Number One Guy: Why Michael Keaton Is Cinema’s Best Batman
There have been five men to portray Batman in the character’s eight live-action feature-length films, from Adam West in Batman ’66 to Christain Bale in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. All five actors came with their strengths and weaknesses, but the best was Michael Keaton, who played the DC Comics superhero in 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns.
In the first major scene of Batman ’89, Keaton famously grabs a terrified mugger by the collar, holds him off the side of a building, pulls him close to his face and hisses, “I’m Batman.” As a 12-year old watching that moment on a VHS tape in my living room, I believed Michael Keaton. And I still believe him as a grown man watching it on DVD in my office 25 years later, even after having seen a half-dozen different Batman movies since.
I realize declaring Michael Keaton’s performance as Batman to be not only my favorite Batman but the best Batman is a somewhat controversial statement, even (especially?) among my fellow writers at ComicsAlliance, but allow me to make my case.
Playing Batman is a dual role. An actor has to portray both a fabulously wealthy socialite-with-a secret Bruce Wayne and the caped crime fighter Batman. The latter necessitates a strong chin, a good set of expressive lips with a range of smirks, smiles and grimaces, and the ability to act with one’s eyeballs alone (unlike comic book Batman, all the movie Batmen have had visible eyeballs, unobscured by the stylized white triangle eyes the drawn Batmen almost always have).
All of the movie Batmen have cleared those hurdles: West, Keaton, Bale, Val Kilmer and George Clooney. But of them, Keaton seems to have been the best at playing the characters as separate people aware of one another’s existence, and of playing his own, unique version of the Batman.
Let’s look at his competition.
As the guy who played the title role in the first live-action, feature-length Batman film, which was of course based on the television show that ran from 1966-1968 (the influence of which on America’s understanding of comics is hard to overstate), West was the Batman for multiple generations, even lending his voice to many of the character’s cartoon appearances.
I don’t think it’s possible to knock his performance in any way. Did West look good in the tights and satin cape, with a cowl that looks like it as made by a fourth-grader’s mother the night before the talent show? No. Did he differentiate the characters of Batman from Bruce Wayne in the slightest? No. Did he have the physical presence of a guy who could beat up a room full of thugs. No, of course not. All of that was, of course, part and parcel to the gag of what was an innovative television and, later, film comedy.
“Campy” is the word most often used to describe Batman ’66, but I’m not entirely sure that’s the right word, as camp in film generally necessitates a lack of self-awareness, and West and everyone else knew exactly what they were doing. The trick was to say and do stupid things very earnestly, and to convince the audience that he was 100% committed to every line and action. And West did so wonderfully.
But as presented, West’s Batman is a very one-dimensional part with no complexity or nuance. As flawlessly executed a vision as it was, West’s Batman was nevertheless a limited vision.
Val Kilmer and George Clooney
Kilmer’s Batman Forever and Clooney’s Batman and Robin completed the tonal circle back to Batman ’66, with the much-maligned Batman and Robin essentially being a 1990s makeover with expensive special effects. As such, it can be difficult to separate the good from the bad in either film, and even harder to sift out what was terrible on purpose and what was terrible by accident. That includes the acting.
Kilmer was handsomer and buffer than Keaton, but Keaton’s success had established that a believable Bruce Wayne/Batman didn’t need to be impossibly comic book gorgeous or particularly imposing physically. But as a blond man his casting was somewhat sacrilegious to Batman fans, not unlike the furor we saw when Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond a decade later. Of course, Craig made the role his own. Kilmer…didn’t. Sleepy, bored and almost totally disengaged in or out of the rubber cowl, Kilmer seemed to be as unsure and irritated by the material as just about everyone who sat through the movie. Indeed, the actor would go on to regret participating in the entire Batman Forever enterprise.
Clooney was by far the most traditionally handsome and undeniably suave of the movie Batmen, making for a truly charming Bruce Wayne and a Dark Knight who, somewhat oddly, really seemed to enjoy his “job” no matter how dangerous and ridiculous it was. He was not the fittest, but at this point in Batman’s film history, physique has never been a major factor in casting (Looking at these four men’s bodies at their peaks, it seems like present day, 45-year-old Hugh “Wolverine” Jackman could destroy each of these early Batman in a bare knuckles brawl… and take out Chris O’Donnell for good measure).
