Michael Keaton on How He Came to Play Batman

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2011 when this screening took place.

One of the double features shown during American Cinematheque’s tribute to Michael Keaton was “Batman” and “Batman Returns.” When the actor was originally cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, fans objected to it as he was primarily known for his comedic performances in “Mr. Mom,” “Night Shift,” and “Beetlejuice” among others, and they could not see him playing such a traumatized character. Of course, many forgot about his powerhouse performance in “Clean & Sober” which won him a Best Actor award from the National Board of Review. In retrospect, his portrayal of Batman is still the best in the movie franchise, and Christian Bale’s portrayal is a very close second.

While talking with Geoff Boucher at the Aero Theatre, Keaton said it was “Beetlejuice” director Tim Burton who wanted him to play Bruce Wayne and his alter ego of Batman. At that point, Keaton said he did not fully understand the comic book super world. It was through his introduction to Frank Miller’s books that he got some ideas as to how Burton’s vision would reflect Gotham City in a darker way than ever before. Keaton said Bruce Wayne turned out to be the key to getting into the character.

Michael Keaton: The coolest thing from the get-go is that he doesn’t have superpowers, there are no magical things. He is a hero of intuition and inventiveness and discipline. I always knew the way in was Bruce Wayne. It wasn’t Batman. It was never Batman. That was the key. The only reason to do it, really, was to come at all of this from this guy’s point of view.

When Keaton and Burton made “Batman” back in 1988-89, Keaton said there was nothing else like it before, and that there was no example for either of them to follow. Unlike the television series from the 1960’s, this was not going to be full of campy humor. The fact that “Batman” became such a landmark film in Hollywood history is something Keaton owes to Burton.

Michael Keaton: What Tim accomplished changed everything. It was hard. It was harder on Tim than anyone and he changed the way people look at those movies. That really is the case and the reason for that is the originality of Tim and the people Tim put together. Anton Furst was off the chart, Danny Elfman was perfect, bringing in Prince and Nicholson, all of it was just so right and so huge. The promotion of the movie was genius too. The look of the movie was a turning point too; you still see that around in different versions.

When it came time to start making “Batman Forever,” Warner Brothers wanted to take the franchise in a different direction. The executives wondered if everything really had to be so depressing, and Keaton said when he realized they were going to lighten things up, he dropped out along with Tim Burton. We all know what happened after they left, and no real explanation is needed here.

Keaton said he never really got around to seeing “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin,” but he said he did see most of “the one that starred Heath Ledger” (“The Dark Knight“). In describing Ledger’s performance as The Joker, he called it “crazy great,” and that the tone of the film is what he wanted the third one to be like. But by then the whole thing had become a big machine which was going to go on with or without him. Had he been in “Batman Forever,” Keaton is convinced he would have been horrible because he would not have been able to give the studio what they wanted. The sad thing is, he is probably right.

‘Justice League’ Doesn’t Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound

Justice League movie poster

You know how the Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of NASCAR racing, but it’s also the first big race of the season instead of the last? That’s what “Justice League” is. It’s the penultimate motion picture of the DC Extended Universe, and yet it’s coming to us before Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg get their own solo films. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every character was in their own movie before “The Avengers” finally arrived on the silver screen. Granted, Hawkeye and Black Widow have yet to get their own movies, but enough groundwork was laid to where the time had come for “The Avengers” to become a reality. With “Justice League,” its long-awaited appearance feels a little premature.

Following the events of “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the world is still mourning the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), and all the other superheroes are trying to move on despite the large void the Man of Steel has left in his passing. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) remains as dour as ever, but his faithful butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) threatens to be even more dour to where they seem to be having a contest in that department. Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) leads a quiet life working in a museum, Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) spends the days hiding in his apartment because everyone thinks he is dead and he hates his father for saving him through the use of cybernetics, Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is busy drinking his life away when he’s not swimming in the ocean, and Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller) spends his days trying to fit in with kids his age while moving at supersonic speed. These superheroes couldn’t be more mismatched, but they of course find themselves working together to stop a fearsome enemy bent on world domination.

This enemy is Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), a supervillain determined to find three boxes of power known as the Mother Boxes and, in the process, escape the role of servitude he has been consigned to for far too long. Steppenwolf is, you know, the kind of villain bent on gaining the most power of anyone in the world, and we all know what happens to people like them; they are either defeated as we expect them to be, or they become President of the United States.

The movie gets off to a terrific start with Batman battling a common criminal on the streets of Gotham, but it turns out to be a ploy for the Caped Crusader to discover the identity of another evil foe who thrives on the fear of humans. Following this, “Justice League” becomes a labored adventure as Batman and Wonder Woman take their precious time finding all the other superheroes, some of which are hesitant to join the party even though they realize their planet is at great risk of being annihilated. Knowing those holdouts will eventually become a part of the league, this proves to be the film’s most agonizing point as too much time is spent gathering everyone together.

