Michael Keaton as Batman (1989)

The casting of Robert Pattinson as the next Batman has led to a predictable round of online petitioning to remove the former Twilight heartthrob from the role. If you’ve been alive and been a Batman fan long enough, you might be left thinking, “How soon we forget.” Years ago, a similar outcry accompanied the casting of Heath Ledger — himself a teen heartthrob turned serious dramatic actor — as the Joker. At the time, Ledger was best known for his performances in A Knight’s Tale and Brokeback Mountain, so he seemed very much cast against type.

Look how that turned out. If you reach back further in time, of course, there’s an even more direct example of an unconventional casting choice for the Caped Crusader. In the absence of social media, fans once embarked on a letter-writing campaign to dissuade Warner Bros. from letting the star of Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice play Batman. Fortunately, that campaign failed and thirty years ago this week, Michael Keaton’s Batman arrived on dark wings as an early herald of the comic book millennium.

To say that Keaton was and is the best Batman isn’t a sleight against Christian Bale, whose first franchise outing, Batman Begins, remains the definitive origin story, across all mediums, for the greatest superhero of all time. Bale was the best Bruce Wayne. His strength lay in showing us how the orphaned prince of Gotham would become Batman, whereas Keaton wore the actual suit and voice better. Part of this can be attributed to costume design; maybe part of it, also, can be attributed to director Tim Burton’s take on the Batman mythos, which held that Wayne himself shouldn’t be physically imposing. It was only after he put on the suit that the brooding billionaire became a fearsome scourge to criminals on rooftops.

Batman (1989) - “I’m Batman.”

“I’m Batman.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Batman.”

These words signaled the coming of a new film genre back in the summer of 1989. The opening minutes of Burton’s Batman drew us into a tableau of urban decay where tourists were subject to back-alley muggings. Three years out from Frank Miller’s seminal comic The Dark Knight Returns, the streets of Gotham City suddenly looked grimier and more Gothic, with steam rising from the ground “as if hell had erupted through the sidewalks,” as the movie script put it.

I was eight years old at the time, with a deeply personal Batman history ahead of me. Burton’s Batman was maybe only the second movie I ever saw in the theater (the first being Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which had arrived a month earlier). At that age, I was no stranger to the Caped Crusader, but what I and a lot of other folks knew of the character came largely from reruns of the colorful, campy ‘60s Batman television series.

Kids like me were too young to know that “camp” meant anything other than summer camp. All we knew was that Batman’s costume had gone black and armory, much like his Batmobile, which looked sleeker and cooler, like a rocket on wheels. That vehicle has never been eclipsed by any subsequent redesign in the movies.

Able to blend in at parties, Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is now, as he was then, a rather unassuming figure. When we first see him outside the Batman costume, he’s being tapped on the shoulder by Vicky Vale, played by Kim Basinger. She asks him if he can tell her which one of these guys at the party is Bruce Wayne. Since this is happening pre-Internet, it’s not like she’s had the luxury of Googling his face. What’s key to remember is that it doesn’t even occur to Vale from looking at Wayne that he’s the one who bears this famous name.

Likewise, when Vale’s wise-cracking partner, the reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), first lays eyes on Wayne in his hall of foreign armor, he dismisses the billionaire with a mere glance because he looks like a regular guy. That’s Burton’s view of Batman: a regular guy who needs to dress up in a costume to become more than he is. It’s not necessarily the most comics-accurate portrayal of the character but it is one that jibes very much with the genre tradition of an average Joe who becomes exalted through his superhero identity.

Contrast this with Bale’s muscular Bruce Wayne, who trains with ninja assassins, chugs green smoothies, and launches straight into pushups after getting out of bed. To compensate for his “nonexistent social life,” this Wayne begins projecting a flashy image. He rolls up in a Lamborghini and proceeds to bathe in restaurant pools with long-legged European beauties before making a big to-do of buying the very hotel that wants to kick him out.

Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Batman was more of a triangle-personality. In Batman Begins, he showed us a character with three different core aspects. First, there was the real Bruce Wayne, who we saw training in the Himalayas. Then, there was the public persona of Wayne the drunken playboy, who would make headlines for burning down his own home back in Gotham City. Finally, there was the larger-than-life symbol of Batman, which Wayne devised aloud on the plane between these two settings.

