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Dick Grayson - aka Robin - has been around for almost as long as his mentor, Batman, but is often forgotten in live-action adaptations. Admittedly, the Caped Crusader is the more charismatic figure and the Boy Wonder has usually been cast as the sillier, campier inclusion to attract younger audiences, but Grayson, in his guise as Robin and later as Nightwing, has always had his fans.
After a prolonged absence from our screens, Robin is headed to television in the Titans series. Under the umbrella of Berlanti Productions (creators of The CW’s Arrowverse), Titans will be among the first shows aired exclusively on the new DC Universe streaming channel later this year, along with the highly anticipated return of Young Justice (which also has a Robin in it).
Following snippets of news trickling through, we finally have a complete look at the new Robin. Brenton Thwaites (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) is taking on the leadership of the Titans, Robin’s merry band of superheroes, alongside Teagan Croft as Raven, Anna Diop as Starfire and Ryan Potter playing Beast Boy. The fan-favorite appears to look pretty busted up, which is in line with the show’s grittier and mature tone.
While we wait with trepidation for the latest Robin - the acrobat, the spy, and the hero - to hit our screens, let’s rank the relatively short list of live-action Robins (of the Grayson variety or not), we have seen so far.
5. Johnny Duncan in ‘Batman and Robin’ (1949)
Batman and Robin made their on-screen debuts in 1943 film serials, and then again in 1949. The films themselves were one continuous plot-driven story about a mysterious figure named Wizard wreaking havoc on Gotham. Batman and Robin are on the case, and for some reason so are Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Johnny Duncan’s Grayson is devoid of personality, little more than an audience stand-in. One would classify him more as a wingman and driver rather than a detective, following Wayne’s orders and getting the job done. He is better at following through with their plans than the previous incarnation of Robin in 1943 (more on that later) but also ends up needing rescuing on several occasions. Because the serial makes him Batman’s lookout, Duncan is sidelined for an inordinate amount of time. The trouble is, this version of Batman is a little too smart, able to think so many steps ahead that we never get a sense of Grayson’s contributions to their plans. We don’t really get to know his character, which is why he is languishing at the bottom of these rankings.
4. Joseph Gordon-Levitt in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’
For all intents and purposes, Gordon-Levitt’s Robin, John Blake, isn’t quite like the other Robins on the list. He’s not Batman’s sidekick, in fact, they hardly know each other. Robin isn’t his codename, it’s his unused legal name, and there’s nary a circus in sight. But, like Grayson in the comics, he is an orphan, and like Tim Drake (the third comic book Robin), Blake unearths Batman’s secret identity, and he neither threatens Bruce with it nor uses it to his advantage. He’s a good cop, a rarity in Gotham even after the Dent Act.
Gordon-Levitt plays the character as a naïve do-gooder, and despite his curtailed screen time, we are privy to his sleuthing skills, his morality, and his innate heroism. Blake doesn’t play favorites; he calls Commissioner Gordon out on the false image of Harvey Dent that he’s been peddling for nearly a decade, but that doesn’t mean he leaves his side when Bane is terrorizing his city. The trilogy ends with the hint that Bruce Wayne has passed his mantle on to Blake, and honestly, Gotham couldn’t be in better hands.
3. Douglas Croft in ‘Batman’ (1943)
Croft was the first actor to portray Batman’s sidekick on screen in the first Batman movie serials in 1943, contributing to the public image of the Dynamic Duo being inseparable. At age 16, he remains the only teenage actor to play the young hero. The series is offensive and racist to the max (I deserve an award for skimming through it for this article!) and due to its plot-heavy focus, we get little in way of Dick Grayson’s personality. When Grayson is not in his ‘outfit’ (yup, that’s what he calls it in the film), he spends most of the time as Bruce Wayne’s errand boy. Unfortunately, this Robin’s sleuthing is sub-par and more often than not he’s caught taking his eye off the ball, leading to many an unfortunate kidnapping of friends and quarries. Honestly, he is a surprisingly negligent superhero, but at the same time is also refreshingly competent in a fight. Unlike most other Robins, Croft’s character is hardly ever in peril, instead, he rescues Batman more often than being rescued. In fact, he shows up Batman quite a bit when on missions - none of the other Robins can lay claim to that. I’m also certain Croft’s dialogue delivery has directly contributed to how the majority of our cinematic Dick Graysons speak. Unfortunately, Croft never had the chance to reprise his role. He served in the army during the Second World War, before passing away at the age of 38 in 1963.
2. Chris O’Donnell in ‘Batman Forever’
Whoa, am I being controversial, or what? It’s a tough job separating O’Donnell’s performance from the films he was in, but he was quite a popular Robin after Batman Forever because his take on the character was an ideal 90s upgrade to the character. The comics and animated series had all taken on slightly darker themes by then, which paved the way for a mature, overwrought and emotional Dick Grayson in the film. O’Donnell’s Grayson is quintessentially cocky and self-confident, but only because he is trying to channel his grief into anger and action. He is Dick Grayson first and Robin later, which allows him to show off the character’s persona, be it through his single-minded vendetta against Two-Face, or his stylish acrobatics, which he uses even for housekeeping. Credit also goes to O’Donnell’s stunt team, especially former US Gymnastics Olympian Mitch Gaylord, all of whom brought Grayson’s comic book physicality to life on screen. That memorable ‘laundry’ scene in Batman Forever is a special favorite as it gave audiences an insight into Grayson’s agility and his innate independence (he also appears to have an extra right foot).
Grayson in the sequel-that-shall-not-be-named (‘Batman and Robin’ (1997) for those in the back) was the teenage rebel that many would have related to had the film not been such an epic mess. I know these two films get a bad rap (deservedly so), but O’Donnell infused them with a youthful energy that the overly broody Batman franchise needed. Think the impact of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man but in a B-grade MCU.
1. Burt Ward in ‘Batman' (1966)
Undoubtedly THE Robin for all generations, Ward’s campy take on the character embodied the essence of comic book fun. It helped that he looked like he had stepped right off the page and into the hearts of fans. Unlike most other Grayson renditions, this character had an Aunt, Harriet, whose sole purpose was to worry about him and occasionally be at risk of finding out his secret identity. Ward’s Grayson almost never got any solo time, as he was hardly ever out of costume. Though a force to be reckoned with in a fight, his intelligence was often underestimated – by the villains and by Batman. He spent an inordinate amount of time in peril (there are Youtube supercuts to prove it) and was constantly being schooled by Batman on everything from patience to car safety and grammar, but this Robin got his fellow heroes out of a number of scrapes using just his wits and agility.
In the first season, he served as Batman’s greatest weakness, but when the studio got whiff of suspected gay undertones, the Dynamic Duo became less interdependent; but the pair’s camaraderie and chemistry continued to be the show’s winning ingredient. Most of this iconic series hasn’t aged all that well, with some of its sensibilities out of sync with the modern age, but Ward’s iconic catchphrases (‘Holy guacamole, Batman’ remains my favourite) and youthful exuberance have established him as the prototype for how future live-action Robins would look. As silly and over the top as his performance was, he and Adam West were the first introductions to the comic book characters for many and a mixture of enduring nostalgia and unbridled escapism propel Burt Ward to the top of our list.
The Titans show will probably be as far removed as possible from most of the above versions of Robin, but, undoubtedly, previous takes of the character, animated or otherwise, will have some impact on the version we get to see. Here’s hoping the show’s creators keep the generations of fans in mind and give us the character we have known and loved for so long.
So, what did you think of our rankings? Controversial, or on point? Join the conversation on social media and let us know.