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A Look Back at Burton and Keaton’s Batman (and Bruce Wayne)…

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

With the release of The Dark Knight Rises just around the corner, it seems like Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Batman is getting a lot of attention and generating a lot of reflection. I have to admit, I think that the director’s take on the character presents the best live action interpretation ever, and probably the single best take on the character since Batman: The Animated Series during the nineties. However, I can’t help but feel that Tim Burton’s take on the character gets brushed aside a little too easily, dismissed from consideration far too quickly. In particular, I’m especially fond of Michael Keaton’s superb central performance as Bruce Wayne and Batman. While I wouldn’t necessarily rank his performance as better than Christian Bale or Kevin Conroy, I do think that Keaton’s Batman (and especially his Bruce Wayne) get unfairly overlooked.

It’s a tried-and-tested argument that Keaton’s take on Batman is somewhat overwhelmed by the performances of the actors opposite him. Jack Nicholson steals Batman. Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer and Christopher Walken conspire to steal Batman Returns. It’s a legitimate observation. The roles and the performances are much louder than Keaton’s, much more consciously over-the-top. However, that’s not an element unique to Keaton’s Batman. Heath Ledger gave the performance everybody was talking about in The Dark Knight.

That said, I do think that Batman Begins was more clearly constructed around Christian Bale than either of the Burton films were around Keaton. The first half of Batman Begins really lacks a major antagonist with a significant amount of dialogue, and the result is that the movie is more tightly dedicated to building a comprehensive psychological profile of Bruce Wayne. I think that Batman Begins stands as the best superhero origin film yet produced because we actually understand why a grown man would dress up like a bat to fight crime. His motivations are comprehensible, relatable and accessible.

Nolan and Bale’s Batman is a relatively normal guy, albeit one who has devoted himself fanatically to a particular cause. He’s got issues, lot’s of issues, but one senses that he could have grown up to be a fully functioning member of society if things had gone a little differently. I’m not talking about his parents surviving in the alley. I mean if Alfred had perhaps been a tiny bit better suited to parenthood, when placed in that impossible situation. In fact, I think you can trace the origin of Batman down to that moment where a struggling Alfred tries to console his young charge by focusing his misplaced guilt and responsibility externally. “It was nothing you did; it was him, and him alone.”

In contrast, Burton and Keaton’s Batman feels quite a bit different. There is nothing normal about this guy. While Bale’s Batman is fundamentally “broken”, but still seems to harbour the smallest hope of “repair”, Burton and Keaton’s Batman is too far gone. This is a guy who sleeps upside down in his own bedroom. In contrast to most depictions of Bruce Wayne, Keaton’s take on the character doesn’t really try to blend into Gotham’s social scene at all. Most takes on the character revel in playing the drunken billionaire playboy, but Keaton seems to have absolutely no interest.

We see the character host a fundraiser at the start of the first movie, but that’s about it. Wayne maintains such a low profile that he doesn’t seem to hang around with the Mayor or Commissioner Gordon. Even the reporter Knox doesn’t recognise Wayne when he first approaches. Despite being a billionaire, Wayne is actually remarkably anonymous during those early scenes. It’s telling that Burton’s films introduce Batman first, in a scene where the character vocally declares, “I’m Batman!” In contrast, during Wayne’s debut, the character actually seems uncertain of his own identity. “Could you tell me which one of these guys is Bruce Wayne?” Vicki asks. Wayne responds, “I’m not sure.” Digging through the paper’s records, Vicki can’t seem to find anything on Bruce himself, despite the fact he’s apparently one of the wealthiest of Gotham’s citizens. “There’s nothing in these files. Who is this guy?”

That’s actually something I really like about Keaton’s portrayal, and it’s actually quite absent from most other takes on Batman. It seems like the character has no idea how to act when he is Bruce Wayne. Witness the delightfully awkward interactions with Vicki Vale – Bruce actually seems quite proud when she laughs at one of his off-the-cuff witticisms, or how he can’t articulate “I am Batman” to her. There’s no real attempt to disguise himself either to pretend to fit in more than he does. Even the other characters notice Wayne’s eccentricity and awkwardness, although none connect it to Batman. “The rich,” Knox observes. “You know why they’re so odd? Because they can afford to be.”

There’s a rather wonderful shot at the opening of Batman Returns, when the city flashes the Bat signal into the sky, and we cut to the remote and isolated Wayne Manor at the edge of Gotham City. Bruce Wayne is just sitting there, in is armchair. When the light shines into the room, he stands up, as if responding to some call. I think that’s perhaps the defining image of Burton and Keaton’s Bruce Wayne. He lives in such isolation that he can shine the Bat signal into his living room without jeopardising his secret identity, and he seems to just sit around waiting for an excuse to be Batman.

We get very little reason why this version of the character chose Bats. Nolan and Bale’s Bruce Wayne chose to dress up as Batman to inspire fear in others, but there’s a throwaway line in the first Burton film that suggests Keaton’s Bruce Wayne had a different reason for mimicking that flying rodent. “They’re great survivors,” he tells Vale as they walk through the cave. There’s the recurring idea throughout Burton’s two films that Bruce is a child who never grew up (as opposed to Bale playing Bruce as a child who grew up too quickly), and I can see that child latching on to the security of a creature that can survive in complete darkness and dedicating his life to it, as a way of expressing some deep-seated “otherness.”

