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UPDATED: Which Batman was the worst?

UPDATE 2/7/2014: Some of the people who have read this article on Reddit have mentioned that the members of the League of Shadows might also be aware of Bruce’s identity. First, this is an incredibly fair point and definitely something I overlooked. Still, please examine my counter-argument under the original post, where I explain why I think this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker.

Second, thank you for coming to One of Us and reading this, I hope you stick around and check out the rest of our stuff! 

Additionally, one person in the comments reminded me that there were two other people in Batman Forever who knew Bruce’s identity (Two-Face’s henchwomen, Sugar and Spice), which brings the count to 12. 

Original post from 2/5/2014 follows:

Ever since Ben Affleck was announced as the next Batman, many misguided fans of the World’s Greatest Detective have proclaimed that his will be the worst portrayal of the Dark Knight ever. I object to this, both because Ben Affleck is probably the best thing that could have happened to Batman vs. Superman and because it will be difficult for him to play the role worse than Val Kilmer, who is quantifiably and undeniably the worst Batman to ever disgrace the silver screen.

What’s that you say? That’s a pretty hefty claim to make? I know, and that’s why I will try my damnedest to demonstrate, with some evidence, why Val Kilmer’s Batman was the worst Batman of all time. Shall we begin?

What is the singular factor that makes Batman who he is? Perhaps you think that above all else, Batman should be a master martial artist. While I agree that Batman’s fighting ability is important, I don’t believe it’s the sole aspect that defines him. The DC Universe is full of excellent hand-to-hand combatants who match or even exceed Batman’s abilities (such as Lady Shiva, Black Canary, and Deathstroke) and none of them have the same impact (in-universe or on our culture) that Batman does. While Batman is also known for his talents as a detective, not even these skills are what can truly define the Dark Knight.

The correct answer is Batman’s ability to be a symbol of both fear to the criminal world and of vengeance to the oppressed. After all, that is how he got the idea to run around dressed as an overgrown flying rat in the first place. Recall if you will these famous panels:

These three panels right here are at the core of who Batman is, across all the incarnations we’ve ever seen. No matter who is playing him on screen, the character of Bruce Wayne must realize that he can’t stop crime as he is, only this symbol of fear and terrible retribution can. A Batman who can’t deter criminals from terrorizing the public is no Batman at all.

Now what’s the fastest way to strip Batman of his status as a symbol? Simple, reveal his secret identity. If you know who the vigilante is, it is an easy matter to retaliate against and/or arrest him. The wonder and mythical nature of this horrible creature, who is sometimes rumored to be a monster, would just fade away if the people of Gotham found out he was just some crazy dude with way too much money and time.  The preservation of Batman’s identity is pivotal to his impact. Without it, there is no Dark Knight. The emperor has no clothes.

With this in mind, I propose that the operational definition of being a good Batman is as follows: the degree to which the individual can keep Batman separate from Bruce Wayne in the eyes of the people outside of the Bat-Family.

Using this operational definition, we can determine who the worst Batman is by going film by film and counting how many people find out that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Not only do we want to know how many people know who Batman is, but we also need to analyze who these people are and their likelihood of spilling the beans. I’ll skip Adam West and Kevin Conroy (the perfect Batman, in my humble opinion) so that we can focus simply on the films instead of analyzing hundreds of TV episodes.

For the sake of this argument, I’m only going to count the people who are alive by the end of film. If you find out who Batman is but you’re dead soon after, you can’t really have a negative impact on Batman’s reputation. Obviously, this means there will be spoilers from here on out, so if you’re sensitive about spoilers about movies from between 2 and 25 years ago, proceed with caution.

