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A Look Back At 'Batman' and Why Michael Keaton Is Still Everyone's Favorite

By Brian Richards | DC Movies | August 2, 2023 |

By Brian Richards | DC Movies | August 2, 2023 |


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The Flash has received a lot of attention for a lot of reasons these last few years, and especially in the months leading to its long-awaited release in theaters: Ezra Miller constantly making headlines for all of the wrong reasons, the production delays and script changes due to writers and directors coming and going, cameos from the film being leaked before its release and infuriating critics and audiences as a result, its disappointing box-office performance, the fact that it’s now available to buy and/or rent on digital only a month after its theatrical release. But the film had a couple of bright spots that people still liked and cared about. One was Sasha Calle, who truly deserves another shot at playing Supergirl, though it seems unlikely that Warner Bros. and DC Studios will allow that to happen. And the other was Michael Keaton’s highly anticipated return as Bruce Wayne/Batman. There are many fans who have long believed that Keaton’s portrayal of the Caped Crusader still remains the best live-action version of the character. To understand why those fans feel this way after so many years, and so many incarnations, let’s take a look back at Batman, which opened in theaters June 23, 1989.

Gotham City is overrun with crime on every corner, thanks to mob boss Carl Grissom (the late Jack Palance), and his right-hand man, the ruthless and arrogant Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). Mayor Borg (the late Lee Wallace), its newly appointed district attorney, Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), and police commissioner Gordon (the late Pat Hingle) are doing all they can to stop this seemingly endless crime wave, but with little to no success. The city soon finds himself with a new and mysterious protector: Batman (Keaton), a shadowy vigilante who often appears out of nowhere, and strikes terror into the hearts of every criminal he encounters in the darkest of night. When Batman crosses paths with Napier and his fellow gangsters during a shootout between them and the police at a chemical plant owned by Grissom, it ends with Napier badly injured and falling into a vat of toxic chemicals, which alters his physical appearance and causes him to lose his sanity upon seeing the end result. But when Napier sees how terrifying he now looks, he decides to use his new appearance (along with his wicked and twisted sense of humor) to start terrifying others as The Joker. After killing Grissom, and taking over his empire, he declares war on every other gangster in town on his way to becoming the Clown Prince of Crime. Which leaves only one person who is capable enough to stop him and save Gotham City from destruction: Batman.

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When producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan bought the film rights for Batman in 1979, their hope was to do a film adaptation that was the antithesis of what was seen and done in the Batman television series from the 1960s, and to make films that portrayed Batman as a dark creature of the night who struck fear into the hearts of criminals. Despite several attempts at developing a Batman film (including one with William Holden as Commissioner Gordon, Peter O’Toole as The Penguin, and David Niven as Alfred Pennyworth), it wasn’t until the release and popularity of the groundbreaking graphic novels Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: The Killing Joke that Warner Bros. became interested in making this a reality. They hired director Tim Burton after his success with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and though he wasn’t entirely familiar with comics, he approached writer Sam Hamm, who was a fan of comics, to work on the screenplay, which Hamm would co-write with the late Warren Skaaren.

After going through several drafts, which included appearances by Rupert Thorne, Silver St. Cloud, and Dick Grayson, as well as Bob Kane being hired to act as the film’s creative consultant back when it was only Kane who was credited with the creation of Batman), the script was completed. Casting, on the other hand, wasn’t any easier, as Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Pierce Brosnan, Harrison Ford, and Dennis Quaid were all considered for Batman/Bruce Wayne, with John Lithgow, Tim Curry, David Bowie, Ray Liotta, and James Woods being considered for The Joker. It was Michael Keaton’s performance as a recovering drug addict in the film Clean and Sober that convinced producers that he was the right person for the job, which resulted in numerous Batman fans reacting furiously and writing angry letters to DC Comics, and to genre magazines like Starlog, at the thought of Michael Keaton (who was largely known for comedies like Night Shift and Mr. Mom) as The Dark Knight. As for Jack Nicholson’s casting as Joker? He agreed to take the role when approached, as long as producers and the studio agreed to grant him top billing, to film all of his scenes in a three-week timeframe (while also allowing him to attend home games for the Los Angeles Lakers), and to pay him $8-$10 million, along with a portion of the box-office proceeds (which ended up being between $50-$90 million dollars total).

Before 1989, the last time Batman was seen in live-action form was in the 1960s series starring the late, great Adam West, and Burt Ward as Robin. For his live-action version, Tim Burton chose to introduce Batman to the criminals of Gotham (and to us in the audience) as something out of a horror movie. His pitch-black Batsuit with its massive cape, his ability to be shot at point-blank range and not be injured or killed, and his raspy, ice-cold voice for warning criminals to spread the word to everyone they knew about who he is and what he is. (The fact that criminals would talk about him like he’s a monster lurking underneath their beds, and willing to strike at any possible moment, right before we first see him? A genius move, and it only added to Batman’s power and mystique in the film.)