Keaton’s Batman is a Burton protagonist, which means that he is fundamentally different from most of the world around him. It’s not just about fighting crime and defeating evil – dressing as a giant Bat is some form of self-expression. It’s telling that, unlike just about any superhero series ever, Burton’s Batman never really contemplates giving up being Batman. Even Bale’s Bruce Wayne “doesn’t want to do this forever.” In contrast, Batman is an essential part of Keaton’s character, and I actually like that idea – that Bruce Wayne is so fundamentally different from those around him that he works quite well as a Burton protagonist.

Note, for example, the Burton’s first film gives us a version of the Joker who repeatedly “disguises” himself as a normal person with cheap make-up. (He does it three times – to address the mob, to meet Vale and to broadcast his message to the city.) The idea is clearly that the Joker is pretending to be normal, as a counterpoint to Batman pretending to be normal. To Burton and Keaton, Bruce Wayne is just as superficial a disguise as the Joker’s fake tan.

Towards the end of the second film, the Penguin tackles Batman, declaring, “You’re just jealous because I’m a real freak and you have to wear a mask.” The Penguin disguises himself as Oswald Cobblepot, heir to a rich and powerful Gotham family. In many ways, the Penguin works better here as a counterpoint to Batman than he ever did in any other medium. Both are essentially children who never grew up (witness Bruce’s response to Alfred’s vichyssoise, for example, or the fact the Penguin drives a vehicle modelled on his one childhood toy), although the Penguin focuses his own parent-related issues into murderous rage while Bruce deals with them by dressing as a giant bat and fighting crime.

In a way, I think that the complete lack of chemistry between Michael Keaton and Kim Bassinger in the first film actually plays into this idea quite well. Vale was clearly written as a character who could love Bruce Wayne, as opposed to Batman. She spends time bonding with Alfred about Bruce’s childhood, she mourns the loss of Bruce’s parents. However, she’s completely uncomfortable with Batman, as most normal people would be. She cowers from him even when he’s just given her vital information in the Bat-Cave. It’s no wonder the character disappeared between films.

In contrast, Keaton and Pfeiffer work almost infinitely better together. Both Bruce and Selina are, as typical with Burton protagonists, two profoundly broken characters dealing with the world in their own way. Both attend a masquerade ball as themselves, without masks. Because, according to Burton, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle are the masks. She jokes that there’s a bed around the departement story somewhere. “What say we…” she begins. He finishes, “… we take off our custumes?” That’s all that Bruce and Selina are. While I’m not entirely sure that Batman and Catwoman aren’t just costumes as well, there’s a sense that they are at least as important to the characters as any other identity.

I actually really like Keaton’s take on Batman. I think it’s a decidedly different approach to the character than any other actor, and I think that Keaton succeeds perfectly in channelling Batman as a Burton protagonist. While Nolan and Bale present Batman as something akin to a means to an end where, if the speculation is to be believed, Bruce could give up being Batman for eight years because he’s accomplished his goals, Burton and Keaton’s Batman simply could not do that. There’s a sense that Bruce is a character who is fundamentally different from those around him, and who uses his Batman costume as something of a coping method, a way of expressing his “otherness.”

4 Responses

  1. When “Batman” first came out, despite loving the movie, I was disappointed that so little was made of Batman’s origin (not to mention the mistake of making Joker the shooter of Bruce’s parents). A lot of criticism was thrown at the film for it really being “Joker” rather than about the title character. However, as you pointed out, the movie is about how Bruce Wayne is a secretive person and is in reality a non-entity–Batman is his true personality. At one point in “Batman Returns,” he even comes to terms with the fact that Bruce can’t exist without Batman; the two parts of his personality are intertwined. This is fascinating take on the character. Burton’s films tell us everything about the villains and almost nothing about the hero. In contrast, Nolan’s films tell us everything about the hero and the villains are the ones who are kept mysterious.

  2. Keaton needs a comeback. He’s a lot of fun. His Batman has a sense of humor the many others lack. Great post!

  3. ‘That’s actually something I really like about Keaton’s portrayal, and it’s actually quite absent from most other takes on Batman. It seems like the character has no idea how to act when he is Bruce Wayne.’

    totally spot on. that’s what makes Keaton such a great Batman

  4. I’d even go so far as to say that Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne has to act quite a bit when he dons the mask and cape, just as Keaton does when he’s wearing his Wayne costume. His Bruce, unlike Keaton’s, came to terms with vengeance and rage at an early stage in his development. He does what he does – continuing, despite his own desires – because he feels a moral obligation to do so. Perhaps this is why Bale’s, “I’m Batman,” growl doesn’t carry the same convincing venom that Keaton’s does.

    It’s artifice. Bale is largely playing the angry monster for the purpose of psychological advantage over his adversaries. Keaton revels in the justice he deals out and is enslaved to the memory of his profound loss.

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