The biggest compliment I can give Michael Keaton is that he single-handedly saves The Flash from being the mediocre train wreck it would be without his presence. Keaton steps back into Batman’s boots with surprising and confident ease, playing a natural progression to the character he last played in Tim Burton’s masterful 1992 sequel, Batman Returns. In fact, it seems like no time has passed since the last time we saw him as Batman.
Keaton wasn’t the first actor to play Batman — that honor goes to Lewis G. Wilson, who played the Caped Crusader in the 1945 Columbia Pictures serial. However, Keaton is by far the best live-action version of Batman, mainly because he understands he is playing two characters at once. And while other worthy actors have donned the cape and cowl – Val Kilmer, Christian Bale, and most recently, Robert Pattinson – none have matched Keaton’s unique ability to make Batman seem real.
What makes Keaton special?
Keaton’s performance is so great and unique because we can’t talk about his Batman without also acknowledging his Bruce Wayne. While most other Batman actors seem to focus solely on the Bat while neglecting the man, Keaton’s approach is even and fair: he knows that Bruce is as crucial to the story as Batman.
The idea that “Bruce is the mask” is not new, but it entered the mainstream following Christopher Nolan’s hyperrealistic take on the Caped Crusader. Nolan and Christian Bale treated Bruce like a nuisance, an unwanted presence meant to distract from the “real” gravitas of Batman. Similarly, the director/actor duos of Zack Snyder/Ben Affleck and Matt Reeves/Robert Pattinson kept this vision, operating under the perception that Batman is where the character thrives. However, projects like Batman:Mask of the Phantasm –– arguably the best Batman movie ever — confirm that Bruce is just as compelling and necessary to tell the story, and sidelining him results in an uneven and unfaithful depiction of DC’s greatest hero.
What Keaton does so wonderfully is make Bruce as prominent as Batman. His portrayal in Burton’s movies is cheeky, charming, and self-assured, attractive enough to command your attention, yet distant enough to prevent you from getting overly familiar. Keaton’s genius relies on playing a fake version of Bruce — the one he puts up for the cameras — while still embodying his struggles, insecurities, traumas, and desires. He plays Bruce playing a version of Bruce. It’s a stroke of genius on his part and the main reason why he is the best actor to play Batman.
The Bat in action
Burton’s Batman had a severe thing going against him: his suit was wildly impractical. Thus, Keaton’s Batman was ridiculously stiff, fighting against Gotham’s bad guys with the flexibility of a cement log. And while one could excuse it as a quirk of a 1980s Batman adaptation, it was an issue that worked against Keaton’s version of the character.
Luckily, The Flash fixes this problem. Keaton’s Batman is now dynamic and agile, fighting with his safe, stiff style, but showing far more range of motion than his notoriously restrictive suit allowed him in the Burton movies. He still walks and moves rather robotically, but at least he can now turn his head — progress! Unluckily, The Flash offers a less-than-stellar portrayal of Batman, painting him as a bad strategist and lackluster hero. Both versions, Keaton and Affleck, are done dirty by the film’s unfocused plot and uneven tone, and if Batman comes out unscathed, it’s entirely because of Keaton’s committed performance – Affleck is barely there, but he plays a buffoonish version of the character before disappearing, quite literally.
Still, Keaton, ever the consummate pro, protects Batman from The Flash‘s stupidity through sheer willpower. I think you can really tell adifference with old-school actors — those who approach a character with respect for their craft, rather than with some wish-fulfilling desire to be a hero or a shameless attempt to bulk up their résumés with franchise material. Keaton isn’t phoning it in as Batman; he gives it his all, even during the sillier scenes. He isn’t there to collect a paycheck, but rather to play a role, and he plays it well.
If anything, The Flash should be proof enough that Keaton remains undefeated as Batman and Bruce Wayne. James Gunn’s DCU is supposedly making a Batman/Damian Wayne project, The Brave and the Boldbut considering Keaton remains flawless as the World’s Greatest Detective, why not make the project fans have wanted for years: a live-action Batman Beyond project with Keaton as Bruce Wayne? Throw in Michelle Pfeiffer, who absolutely deserves to return as Catwoman, and you have an irresistible project that would be more exciting than anything DC has come up with for the past 10 years or so. But one thing’s for sure: Keaton deserves to return as Batman because he is the best actor for the role. Bale, Affleck, Pattinson — they’re all fine in playing certain aspects of the role. But if you want a fully developed and comprehensive take on Batman, you call Michael Keaton. The best part is he’ll always answer.
The Flash is now playing in theaters. Batman and Batman Returns are currently streaming on Max.