If you’re going to treat the Batman story in its purest sense and look at Bruce Wayne as the tortured individual who bore witness to the cavalier and nightmarish murder of his parents, Michael Keaton truly was the only actor of the smorgasbord of actors strapped into the cape, who truly sold this. Before we get into the nuances of the first two Batman movies and Keaton’s performance, let’s spend some time hating on Val Kilmer, George Clooney and Christian Bale.
Val Kilmer was too much of a pretty boy to play Batman. His perfectly sculptured lips protruded from beneath the mask in a way that screamed male model/lacrosse player. He took on the pose of dark, troubled and disturbed, kind of like the way Calvin Klein models do, when they lean against something. Quick with the witty repartees, the only way he would’ve made a good Bruce Wayne is if Warner Brothers completely adapted the Batman series into a romantic comedy about a charming, but unlucky in love guy who happens to wear a cape.
George Clooney. Dear God, I don’t even know where to begin. “Batman and Robin” was such a laughably, cringe-ably bad movie that Warner Brothers should have made a personal, tear-stained apology, to any fan of the series or comic book. George Clooney put on the batsuit and appeared to think that was all he had to do to play this character. In fact he acted like he was back on Roseanne, playing Booker Brooks, the factory manager. I know, I barely remember either.
Christian Bale. The biggest problem was that voice (yes, I went there, if you want to leave a hateful comment about my lack of originality, scroll down to the bottom of the article). I’m sorry, I know that actors are supposed to be able to reinvent themselves and convince audiences that they’re suddenly different people, but come on. I kept wondering why Laurie from Little Women was talking like he was playing the dominant partner in some 1980’s era S&M flick? All jokes aside, the real problem with Bale’s performance was he took the heart of the Bruce Wayne/Batman dilemma, and eliminated it. Batman is the most fascinating superhero because he really is this normal guy (delectably troubled) parading around like a bat. Bale would show us the “normal” Bruce Wayne, who never seemed dark, just tired and at best, grumpy. Then he’d jump into the Batsuit and sound like Robocop. There was no bridge, not even a fragile one, between the two personas.
While comic books fans famously protested the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman, claiming that someone who played Mr. Mom and The Dream Team could not possibly play the strong and tortured Bruce Wayne, they neglect to consider two very important things. Namely, any actor who would sign up to play the title role in Mr. Mom, clearly has some masochistic issues that need attention. And two, Keaton was a tour de force in the title role of Beetlejuice, which was a comically morbid film about death, sick, twisted and subversive. Beautifully so.
Burton's Batman films truly gave us the sense of the ungovernable Gotham, not by telling the spectator, "Gee whiz, there's so much crime here" but by creating a shadowy, dissident underworld. Burton's films never let us forget that Bruce Wayne was the uneasy soul who pranced around town in a batsuit, and that's not exactly normal. Keaton was the only Batman who subtly portrayed the repression present in each syllable and glance of traumatized and bizarre Bruce Wayne, the grief behind each smile or punch. He was the only actor to portray Bruce Wayne who was able to convey volumes of his past and present pain and anxiety, with a flicker of his eyes, a feat I have yet to see any of his followers replicate. And I’m confident I never will.