35 Years Later, Michael Keaton’s Batman Remains Undefeated As The One True Dark Knight

Keep your Batfleck and Battinson, because Michael Keaton’s Batman is still the greatest Caped Crusader of all time.

Comic book movies changed in June 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s Batman, starring Michael Keaton as the titular character and the indomitable Jack Nicholson as the Joker. While most fans might point to Richard Donner’s Superman as the defining film of the genre, Batman showed the mature potential of these characters, appealing to both young and old. Bat-mania took over the world, resulting in a godsend soundtrack provided by Prince, sequels, an animated series, more merch than common sense. First and foremost, though, the film gave audiences the quintessential Batman in the form of Keaton.

But what makes him so special and able to transcend generations? Let’s take a look. 

No one gave him the chance in hell

Just like drivers drive, actors act. However, there’s a segment of the audience who forgets this key detail. For them, a performer is solely associated with one role, and that’s that. Case in point: Michael Keaton. When he was cast as the Dark Knight, the fan reaction was: “Mr. Mom is Batman?!” Now, remember, this was an era before it was all too easy to jump onto the computer, create a hashtag, and send hate mail to executives and actors across multiple platforms, so people had to show their ire the good old-fashioned way: Via snail mail. Over 50,000 protest letters were sent to Warner Bros. about the casting of Keaton in Batman, pleading and begging for everyone to see the error of their ways and to avoid disaster.

Warner Bros.

Regardless, the studio didn’t capitulate to the mob’s demands. Burton and the crew stuck to their guns, putting their faith in Keaton as an actor – because why wouldn’t they? He’s an actor for Krypton’s sake! No one could have predicted the level of success that followed, though. Critics and fans raved about Batman, which became the highest-grossing film of 1989 and made superheroes cool on the big screen again. The best part? Keaton made the naysayers eat every word they printed in their protest letters to Warner Bros. As The Hollywood Reporter wrote: “Keaton delivers an especially impressive and deeply nuanced characterization.”

Keaton worried about Bruce Wayne – not Batman

There’s a part of the comic book fandom that sees Batman as the true self and Bruce Wayne as the mask. Keaton sees it the other way around, though. Speaking to GQ, Keaton said, “I never thought about Batman. It was always Bruce Wayne. Who’s Bruce Wayne? You start with that.” As Keaton explained, Bruce sees his parents gunned down in front of him as a child, deeply affecting his psyche and thirst for vengeance. His story becomes about exploring that aspect of the character and what the agony does to him. The suit acts as an extension of his trauma – not a direct separation.

Warner Bros.

This is something that many actors haven’t been able to master, as they try to portray two different characters on screen à la less nefarious versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. However, Keaton’s portrayal brings a subtle humanity to both Bruce and Batman as he creates a unified persona. Of course, he’s brooding and consumed with protecting Gotham City and honoring a vow he made to his parents a long time ago, but he’s still a flesh-and-blood human being underneath it all – Keaton’s Batman feels pain, heartache, and joy. It’s those small moments where Bruce brings levity or falls for Selina Kyle that connect him with the audience. Yeah, he’s Batman, but he isn’t an emotionless putz who is incapable of doing anything else except hemorrhaging criminals’ brains.

Michael Keaton’s Batman deserves a better send-off than The Flash

Andy Muschietti’s The Flash sold itself as a multiversal epic to cap off the previous era of DC films and pave the way for the future. Instead, it’s much ado about frustratingly nothing, and what most people remember from it are the ghastly CGI sequences and George Clooney’s cringe-worthy Batman cameo. The only bright spot in this movie that went through Warner Bros.’s meatgrinder of filmmaking-by-committee is Keaton’s Batman. Even three decades later, he still knows how to nail all the emotional beats of the character and outshines all the other Dark Knight actors in The Flash.

Keaton was set to reprise his role in Batgirl, but after the rough cut of the film was taken into a witness protection program, it’s unlikely he’ll ever appear in a DC movie again. Pity. Especially since a live-action Batman Beyond movie is there for the taking, and it’s also the right time for Keaton to step into the role of the elder Bruce Wayne who mentors the next Dark Knight, Terry McGinnis. Equally important, it’s a respectful way to have the actor close the chapter on this character rather than die in a Groundhog Day-influenced scene like he did in The Flash. It’s not too late to make it happen – and it should – because Keaton’s Batman deserves to get nuts one last time.

About the author

Sergio Pereira

Sergio is an entertainment journalist who has written about movies, television, video games, and comic books for over a decade and a half. Outside of journalism, he is an award-winning copywriter, screenwriter, and novelist. He holds a degree in media studies and psychology.