Over 30 years ago, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) hit cinemas and introduced the world to the definitive big-screen version of the Caped Crusader, played by none other than Michael Keaton. True, he wore Nike shoes, he couldn’t turn his head when he was in costume, and yes, he might have stretched Batman’s no-kill rule to breaking point, but when it comes to playing the Dark Knight, nobody’s done it better.
Sure, there have been some good Batman actors in the DCEU over the years. But from Kilmer to Affleck, they’re all pretenders to the cape and cowl that aren’t fit to shine Keaton’s batarangs. The only one who’s come close is Bale, but we’ll get to that. So, why do we think that Keaton’s Batman is the best?
Well, it all comes down to one scene in particular, during The Joker’s (Jack Nicholson) invasion of Vicki Vale’s (Kim Basinger) apartment when he tries once again, unsuccessfully, to woo the intrepid reporter. During the intense scene, the Joker is at his most unhinged, giggling like a loon and threatening Vicki for daring to run away with that “sideshow phoney” Batman.
It’s then that the Clown Prince of Crime spots Bruce (Keaton) or, as he puts it “another rooster in the hen house” and turns his fiendish attention on Gotham’s most eligible bachelor. But what does Bruce do? Does he pretend to be cowed by the Clown Prince of Crime? No, he doesn’t. Instead, he lets the mask of Bruce Wayne slip for a second and threatens the Joker with a poker and utters the iconic line, “You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!”
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It’s a line that reveals so much about Bruce and Batman, his frustration at the world and the dichotomy at the centre of the character that so many actors get wrong. Clooney, Kilmer, Affleck, they all forget that the relationship between Batman and Bruce Wayne is very different from any other superhero and their secret identity.
For example, Spider-Man is a persona that Peter Parker puts on that allows him to set aside his anxieties about fighting crime and focus on getting the job done. The natural person under the mask, though, is Peter Parker. A similar argument can be made for Clark Kent, he pretends to be Superman. Batman is different because he isn’t Bruce Wayne pretending to be Batman, he’s Batman pretending to be Bruce Wayne.
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It’s a subtle distinction but an important one. Bruce Wayne died in the alley with his parents. When that young boy swore vengeance for his parents, he put aside who Bruce Wayne was and became Batman. The Bruce Wayne the public sees walking around Gotham getting drunk, driving fast cars, and generally making a fool of himself is an affectation. It’s a mask he puts on to hide his true face, the grim scowl of the Dark Knight.
So, to take it back to Vicki Vale’s apartment and Michael Keaton’s performance. That moment when he smashes the vase and threatens the Joker with “getting nuts”, it’s the first time Bruce has shown his true self without having to put on his cape and tights. Keaton pulls off the switch in characterisation expertly, it’s fierce, manic, and deranged. He’s no longer Bruce, the billionaire; in that moment, he’s the man who travelled the world to avenge his parents.
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It’s also a scene that demonstrates that Bruce himself is only a hair’s breadth away from being as crazy as the villains he fights. It’s become trendy in recent years to joke that Bruce could do more good through charity work and outreach programmes which we won’t get into here, but there is something odd in deciding to dress up as a bat and fight crime.
Yet, at that moment, I believe Keaton totally as a man who would indeed see dressing as a giant bat as a logical way to fight crime. It’s the one thing I never truly bought into with Bale’s performance: he also understood the idea that Bruce was two people, but I could never believe he was crazy enough to actually be Batman. A crime fighter, yes, but a bat-themed one? Well, you’d have to have taken a lot of Doctor Crane’s fear toxin for that to seem logical.
That’s why I like Michael Keaton’s Batman best. Maybe Robert Pattinson will knock him off his perch, but with Keaton about to play the Caped Crusader again in The Flash, I’m confident a new generation of Batman fans will come to love this version of the character as much as I do.