Michael Keaton has been popping up lately with a significant profile story in The Hollywood Reporter, appearances on the talk show circuit, and social media posts showing telephoto shots of him playing a character he has not played since 1992. He’s one of the best living actors doing films today, and his career resurgence is, I think, long overdue.
When he was cast as the Vulture in the Marvel/Sony Spider-Man movies, I thought perhaps his return to the genre he helped usher in was a bit anti-climactic. He’s excellent in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but I never in a million years think he’d put on the black rubber suit and be Batman again. I’m glad I was wrong. I can’t wait to see what they do with him and the character in The Flash.
Although looking back on that time in the late 80s when Keaton was originally cast, I don’t think I liked it very much. I remember there was a lot of backlash and people writing letter campaigns against it when he was announced. I’m sure everyone cast as a live-action Batman since Keaton met with initial negative reactions. I personally love how George Clooney handles his time under the cowl. I can only imagine the social media backlash and cranky YouTubers upset about Robert Pattinson taking on the mantle. It never changes.
Keaton had his Mr. Mom, and Pattison has the Twilight movies. I don’t remember the specific issues with Affleck, Clooney, or Kilmer. There seems to be a particular set of fandom always initially unhappy and either justified in their unhappiness or pleasantly surprised. With the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s selective memory fog about how much the studio and fans were wary of casting Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man/Tony Stark back in 2006. It turned out pretty good for Marvel, just like Keaton worked out well in 1989. Poor George Clooney, though.
In 1988–89, I noticed the ramping up of the hype train regarding the Tim Burton-directed, Michael Keaton-led Batman movie. Growing up with comics and especially Batman comics, I was, of course, affected. One thing I did was buy a sweatshirt with a prominent bat symbol on it, which, believe it or not, was not something as easily found back then like it is today.
The anticipation of this movie was everywhere. People seemed to be getting excited about the movie because everyone else was getting excited about the movie. I was deathly afraid the guy who made Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and then cast the lead from his last movie, Beetlejuice, in the flick was going the 60s Batman TV show “campy” route, and it was going to be weird and dumb and most definitely not Batman. I mean, Michael Keaton was a guy who did comedies. He was a stand-up comic before acting.
I did not want the movie to be a comedy or even be funny in the least. I wanted a live-action Batman that looked like the Batman I read as a kid by writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams. I wanted the dark vigilante, not some kid movie. While Burton’s film did take the character seriously, it still missed the mark. It was close, but to me, Burton always loved the character of Bruce Wayne and did not have much care for the character of Batman. Even the bat symbol on the front of the suit is wrong, and it bothers me every time I see a picture of it. To be fair, Keaton is an amazing Bruce Wayne and set the tone for the dual approach of secret identity characters like Christopher Reeve did for Superman and Clark Kent. In fact, both Superman and Batman were the foundations of the superhero genre we have today.
There is a school of thought that the superhero genre takes itself too seriously. People are flying and in weird costumes with impossible stakes. It’s all a little chuckle-chuckle, isn’t this cute attitude. But the reason the Batman film worked so well in 1989 (and the 1978 Superman movie also) is that it takes the story and the characters seriously. The source material treated these heroes and villains not as characters from the funny books but as modern-day myths. There’s realism here, but not reality, and that’s okay. A heightened sense of reality is what makes practically all movies entertaining.
To his credit, Burton adhered to the early stories of Batman and rejected the camp of the 60s era TV show and even the 50s science fiction and wacky portrayal in the comics. I wanted more grim and gritty than I got and way less self-exploration of the psyche of Bruce Wayne than I wanted, but Batman has plenty of things this comic book reader wanted in a live-action Batman movie. Burton tried to be authentic to the comic book. He didn’t take panels from a comic and recreate them for his film, but he understood the need to make a serious movie. Keaton shines, playing a dramatic role. I also think Burton completely lucked out with Anton Furst’s set design, Danny Elfman’s soaring score, the addition of a Prince song and video, and, of course, the casting of Jack Nicholson as an over-the-top Joker.
After Keaton’s Batman, the movie industry didn’t quite know what to do with comic book movies. The subsequent films got progressively worse (just like the Superman franchise). It took a decade for Hollywood to understand why Batman worked was the addition of humanity and reality to the unreality of a guy dressed in a rubber/leather bat suit fighting criminals. Bryan Singer would take the lessons from Batman and make X-Men using a fantastic cast, decent story, people in rubber/leather suits, and a strong sense of humanity.
Finally, after the poorly received sequels to the Keaton film and the under-utilized Affleck, we are getting a new Batman film in 2022, The Batman. However, before we see the next incarnation, we are going back to where it all began with Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman once again in The Flash.
Maybe with the multiverse happening in the DC Expanded Universe, more Keaton Batman is on the horizon. One can only hope.