Michael Keaton has been taking it easy these past few years. It's hard to call his performance in Birdman a "comeback" because it's not like he disappeared. Even in the middling remake of RoboCop, Keaton managed to turn in fun work. We just haven't seen him chew into really juicy drama lately, which is exactly what he gets to do in the exceptional Birdman.
His charm serves his latest film well. He plays an actor struggling with his ego, fame, personal life and more. He's not the most likable of characters, but Keaton's energy and charisma helps you immensely empathize with Riggan Thomson. Thomson was used to be a huge movie star. He played Birdman, a superhero that spawned a successful trilogy, which paved the way for the likes of Robert Downey Jr. and others.
Understandably some will draw comparisons between Thomson and Keaton, but his casting is likely just a coincidence. Whatever the case, Keaton, like Thomson, is most famous for his role as a superhero. Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns were made over 20 years ago, and, to this day, Keaton arguably remains the greatest version of the character we've seen on the big screen.
Of course that could change when we see Ben Affleck in the role, but for now, he has the actors that followed his footsteps beat. Here's why that is:
Side Note: Yes, Adam West starred as Batman on film as well, but in terms of the Batman "franchise," West's Batman isn't technically a part of the franchise. That franchise itself really started in '89.
Keaton's Strengths as Batman
His Everyman Personality
Perhaps what works best about Keaton's Batman is what he was initially criticized for. When he was cast there was an uproar amongst fans, which is usually how it goes for great superhero casting. Fans thought he was too small for the titular role, but Keaton's everyman build worked in the character's favor. A more slim Bruce Wayne can easily fool people he's not Batman; he doesn't standout in a crowd.
An Awesome Introduction
Michael Keaton had a great introduction as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. Wayne doesn't even show up until 20 minutes into Burton's film. We met an unassuming guy trying to enjoy the party. Then they cut to him watching a million monitors of the party in the batcave, doing the detective work Batman is famous for. It showed us the the real mask he wears, in addition to his two very different lives. Burton's films always did a fine job contrasting Batman and Wayne.
His Eyes Sold It
Those eyes! Batman's "nice outfit" may not have been the most flexible or dynamic of superhero costumes, but something about Keaton's dark green eyes sold the terror we saw in the faces of criminals. One of the best moments of Burton's films was The Joker shouting, "Jesus!" when he first saw Batman. It's not because of the suit, it's because of those eyes.
He Was Imposing In the Suit
Even with the sequel they couldn't manage to a make suit for Keaton (or Bruce Wayne) to move comfortably in. It's very restricting, to the point where you have to wonder, "How is he even able to fight people in that thing?" And yet, you don't ask that while watching Batman in action. Keaton struck an imposing presence when he's in that suit. He didn't need any one-liners or threats when he's dressed up. Wayne remained mostly silent while in action, and for good reason. Credit goes to the screenplay, of course, but Keaton did pull off expressing a lot in that suit with little dialogue.
Keaton's greatest use of silence? When he watched the Penguin being interviewed about wanting to know who his parents were. Wayne stared down, completely understanding where he was coming from. That was before finding out the Penguin was insane, of course.
He Had Great Comedic Timing
Keaton's Bruce Wayne was actually a funny guy. Even in dire circumstances, Wayne managed to crack a few jokes. He brought a lot of levity to Burton's Batman films.
Keaton's One Weakness as Batman:
In Batman Returns Keaton didn't have a ton to do as Wayne. He still nailed the role, but he was overshadowed by The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). They had the juiciest characters. There's something nice about jumping into a sequel where Batman is Batman and Bruce Wayne is Bruce Wayne, but it still leaves Keaton in the dust a little bit. Thematically Batman fitted right in with Catwoman and Penguin, though. The three of them faced an identity crisis in the film, but you get the impression Burton is more interested in his villains.
Here's The Competition:
Val Kilmer (1995)
Kilmer was totally serviceable. If he hadn't had followed Michael Keaton in such an underwhelming movie, maybe he would've gotten more credit. Unfortunately high expectations and a mostly lackluster movie meant his performance didn't really pop. Unlike Keaton, Kilmer doesn't look like an everyman, or at least he didn't used to. Keaton's Wayne was far more charming for that very reason. Bruce Wayne may be a billionaire buttkicking detective with all kinds of cool gadgets, but Keaton grounded the character in a way Kilmer didn't. There was an honesty to Keaton's Batman completely missing in this sequel.
George Clooney (1997)
Boy do you feel bad watching George Clooney in this disaster, especially considering the career he's had since Batman & Robin. Such a talented actor, writer and director was saddled with some of the worst material imaginable. Expecting Clooney to give a good performance in this is like asking someone to pull themselves out of quicksand without a rope. There's a reason why Clooney keeps a picture of himself as Batman in his office: it's the poster boy for failure. This is a movie packed with bad puns and jokes trying to turn product placement into comedy, so it's only reasonable Clooney's performance as Wayne fell completely flat.
Christian Bale (2005-2012)
If anyone is close to taking the throne from Keaton, it's Christian Bale. His performance in Batman Begins may be the best take on the character, but as a whole, he suffered a similar fate Keaton did with Batman Returns. When people talk about The Dark Knight, 99.9% of the time they praise the Joker's (Heath Ledger) presence, not Bruce Wayne's. Bale had a good arc to play -- confronting he can't save the world, dealing with another loss in his life, and, for good or bad, accepting his role in Gotham -- but, again, it's the Joker's movie. Bale ran into even more problems on the The Dark Knight Rises, including the scene-stealing Bane (Tom Hardy).
His final chapter was hugely problematic. He gave up being Batman because of Rachel's death? Not only was that very out-of-character for him, but it leaves him moping around for the first act of the movie with little to do. Then, at the very end, he got such a cheap emotional sendoff. There's no way he could've escaped from that explosion, but worse than that, he shacked up with... Catwoman (Anne Hathaway)? The two had so little to do together in the movie it didn't make for a happy, satisfying, or logical ending for Bruce Wayne.
Still, despite these problems, Christian Bale remained aces in the role. By far the most emotional moment of the entire franchise was when he saw his parents' mansion burning down in Batman Begins and he turns to Alfred, asking, "Alfred, what have I done?" Of course Alfred gave him an inspiring piece of advice to keep him going, in addition to giving the audience plenty to cry about.