Will Smith won’t costar opposite Tom Cruise. Harrison Ford never shared the screen with Tom Hanks. It’s the unspoken law of the Hollywood jungle: The alpha-males constantly circle each other, defending their own box office turf, while keeping a constant eye on (and distance from) the competition.

Which makes Christian Bale such a refreshing exception. Batman might work alone, but Bale has no qualms about sharing top-billing. Witness: The Prestige with Hugh Jackman. 3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe. The Dark Knight with Heath Ledger, of course. In Terminator Salvation, his John Connor takes a back seat to Sam Worthington’s character’s odyssey. And in July’s Public Enemies and 2010’s The Fighter, he’ll partner with Johnny Depp and Mark Wahlberg, respectively.

Despite what that infamous on-set audio recording may have led you to believe, Bale’s professional resume bears no trace of an ego. He seems to have a preternatural understanding that the most interesting and challenging characters aren’t necessarily the flashiest. When he played a Nazi who betrays his friends in Swing Kids, he admitted to a reporter that he was drawn to play the weaker character. He was only 19 at the time. I’m not arguing that Bale is some highbrow contrarian — HE’S BATMAN! — but he’s earned a quality few actors twice his age ever attain: integrity. Essentially, he’s Robert Duvall in Robert Redford’s body.

Bale is gradually building a remarkable body of work, but I’m discouraged that his roles in films like Rescue Dawn and 3:10 to Yuma have been neglected by most prestigious awards. Do you think his daringly modest career choices represent a long-term strength or weakness? Have they hurt his career in any way? Can you think of other actors who are so indifferent about the unspoken laws of Hollywood Leading Men?