Every actor that is chosen to play the Dark Knight has a standard to live up to. Not only do they have to be in top physical standing to perform many of the stunts, they have to look the part. There is a definition of Batman that has been defined by comic books. He has to be a man that must strike terror in the hearts of his enemies. A man of power and strength. When the actor dons that mask, he has to be something terrifying.
However, there is also the role of Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter ego. Bruce is a good man, but is pampered and spoiled. Batman must wear this mask of laziness to protect who he truly is. He has to pretend to have prestige. He has to be what Batman can not. Lazy.
This is a mechanic that has kept Batman interesting since 1939. The idea that a wealthy man can become a terrifying crime fighter by night. That a great man must hide behind a dull one. It's a mechanic that has proven difficult for every actor that has worn the mask of both Bruce Wayne and Batman.
The dual role isn't one that should be alien to actors. Peter Pan's Captain Hook has almost always been portrayed by Mr. Darling. It takes a great deal of range to pull it off in nearly every role. Strangely, actors cast in to the part of Batman never seem to pull it off.
Nobody in casting seems to understand that Bruce Wayne should not be Batman. What we've seen is the Bruce Wayne personality or the Batman personality dominate throughout the film.
Lewis Wilson did an admirable job as both Batman and Bruce Wayne in the 1943 Columbia serials. Unfortunately, it's direction was played more towards the sillier aspects that would set the tone of the Adam West TV show. As Batman, he just didn't have the depth behind him to make the character anything more than a man in a mask.
Adam West was a terrible Batman. Sorry, old chum. It's true. However, he was able to blend the Bruce Wayne and Batman personality in to one persona which helped bring the character some strength on screen.
This was then reversed with Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne. As Batman, Keaton was dark, brooding and intimidating. As Bruce Wayne, he was dark, brooding and to be honest seemed a lot like Batman. Tim Burton brought forth a tortured soul in a perfect light. He however never separated the man from his darker side. No wonder Kim Basinger stumbled on to him so quickly.
During Joel Schumacher's run as director of the series, we saw many strange things from the series. One of the better aspects was his focus on Bruce Wayne's personal life. Due to the understandable reactions of parents towards the dark Batman Returns, Schumacher brought in a family friendly tone and a sidekick. This focus led to two excellent choices for Bruce Wayne.
Val Kilmer seemed like the smart, sophisticated Bruce Wayne we were left wanting from Michael Keaton. However, there was nothing behind Batman. None of the fear, strength or even the detective work we've come to love. This direction might have been on purpose to showcase the Internal struggle Bruce was having while wanting to bring normalcy to his life. That his struggle between his new crush and his father's wishes might be holding back what his second identity is supposed to be.
I might be reading too much in to that though as the film seemed to have nothing more to show for it than shiny lights and over the top acting.
This would be followed with a much better Bruce Wayne in George Clooney. George has an abundance of style and charm. Something he brought to his credit card carrying Batman. Batman and Robin would in turn kill the franchise for a number of years. George couldn't exclusively be blamed for it as he did his job, however he was not prepared to portray the title character.
Finally, the series was brought back to a proper status with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. What we got was the ideal Bruce Wayne and Batman personality out of actor Christian Bale. At least on paper that is.
Bale showcased a stellar, albeit deranged, playboy in American Psycho. He also proved to have a grasp on the emotionally stunted side of Batman that was showcased in Equilibrium. In essence, he should have been the perfect actor to grasp both the Batman and Bruce Wayne dichotomy.
Unfortunately he didn't. I'll argue that his Bruce Wayne is nearly flawless. However, as soon as he opens his mouth as Batman, all bets are off. His Batman has been characterized by the gruff voice that doesn't get better with a sequel. His mask looks bizarre framing his mouth and thus accentuates how silly he truly sounds when he talks.
This event does not only apply to the major films. Arguably, the greatest Batman ever to grace any screen is Kevin Conroy from Batman the Animated Series. His portrayal of Batman has been absolutely solid and he redefined how we should look at Bruce Wayne. Instead of simply being the slacker millionaire, the character was evolved to be as helpful in both personalities.
However, being a voice actor, his voice can only be defined by his artistic overlords. Thus we see the difference in presentation between Batman the Mask of the Phantasm and Batman Gotham Knight. Obviously, following the same art style from the TV show makes it easy to relate to his character in Mask of the Phantasm.
In Gotham Knight, we get 7 distinctly different art styles from many different studios and wind up with a Batman and a Bruce Wayne that seems uniquely different from each new perspective. From art styles that seem too sleek for the depth of his tone to a Batman too bulky to carry the same voice, the best of the features seem to be the ones with the least amount of lines from Kevin. He just isn't asked to bring any range to the character while donning so many different looks.
Searching for a good Batman
Unfortunately, there is no great example for the Batman dichotomy. There are great examples of Bruce Wayne and great examples of Batman, however there isn't an actor that has carried the range to play both roles effectively. It has weighed each iteration's merits on the strength of the villain's acting talents and less so on the Dark Knight himself.
With the Dark Knight Rises set to wrap up the Christian Bale trilogy, maybe we'll see a more concerted effort to get Batman to truly present himself as Batman. I believe in Nolan's attempts at directing, however this either needs to be noted in production or in editing. They haven't caught it in two iterations and I'd hate to see this repeated with a third.
Christian Bale can be the definitive Batman under the strengths of his own Academy Award winning acting range. He already fits the Bruce Wayne mold beautifully.
Somebody just needs to draw the character out of him and present it appropriately.