Ben Affleck still makes for a good Bruce Wayne/Batman, but I sense he is already tiring of the role. Gal Gadot left a powerful mark on movies this year as Wonder Woman, and she is every bit as thrilling a presence here. Of the new additions, Jason Momoa proves to be a solid choice as Aquaman, and watching him here makes me look forward to the character’s solo movie coming out next year. Ezra Miller steals every scene he is in as the Flash, and he brings a wonderful edginess to the role while also bringing the character down to earth in an especially unique way. While Miller’s character is thrilled to have these superpowers, he still yearns to fit in with everybody else, and he portrays this inner conflict very effectively.

The same can’t be said, however, for Ray Stone/Cyborg as the character has little more to do in “Justice League” other than brood, argue with his father, and try to tell everyone in hearing range of how his powers can in no way be mistaken as a gift. This is with all due respect to Ray Fisher who does what he can with an underwritten role, but I grew tiresome of his complaining, especially when we all know he’s going to be in this league eventually.

But honestly, the real heart and soul of “Justice League” belongs to Henry Cavill who returns as Clark Kent/Superman. Even I refused to believe the Man of Steel was all but finished off for good at the end of “Batman v Superman” as you can’t keep a good superhero down, and Superman remains one of the very best. Even better is the realization of how Cavill no longer has the shadow of Christopher Reeve hanging over him as he manages to bring the same dedication to this iconic character Reeve did years before, and seeing Superman fight for justice this time around brought a big smile to my face.

Indeed, “Justice League” gets better and better as it enters the third act in which our superheroes band together to defeat Steppenwolf. While I found myself not caring enough about these characters in the first half, I really rooted for their success as the movie went on because the actors looked excited to inhabit these unforgettable characters. There are times when the filmmakers succeed in arousing our childhood love for these superheroes, and this is when the movie works at its best.

Of course, I have to wonder which filmmaker deserves the most credit for “Justice League.” Zack Snyder is credited as director, but Joss Whedon came in during post-production, and it is tempting to believe Whedon, who struck gold with cinematic comic book gold with “The Avengers,” managed to tap into our childhood innocence in a way Snyder could not. With “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman,” Snyder focused more on the characters’ darkness which has enveloped their lives, and you can’t blame him for going in this direction as DC Comics tended to veer into darker territory. But they got so dark to where there wasn’t much in the way to be found, and it was said Snyder was going to go in a slighter lighter direction with “Justice League,” but we probably won’t know how much lighter he made it until we get his director’s cut, and the fans are already clamoring for one like crazy.

I also have to give credit to Danny Elfman for composing an excellent score here. Even he is eager to spark our childhood innocence as his score contains themes he created for Tim Burton’s “Batman” as well as John Williams’ theme for “Superman” which remains one of the best superhero movie scores ever composed. Those subtle little touches make a huge difference as they help to reawaken the past in a most welcome way.

Looking back, “Justice League” is enjoyable for the most part as it builds to a strong climax, but it still feels like this all-star superhero movie was brought to us earlier than it should have. The parts which were lacking keep me from giving this movie a solid recommendation. I still look forward to the solo movies like “Aquaman,” but in the end the filmmakers crammed too many characters into a story already overwhelmed by them, and what results is not completely satisfying in a way a film like this should be.

What I am left with is the wonderment over how the visual effects team managed to remove Cavill’s mustache digitally. Because of his commitment to starring in “Mission Impossible 6,” he couldn’t shave it off when “Justice League” went into reshoots. Then again, it would have been interesting to see this Superman with a mustache as it would have allowed Cavill to do something a little bit different with this iconic character. Of course, he would have to explain the unexpected presence of facial hair. How would he go about doing so?

“Well, something happened on the way to heaven…”

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Batman Begins’ Revisited

Batman Begins poster

Before “The Dark Knight Rises” was released, I took the time to revisit director Christopher Nolan’s first stab at the Batman. I remember seeing “Batman Begins” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater when it first came out and thought it was very good, but I don’t remember thinking it was a masterpiece the way I thought “The Dark Knight” was. But now having watched it again, I have a better appreciation of “Batman Begins” and agree it has earned its place among the best comic book movies ever made.

The real difference here is, unlike the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher “Batman” movies, Bruce Wayne and his alter ego are not upstaged by the villains. In fact, Bruce Wayne is a much bigger character this time around and also far more complex. This is a credit to both the screenwriters (Nolan co-wrote the screenplay with David S. Goyer) and actor Christian Bale who more than makes this iconic role his own.

We first see Bruce as an 8-year-old (played by Gus Lewis) running around his parents’ garden when he accidentally falls down into a well. It is there he is met by dozens of angry bats, giving him a serious phobia of the creatures. From there, the movie establishes its main theme of fear and how Bruce works to overcome it as well the fears he has about himself.

Now a lot of times when we get a backstory to a character, it ends up taking away their mystery by telling us more than we need to know. Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns” never fully explored how Bruce became this crime fighter, and this proved to be a positive and a negative. While it made Michael Keaton’s portrayal more intriguing, it also made his Bruce Wayne/Batman a lot less complex. But a good portion of “Batman Begins” is dedicated to discovering how Bruce developed his fighting skills, and we get to see different sides of him throughout.

