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Why Michael Keaton Is The Best Batman (VIDEO)

Why Michael Keaton Is the Best Batman

In this FandomWire Video Essay, we explore why Michael Keaton is the best Batman.

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Is Michael Keaton The Best Batman?

Michael Keaton Batman

Of all the comic book heroes that have been adapted to film, Batman is perhaps the one character that doesn’t have a definitive version. Nearly every actor who has played the vigilante— even in animated form — has his defenders that would call them “the best.” Heck, some people would even say that Will Arnett’s voice-acting performance as LEGO Batman is the best depiction.

One of the most interesting things about Batman as a character for adaptation is that there are so many different versions in the comics, and each one is distinct. Although every version of the hero we’ve seen brought to film has been Bruce Wayne, there is even a good deal of variety in the comics regarding his personality, depending on what writer and artist brought him to life.

That begs the question: what makes a great Batman? There are so many directions in which a performer could take the character that there is no one right way, but according to fans, there are several wrong ways. However, a few on-screen versions of Batman are generally held in higher esteem than the rest.

It’s important to remember that there is more than one side to portraying The World’s Greatest Detective. To be the “best” Batman, an actor doesn’t just need to succeed as the Caped Crusader but also his alter ego, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. Unlike many comic book heroes, the personalities of Bruce Wayne and Batman feel entirely different. It’s not a Clark Kent-type alter ego — who often feels like Superman wearing glasses.

Indeed, the “perfect” on-screen Batman comes down to nailing the portrayal of both sides of the Dark Knight, and arguably, no one did that better than Michael Keaton. Sure, there have been plenty of great performances. Some are partial to Adam West’s campy original take, while others are fond of Christian Bale’s grittier portrayal of the vigilante in the Nolan trilogy. But Keaton strikes that balance so extraordinarily well that his version of the character continues to have a massive cultural impact.

The hallmark of Keaton’s Batman is that he plays the Caped Crusader in a heroic, but not overly innocent way. It’s a happy middle-ground between the zanier Batman we saw from Adam West, and would see again later in George Clooney’s Batman and Robin, and the darker iteration that would become dominant in the 21st century.

There are really three factors that this unique tone can be attributed to. For one, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was released in 1986, as the production of Burton’s 1989 Batman film was beginning to pick up steam. Keaton has even gone on record saying that Miller’s comics are some of his favorites and that he studied them extensively, using them as inspiration for his performance.

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It’s important to remember the historical context of Batman’s popularity. In the early 1980s, fanfare for the Gotham Vigilante was waning significantly. The Batman film project took several years to get off the ground because the character simply wasn’t as popular in the public eye. However, The Dark Knight Returns (Comic) would cause a widespread resurgence in interest and is a big part of what made Batman 1989 successful, bringing the masked hero back into the mainstream.

Second is Keaton’s naturally comedic personality. Prior to being cast in the Tim Burton DC project, Keaton was primarily known as a star of studio comedies, with some of his most successful films being Mr. Mom and Night Shift. Fans — particularly those enamored with Miller’s run in the comics — were worried that this would cause the character to revert to the goofier form seen in the Adam West series rather than the more brooding version they had grown to love in the panels and pages of the comics.

The final factor is the uniquely macabre sensibilities of filmmaker Tim Burton. Admittedly, Warner Bros. handed Burton the reins to the Caped Crusader after he directed Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, which is not particularly… dark. However, in 1988, one year before Batman, Burton and Keaton teamed up to make the now-cult classic Beetlejuice, which would show how the filmmaker could perfectly blend whimsy with something more gothic in nature.

This combination is precisely what the perfect Batman adaptation needed: a director and leading man who knew how to capture the more exaggerated origins of the character with a visual style that matched the contemporary sensibilities of comics at the time. The result is a Batman who doesn’t take himself too seriously but is still the unflinching vigilante who dishes out justice in his own way.

Another thing that Keaton absolutely nails in his portrayal of Batman is capturing the dynamic between the Caped Crusader and his nemesis, the Joker. Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Clown Prince of Gotham is pretty universally beloved, but what works so well about Batman 1989, is its ability to capture the game of cat-and-mouse being played between the two and how their roles in that game are constantly flipping.

Although Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight is unquestionably the best performance anyone has ever given as the character, there are several points in the film where Ledger’s delivery overshadows Bale as Batman.

