Holy Cast Comparison Batman! – Michael Keaton
Part Two: Michael “Beetlejuice” Keaton
Michael Keaton’s Batman was revolutionary in that he presented a Batman for the modern age but through methods that we now take for granted. It was Keaton’s idea for Batman’s gruff low voice, to separate him from his alter ego Bruce Wayne, (which has since developed into Christian Bale’s smoker’s-lung-Batman). Keaton’s Batman was also the first with the all-black suit (except for the bright yellow logo…), for in the comics Batman was traditionally blue and black. Interestingly, Keaton hated the suit, finding it claustrophobic (who wouldn’t), but he has stated he turned that fear and discomfort into fuel for his brooding Batman. Indeed, Keaton’s Batman was brooding and dark, a new turn for the character away from the camp and colour of Adam West’s 1960’s serials. Keaton played his Bruce Wayne as charming but distracted, as if always itching to be back in the suit, to get back to being Batman. Keaton also played him as much less of a playboy than the later actors, more interested in dressing up in his leather costume and scaring criminals than romancing women (except for Vicki Vale of course, va va voom).
Keaton’s Batman was a loner, damaged goods, shattered by the murder of his parents, obsessed with fear and bats, a “freak” perfectly matched with another “freak,” the Joker (Jack “Greatest-Actor-Of-His-Generation” Nicholson), who embodied the chaos to Batman’s rigourous, almost fascist order. Clearly that was a little different than Adam West’s colourful performance…
However, the different approach to the material lies not in West’s or Keaton’s individual acting style, but rather the societal shift since West’s 1960’s. Keaton’s Batman was released in the pop-culture-saturated late-80s, after the rise of the “blockbuster” film (arguably starting with Jaws in 1975), with new technologies and incredible budgets (although $48 million by today’s standards is almost an indie feature…). Not only did the studios have more resources, but they also had larger audiences with completely different expectations, meaning 1988’s Batman just can’t be compared to 1966’s Batman. In another respect, Keaton and director Tim Burton’s take on Batman was a direct reaction to the campiness of West and the early comics, heading in the other direction for a darker take.
In many ways, this dark approach was only made possible through the release of Frank Miller’s groundbreaking comic series, “The Dark Knight Returns,” in 1986, which practically re-invented and re-invigorated the hero in print. Adam West had no Frank Miller to influence his Batman, but Miller was very much a direct influence on Burton and Keaton. Miller can be credited with putting the “dark” back into the “Dark Knight,” arguably the original source of inspiration for dark or gritty character reboots that are now all too common in Hollywood (yes you, Amazing Spiderman).
Although it worked out well in the end, fans initially balked at the thought of Keaton, the star of Beetlejuice and Mr. Mom, playing Batman. After all, he was only 5’10” and lacked the chiseled, muscular body typically associated with Batman, not to mention his comedy background didn’t seem to mesh with the brooding Batman of the comics. Regardless, that didn’t hold Keaton back and his performance was powerful enough to bring major box office dollars for Batman. Of course, much credit goes towards Tim Burton’s artistic vision, his Batman sprang on to the scene as refreshing as it was revolutionary, staying as far from the original TV serial as possible. Burton and Keaton worked in a symbiotic relationship on set (much like today’s Nolan/Bale) to create a dark and brooding, twisted and flawed hero who would prove the success of the superhero film formula.
Keaton’s first foray under the cowl, Batman, was perhaps the best-case scenario for the character’s modern film debut, an unprecedented movie that made up its own formula and lived up to its own incredible hype. It even set the stage for today’s almost-ridiculous explosion of the superhero film (earlier Superman films notwithstanding), an early spark to the flame that many would argue to be 2001’s Spiderman as the real jumping-off point for superhero obsession (no Batman means no Spiderman, straight up. And no Avengers either).
But after Batman comes Batman Returns, also starring Keaton and directed by Burton. While still a great film, they just couldn’t duplicate their original success (I mean, penguins with jetpacks? Really?). Keaton stayed great, but Danny Devito’s Penguin wasn’t nearly as scene-stealing as Jack Nicholson’s iconic Joker from the first Batman. Keaton just set the bar too high, and so began the slow decline of the Batman franchise, reaching an eventual low point in the mess that was Batman & Robin (before Nolan’s reboot!).
This is somehow appropriate though, for a character with such a long history and so many different interpretations, “The Batman” still remains a mystery. But for all intents and purposes, Michael Keaton will always be to Batman what Sean Connery was to James Bond, which then makes George Clooney a Roger Moore and Christian Bale a Daniel Craig.
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