There have been eight actors to play Batman in live action films and television. Each of them had a unique version of the Batman suit but the most iconic element of Batman is his cowl. Below, we’ll take a look at each version of the Batman cowl as portrayed in live action and compare it to what the suit looked like in the comics at the time.
Lewis Wilson was the first actor to portray Batman on screen. He appeared in a 15-part serial titled simply Batman, which was released by Columbia Pictures in 1943. While the serial was popular, there was a lot of criticism at the time that the costume was baggy and the costume looked like it was topped with devil’s horns. The cape apparently was not connected to the cowl because there’s a noticeable continuity error where the cape is pulled off in a fight but is attached again in the next shot. It seems to have been made out of simple fabric and was explicitly based on Batman’s first comics appearance from 1939:
Columbia produced a sequel called Batman and Robin in 1949. Again, it was a 15-part serial. This time, actor Robert Lowery took over the role because studio execs wanted someone in better physical shape. But again, the critics complained that the suit looked cheap. The costume designer probably had little time and money to work on the suit but instead of bat-like ears, they look like pointy horns. And they stick outwards this time. It’s somewhat similar to how Bob Kane would initially draw Batman, to be fair (as well as artist Jerry Robinson who handled the bulk of Batman art), but around 1949 he was drawn in the comics by Dick Sprang and Vic Mortimer. They made the ears much smaller, as seen below. The cowl from the serial does not appear to be reinforced with anything was pretty baggy.
Adam West (1966)
The 1966 Batman TV show starring Adam West (as well as the 1966 movie) finally stepped up the overall quality of the cowl. Costume designer Jan Kemp decided to use satin in some areas to make the cowl shine but matte black in other areas. While the comic books had gotten pretty campy and silly throughout the 50s, by the 1960s they were getting serious again. The show stayed silly but used the redesigned suit by artist Carmine Infantino as its model. The one cartoony element it added was the drawn on eyebrows. While Infantino shaded the front of Batman’s mask, Kemp literally used a matte black to keep it that color at all times. It was also reinforced so as not to look baggy and to give the nose some real definition. Kemp has said in interviews he picked up the comics that were on the stands at the time to do his best at designing a literal interpretation from shape to color.
Michael Keaton (1989)
Costume designer Bob Ringwood based his cowl primarily on the Neal Adams version of Batman which was fairly current at the time. The cowl used foam rubber to give it a rigid look and was sculpted to feature a sharp nose, prominent and angular brow and much larger “ears” than previous versions. The cowl itself covered the head, neck and even the shoulders, where it was then attached to a cape. This resulted in Michael Keaton not having any ability to turn his head. Instead, he’d rotate his whole upper body to look. The cowl attached to the bat symbol, which at this point was contained in a yellow oval for trademark purposes. There was a licensing issue that resulted in the costume creating a new three point bottom to the symbol. It was corrected to the normal one point for the sequel, Batman Returns. The cowl had large eye holes so the actor could see but they used black makeup around the eyes to make it blend with the cowl. Every future version has done the same thing. Interestingly, they went with an all-black color even though Batman in the comics had for years used a dark blue.
Val Kilmer (1995)
The initial version of the cowl worn by Val Kilmer in the sequel movie Batman Forever is very similar to the ones from Batman and Batman Returns. It was made from a lighter mix of foam rubber but essentially looked the same. At the end of the movie, Batman wears a “sonar suit” which features a few changes. It was mostly sculpting differences but it also featured a different way to attach to the cape (with epaulattes, basically) and some more color. Ingrid Ferrin worked with Ringwood on the new versions and with the sonar suit the eyes feature a lens (using the sonar abilities) that give Batman an all-white eye similar to how the comics are always drawn. This idea was later used in both Dark Knight and Batman v Superman. Ironically, the comics at this point in time started to reflect the films with Batman changing from a grey and blue suit to an all-black one.
George Clooney (1997)
Ferrin returned to work on the final sequel in this line of films, Batman & Robin. The first cowl worn by Clooney is similar to the initial cowls but he puts on a new suit for his final fight (not for any real reason other than to sell toys). To make it seem “futuristic” Ferrin incorporated 1950s car grilles into the ears and a bit of silver to give it color. The ears also look more rounded at the tip. This cowl, more than any other, suffers from overdesign. The suit itself really wasn’t based on any of the comics at this point.
Christian Bale (2005)
Christian Bale took over the role of Batman in the Christopher Nolan-directed trilogy. The suit goes through several cosmetic adjustments throughout but the cowl remains pretty similar throughout. Lindy Hemming, a costume designer from Wales, used a back-to-basics approach for the cowl. It is very much drawn from the comics with the pointed ears being about the same height, an angular brow and a sharper beak-like nose area. It also featured a more prominent jaw and was a separate piece from the neck armor. Finally, Batman could turn his head! The features are intentionally animalistic and tight. Instead of foam rubber, everything in the suit is made from flexible urethane and carbon fiber. Rigid, but light. The Nolan trilogy built the batsuit up from scratch within the film to help it seem more realistic. It was more armor-like than anything Batman really wore in the comics. At the time, Batman had a pretty well-defined look of grey tights and black cowl, cape, boots and gauntlets. The bat symbol was a black one like the original comics and the movie version kept that bit intact.
Ben Affleck (2016)
Ben Affleck’s version of Batman has only been glimpsed in trailers so far, but we have had a few looks at the suit at conventions. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson was tasked with creating a new version of Batman that is very much based on Frank Millers 1986 series, The Dark Knight Returns. Like that suit, this cowl features stubby ears and angry eyes. It also seems to have the most human-like nose Batman has ever sported. Wilkinson told Fashionista that he looks to ancient Greek sculpture, high fashion, video art, and high-tech sports and military apparel for inspiration. He hasn’t revealed what the cowl (or suit) is made of but says a lot of engineering went into it to make sure it was flexible. We’ll have to wait until next year to witness the results.
Batman will also wear armor to fight Superman in Batman v Superman and it seems to be pulled straight from Dark Knight Returns again: