The Flash is in theaters… so let’s talk about Batman!
By CHRIS FRANKLIN
Batman returns… again.
For a generation of moviegoers and fans, Michael Keaton IS Batman. Despite the initial fan outcry over his casting, which would have cracked the internet in half (had it then existed in its current form), Keaton proved director Tim Burton right, and millions of screeching fanboys wrong.
A few years back, I wrote an article here at 13th Dimension — THE TOP 13 WONDERFUL BATMAN ’89 TOYS — RANKED. There I pondered, in regard to Keaton, “who wouldn’t love to see him play Bruce Wayne once more in a Batman Beyond film?” Well, we’re still waiting on that movie, but Keaton dons the cape and cowl once more for The Flash — opening this week — where he’s arguably the bigger draw than the lead character and actor.
But what is it about Keaton’s performance as Batman and Bruce Wayne that makes him a standout among the many armored Dark Knights who followed in his trail? For the purposes of this list, we’ll be concentrating on Keaton’s performance, and not his gadgets, costume design, etc. Let’s take a look at how Keaton interpreted the character in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), shall we?
Here are 13 THINGS TO LOVE ABOUT MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN — RANKED:
13. Batman With a Sense of Humor. Keaton had made a splash in comedies like Night Shift, Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously, Gung Ho, and of course, Burton’s Beetlejuice. This was the primary reason some fans’ heads exploded upon hearing of his casting. For a decade, producers Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker had promised the fan press a serious, “dark” Batman film, close to his portrayal in the concurrent comics, not a retread of the ’60s TV series. Thankfully, the production, and Keaton, took the role seriously. But that didn’t mean his Batman was always morose and grim.
In the first film, he wryly informed Vicki Vale she was a little off in the estimate of her weight when his grapple gun wouldn’t quite carry the two of them to their destination. After dispatching the Joker’s gang, he motioned Bob the Goon over to take his lumps and cut him a wicked smile. In Batman Returns, he gave a more sinister grin to the strong man in the Red Triangle Circus Gang, when he shoved a dynamite-laden time bomb into his pants. After his first encounter with Catwoman, a smitten Masked Manhunter pulled her clawed nail from his side, pondered it, and simply said “Meow.”
12. Watching the Detective. There have been many a fan who’ve lamented the lack of detective work in the Batman feature films, prior to Matt Reeves’ The Batman. I would argue Keaton’s Batman was quite a sleuth in the first film, figuring out how Jack Nicholson’s Joker was poisoning the city, and that he was also Jack Napier, AND the man who killed his parents. Bruce Wayne was often deep in thought, and you could feel him putting the pieces of the puzzles together in his mind.
We also saw a bit of this in Batman Returns, where he tried to understand the motivations and ultimate plan of the Penguin. More could have been made of this in the scripts, but Keaton utilized these scenes to show that his Batman was the sleuth we knew from the comics, and not just a costumed brawler.
11. Oh So Mysterioso. In interviews, Bob Kane often called the mood that he, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson and others created in the early Batman stories as “mysterioso.” A shadowy world that was noir before that term was even popularized by films of the mid-to-late 1940s. Keaton’s Batman is a creature of that world. Now, a lot of this has to do with Anton Furst’s art direction, Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City, and the rest of the talented film crew that created a world that felt like “as if Hell had erupted through the streets of New York.” But Keaton’s acting choices as this very Dark Knight were instrumental in selling this concept.
He stuck to the shadows, except in the moments when action was needed, startling his foes in dramatic fashion. After the action, he seemed to have a need to return quickly to the darkness. Two examples of this are his brief expository discussion with Vicki in the Batcave, where he clung to the darkened corners of the cavern, and in Batman Returns, where his discussion with Commissioner Gordon and the mayor after the Red Triangle Circus Gang’s attack was a clipped and abbreviated walk-and-talk. Batman’s home was in the shadows, and he was an extension of them.
10. The Whispery Voice. What would a “grim avenger of the night” Batman sound like? In the years prior to Keaton taking the role, of course Adam West was everyone’s Caped Crusader. But his wonderfully too-stoic-to-be-true approach didn’t suit this production. Harkening back to radio’s Superman, Bud Collyer, Keaton chose to diversify the voices of Bruce Wayne in and out of the suit. Bruce would be Keaton’s natural voice and cadence, with a bit of added mystery and befuddled stammering. Batman would rarely speak, but when he did, it was a raspy, deep whisper.
Who hasn’t repeated Keaton’s reading of “I’m Batman,” popularized by the trailer that sold his Dark Knight to millions of potential moviegoers? Batman’s lines were always clipped, as if the character was thinking of how to say what he needed to in as few words as possible, to strengthen the disguise. Every actor who followed Keaton (well, minus George Clooney) would take a similar approach to varying their millionaire playboy from masked vigilante.
