor from now on. You’ve got your work cut out for you.
So, how did the various franchises fare?
Batman 66 – 1 win
DCEU – 1 win
Tim Burton – Joel Schumacher – 2 wins (1 each, if you’re counting)
Gotham – 5 wins. That’s a great showing.
Christopher Nolan – 10 wins! It’s a rout! And a clean sweep for its villains, to boot! Well done, Mr. Nolan. You win at Batman.