Val Kilmer Was The Best Batman, Actually: Defending The Most Overlooked Dark Knight

The trailer for Matt Reeves' "The Batman" has given us a glimpse at Robert Pattinson's version of the Caped Crusader, and he might end up being the perfect performer to don the cowl. His haunted expression and fierce pout reminded me of Val Kilmer's turn in the 1995 film "Batman Forever," which I contend is the best live-action Batman performance, hands down. I know that makes me sound crazier than Jim Carrey's Edward Nygma, but Kilmer's Batman is exactly what he needs to be: an adult man torn between his desires, tortured by his past, and uncertain about his future. While Kilmer has gone on record many times about how difficult it was to act in the rubber costume, I think he still manages to give a stellar performance that gives gravitas to an otherwise cartoonish movie. 

I know "Batman Forever" isn't exactly beloved, but I'll argue that Batman doesn't have to be super serious to be enjoyable. Joel Schumacher's take on the material is campy fun, much like the '60s TV series and movie starring Adam West, but Kilmer still gives his all to the performance. His Batman is nuanced and surprisingly mature, forcing audiences to question what kind of grown man dresses up in a rubber costume to fight injustice. Kilmer's Batman has pathos, dreams, and fears, making his moodier moments feel earned instead of frustrating. (I'm looking at you, "The Dark Knight Rises." 45 minutes of Bruce Wayne being depressed before we ever see Batman? C'mon.)

Still not convinced? Let's take a closer look at Kilmer's Batman and all of the reasons he's practically perfect.

Embracing The Franchise's Campier Side

One thing many fans forget is that Batman hasn't always been super-serious. While comic writers and artists like Alan Moore and Frank Miller put the "dark" in "Dark Knight," some earlier iterations of the character were considerably more silly. The "Batman" TV series ran on ABC from 1966 to 1968, and its version of the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder was campy, cartoonish fun. Adam West and Burt Ward are delightful as Batman and Robin, and they get up to all kinds of weird hijinks. The "Batman" live-action show was my introduction to the characters and the colorful chaos of Gotham City, and was where I first fell in love with it all.

The Tim Burton adaptations, "Batman" and "Batman Returns," both play with camp elements while staying firmly in Burton's goth carnival aesthetic. Enter: Schumacher, the man who wrote "The Wiz" and directed "The Lost Boys," and who understood camp as thoroughly as any one person can. The director even came under fire for putting little rubber nipples on the Batsuit for "Batman Forever," as a perfect homage to the tiny bikinis and tights worn by West and Ward. "Batman Forever" leans into the camp hard, with Robin even yelling "Holy rusted metal!" in a reference to '60s Robin's ridiculous catchphrases. Like it or not, "Batman Forever" is a delicious blend of camp from the 1960s and 1990s, never taking itself too seriously and always in service of just having fun.

On the '60s series, West often had to play straight man to a whole host of wild villains. Eartha Kitt, Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, and more went absolutely wild as the members of Batman's rogues gallery, but West had to maintain a sense of steadfastness in spite of that wackiness. Likewise, in "Batman Forever," Kilmer must try to ground a Gotham populated with out-of-this-world baddies, including Jim Carrey's Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face. Carrey and Jones both go huge with their performances, so it's on Kilmer to hold things down with just a pinch of camp.

Putting The "Man" in Batman

The sex life of Batman has been debated at length, but I fall on the side that wants Batman projects to be horny. This is a story about a man who wears a rubber suit instead of dealing with his trauma, while fighting a bunch of villains who also mostly do the same. Freud would have had a field day with ol' Bruce Wayne, and so does Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman). While Michael Keaton's Batman had romantic interests in reporter Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) and the unhinged Catwoman Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer), neither entirely threw Bruce off of his game. There was plenty of sexual tension, but none of them dug into just how hilariously on-the-nose all of the BDSM allegories are. Meridian not only lets Batman and Bruce Wayne be horny, but she pits them against one another for her affection without knowing he's the same man. Kilmer plays it all with a sly smile, because as much as Meridian gets into his head, he still has the upper hand as long as his identity is a secret.

The complicated romance between Meridian and Bats is one in a long line of great Batman romances, and it's one of the most fun. Pattinson and Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman look like they'll have loads of heat in "The Batman," which is exactly what the franchise needs after the sterile puritanism of the Christopher Nolan "Dark Knight" films. Revisiting Kilmer and Kidman's flirtation in "Batman Forever" feels like a Harlequin romance.

A Brand New Bat-Dad

Batman and his alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, are fine enough characters on their own, but where they really start to shine is when Bruce starts taking in strays. In "Batman Forever," fans were treated to the first live-action depiction of Robin since Ward portrayed him decades before, this time played by Chris O'Donnell. Batman is at his best when he's playing Bat-dad to a bunch of little bats and birds, whether it's Robin, Batgirl, or any of the other adolescent vigilantes he takes under his wing. The back and forth between Batman and Robin in "Batman Forever" is as conflicted as that between Bruce and Dr. Meridian, to the point where The Riddler eventually forces ol' Bats to choose between them. (There's an allegory there for bisexuality, too, because "Batman Forever" is also fabulously queer, but that's an essay for another day.) 

We haven't really gotten a live-action depiction of Batman as surrogate father outside of "Batman Forever" and "Batman and Robin." George Clooney is fine in "Batman and Robin," though it's hard to tell if his brand of camp is intentional, which leaves Kilmer as the only live-action Bat-dad, trying to help young Robin be a better man. I love the relationship between these two, and long for more instances where Batman gets to be a mentor and not just a lonely grump. 

Everyone Loves an Emo Batman

There are certain elements that make a good Batman. He needs the accoutrements, of course — his gadgets, rubber costume, and vehicles — but he also has some distinct personality traits. For example, it is very important to Bruce that you know that his parents are dead. Did you know that his parents are dead? They're dead, folks, and he's never quite gotten over that. As such, both Bruce and Batman are prone to bouts of brooding, and no one does brooding better than Kilmer. He postures and pouts, his eyes expressing worlds of pain. It's funny to me that Kilmer thinks his performance as Batman is so bad, because he's doing excellent work. Sure, his movements in the Batsuit are stiff, but that's to be expected and honestly gives the film a kind of tangibility that other costumes lack. There's weight to the costume, and his movements help sell the fact that he is still just a human being. 

Kilmer's performance as Batman and Bruce Wayne is thoughtful, sexy, and ticks every box a Batman performance should tick. He doesn't try to speak several octaves lower when he dons the cowl or yell his mother's name like a battle cry, and he's hands-down the best live-action Batman. Maybe Pattinson will dethrone him, but we'll just have to wait until March 4, 2022 when "The Batman" premieres to find out.