Michael Keaton

Michael’s Keaton’s Batman didn’t tell too many people his secret, but he made bad choices about who he told. In 1989’s Batman, Vicki Vale was privy to this information, while Catwoman found out in Batman Returns. If you’re the infamous vigilante of your community, people you’ve dated/have been romantically involved with in the past are among the worst people you could let in on your secret nightlife. This is because every relationship ends until you’re in one that doesn’t, and more often than not, relationships end poorly. Batman’s relationship with Vicki Vale definitely came to an end. She doesn’t appear in the second movie and Bruce had already moved on to Selina Kyle by then anyway. His relationship with Catwoman ended with her appearing to sacrifice herself to save him, so she’s less likely to out him. However, she’s still a mentally unstable criminal at the end of the film. What’s to stop a bitter ex, especially one who is a journalist ever seeking the next big break or a deranged thief/murderer, from either exposing your identity or using it for nefarious purposes? Pretty bad, but not the worst.

George Clooney

Despite the fact that he is the Batman of what is universally cited as the worst Batman movie, George Clooney’s Bruce Wayne is somehow the best at keeping his identity a secret and preserving Batman’s symbolic nature.

I know, this revelation almost made me throw my findings out the window, but hear me out here.

When it comes to his true identity, Clooney’s Batman is incredibly tight-lipped about it. He doesn’t run his mouth to his romantic partners or unnecessarily out himself to his enemies. Barbara Gordon Wilson is the only person who figures out the Dark Knight’s identity and the likelihood of her revealing it to anyone is incredibly low. Not only is she sympathetic to his cause, she joins him as an accomplice, so she would be vulnerable to the same retribution, legal or otherwise, as Bruce and Dick. In terms of keeping the secret safe and making sure criminals and the public know to fear the Bat, Clooney’s Batman did a fine job.

Christian Bale

Several people found out Bruce Wayne’s identity in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, but a good number of them were neutralized and the rest of them are allies. Bruce does tell Rachel Dawes and Lucius Fox in Batman Begins, but Rachel is killed in The Dark Knight and Lucius, like Alicia Silverstone’s Barbara, is culpable for Batman’s actions. Ra’s Al Ghul is aware of Bruce’s secret, but he’s dead before too long. A consultant for Wayne Enterprises also finds out who Batman is, but Lucius successfully threatens him into silence. In The Dark Knight Rises, Talia and Bane are in the know, but like Ra’s, they are both dead before the end of the movie. Bruce tells Selina and Jim Gordon himself, and Blake somehow divines the information out of nowhere. These three will certainly keep their mouths shut and even if they didn’t, Bruce is out of the game (or dead, if you’re one of THOSE people), so it’s basically irrelevant.

Which brings us to…

Val Kilmer

Val Kilmer’s Batman is the worst of the film portrayals because he is utterly incapable to keeping his identity a secret. A mere 37 minutes into the film, he screams out “Harvey! I’m Batman!” in order to prevent Two-Face from blowing up the circus he is attending. He didn’t even bother to lie or stall Two-Face, he blurted it out as loudly as he could in hopes that someone would hear. Only the chaotic scene that emerged after Two-Face announced his plan to blow up the big top kept Two-Face or any of his crew from finding out the truth. Personally, I find it hard to believe that not one person around him heard the proclamation, but I suppose it’s possible. Still, the fact that Kilmer’s character is so ready to give away his secret means calls into question the quality of his Batman.

Even if we let the circus incident slide, Batman’s identity is still known to at least 10 ADDITIONAL PEOPLE. Dick Grayson finds out, but he won’t say anything, so that’s all right. Bruce also informs Dr. Chase Meridian, the love interest of Batman Forever, which again is a terrible idea because if their romantic relationship sours, the secret is in danger of being revealed. Still, this is not why Val Kilmer Batman is the worst.

Late in the film, the Riddler uses his absurd mind-reading technology to find out that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Since he is colluding with Two-Face (who dies at the end of the movie), he shares this information with him and the two villains lead a raid into the Wayne mansion, where they kidnap Meridian and destroy most of Batman’s tools and vehicles. Obviously, “a raid” implies that there were others with them, so just how many criminals, aside from these two, now know that Bruce Wayne is Batman? The answer is here in this picture of Two-Face and Riddler’s gang chasing Bruce and Chase.

That’s right, eight criminals, who have every reason to blab or exploit this important information, now know that Bruce and the Bat are one in the same.