This level of sophisticated characterization in a superhero movie was made possible precisely because of movies like Burton’s Batman and Richard Donner’s Superman, both of which laid the foundation for the genre by introducing modern moviegoers to the conventional comic book hero with a dual identity. We needed that framework of the dual identity rendered big and memorable before the superhero films of the mid-to-late 2000s could start expanding on it and subverting it (with the line, “I am Iron Man,” doing the latter to great effect).

The thing is, Bruce Wayne’s unmasked face comprised two out of the three core aspects of Nolan’s Batman. Maybe that’s why Bale always felt like a better Bruce Wayne than Batman, because Nolan’s 2005 reboot — the most sincerely Batman-centric film of the franchise that bears his name — was dramatically weighted toward Bruce Wayne, the man behind the mask.

If there’s any downside to seeing an actor give such a compelling turn as Bruce, it’s that it arguably diluted the impact of Batman in his costume. With Bale getting almost twice as much screen time as Bruce than he did as Bats, Batman Begins was clearly more interested in exploring the pseudo-realistic human side of the character (as opposed to his gruff-voiced crimefighting alter ego, who only showed up after the first hour and fell right into a Keaton callback with a less ca-ching delivery of the line, “I’m Batman.”)

Accepting this, it’s easier to appreciate what Keaton did, how he was able to convey such unmatched presence in the Bat-suit, despite having less to work with in terms of a rousing backstory. In 1989 and then again in 1992, Keaton showed up on-screen as a Bruce Wayne/Batman who was already fully formed, self-possessed yet isolated, a gloomy loner reaching out for fleeting romantic connections in his adult grief. Movies don’t usually go the thought-bubble route like comic books, so in Batman, the distance between Wayne and others is represented visually, by the long dining room table between him and his love interest, Vicky.

There’s a scene in the sequel, Batman Returns, where Wayne is sitting alone, striking a Rodin’s “Thinker” pose in his darkened study in Wayne Manor. The Bat-signal comes on outside, shining through the window, and he rises to his feet so that we see him standing erect in the spotlight with the Bat logo projected onto the wall behind him. Visually, that tells you everything you need to know about Keaton’s Bruce Wayne: an emotionally dormant man who has withdrawn from the world into the solitude of his mansion and Batcave. He only lives to be Batman.

Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne with Batsignal

Batman as Everyman

Keaton’s performance in the Burton Batman duology is packed with nuance and there is a rich backstory there, which Vale starts piecing together as she follows his Wayne to Crime Alley and sees him lay roses on the spot where his parents were gunned down. It’s easy to forget this because Bruce witnessing the murder of his parents is so well-known and we’ve seen it in so many movies now, but the original Batman withheld those origin cards for a good portion of its running time, treating the adult Wayne and his tragic past as a mystery for Vale and Knox to unfurl.

Notwithstanding the formative trauma of Batman, the more interesting origin arcs in Keaton’s two movies actually belong to Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Danny DeVito’s Penguin, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, each of whom represents a great individual feat of makeup, costume design, and scene-chewing villainry. Yet despite being relegated to the straight-man position amid his zany rogues, Keaton inhabited the Bat-suit in such a way that each swoop, each step, each turn of the cape, commanded the fullness of the man-become-myth. His Batman was an avatar of the greatness that could be buried inside a seeming plebeian.

It’s all in the eyes. Wayne’s eyes are piercing in a way that flashes icebergs of emotion. Keaton’s Batman has a thousand-yard, hard-ass stare that cuts through every other live-action Batman we’ve seen since: Kilmer, Clooney, Bale, even Affleck, who looked the part better than any of them but never got the chance to shine in his own solo movie the way other DC heroes like Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam have the last few years.

Burton understands the power of that peerless Bat-stare and films it accordingly. It’s the last component of the costume that blinks into light in the iconic moment when Keaton’s Batman throws open the door to his cape and cowl, clicks his utility belt together, flashes the winged emblem on his chest, and raises his pointy ears to the Batcave ceiling, all while Danny Elfman’s music swells with operatic grandeur.

There’s a whole generation of kids who had their imaginations fertilized by Elfman’s Batman score. If you’re like me and are of a certain age, then you probably heard a variation on its main theme recapitulated all throughout the mid-nineties in Batman: The Animated Series. There’s certainly an argument to be made that, if Bale is the best Bruce Wayne and Keaton is the best Batman, then the angular cartoon version of the character — voiced by Kevin Conroy — represents the best all-around Bruce Wayne/Batman combo.