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As for multi-billionaire Bruce Wayne, Keaton portrays him as a ditzy oddball who lacks social skills, or anything resembling swagger, and doesn’t seem to know how to act around people, or even remember his own name at times. It’s sometimes hard to tell just how much of this is actually an act, and how much of it is what he’s really like, as if he’d much rather be in the Batcave and prepare himself for another night of bringing all nine circles of Hell to the criminal underworld. And it isn’t until he experiences the possibility of love, while also realizing that the man who murdered his parents in front of his 8-year-old eyes has now become his deadliest enemy, that we see the weight he’s carrying when it comes to being Batman, and that this path he chooses to walk every night is clearly not an easy one for him.

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The Joker gets his very own horror movie introduction later in the film, as we first see his newly disfigured hand slowly emerge from the vat of chemicals like a zombie in a Lucio Fulci movie, and again when we finally see him as “Joker,” and learn what it is about his appearance that made his sanity disappear the moment he looked in the mirror. It doesn’t take long for Joker to accept who he now is, and what he now looks like, and take full advantage of it. Whether it’s with joy buzzers that fatally electrocute the victim, wearing flowers on his lapel that squirt corrosive acid, tossing razor-sharp pens into the throats of his enemies (“The pen…is truly mightier than the sword!”), or poisoning hygiene products so that anyone who uses them will literally die laughing. Nicholson is clearly having a blast playing The Joker, as he steals every scene, and shows how much fun his character is having while unleashing his reign of terror, even if it means he’s the only one having fun and laughing maniacally while doing so.

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Kim Basinger (who replaced Sean Young, due to injuries she suffered in a horseback-riding accident) does her best as photojournalist Vicki Vale, and she looks unsurprisingly stunning while doing so, but her role mostly limits her to being a damsel in distress, and screaming repeatedly while being rescued by Batman, or being terrorized by Joker. Though her scream is a pretty impressive one, and it does make me wish she had appeared in a horror movie or two.

As for the rest of the supporting cast: Robert Wuhl as Alexander Knox doesn’t really bring much to the table, and is another example of how nearly every stand-up comedian back in the Eighties and Nineties would show up in movies as a result of their agents keeping them booked and busy; the late Michael Gough as Alfred, who cares greatly about Bruce, and supports his mission, but has no interest in seeing him lose his life or any chance of personal happiness because of it; Billy Dee Williams appears briefly as Harvey Dent, though we never get to see anything in his performance that hints at his future transformation as Two-Face, long before Tommy Lee Jones ended up replacing him in the role for Batman Forever, and whose version of Two-Face went toe-to-toe with Jim Carrey as The Riddler in chewing every last piece of scenery.

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Batman also blessed us with one of the coolest-looking Batmobiles ever made for film, and one which had lots of kids (myself included) begging for it to appear underneath their Christmas trees once it began appearing in toy stores everywhere. Even if its first scene with Batman and Vicki evading The Joker’s goons in a car chase shows the Batmobile practically moving with the speed of a golf cart, yet still requires a grappling hook in order to complete a left turn without crashing.

There are many things about Batman that have contributed to its greatness, and allowed it to stand the test of time. The production design by the late Anton Furst who not only helped design the Batmobile, but also designed the look of Gotham City, making it look and feel like how Hamm described it in the screenplay: “As if Hell erupted through the pavement and built a city.” The cinematography by Roger Pratt, enhancing every scene by making the world of Batman feel like a film noir on steroids. Danny Elfman’s phenomenal score, particularly the theme, which is still considered the definitive theme music for Batman. (Including by Elfman himself, hence why he briefly used it in Joss Whedon’s theatrical version of Justice League.)

And there are also some things about Batman that are not too great, and have aged like a glass of milk left outside during the summer. The Batsuit being designed in a way that it didn’t allow Keaton to turn his neck, hence him having to shift his entire body in order to look left and right. The fight scenes between Batman and Joker’s henchmen. (Say what you will about the fight sequences in The Dark Knight trilogy, but these were significantly worse.) Batman flying through the skies of Gotham City in the Batwing, and somehow missing every single shot when he fires machine guns and missiles at The Joker, who is standing still and taunting him in the middle of an empty street. And don’t ask how Joker’s goons somehow showed up in the towering Gotham City Cathedral, got all the way upstairs before Joker and Vicki do, position themselves for battle against Batman, and do all of this without being informed that their presence is needed, and in that specific location.

