“I’m not going to kill you. I want you to do me a favour. I want you to tell all your friends about me. … I’m Batman.”
“Michael, who was the best Batman,” Jimmy Kimmel asked on his talk show when Michael Keaton confidently replied, “Me”. He went on to say, “I will slip into it now and then. You know, if I am just feeling insecure enough, I just slip into the suit. Makes me feel a whole lot better. I’ll walk around the neighbourhood a little bit. You know, when things start looking nervous-making, I just put the suit on and things straighten the fuck up”.
From Adam West to Christian Bale, George Clooney to Ben Affleck, a lot of actors have played the mysterious role of Batman. Out of the eight Caped Crusaders, Michael Keaton is the self-proclaimed greatest. He played Batman in Tim Burton’s 1989 film and later once again in 1992. While Jack Nicholson played the Joker to absolute perfection, Keaton was seemingly a strange choice. However, he outdid himself and exceeded all expectations with his portrayal of Batman in one of the very first dark, gothic-ish superhero film adaptations. With nearly fifty thousand protest letters flooding Warner Bros office, the public was totally opposed to Keaton playing the brooding hero because they associated Keaton with comedy roles. Keeping up with the general tradition where none of the Batman actors receives a warm welcome from fans, Keaton, too, received a lot of backlash, but he put the haters right back in their place with his knockout performance, as always.
Before Keaton, the actors who played Batman failed to understand the subtle difference between the masked vigilante and his public persona, the millionaire Bruce Wayne. They never put on a different voice or demeanour to show the subtle difference. Keaton found it unbelievable that people could never recognise the Caped Crusader to be the billionaire himself when they had the same voice. Thus, he came up with the unique “Batman voice” that his successors have desperately tried to hone. While Clooney failed desperately and Bale was incoherent (let us never mention Affleck’s hoarse yet feeble attempts at the digitally-engineered voice), Keaton’s voice was perfectly spine-chilling. It was impactful, calm, calculative and intense, much like his character.
The most important fact that we often tend to forget about Batman is his tragic backstory. While most superheroes seek refuge from their insecurities and other problems in their alter-ego personas, namely Spiderman, Superman and Flash, it is almost as if Bruce Wayne is a facade for Batman. Bruce Wayne loses his parents in a freak murder in an alley, and his innocence dies right there. He lives his life as the grim, brooding Batman who actually seeks vengeance and hides behind the veil of Wayne’s money and fast cars.
As Wayne, Keaton humanises the character, and his eyes are filled with the weariness and sadness characteristic of his role. He is exhausted from his duality. He wants to seel revenge as a manic and fierce Dark Knight but needs to stay in check. Never before had an actor been able to portray the dilemma and dichotomy as well as Keaton had in the film. He made the character appear flawed and relatable and echoed the emptiness that brewed in his heart as he roamed the vast expanse of his manor. He did not, however, lose his sense of humour and added a sardonic tinge to the gloomy aesthetic that was demanded of him.
Keaton was extremely collected as Batman, unlike Affleck or Bale, who seemed to have a competition of anger, melodrama and aggression. Although he was menacing and terrifying, his voice made all the difference, and he did not have to channel his anger into the role. His emotional detachment and distance as Bruce Wayne were evident, which made the conflict even more visible.
Of course, it is worth noting that Keaton also had brilliant chemistry with all his co-stars, namely jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito, which is indeed a rare feat! This was all a result of his humility and ability to never attempt to upstage or outperform his co-stars. There was a healthy balance which made the films even more riveting.
No matter how bitter Adam West sounded on The Big Bang Theory when he said, “I never had to say ‘I’m Batman’. I showed up, people knew I was Batman”, Keaton invented the iconic phrase “I’m Batman!” which became the staple for all his successors. This was an improvisation on his part like many other dialogues as he did not want to say something as daft as “tell your friends, tell all your friends, I am the night”. The simple declaration of who he was, much like 007, was indeed so impactful that it added a new dimension to the caped hero.
Having added certain anonymity to his character, Keaton managed to make Bruce Wayne appear more nuanced as the latter drowned in the miserable solitude of his riches. He lives to be Batman and is tired of hiding as Bruce Wayne. Even three decades later, his emotional depth and range remain unparalleled. Despite the thousands of naysayers, he managed to defeat all the adverse remarks and alter the public opinions about himself completely. Keaton still revers his cape and cowl and will reign supreme as the best Batman of all times. Before Robert Pattinson takes over the cape to prove his mettle, it is important to acknowledge the man who added unimaginable depth and character to a superhero clouded in an amorphous haze of tragedy, mystery, gloom and exhaustion.
Michael Keaton, take a bow!
“You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!”