Yet that show and the whole superhero film genre as we know it might have never come into existence were it not for the cultural phenomenon that began in the summer of 1989 with Batman. Keaton’s curly-haired Bruce Wayne may not match every comic book reader’s idealized vision of the character, but in the post-Die-Hard, pre-comic-book-movie landscape of ‘89, having a Wayne with a more everyman look was perhaps a necessity. Sure, if we viewers really put our minds to it, we could maybe hire personal trainers and undergo an intense physical regimen to become buff like Bale or Affleck. That’s one kind of wish fulfillment.

However, most people are probably stuck in a more mundane, day-to-day reality where sideline hobbies and hidden talents or passions — dreams of personal or artistic achievement outside their current lot in life — only come alive at night. They clock into their day jobs as restaurant servers or cubicle workers and moonlight as aspiring actors or writers. Sure, they might look it, but like Batman, they’re “not exactly normal,” because like him, everyone is crazy and everyone has secrets, hopes and dreams they keep in a lockbox among practical responsibilities. It’s here in the in-between spaces of our lives that superhero myths take flight.

If it seems like a stretch to read Batman as a hidden-talent fantasy for ordinary people, consider his character foil, the Joker, whose unrestrained glee acts as a different kind of wish fulfillment for the id. Saying he realized he was “destined for greatness,” Nicholson’s Joker describes himself as an artist—“the world’s first fully functioning homicidal” one. A twisted, fame-hungry reflection of Batman, he’s the late-blooming superstar who uses his latent genius flair to hurt people instead of helping them. Obsessed with the media, he hijacks news feeds and talks about wanting his face on the one-dollar bill … but it’s all to no avail, because he’s constantly getting upstaged by Batman’s headlines and even the woman he’s chasing turns out to be another source of envy because she’s Batman’s girlfriend.

Costumed wish-fulfillment fantasies have long been integral to comic books but prior to ‘89, they weren’t as much a fixture of the big screen. Christopher Reeve did show us a bumbling Clark Kent who could rip open his shirt and expose the Superman logo, whereby he would immediately come into his own as a confident, square-jawed superhero with a spit curl. Yet Superman was also an alien with godlike powers, sent to Earth as a Christ figure, to be raised by human parents.

That’s not quite as relatable as a normal man with no superpowers who simply dons a costume at night to become his best self. Even Wayne’s vast fortune is a sort of wish fulfillment. We wish we were wealthy like him because money brings the freedom to pursue one’s dreams.

Burton’s first Batman film was monumental, culturally, but it isn’t necessarily his best movie or even his best Batman movie. Creatively, he hit his stride more in 1992–1993 when Batman Returns and The Nightmare Before Christmas came out. There’s actually never been a better romance in a Batman movie than the one between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle in Batman Returns.

Both characters are damaged goods: people who wrestle with the dark side of their nature and aren’t immediately taken seriously as civilians. The moment when they’re dancing at the masked ball — with “Face to Face” by Siouxsie and the Banshees playing in the background — and they step under the mistletoe and he realizes she’s Catwoman and steps back from her in shock is as deep a gut punch as there ever was in a Batman film. Even The Dark Knight Rises found itself echoing back to this scene at the masked ball between Bruce and Selina.

Like each iteration of James Bond, every portrayal of Batman has its own unique shadings. Though it predated the Bond reboot by a year, you might say that Batman Begins was the Casino Royale of the franchise, with Bale’s Batman being the equivalent of the Blonde Bond, as Daniel Craig was first known.

The original 1989 Batman is more akin to the Goldfinger of the franchise, with Keaton being the O.G. Sean Connery of Batmen. His debut remains a classic, quotable entry in the superhero film canon. In 2021, Pattinson and director Matt Reeves may well perfect the noir-driven “world’s greatest detective” version of the character that we old-time comic fans are clamoring to see onscreen. In the meantime, Bale was good at becoming Batman, beginning Batman, whereas Keaton simply was Batman.

In recent years, Keaton has re-engaged with the genre that made him a household name, first critiquing it with Birdman, then flying in on a different set of wings and giving us one of the best MCU villains, the Vulture, in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Meanwhile, in the wake of several recastings, interviewers have asked Keaton how he felt about other actors taking on the Batman role. Was he jealous of them, as Bale professed to being when Affleck took over?

His response was short and sweet and gets to the heart of my point. What he said was: “I’m Batman. I’m very secure in that.”

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