Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight films are the best Batman flicks that have ever been put on celluloid. However, there’s a reason Michael Keaton still puts up a fight as being the best Batman in cinema history. Keaton’s new film Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, has caused many to reminisce about his take on Bruce Wayne and Batman in the Tim Burton films. I entered the time machine and dove into Burton’s Batman universe once again to see if Keaton’s performances held up.
Burton’s world is certainly more cartoonish, yet it still manages to be entertaining and dark. His comic-book approach seems soft these days, especially in comparison to the gritty and realistic Dark Knight trilogy, but there’s still a charm about Burton’s version that remains captivating. The films are comedic, corny, dark, and visually impressive all at once. It’s as if a Batman painting came to life. Where Nolan is bold and aggressive, Burton is odd and elegantly mysterious.
Keaton is definitely an actor of versatility, but it never seemed like he had a long enough time in the main spotlight. Before there was the dynamic duo of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, Keaton filled the favorite actor spot for Burton, and it’s easy to see why. What Keaton brought to Batman is the presence of a lonely, misplaced soul mixed with a man that was psychotic. He always seemed slightly out of place as Bruce Wayne, and his true self as Batman; he was revealing more with the mask on. There was always this sustained madness that Keaton revealed through his glaring eyes that only fully came out when he strutted in that black suit. He certainly held his own against Jack Nicholson:
Now, these two Burton Batman films were successful despite being violent and gratuitous for their time. I remember seeing and wanting all the Batman merchandise that was flying around. Hell, the first costume I ever remember choosing was Batman. Even McDonald’s got their hands on the marketing for Batman with their Happy Meals, much to the dismay of parents. The villains were cold blooded and deranged, and Batman himself even kills in the Burton films. Keaton was the man, and it was a time when superhero movies weren’t as abundant as they are today, so he soaked in the spotlight as the caped crusader all by himself. At the time, Keaton was the darkest version of Batman portrayed on screen.
So, what made Keaton a memorable Batman? He seemed very human as Bruce Wayne, spaced out at times, funny, awkward, yet mysterious in a way that’s magnetic. His Bruce Wayne was the Everyman. On the other hand his Batman was probably the least physically threatening out of all the Batmen, besides Adam West (who looked like he made he handmade his costume and was allergic to the gym), but he never needed that physical presence. His maniacal smirk and psychotic stare were enough. Once he made his entrance as the man in black, and lifted up that mugger, saying “I’m Batman” in that rugged voice, he was exactly that. Everything worked to his likeness, from the iconic suit, to the best Batmobile in film history, and that classically heroic Danny Elfman score. He was the Dark Knight, and he owned the role completely.
Keaton’s performances as Batman in both Burton films are some of his best work, in addition to his roles in Beetlejuice, Jackie Brown, Mr. Mom, Nightshift, Game 6, and Toy Story 3. With all the Oscar buzz surrounding Birdman, it’s nice to see that an underrated actor is getting the praise he deserves. Although he was thought to be miscast on paper, he made Batman his, in turn making it ours. To some, Keaton is Batman 1989, but to me he’s just Batman. Now we have to play the waiting game to see what Ben Affleck’s got up his sleeve.