9. The Eyes Have It. While some fans no doubt derided the lack of white slits or mirrored lenses in the cowl’s eyes, that would have robbed Keaton of one of his best acting tools. Knowing he was encased in a somewhat unforgiving rubber armor, and that the character should keep his dialogue to a minimum, Keaton chose to do most of his Batman acting with his eyes. In the Joker origin sequence, Batman’s eyes widen in shock when Jack Napier slips from his hands and drops into the vat of acid below. While driving Vicki Vale to the Batcave, his eyes dart back and forth at her as he notices her trying to study his face.
Burton went back to old Hollywood and shined a light beam across Keaton’s eyes in the scenes in the Batcave, giving them a Bela Lugosi Dracula effect. When Vicki compares Batman to the Joker, and Keaton responds, “He’s psychotic,” Keaton’s intense stare flaring in the darkness seems to signal there’s something a bit off about his Dark Knight as well.
8. “Must You Be the Only Man-Beast in Town?” What is a Batman without his Alfred? Veteran British character actor Michael Gough was the backbone of the ’80s/’90s Batman film series, playing the role against three actors. He’s a highlight of each film (and one of the few bright spots in the heavily derided Batman & Robin), but his interactions with Keaton are some of his best moments in the franchise. Gough’s Alfred isn’t afraid to call his master’s actions into question, although always with a gentlemanly demeanor. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne can’t bring himself to give him much of a response beyond an eye roll. He tells Vicki Vale “Alfred IS my family,” and without any flashback scenes showing us this, we know it’s true, just by their performances.
While he supports his mission as Batman, as seen in Batman Returns where he helps Bruce jam the Penguin’s signals, Alfred hopes for a better life for his charge. Nowhere is this better displayed than him taking the initiative to let Vicki Vale into the Batcave and in on the secret. Bruce delightfully brings this up in Returns, just like any son would remind their father when they overstepped their parental boundaries.
7. Brooding, But Not Psychologically Crippled. Right from the start, we see that Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is perhaps the most likable and socially adept of the modern screen Batmen. He strikes up a conversation with Vicki Vale and reporter Alexander Knox, who are somewhat dumbfounded by his collection of armor at Wayne Manor. He’s clearly out in left field a bit for these two, but he is instantly charming. To Knox, he’s literally the idle rich, although Vicki sees something beyond that. The two later have a pleasant, casual conversation with Alfred while on their date. The first film shows us that Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is very much haunted by the death of his parents, and his mission as Batman, but it doesn’t make him unable to interact in society or relate to others.
In Batman Returns he walks into Max Schreck’s office, throws some paperwork at him, and lets him know his plans for an unneeded power plant are bunk. He then is charmed by Selina Kyle, and genuinely sorry that their rapport is cut short. Keaton played Wayne as a well-rounded human being, despite the trauma and insane life he’d chosen for himself.
6. Face to Face, My Lovely Foe. Once considered a pretty divisive film, in recent years Batman Returns has been reconsidered by many fans today as a strange, neo-gothic masterpiece… and one bizarre Christmas movie. One thing almost everyone could agree on from its debut in 1992 was Michelle Pfeiffer’s mesmerizing turn as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. Her memorable performance was only enhanced by the electrifying chemistry she had with Keaton, both in and out of his Batman costume. The two actors had dated years prior, and that spark was obviously still there. Besides the cat and (flying) mouse games the two played throughout the film, replete with tons of sexual innuendo, perhaps their greatest moments together allowed Bruce to see a darker mirror of himself.
In Selina he saw a kindred spirit, but realized no matter how divided and conflicted he was, he hadn’t quite fallen over into the abyss of madness she had. Keaton sells how much he wants to save Selina from herself, first as Bruce Wayne at the masquerade ball when their secrets are revealed to one another, then as Batman in their climatic confrontation with Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck. “Don’t you see? We’re the same. Split, right down the center.”
5. “C’mon, Let’s Get Nuts!” Michael Keaton is like a coiled spring. He’s sure to go off in any of his films, and it’s always a pleasure to watch. He has an intensity under his likable surface that seems to just seethe until it is released, like a kettle on slow boil. Of course, the most famous moment like this is in the first Batman film, when Bruce Wayne blows up on the Joker, trying to distract him from doing something nefarious with Vicki. His explosive delivery of “You wanna get nuts! C’mon, let’s get nuts!” is such a memorable, show-stopping moment, Keaton is seen revisiting the line, albeit much more calmly, as an unmasked Batman in The Flash trailer.
It was this somewhat unhinged intensity that convinced director Tim Burton that Keaton was his Batman. What kind of person would dress as a bat and leap off rooftops? A man who could explode with an inner rage at the drop of a hat, to which Keaton is unparalleled in modern films.
