In 1989, audiences’ imaginations were captured by one the most memorable movies, not only of the year but in many’s eyes, all time. With a young up and coming director destined for great things, a charismatic lead that even to this day continues to wow us with his talent, and visuals that would revolutionize filmmaking, fans would always remember the timeless classic The Abyss. Unfortunately, though, the box office was dominated that year by Tim Burton’s Batman, a boring over-hyped film that really gets more love than it deserves. 1989’s Batman is sort of like the Kendrick Lamar of superhero movies. While I could write an entire book explaining why 1989’s Batman is a bad film, I’d much rather approach the film from a different angle. Today I’d like to explain why Michael Keaton is the worst Batman of the modern era.
Affleck, Bale, Clooney, and Kilmer all donned the famous bat cowl and all four of them did a better job, in very specific ways, at being Batman than Keaton. Before we get into the reasons why though, I think it’s important to explain just who Batman is. Two of my favorite movies of all time are Kill Bill volume 1 and 2, and it’s in Kill Bill volume 2 where the character of Bill, tells the story of Superman. He explains that Superman is an alien and that Clark Kent is his representation of humans. He pictures them as weak, bumbling nerds. While I’m not entirely sure I agree with this scene, the reason I bring it up is that it also works with Batman. For me, Batman is the character and Bruce Wayne is the alter-ego. Bruce Wayne is a spoiled brat who never had to work hard for the money or the business he has. He’s a great looking guy that gets all the girls, and he only cares about himself. Bruce Wayne is the exact opposite of Batman because he has to be. If Batman was real and he was running around Chicago fighting crime, we’d all assume that the guy behind the mask had to be rich. We’d all immediately start combing through Chicago’s richest names to figure out who fits the bill. That’s why Bruce Wayne has to be so terrible. He fits the bill of who could be Batman perfectly: tall, muscular, billionaire. If anyone in the city had the money to be Batman, it would be him. Because he’s such an awful person though, no one suspects him.
The other actors mentioned all struggled with certain aspects of the character. In my opinion, no one has quite nailed the character completely, though I would argue Bale came the closest and I’ll explain why but let’s go in chronological order starting with Val Kilmer. Kilmer took over the role from Keaton in 1995, just 3 years after Batman Returns released. Fans often overlook Batman Forever when discussing the 90’s era of Batman films as, in their minds, it’s not as “terrible” as Batman and Robin and it’s not as “great” as Batman and Batman Returns. I, however, think there’s a lot of interesting things going on in this film, things that I will discuss in an upcoming article. One of those interesting things that I will discuss though is, in fact, Val Kilmer’s performance as the title character. Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne fits nearly perfectly, at least visually. Ignoring the fact that Brad Pitt existed, in 1995, Val Kilmer was the best looking man on the planet. Looking at Kilmer, you see a man that could easily pull any woman in the room. He’s tall, handsome, and not afraid to walk around the bat cave with his shirt off. He may not have been the wild playboy I would prefer to see from my Bruce Wayne, but he does deliver on everything he’s asked to give when playing the character. He also looks great in the bat suit. Though the suits pre-Nolan were incredibly clunky, restricting all of the actors from being able to turn their heads, Kilmer never seems to get lost in the suit. Though I did think the way he approaches Batman from an acting standpoint might be a little lazy. Doing something even as simple as slightly changing his voice could have gone a long way. I do think his performance from a physical standpoint is really solid though. Anytime Batman is on screen he’s powerful, menacing, and just overall seems like a big deal.