However, Keaton never lets himself get eclipsed by Nicholson, nor does he ever attempt to one-up the Academy Award-winning actor. Instead, it feels like the two powerhouse performers are constantly at odds with one another, equally yoked in the battle of good versus evil. This is a significant element that most other Batman films have failed to adequately capture, with the fight generally skewing in one direction or the other.

And that’s only Keaton’s performance under the cowl. As we mentioned, being a strong Batman also requires being a great Bruce Wayne, and Keaton is perfect in that respect. He’s able to capture the arrogance that comes with being a billionaire while also channeling the intelligence necessary for him to be believable as the inventor and investigator.

Most actors have portrayed Bruce Wayne as cold and distant. Just look at Bale’s matter-of-fact businessman or Robert Pattinson’s hermit-like loner. Keaton’s adaptation isn’t quite as excessive or cocky as, say, Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark in the MCU, but he’s charming enough to win his way into viewers’ hearts.

A perfect example of this is the relationship with love interest Vicki Vale, played by Kim Basinger. Over the years we’ve seen some ridiculous romantic subplots, like the relationship between Val Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne and Doctor Chase Meridian, played by Nicole Kidman in Batman Forever, but Keaton and Basinger have such electric chemistry that the romance feels entirely naturalistic and believable.

Funnily enough, the same quality many fans worried about when Keaton was cast in the role gave him the suaveness that distinguishes his Batman from the rest. Keaton is such a charismatic leading man that it’s hard not to root for him. Later adaptations are more morally ambiguous. While we still root for Batman because he is the embodiment of justice, Keaton is the only actor who’s managed to make Gotham’s Dark Knight into what he truly deserves to be: a superhero.

This is a trait that has proven elusive throughout the years, George Clooney’s short-lived, Bat-Nippled, tenure as the character being the worst offender. Others didn’t even try to make him a superhero — like the Nolan trilogy or Matt Reeves’s The Batman — sticking to the more detective and vigilante-esque side of the character. And that isn’t to say those versions aren’t also great, but they aren’t as well-rounded as Keaton’s multifaceted performance.

If Batman was Keaton discovering what it meant to don the cowl, its sequel, Batman Returns, was him fully embracing it. Now that Burton had hooked audiences in — the first film was the highest-grossing film of its year, after all — he was able to fully embrace the lunacy in the second entry. It’s darker, zanier, and just all-around more ambitious. Burton didn’t even want to make the film at first but was convinced by the studio to return after being promised full creative control.

For Batman Returns to work, it required a hero who was all-in on the tone, and Keaton fits that bill. You have the Penguin, played by Danny DeVito as one of the… strangest on-screen villains in existence. And a Catwoman, played by Michelle Pfieffer who’s fully committed to the campy and over-the-top nature of her role. But neither of these performances work if it isn’t for a Batman who grounds everything.

What is arguably most interesting about Batman Returns is that just as The Dark Knight is considered by many to be a “Joker movie,” Returns can be considered a “Catwoman movie.” And yet, unlike Bale, Keaton holds his own against the villain who is the central force in the story. This allows him to show the formation of the “Batman as a detective” approach that we would see in later adaptations.

Keaton’s performance as the superhero is so impressive because of the massive range he shows in the role. Indeed, across the two movies, Keaton played what was effectively two different versions of the character — and that is entirely on purpose. Fans love the evolution of Batman, and Keaton’s portrayal is the best at showing that level of growth.

Keaton’s iteration as the caped crusader remains significant over thirty years later, with its massive cultural impact still playing a role in Hollywood today. Just look at Keaton’s Academy Award-winning turn in Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” Although Alejandro G. Iñàrritu may not have had Keaton in mind when he started writing Birdman, there’s no doubt that the Best Picture-winning film was heavily influenced by the actor’s time as the morally ambiguous vigilante.

Unfortunately, Tim Burton’s plans for a third Batman film starring Keaton were scrapped and the cape was passed from actor to actor over the following years. While there aren’t a ton of details about the plans for that story, we know that it would have no doubt featured Burton’s traditional Gothic style, dark imagery, and a fantastic performance from the greatest Batman to ever wear the cowl.

What do you think? Is Michael Keaton’s Batman the best? Or do you prefer another actor’s take on the character? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to like and subscribe to never miss a video. Keep an eye out for that FandomWire signal in the sky, and we’ll see you next time.

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Written by Reilly Johnson

Reilly Johnson is a businessman, journalist, and a staple in the online entertainment community contributing to some of the largest entertainment pages in the world. Currently, Reilly is the President of FandomWire, a subsidiary of Johnson Concepts.