What makes a man into the ideal Batman? Well, there’s the murdered parents, of course, we’ve seen that enough times, in enough slow-motion close-ups to know that’s clearly essential. But over the years many Bruce Waynes have come and gone and the debate still rages about which square jaw fit best in the cape and cowl, as evidenced by this very recent poll that ranked Val Kilmer dead last (understandable) and straight-up omitted Adam West (an actual crime). Is Christian Bale‘s two-voiced Dark Knight the G.B.O.A.T.? Ben Affleck‘s homicidal crossfit ninja? Maybe it’ll be Robert Pattinson‘s upcoming early-days rookie-bat? Honestly, everyone to take on the role has suitably embodied the Bat in one form or another. But reader, I submit to you that Michael Keaton in Tim Burton‘s Batman understood something vital about the character on a cave-deep level when the film first premiered 30 years ago today, and he understood it better than anyone has in the time since.
Michael Keaton understood that Bruce Wayne is out of his goddamn mind.
Often lost amid the suave alter-ego, the money, the gadgets, the car, and the extremely handsome face is the fact that Bruce Wayne is a millionaire who chooses to spend his nights dressed as a bat elbowing criminals into unconsciousness. Bruce Wayne is not well. He lives in a world where costumed vigilantism is common, true, but his peers are gods. Myths. Space cops. Bruce Wayne’s superpower is a hyper-focused pathology that forces him to sit in a cave beneath his mansion crafting throwing stars and grappling hooks. This man devised a plan to kill every single one of his friends just in case.
But it’s this neurosis that makes the character fascinating enough to keep telling his stories in-page and on-screen 75+ years after he first swung into pop culture consciousness. He’s the type of “off” that we secretly wish we could switch on, a type of dangerous, simmering fixation on a single goal. “Dangerous” being the operative word; a perfect Bruce Wayne should still feel dangerous smiling in a suit and tie, feel like he’s very close to an edge at all times. There’s a reason why the Joker is Batman’s go-to villain. I don’t know how many zoology books you’ve read, but you’ll be surprised to learn the natural enemy of the bat is not a clown. The Joker is a funhouse mirror of what Batman could be with just the slightest gust of wind in the wrong direction.
Which brings us back to Keaton’s portrayal in the 1989 Batman. (Which, unsurprisingly utilized the Joker, played by Jack Nicholson.) It is a weird performance in a weird movie that was a lot darker at the time than it comes off now. Batman premiered more than a decade before Reddit was a thing and #ReleaseTheSnyderCut was but a glint in some poster’s eye, but fans at the time still weren’t thrilled about Keaton’s casting.
“Michael Keaton is no Batman. Or so a vast sector of the bat community has vehemently asserted,” Bill Zehme wrote in Rolling Stone at the time. “Upon learning last year that Michael Keaton would, indeed, be Batman – the definitive cinematic Batman, no less – batheads were disconsolate. In Keaton’s hands, they felt, Batman would become a smirky wisenheimer. Mr. Mom in a cowl, they thought…The common refrain among disbelievers: Keaton has no chin, not enough hair; he’s too scrawny, too doughy, too short, too glib, too distracting.”
Hair and height aside, Keaton brought something to the role that was neither glib or distracting; it was unnerving. It’s a tick the actor brings to all his most memorable roles, whether it’s an aging Broadway actor, a vulture, a circus owner, or McDonald’s magnate. There’s just something about this guy, a weird menace-charm. Keaton has an eye-and-eyebrow combination that makes it a miracle he’s never played the devil, a kind of innate trickster quality that made him perfect for Burton’s Beetlejuice just a year before Batman. His characters always seem like their in on some odd, uncomfortable joke. For his Bruce Wayne, that joke just happens to be the thing he can’t quite bring himself to say to Kim Basinger‘s Vicki Vale—”I’m Batman”—and it’s less a joke and more a crippling obsession.
The film paints this Batman as an oddball from the jump. The opening scene sees Batman watching a family get mugged from a rooftop, super casual, only accosting the criminals after they’ve gathered their loot. This Bruce doesn’t schmooze at his Wayne Manor galas, he retreats to his lair in a tactical turtleneck to watch the dozens of screens trained on his party guests. When Vale wakes up in Bruce’s bed she finds she’s alone, because Bruce is hanging upside down from a pull-up bar. Like a bat. A very normal bat.
It builds and builds, Burton doling out the weirdness as he does with Keaton grinning along, until that scene. If you know the movie, you know the scene. Bruce, looking to distract the Joker in Vale’s apartment, just sort of explodes, wide-eyed with fire poker in hand. “You wanna get nuts?!” he screams. “Let’s get nuts.”
It’s perfect. Not just because it’s an all-time great freakout from an actor with a long list of freakouts, but also the subtly of Nicholson’s Joker—a homicidal gangster clown—giving Bruce the ol’ “what is this guy’s deal?” look. At that moment, you see, really, really see, the fiery vortex of anger that drives a person to dress up in a costume and roundhouse kick criminals in the face for justice.
It’s a madness that most Bruce Waynes have at least touched on. Bale’s Bruce oozed the type of obsessiveness that drives Olympic athletes to perfect themselves physically. Affleck’s Bruce was ruined by grief like someone still pounding on a casket while it’s lowered into the ground. George Clooney‘s Bruce from Batman & Robin was clearly insane for agreeing to be in Batman & Robin. But most of the modern-day Bat-men are mad in the pursuit of their own normal. Nobody captured why Bruce Wayne can never be normal as long as Gotham needs him quite like Keaton and Burton, not as well as Batman‘s loud moments, and definitely not as well as one of the film’s quieter moments, an exchange between Vicki and Bruce:
“Well, I mean let’s face it, you’re not exactly normal, are you?”
“Not exactly a normal world, is it?”
Some sound advice for RBattz, coming from a truly un-sound man wearing a cape and tights.