“Batman doesn’t kill! Batman shouldn’t kill!” It’s a rule that Batman has always lived by as part of his crimefighting career, and is largely why Commissioner Gordon agrees to work with him. And it’s a rule that works wonderfully in stories where Batman is pushed to the limit when it comes to what he’s willing to do to stop the very worst members of his rogues’ gallery from inflicting harm on Gotham City, if not the world. But if fans are going to keep crucifying director Zack Snyder for his version of Batman in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and his unexpectedly brutal treatment of criminals (which was the whole point of his character arc in the film), then they really should save some nails for Tim Burton, and for the scenes of Batman killing his enemies in both of his films.

Of course, we can’t discuss Batman without talking about the soundtrack album primarily written, produced, and performed by the late and legendary Prince. Much like every other album made by The Purple One, there was nothing conventional about the music crafted for the film, and opinions still vary amongst his fans as to whether this was one of his better efforts. But the album went double platinum upon its release, and featured two hit singles, “Batdance” and “Partyman,” though it was a bigger hit in the U.K. than it was in the U.S. (I also begged my mother to buy me the soundtrack on cassette, even though my 9-year-old self had no business whatsoever listening to a song like “Scandalous.”)

Since Batman opened in theaters to critical acclaim (it was referred to as “the movie of the decade” by critic Erik Preminger) and box-office success, Warner Bros. has been all about replicating that success with the character ever since. 1992 saw the release of its sequel, Batman Returns (with Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, Danny DeVito as The Penguin, and Christopher Walken as Max Shreck). When that film was considered too dark and not that family-friendly, Burton and Keaton were replaced by Warner Bros. with director Joel Schumacher and Val Kilmer, and Batman Forever (which was a lot less dark and a lot more family-friendly, even with the infamous Bat-buttshot) was released in 1995, featuring Jim Carrey as The Riddler, Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face (who did not get along with Carrey behind the scenes because, according to Carrey himself, Jones told him: “I hate you. I really don’t like you, and I cannot sanction your buffoonery.”), and Chris O’Donnell as Dick Grayson/Robin, who is the very definition of being extra when it comes to drying and hanging up his laundry.

The box-office failure and largely negative reception to Batman & Robin in 1997 led to George Clooney reconsidering what to do with his acting career, and spending the rest of his days apologizing for his performance as Batman (fortunately, he got his groove back when he starred opposite Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight). It also made Warner Bros. decide to reboot Batman altogether, and take a more serious and grounded approach to making Batman films so that they’d regain their popularity. The director they chose to make that happen was Christopher Nolan, who went to direct and co-write The Dark Knight trilogy, and whose impact on comic book films, and on the rest of Hollywood, is still being felt to this very day.

2016 saw Ben Affleck suit up as Batman/Bruce Wayne for director Zack Snyder in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. When Affleck chose to exit the solo Batman film he was also planning to co-write and direct, Warner Bros. rebooted the character once again, with Robert Pattinson as the title character in The Batman, which was directed and co-written by Matt Reeves.

One of the best and most successful adaptations of Batman that appeared onscreen after the release of Batman in 1989 wasn’t live-action, nor did it make its debut in movie theaters. Batman: The Animated Series premiered on Fox in September 1992, and for many Batman fans, it is considered to be the greatest and most accurate version of Batman outside of comics. When those fans imagine words being spoken by Batman, they hear only one indistinguishable voice, and it belongs to the late, great Kevin Conroy.

There have been many actors who played Batman onscreen in live-action, and there will of course be others in the years to come. James Gunn, co-CEO of DC Studios, announced earlier this year that the upcoming film Batman: The Brave and the Bold will introduced the newest version of Batman for the largely rebooted DCU, and that it will be helmed by The Flash director Andy Muschietti. (I have nothing against Muschietti, and I’m curious to see what he has in store, but if someone with experience in directing comic book films was going to get that job, I would’ve liked it to be Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan.) But for millions of fans whose discovery of Batman was from watching the 1989 film for the very first time, Keaton’s version will always remain their favorite. You can scoff at this and claim that it’s only because of nostalgia, or you can consider that those fans remain completely impressed by and enamored with Keaton’s masterful performance as likable and socially awkward Bruce Wayne, and as the enigmatic and terrifying Batman. His role as Batman/Bruce Wayne is just one of many reasons why Michael Keaton is held in such high regard by his peers in Hollywood, and by his fans who appreciate the man and his impressive body of work. For those who need further proof, here is the closing statement he gave in his commencement speech at his alma mater, Kent State University, in 2018.

Batman is now streaming on HBO Max.