4. A Six-Foot Bat in Gotham City. I don’t think anyone was disappointed by the look of Keaton’s Batman suit. Oh sure, it wasn’t blue and gray, but it certainly was impressive looking, and instantly read “Batman.” Despite its sleek look, there have been countless jokes over the years of how Keaton, and most of the actors who followed him, couldn’t turn their heads. It would have been easy to have fallen victim to the suit’s seeming lack of mobility. But Keaton smartly used this to his advantage, giving Batman’s movements a somewhat rigid rhythm that seemed to mirror the character’s assured confidence in his mission. Every movement in the suit was determined, quickly decided upon, and executed.
Moreover, no one since has worked the costume the way Keaton did. Harkening back to Bob Kane’s and Bill Finger’s earliest issues of Detective Comics, Batman here was using his costume to create dread in his enemies. Keaton’s way with his cape in particular put the “bat” in Batman more than any portrayer before or since. He was shown lifting the cape with his arms, recreating the famous silhouette of his symbol. During action scenes, Keaton held onto the edges of his cape, making it appear to be a part of his arms, much like a bat’s wings. Frequently intentionally swirling the cape around his body as he moved, it recalled Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Dracula, giving the hero an unearthly, supernatural air that strikes at the very concept of the character, which is sadly often forgotten.
3. “My Life Is Really… um… Complex.” In Batman ’89, we’re introduced to Bruce Wayne at a charity ball he’s hosting for Gotham’s 200th birthday celebration. Vicki Vale is out to meet him, taps Keaton on the shoulder and asks which person at the party is the host. Keaton says, “I’m not sure.” He said this to get a bead on Vale, but I don’t think he really knew the answer, either. Just who is Bruce Wayne? While his Bruce was actually likable and charming, no one (except Alfred) seemed to really know him, not even the man himself. Keaton often made the casual Bruce Wayne distracted and even a bit confused, placing ink pens in plants, dropping champagne glasses in mid-air, only for Alfred to catch them.
He’s unable to find the words to describe just how complex his life is, when trying to come clean with Vick Vale. And just what was he pondering, in the darkened Wayne Manor when the massive Batsignal lit the room in that memorable scene in Batman Returns? Keaton played the character extremely close to his vest, giving the other actors, and the audience, a chance to wonder what was really going on in the characters’ head. I’m sure he had definite ideas, but he wasn’t telling!
2. “I Mistook Me for Somebody Else.” We’ve talked about Keaton’s take on both Batman and Bruce Wayne, but which was the real persona, and which was the mask? Keaton played the character as a bit unsure himself. He seemed more at ease as Batman, but he did try to make romantic connections with both Vicki Vale and Selina Kyle, so he wasn’t actively denying a normal life, as the modern Batman is often wont to do. Confronted with Vicki Vale in the Batcave, he was briefly torn on what was more important, their relationship, or stopping the Joker.
When he was introduced to Selina Kyle in Max Schreck’s office, he mistakenly said they had met before. Batman had met Selina when he rescued her from a Red Triangle Circus Gang member, but Bruce had not. Keaton’s faux pax of “You know what? I mistook me for somebody else. Sorry.” perfectly encapsulates the divide between the two halves of Bruce Wayne. It’s something other films would explore, with both Val Kilmer and Christian Bale longing to hang up the cowl, but none of them nailed that conflicted duality like Keaton.
1. “I’m Batman.” To say Keaton’s Batman was influential is an understatement. Sure, Jack Nicholson’s Joker received top billing, and had the flashier part in that first landmark film, but as the years have gone by, Keaton’s take on the Dark Knight has become more greatly appreciated. The incredibly nuanced performance he brought to the role still resonates, and each viewing reveals more and more layers of this complex and compelling character. He looked great in the costume and inhabited it in a way few of his successors have mastered. He wasn’t cut or muscled like many of the actors who have followed in the role, but he was no less convincing in his physicality.
His inherently likable, everyman persona made audiences feel like THEY could be Batman. But the darker, edgier aspects of his psychological approach proved that Tim Burton knew what he was doing when he cast his Beetlejuice star in the role of the Dark Knight. While watching his two previous trips to Gotham, viewers forget they are seeing Michael Keaton in a rubber suit. This is Batman. Clearly, Keaton had more to explore with the character, and I for one can’t wait to see him go back to work.
— 13 COVERS: The Great BATMAN-FLASH Team. Click here.
— EXCLUSIVE: 1940’s Landmark BATMAN #1 to Be Re-Released as a FACSIMILE EDITION. Click here.
Chris Franklin is a graphic designer, illustrator, and podcaster, who co-hosts several shows on the Fire and Water Podcast Network, including JLUCast, which he produces with his wife Cindy.