The same can not be said for our next Batman, George Clooney. Sure, everyone, including Clooney himself, has come out to make the claim that he’s the worst Batman of all time. Obviously, I disagree. After Batman Returns failed to make more money at the box office than 1989’s Batman, Warner Brothers felt that the reasoning was simply that Batman Returns was far too dark in tone to attract little kids to the theatre. Danny DeVito does attempts to bite a man’s nose off in the film so I can see where they would get that idea. This resulted in Batman Forever going in the direction of the older tv show starring the fantastic Adam West, which was a much more light-hearted and somewhat of a cheesy style of telling a Batman story, and with the success of Batman Returns the studio decided to go even further into the direction of the classic show with 1997’s Batman and Robin. The film is so comical and ridiculous, all it’s missing from being a straight adaptation of the tv show is having the words “BAM” and “POW” appear on screen anytime Batman punches someone. Realizing what kind of movie you’re watching though, is important when criticizing it. The movie knows it’s cheesy and over the top because that’s what the creators of the film thought the audience wanted. George Clooney is simply playing the role given to him.
Now that we understand what kind of Batman George is trying to play, does he do a good job? Yes and no. At the time of filming Batman and Robin, Clooney is 36 going on 45. Don’t worry, he stops aging right around this point too. There’s a matureness brought to the character of Bruce Wayne that I really enjoy. When Clooney isn’t in the suit, audiences are treated to a character that’s been Batman for years and has really seen it all. George Clooney being able to play a great looking ladies man really shouldn’t surprise anyone though. In 1997, according to the scientists over at People Magazine, George Clooney was literally the sexiest man alive that year, so for Bruce Wayne he’s perfect. Batman, however, not so much. I’m not saying I could beat up George Clooney, but when he’s playing Bruce Wayne, I feel like I could take him and unfortunately, that continues on in the performance when he’s Batman. Blame the director all you want, but Clooney in the suit looks slow, tired, and honestly, the cowl just doesn’t quite look right on him. He’s a good-looking guy but apparently, he needs all of his face to look good. You start covering him up and suddenly not only am I asking if I could beat up George Clooney, but I’m also asking if I’m better looking than George Clooney. When an attempt at playing Batman has me asking such ridiculous questions, you know something has gone wrong.
Something that went incredibly right, however, was casting Christian Bale in Batman Begins. As far as I’m concerned, Bale is the only actor to perfectly perform the role of billionaire party boy Bruce Wayne and the dark knight. Bale’s Bruce Wayne, just like Kilmer and Clooney, looks the part. With his Bruce Wayne, the audience is greeted by a guy who is just flawless. This is a Bruce Wayne that wakes up every morning with a routine: ice pack on his face if he’s a little puffy, 1000 crunches, probably some type of deep pore cleanser for his face, and when he’s in the shower he’s more than likely using a water activated gel cleanser and a honey almond body scrub. I’m just guessing of course, but the point is, he’s practically flawless. I’m taking a shot in the dark here, but when Batman Begins came out in 2005, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that the beauty scientists at People Magazine thought that Bale was the sexiest man alive that year. We also get to see this Bruce Wayne joke around, have some fun. When he’s at dinner parties, he’s actually partying. He’s not the smartest guy in the room, he’s a rich spoiled brat. Remember earlier when I brought up Bill’s speech from Kill Bill Volume 2 about Superman and how I said that speech works more for Batman? There is a scene in Batman Begins that I feel completely supports my opinion. Bruce Wayne is having dinner with a group of rich people. All of them, even Bruce, seems like the worst kind of people. Bruce is rude to a waiter, flaunts his money, and even swims in a fountain with two European models. As he’s leaving the building, he runs into an old friend that he cares about. She views Bruce the same way any normal person would, with disgust. The subtle change that Bale has on his face is really remarkable. The look in his eyes says everything. He hates that he has to put on this show. He’s embarrassed by how he has to act. If he could, he would just be Batman 24 hours a day. That’s why Bale is, in my opinion, so perfect for this. It’s obvious that there’s an act going on when Bruce isn’t wearing the mask.
