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Batman Through The Ages: The Best — And Worst — Caped Crusaders

Jan 31, 2019
Originally published on January 31, 2019 6:18 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Warner Bros. says the next Batman film will drop in 2021, and it looks like Ben Affleck won't be sticking in the main role.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANNY ELFMAN'S "THE BATMAN THEME")

SHAPIRO: Affleck first donned the cape in 2016, and he has worn it in three feature films. Several actors have played the role on the big screen, each with their own unique take. And here to talk us through some of the best and worst caped crusaders is NPR's resident Batman expert, Glen Weldon, author of "The Caped Crusade: Batman And The Rise Of Nerd Culture." Hi, Glen.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Is it Batmen - Batmans (ph) - Bat - what's the plural of Batman?

WELDON: It's a good question. It's attorney's general, but I think you can get away with Batmen.

SHAPIRO: OK, Batmen. There was some controversy when Ben Affleck was originally cast as the latest of these Batmen. How did that shake out, and how did Affleck do?

WELDON: It was more a nontroversy (ph). People were just making fun of his accent, thinking that he'd be like, (imitating Boston accent) get away from the car, Riddler. But that didn't turn out. He didn't leave much of an impression on the character because he wasn't given much to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUSTICE LEAGUE")

EZRA MILLER: (As Barry Allen) What are your superpowers again?

BEN AFFLECK: (As Bruce Wayne) I'm rich.

WELDON: When he had a really good scene, like with Ezra Miller in "Justice League," he had a good scene partner, then it worked. But otherwise, he was kind of a non-issue.

SHAPIRO: Who's your favorite big-screen Batman?

WELDON: Well, this is an asterisk, but Kevin Conroy voiced the role in "Batman: The Animated Series."

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KEVIN CONROY: (As Batman) Do I look stressed out to you?

LOREN LESTER: (As Robin) You? Get out of town.

CONROY: (As Batman) Exactly. I think I need a vacation.

WELDON: And there were a couple theatrical releases that spun off from that. In terms of capturing all the nuance, all the facets of this character, he's my guy.

SHAPIRO: OK. What about the worst?

WELDON: Well, you know, George Clooney, bless him. I mean, he - again...

SHAPIRO: I forgot he was a Batman.

WELDON: He was in the middle of this Joel Schumacher film which was filled with neon and garish. And he was just playing stoic, which came off as stiff.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BATMAN & ROBIN")

GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Batman) Hi, Freeze. I'm Batman.

WELDON: And he kind of tilted his head and looked at his scene partner and in the way he did when he was on "ER." And, you know, he's developed since then, but he wasn't much of a Batman.

SHAPIRO: So many big-screen Batmen are so self-serious, one that really does not take himself all that seriously - Lego Batman.

WELDON: Yeah. He was a long time coming. He was a parody of all the Batman who took themselves too seriously.

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WILL ARNETT: (As Batman) I don't talk about feelings, Alfred. I don't have any. I've never seen one. I'm a night-stalking crime-fighting vigilante and a heavy metal rapping machine. I don't feel anything emotionally except for rage.

WELDON: And Will Arnett just knocks it out of the park with that.

SHAPIRO: In addition to all the big-screen Batmen - Val Kilmer, Christian Bale and on and on - there are small-screen Batmen. Let's talk about Adam West.

WELDON: Adam West - iconic, indelible. He created a Batman who, if you think about it, was on a comedy show who didn't realize he was on a comedy show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BATMAN")

ADAM WEST: (As Batman) Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb.

WELDON: He played it absolutely straight. That was the key to that character. And he'd never winked at the audience once. You know, careful, chum, pedestrian safety. That's great. That's what made that character such an icon.

SHAPIRO: We just saw a huge reinvention of Spider-Man with the latest animated "Into The Spider-Verse" film. We now have an Afro-Latino Spider-Man. We have a Spider-Girl. Do you think we could see something similar with Batman, a total reinvention of the role?

WELDON: There is no reason why we wouldn't. What is a Michael B. Jordan doing right now? You know, what is a Henry Golding from "Crazy Rich Asians" - what is Justin Baldoni from "Jane The Virgin" - there is no reason he has to look like he's always looked. He doesn't need to be a white guy with dark hair. He could be anybody. Again, Michael B. Jordan has the abs. He's got the shoulders. He's got the chin. That's pretty much - put him in there. Put him in the suit.

SHAPIRO: You can paint those abs on. Anybody can have the ads with CGI. Why do you think we keep coming back to this character?

WELDON: Because ultimately, even though he seems like he's all dark and grim and gritty, he's a creature of hope. His thing is what happened to me will not happen to anyone else because I will punch crime in the face until it doesn't. And ultimately, that's altruism, right? To me, that's a message of hope.

SHAPIRO: That's Glen Weldon, one of the hosts of our Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Thanks, Glen.

WELDON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEAL HEFTI'S "BATMAN THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.