Even more so than Kilmer, Clooney did absolutely nothing to differentiate the characters of Wayne and Batman, not even adding a little edge to the Dark Knight’s voice like the way Kevin Conroy did in the animated Mask of the Phantasm or Keaton did in his two films.
Clooney might have made a really good Batman — he certainly made a better Bruce Wayne than most of the pack — but since he was stuck playing a slightly more biting version of Adam West’s silly Batman, I guess we’ll never know (not unless they cast him in a live-action Dark Knight Returns, I suppose).
Christian Bale is most people’s choice for the best Batman, doubtlessly because the movies he starred in—2005’s Batman Begins, 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises—are for numerous reasons generally regarded as far better than preceding four-film cycle.
But Bale also had the opportunity to play Batman in more films than anyone else so far, and in different stages of the character’s development: pre-Batman, wandering-the-earth, learning-to-be-a-ninja Bruce Wayne of Batman Begins; the mature and successful crime fighter of Dark Knight; and the post-retirement, reclusive, tortured and ultimately resolute Batman of Rises.
Bale does a pretty solid Bruce Wayne, and is great at making the character seem like a stone-cold psychopath just by tightening his jaw and emitting beams of intensity from his eyes.
But his Batman? Bale’s Batman is the worst. I am hardly the first or five thousandth person to mention this, but Bale’s Batman voice is hilarious; maybe the funniest part of the three super-serious Christopher Nolan Batman movies (although I did laugh just about every time Tom Hardy’s Bane said anything at all in his jovial Bane voice in Rises). In seeking to differentiate his Batman voice from his Bruce Wayne voice, Bale decided to spit out every single line in a roaring, deep-throated, husky growl somewhere in the range of a Bigfoot working at a truck stop diner who smoked three packs a day, an angry oil drum full of gravel with a tracheotomy, and a community theatre actor auditioning for the role of the Wolfman with broken glass lodged in his throat.
Bale wasn’t just hard to understand (which he was — seriously, I could have used subtitles in some scenes) but it was so over-the-top it became laughable and inspired countless parodies. I don’t think Bale delivered a single line as Batman in all three of his movies that I didn’t laugh at; I just could not get used to that voice.
And while this is less Bale’s fault than that of Nolan and the costume designers, but they played Baleman like the super-sneaky Batman of the comic books, able to appear and disappear at will, even when in mid conversation with Commissioner Gordon. But Bale’s Batman did this while wearing a full suit of body armor that makes the mecha gear Batman wore to fight Superman in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns look form-fitting.
The Batman of Batman ’89 was a very different Batman from the Nolan/Bale cycle, and from the comics. Aside from the murder of his parents, we don’t know anything about this character’s life before becoming Batman; if he’s traveled the world mastering fighting and detecting techniques; if he’s done any training or education at all; or whether he even works out. Keaton’s Batman isn’t even portrayed as hyper-competent, taking a lot of punches and gunshots that the others would likely go to pains to avoid.
But one thing Tim Burton and his screenwriters took from the Miller-written Batman:Year One and from the original Golden Age Batman comics by Bill Finger and co. is the idea of Batman as a performance artist. “Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot,” and with that in mind Keatonman presents himself as a scary urban legend, using his costumes and gadgets like an old-school stage magician. Batman ’89‘s Batman is all smoke and mirrors, a Scooby-Doo monster that preys on the criminal element of Gotham City.
When we first hear of the character, it’s by way of a strung-out mugger relaying rumors of a supernatural creature. This characterization is played up in the following scene, in which a reporter chases down what other authority figures dismiss as the fevered dreams of junkies and liars.
Burton returns to this element of Batman-as-performance home repeatedly in Batman ’89. Escaping the police from Axis Chemicals, we see close-ups of Batman throwing a smoke bomb and hooking a grappling device up to his belt — for our benefit. Burton also shows us what the characters in the film see, which is a giant, bat-shaped silhouette unfolding his wings to float away in a puff of smoke. This Batman appears and disappears, he seems to fly, he gets shot but rises to his feet like a vampire. His talents for the theatrical persist right up until the very end of the film, when he seems to be dancing in the sky with Kim Bassinger’s Vicki Vale, like a black-clad Superman with a blonde Lois Lane. In this way, Keaton’s Batman is presented as at once fantastical and real, synthesizing the languages of comic books and film in moments that have become iconic in the Dark Knight’s history.