Bale’s performance when he is wearing the cowl has lead to some criticism though, most notably about “the voice”. I actually think that the more time passes since The Dark Knight trilogy’s release, the easier the gravelly voice choice made by Bale can be defended. Recently in Spider-Man: Homecoming there’s a scene where Spiderman is interrogating someone using a voice modulator. The character he’s interrogating, however, has already spoken to Spiderman before and knows what he sounds like. He’s fully aware that Spider-Man is a young kid, even without having seen his face. Bruce Wayne is the most famous man in the city. If he didn’t change his voice, people would recognize him. His first day out on the job would have been his last. Bale’s Batman is also incredibly intimidating. This isn’t just a Batman that knows kung-fu or is capable of sitting behind a computer doing some light detective work or eating soup. This is a Batman that’s out in the streets, hanging people upside down, and yelling at them. The first time we all saw Batman in Batman Begins, we all thought the same thing, “I don’t want to mess with that Batman. I don’t need that in my life.”
Speaking of an intimidating Batman, Ben Affleck’s Batman might be the scariest Batman we’ve ever seen. He’s 7 feet tall and he’s as wide as a truck. If Andre The Giant had become Batman, this is what we’d get. Considering that he’s only played the character for half of one movie, I personally think it’s way too early to put judgment on Affleck’s performance as “The Batman”. With Justice League coming out this fall and allegedly a standalone Batman film coming in our lifetime, we’ll all have plenty of opportunities to judge this new Batman. I did, however, say that Affleck was a better Batman than Michael Keaton. Why? Well, once again, and I’m sure you’re seeing a trend, Affleck is a movie star, with movie star good looks. This is important for the Bruce Wayne character. In Batman v Superman, we see an older, more mature Bruce Wayne who seems so tired from everything he’s been through. I think that alone is so interesting. It really does bring something new to the character. Affleck, for me, really was the only bright spot to Batman v Superman and that was because of his performance. If only there was a performance like that in the original Batman film.
Alright, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I’m just gonna spend the rest of the article talking about how Michael Keaton isn’t a good looking man and that’s why he was a bad Batman. Well, quite frankly, I’m offended. His looks are only part of the reason why he’s a bad Batman. While we’re on the subject though, let’s get it out of the way. Michael Keaton is just not right for Bruce Wayne. As I’ve said repeatedly, Bruce is a young billionaire playboy that gets the girls. That’s not Michael Keaton. Keaton is an everyman. He does incredible work when asked to play a family man that finds himself in wacky situations: he’s a clone, he’s an arms dealer that dresses up as a bird, he’s a snowman. Playing the most attractive man in the room, however, just isn’t him. As I’ve gone back and tried to figure out why Keaton fails as the character, I don’t truly believe it was entirely his fault. He was put in a position to fail. He was asked to play a character called Batman that isn’t really Batman, at least not the one we all know. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is closer to Howard Hughes. He’s a recluse. The first time he meets Vicky Vale she doesn’t even know who he is. Yes, Keaton does a good job of playing a character that you would never think could be Batman but he just looks so unathletic that the thought of him in the bat suit almost becomes comical. Keaton, at this time, was also suffering from real Jack Nicholson eyebrows. Because of this, there are times throughout the film where we see a Bruce Wayne that comes off more creepy than charming and while this may lead to some good Batman face, it’s certainly not what I want from Bruce Wayne.
The design of the 1989 film’s Bat-suit has truly become iconic and I think that it might be the best actor in the film. In the climax of the 89′ film, Batman and the Joker are fighting on a rooftop. Batman is fighting the man that killed his parents, the man that took everything away from him, yet Keaton is still doing his Batman whisper voice throughout the entire scene. If the suit wasn’t so cool looking, the entire scene would be so flat. We see earlier in the film Keaton’s famous “let’s get nuts” scene and I’m left asking, “where’s that passion? Where’s that anger?” This moment could be one of, if not, the greatest cinematic Batman moment of all time, if there was just an emotion given. Unless he’s standing still, his Batman is bad and his Bruce Wayne is somehow even more intimidating than his Batman. I know so many of us grew up with Keaton being “our Batman” but time has not been kind to his performance. In my opinion, it’s time we all finally realize the truth, Michael Keaton is the worst Batman.
As much as I appreciate you taking the time to write a thought-out piece, I have to (respectfully) disagree; I loved Keaton’s Batman.
No one agrees with me. One day though, we’ll all look back and realize that I was on the right side of history with this argument lol.