Tortured by the memory of his parents being shot to death in front of him, Bruce yearns for justice. His journey for it takes him from the criminal underworld in South Asia to the temple of the League of Shadows led by Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe). With the help of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), Bruce is trained as a ninja and vows to fight the crime and corruption which is engulfing his hometown of Gotham.

When it comes to origin stories, I get seriously impatient with them as they take too much time to set up a character, and they can simply feel like a commercial for the sequel we know will eventually follow. I have had that issue with many comic book movies like “Blade” to where I feel the movie is nothing more than a setup for a potential franchise. But I never felt this way with “Batman Begins” and was utterly enthralled by Bruce Wayne’s transformation from a man obsessed with vengeance to one determined to not become as bad as the criminals threatening Gotham. Seeing Bruce become this instrument of justice makes him a compelling character you want to keep on watching.

In the past, the “Batman” movies have been dominated by their villains. In “Batman Begins,” the villains come in different shapes and sizes. There’s mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), corrupt police detective Arnold Flass (Mark Boone Junior), the greedy CEO William Earle (Rutger Hauer), and the twisted psychopharmacologist Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) who becomes better known by his alter ego of The Scarecrow. Of all these villains, The Scarecrow proves to be Batman’s most vicious threat here as his fear-inducing toxins devour the human mind into an almost permanent state of psychosis. Murphy, best known for his performance in “28 Days Later,” casts a spell on the viewer as he lets you look deep into his bright blue eyes to where you wonder how nasty the monster inside of him truly is.

Actually, the great thing about “Batman Begins” is how the good guys prove to be far more interesting than the villains. Until this movie came along, who would have ever thought this would be the case in a “Batman” movie?

Bale came to own the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in a way only Keaton did before him. After Keaton left the franchise, the role basically became interchangeable to where it didn’t matter who played him. But Bale is lucky as he gets to play all the different parts of Bruce here; the vengeful son, the arrogant playboy, and the injustice-fighting warrior who likes to dress as a bat. Bale brilliantly captures each facet of Bruce to where you wish the character was this charismatic in the previous films.

Then there’s Gary Oldman, an actor who has given us some of the most intense and scariest villains in cinematic history, playing the role of Sgt. James Gordon. It would seem almost unthinkable for Oldman to play a good cop, but then again this may show how our respect for him as an actor may not have been as high as we thought. Some of the best actors can go from playing good guys/gals to bad ones with relative ease, and Oldman proves here he can do just this by making Gordon genuine in his intentions and a real cool dude overall.

As Henri Ducard, Neeson does kind of a variation of his Jedi master role from “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace,” and I think we all came out of “Batman Begins” wishing that Qui-Gon Jinn was as cool as Ducard. A man with fighting skills and the confidence to match them, Neeson is perfect in the role as his character trains Bruce without restraint and who ends up going in a different direction than we expect him to.

Katie Holmes plays Rachel Dawes, a character not in the original comic book series. When “Batman Begins” was first released, Holmes was in the midst of her whirlwind romance with Tom Cruise, and the way their relationship was perceived ending up spilling over to how people saw her in this movie. The general feeling at the time was that Holmes was miscast in the role, and many thought she was too young to be playing an assistant district attorney. Looking back though, Holmes was much better than we gave her credit for at the time. Either that, or her brilliantly staged divorce from Cruise gave me a new respect for her I didn’t have previously. Whatever the case, she gives her character a strong intelligence and a beautiful empathy that shines in various scenes, and that’s especially the case in her last scene with Bale.

As for Sir Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, they are two veteran character actors you can never go wrong with. Caine gives Alfred a tremendous humanity in overseeing not just Bruce but the legacy his parents left behind. And Freeman makes Lucius a really fun character to be around as well as one who deserves the upper hand he eventually gets. Other great performances come from Tom Wilkinson, Linus Roache, and Rutger Hauer.

Watching “Batman Begins” again, I am amazed with what Nolan got away with. Each “Batman” movie he has done has him dealing with a large number of characters to where he should have too many to deal with. But here, each character plays a big part in the overall story, and none of them feel extraneous to it. There was a lot of thought put into this reimagining of the caped crusader, and it paid off big time.

Nolan’s other masterstroke in making “Batman Begins” stand out from its predecessors was in giving it a contemporary realism and humanity. Gone were the gothic qualities of Burton’s movies and the overly campy qualities which waylaid the Schumacher films, and in their place we got a Bruce Wayne we could actually relate to. No longer was this a character we watched from a distance, but one we could get up close and personal with. Bruce, after all, is not an alien from another planet, but a flesh and blood human being with a lot of wealth and emotional problems he needs to overcome. He was never designed to be your average superhero.

“Batman Begins,” when looked at on closer inspection, gave this DC Comics character the respect which eluded him on a cinematic level for far too long. Sure, the Burton movies were great in bringing the character back to the darker realm he originally inhabited, but Nolan was the first director to devote more attention to him as a character over the villains surrounding him. His achievement here has made him one of the best filmmakers working today, and this movie marked the start of one of the greatest movie trilogies ever.

Bring on the Bat!

* * * * out of * * * *