With respect to physique, Keaton is of course not particularly intimidating, as was apparently the chief complaint when his casting was announced back in the day. But as evidenced effectively in Batman ’89, he doesn’t need to be a physical threat. Between the convincing vampire act and the gadgets and vehicles, this Batman doesn’t need to be built like a brick wall or to have mad ninja skills to protect Gotham City. Keaton’s Batman does best all of his foes in the film, but he generally does so through a variety of cheats, from katana-blocking gauntlets to ingenuous sneak attacks not seen before Batman ’89 brought them to the table.
Batman has always been a more aspirational comic book superhero, as opposed to Superman, who was created as a fully-formed wish-fulfillment with a secret-parentage fairy tale of an origin, or the many Marvel characters who win a sort of super-power lottery by being in the right place at the right time to get bathed by cosmic rays or bit by the right irradiated arachnid. Batman worked for his superheroic stature. He’s a hero that any mere mortal could be, provided they had the will power to study, train and exercise their way into him (and the millions of dollars to buy vehicles and equipment, of course; but hey, the fact that anyone could be a millionaire is part of the American dream).
The Batman of this film took the everyman notion a step further. He didn’t have to be fast enough to dodge bullets; he had body armor. He didn’t need the perfect aim of a Batarang or the strength to haul himself up a bat-line; he had grappling guns to zip him up buildings while he posed dramatically. This Batman didn’t even need muscles; those were carved into constume. Really, Batman ’89 was almost Iron Man-like in his guy-in-a-suit nature. Played masterfully by Keaton, this Batman was a pretty ordinary-seeming guy who found himself in a unique circumstance by which he fought crime with some good moves, some brains, and whatever edge his costume, gadgets and stage-show provided.
But as I said, Batman is a dual role, and that’s where Keaton excelled beyond anyone else to wear the cowl on film.
Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is amusingly differentiated from his Batman, and seems to have a rather awkward grip on who he’s supposed to be at any given time. In Batman Returns he’s flustered when he encounters Selina Kyle for the second time, forgetting he was dressed like a human bat the first time he met her. “I mistook me for someone else,” he babbles. It’s not quite the length Christopher Reeve went with Superman, transforming from cowering, klutzy Clark Kent to the brave and confident Man of Steel, but Keaton played his Wayne in similar way that was a perfect cover for Batman.
Part of that quirkiness may have come from Keaton having been a comedic actor playing against type (and the same could be said of Burton as a director) and part of it may have merely been his permanently arched eyebrows, but his Bruce Wayne always seems curious, easily distracted and somewhat spacey; like his mind is always somewhere else. This is very deliberate and is expressed marvelously in his first appearance, when Bruce sets a glass of champagne precariously on the edge of a table to follow the hypnotically beautiful Vicki Vale, leaving Alfred to catch it before it can fall.
Along similar lines, Keaton’s Bruce gets some truly comedic moments, such as his supremely awkward trophy room encounter with reporter Alexander Knox (“Because I bought it in Japan…”) and his cutely uncomfortable dinner date with Vicki.
The duality concept applies to humor, too, with Batman having his own gags in a style distinct from Bruce’s. The knowing white grin he flashes at Jack Napier in the chemical factory, when Napier compliments him on his “nice outfit,” is a uniquely chilling but funny moment, as is Batman stepping out of the darkness to coldcock a thug without even laying eyes on him, and the pleasure Batman takes in tapping the Joker on the shoulder before clobbering him in the film’s climax. Indeed, the funniest bits of Keaton’s performance are delivered as Batman, as when he chases Vicki down to inform her that she lied about her weight and exceeded the tensile strength of his grappling line; the way he avoids her gaze in the Batcave; and activating what appears to be a light built into the Batmobile for the express purpose of blinding in the eyes of passengers that look at him too closely.
As miscast as Keaton might have appeared on paper, the fact that he was such an odd choice only served to emphasize this new take on Batman as an Everyman — albeit a rich, smart, driven, psychologically-troubled Everyman with a killer stage performance worked out — and as a comedic comic book superhero, one wrapped in a dark and, as we’ve seen 25 years later, and enduringly popular aesthetic.
Your move, Affleck.