Exactly 25 years ago this week, moviegoers flocked to the premiere of one of the best Batman movie ever made, Batman Returns, starring—WARNING: CONTROVERSIAL OPINON ALERT—the best actor to don the Bat-suit, Michael Keaton. Though I’ve never read any comic books I’ve always been a fan of comic book films, particularly Batman movies, and grew up watching the on-screen adventures of the Dark Knight. Although, like almost everyone else, I think Christopher Nolan’s movies are the best Batman films, I must confess that I’ve always preferred Michael Keaton’s portrayal of the Caped Crusader to any other actor’s, including Christian Bale’s. Keaton’s Batman is the most human, and thus the most heroic of the bunch. He’s a sort of everyman Batman, not particularly tall or strong, just an average—albeit super rich—guy who wants to help. Keaton achieved something modern filmmakers try to do time and time again, almost always failing. He created a relatable hero who also manages to live up to the heroic ideal. Directors and screenwriters today attempt to make heroes relatable by giving them serious flaws. Keaton achieved relatability by just acting like a normal guy trying to do the right thing.
Some brief background is probably required for those unfamiliar with Batman filmography. Keaton starred in two Batman movies, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), both of which were directed by Tim Burton. Burton and Keaton moved the character away from the campy mood of the 1960’s television show and created the first modern superhero movie. Keaton’s portrayal of the winged vigilante and his alter ego didn’t just differ from Adam West’s Batman; it was also radically different from the other serious Batman portrayals that followed—i.e. Christian Bale and Ben Affleck. As Batman, Keaton is dark and brooding, though he never shows the aggression or rage of Bale or Affleck. He comes off as serious but more like an emo Superman than a cynic; he’s still a goody-two-shoes, just really quiet and decked out in black. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is even Clark Kent-like in his awkwardness, especially around women, while still seeming good natured and endearing.
Keaton’s fighting style in the films are further evidence of his more human approach to playing Batman. Bale’s Batman is a super-ripped super-ninja and Affleck’s is some sort of street-fighting CrossFit bro. Bale and Affleck both throw themselves into fights with the fervor of an insane man with nothing left to lose. Keaton’s Batman, on the other hand, is of average height and build, is more lean than muscular, uses theatrics and trickery just as much as actual hand to hand combat, and has the slow and deliberate fighting style of someone who recognizes they can bruise and bleed.
Batman Returns, with Keaton’s humanized hero, could not have been made today. Filmmakers seem to think it’s not enough that heroes struggle to win against evil, now they must grapple with inner demons and have serious flaws. We can either have an ideal hero, who stands above the rest of humanity in near perfection à la Wonder Woman, or a relatable one, like King Arthur, who is self-centered and crass. The issue with this, of course, is that normal people can live up to the heroic ideals, too. Super strength and speed might be out of the question, but the moral fortitude and righteousness that Wonder Woman or Superman stand for are well within the grasp of a normal person, which is why having heroes who marry the two types, relatable and ideal, is so important. Heroes are meant to inspire us to greatness by showing what we should aspire to be like. That Michael Keaton was able to do so while also demonstrating that a normal human is capable of heroics is what makes his take on Batman so incredible. Actually, more than incredible. The best.
Image: ©1992 – Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.