So by the numbers, here’s a breakdown of how many living people know Batman’s identity in each movie. We’re not going to count Alfred because he’s a member of the Bat-Family and every movie starts with him knowing. Additionally, when a new member of the Bat-Family knows, we’ll count them once. Even if we generously discount every single person at the circus and assume the Riddler will never tell anyone in a moment of restored sanity, you can see that Kilmer is by far the worst numerically.


*not counting anyone at the circus who might have heard or the Riddler, because he is insane at the end of the film.
*not counting anyone at the circus who might have heard or the Riddler, since he is insane at the end of the film.

Not only is Kilmer the worst numerically, he is the worst in terms of the quality of the people who know. Christian Bale’s count is high too, but it consists mostly of allies. Kilmer’s is almost entirely made up of HARDENED CRIMINALS. Why WOULDN’T these guys tell every miscreant they know that they know that Batman’s secret identity and they took part in destroying his home? What’s to stop them from coming back with more guys or with lethal weapons? Maybe one or two or eight of them will wait until Bruce Wayne is in public and then shoot him in the face. These eight men could be key to Batman’s downfall, so you’d think that he would make sure to get rid of these guys or silence them in some way. Nope! We never see them again. For all we know, they got their money and scattered off to parts unknown. Kilmer’s Batman makes no attempt to find these guys and keep his secret safe, because as we have plainly seen, he simply doesn’t care all that much about operating covertly. This cavalier attitude is completely antithetical to the very core of what makes Batman who he is, which is why I submit to you that Val Kilmer’s Batman is the absolute worst.

So there you have it. Unless Ben Affleck’s Batman walks into a crowded shopping mall and yells out “I’M BATMAN!!!” for the world to hear, it will be pretty hard for his portrayal to be worse than Val Kilmer’s, so shut it and wait for the movie to come out in 2015.

Of course, any theory or research project has its vulnerabilities. Do you agree with my assessment or am I completely full of it? Let us know in the comments!

As I originally stated at the start of this analysis, the number of people who know about Bruce’s identity is not the only determining factor we should consider. We must also examine the type of people who know and their likelihood to reveal it. I believe the League of Shadows’ strict adherence to hierarchy and the chain of command, which is instrumental to its success, prevented those who knew from saying anything that would expose Batman’s identity.

It is incredibly likely that Ra’s Al Ghul informed the people who joined him when he burned down Bruce’s house. Like Kilmer’s Batman, Bale’s makes no effort to find any of these people lived after the events of that evening, which isn’t terribly smart. However, I would suggest that at least until the end of The Dark Knight Rises, the League’s members are compelled not to say anything. Talia and Bane begin formulating their revenge plot after the death of Ra’s, so it is likely that League members were instructed not to disrupt it in any way, which would almost certainly include keeping Bruce Wayne’s identity a secret under penalty of death. As we all know, the League is not shy about killing enemies and traitors and they are pretty good at doing it, so that would explain how the secret was preserved through the years between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises.

The perfect time to reveal the truth about Bruce and Batman would be during the League’s lockdown of Gotham/Bruce’s exile, but even then the secret is preserved. After that the League of Shadows loses its leaders and again we don’t know what happens to the rank and file. However, even if members did say anything after the invasion of Gotham, that’s not Bruce’s problem anymore. Regardless of whether you think he’s dead or alive, he’s not coming back to Gotham anytime soon. Bruce left Blake with all the tools he’d need to continue the legacy, so at this point, it is up to Blake to find a way to eliminate the threat posed by the League and preserve what the symbol of Batman means to the public. I’d love to get a movie where I can evaluate JGL’s Batman on the standard I developed, but that’s not going to happen, sadly.

All of this is to say that yes, Bale’s Batman may have a higher numerical count than Kilmer’s, but when we evaluate the types of people that know, Bale is in the stronger position. I’d much rather have disciplined members of an elite covert organization with a rock-solid hierarchy know about my secret identity than ten self-centered thugs who have no allegiance to anyone or anything, aside from the almighty dollar. I still hold that the people who know Kilmer’s secret are much more likely to reveal it than those who know Bale’s, which still makes Kilmer the worst Batman of all.