It’s no secret many DC fans weren’t thrilled when Michael Keaton was cast as the lead in Tim Burton’s ambitious Batman reboot. At the time, Keaton was largely known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice. Does someone with that resume really have the chops to reinvent Batman as a dark, brooding avenger of the night?
In hindsight, we know those fears were unfounded. But even though Keaton largely won over skeptical audiences, his Batman was and still is often criticized for being upstaged by more flamboyant performances from the likes of Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito.
However, those complaints tend to sell Keaton’s Batman short. While Nicholson’s Joker was busy chewing all the scenery production designer Anton Furst could throw at him, Keaton was quietly painting a picture of a Batman barely clinging to sanity. In Day 2 of our recurring look back at the many actors to play Batman in live-action, we explore why Keaton's Bruce Wayne is still a fascinating portrait of a hero burdened by trauma.
Michael Keaton's Deranged Batman
1989's Batman breaks from tradition by delivering a complete, unambiguous origin story for Jack Nicholson's Joker. Not only do we learn his real name and see the accident that transformed a mere gangster into a costumed mass-murderer, we also learn Jack Napier was the one who murdered Bruce Wayne's parents. The film also hints that Jack's psychological problems date back to his childhood, where he showed unusual intelligence but also a number of warning signs.
Controversial though those changes to the traditional Joker formula may have been, they do feel appropriate in the context of the larger movie. Nicholson's Joker and Keaton's Bruce are linked. They both faced deeply troubled childhoods and grew up to become larger than life costumed figures battling for the fate of Gotham City.
He may not be a full-blown sociopath like Napier, but Batman ‘89 is littered with clues that Keaton’s Bruce isn’t quite right in the head. For one thing, he sleeps upside down like a literal bat. It's never clear whether there's a method to that madness or if Bruce is just so fully committed to the Batman role he's adopted the mindset of an actual bat.
Throughout the film, Keaton's Bruce is often lost in thought and memory. At one point we follow Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale as she stalks her new boyfriend, who's in a world of his own as he revisits Crime Alley and lays a bouquet of roses on the spot where his parents died. Later, Bruce barely pays heed when a bullet comes within inches of killing him. Seeing Napier alive and transformed has awakened something inside him he doesn't yet understand.
And then there’s the iconic "You wanna get nuts?!?" scene, where all of Bruce’s trauma and rage bursts forth. That outburst hints at a man nearly as deranged as the Joker himself. It's only fitting that Bruce becomes a reflection of the man who truly made him what he is today. Even if, ironically, he also made Jack into the Joker. Their relationship is a real ouroboros in this movie.
The Tragedy of Batman Returns
Batman's rogues gallery is so beloved in large part because most of his villains are a reflection of Batman himself in one way or another. Perhaps the greatest strength of the Burton movies is that they not only recognize that relationship, but build on it in ways even the comics didn't.
That's certainly true of Batman Returns. The film reinvents Penguin as a dark inversion of Bruce – the only son of wealthy Gothamites whose early life is marred by tragedy. But whereas Bruce at least had a few good years with his parents and Alfred's loving presence as a fallback, Oswald Cobblepot was discarded like sewer trash as soon as he was born. He's no mere gangster trying to carve out his piece of the Gotham underworld, but a deeply weird and tormented man who sees Batman as a fellow freak who doesn't deserve Gotham's adoration.
Perhaps Returns doesn't entirely flesh out that personal connection between Bruce and Cobblepot, but it does find plenty of gold in the Batman/Catwoman dynamic. By this point, Vicki Vale has been written out of the picture – tired of dating a man who always prioritizes his city's needs over hers. Enter Selina Kyle, a woman who understands that primal urge to put on a costume and set the inner crazy person loose. This Selina is a perfect mirror to Bruce himself. She's reclusive and withdrawn from the world, at least until she puts on the mask.
In many ways, Keaton is a better Bruce Wayne than he is Batman. He doesn't have the physicality later actors like Christian Bale and Ben Affleck brought to the role, and it's not as if the rubber Batsuit allows for dynamic fight scenes in the first place. And that's to say nothing of the character's cavalier attitude towards killing.
But when paired with Pfeiffer's Catwoman, Keaton truly becomes Batman. Their fight scenes crackle with an energy (and sexual tension) you don't see elsewhere in the Burton/Schumacher series. Even more than the comics at that point, Batman Returns paints Selina as the only woman who truly completes Bruce and understands his pain. That only makes the pivotal scene where each discovers the other's secret identity all the more tragic. We want these two damaged vigilantes to find peace with each other, even if it was never going to work out.
Keaton's Return to Gotham
Ultimately, Keaton's tenure as Batman proved relatively short compared to the likes of Bale and Kevin Conroy, both of whom have had the unique opportunity to explore the character at vastly different stages of his costumed career. But that only makes the prospect of his return to the role all the more exciting. Keaton is poised to reprise his Batman role twice in 2022, first in The Flash and then in HBO Max's Batgirl movie.
Keaton has experienced a career renaissance in recent years, precisely because he's embraced the qualities that made his Batman so enticing in the first place. 2014's Birdman shows Keaton playing a fictionalized version of himself, a middle-aged actor trying to move beyond the Hollywood franchise that built his career. 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming sees him switch sides and play the villain – a fascinating but clearly unhinged man who uses his family as a pretext for establishing a criminal empire under the noses of the Avengers.
DC Universe: Every Upcoming Movie and TV Show
Keaton has clearly lost none of his edge when it comes to playing comic book characters with a tenuous grip on sanity. So what happens when he returns to his most iconic superhero role 30 years later? Will we see a Bruce Wayne even more haunted by time and memory? Or has he become something entirely different during those missing decades? Either way, it's enough to know the book isn't yet closed on Michael Keaton's Batman.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.