Now that the final casting for The Dark Knight Rises has been announced, I’m reminded again of a personal conundrum that bugs me every time I think about Batman. To wit: why do I still prefer the Tim Burton/Michael Keaton films to the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale ones?
Conventional wisdom (including my own) says that both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are much better overall films than either Batman or Batman Returns. The Dark Knight, especially, is actually about something beneath its action and melodrama, a depth you seldom find in superhero films. So why is it that when the ol’ “Bat-urge” hits me, I pop in one of the Tim Burton films?
It’s not like Keaton was my first Batman. I’m old enough to remember watching Adam West as a child, along with the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series that included crossovers with Scooby Doo. And my own critical faculties assure me that Christopher Nolan’s films set a new standard for superhero movies. But damn it, I just can’t buy into it emotionally the way I do with Burton and Keaton.
It finally boils down to an issue of basic conception. Nolan created a Batman that functions in a place very much like the real world. Burton, however, did the opposite: he created a world in which his Batman could exist.
Consider the actors involved. Christian Bale is in tremendous physical shape, shown exercising and training and learning the skills he’ll need to become Batman. There’s also no doubt why he does what he does, down to a reasonable explanation for why he chooses the bat as his talisman. His psychology, while compelling, is nonetheless comprehensible. He could be dropped into contemporary New York or Chicago and get along fine.
In contrast, Michael Keaton is rather wispy, slender, and relies on his gadgets and elements of surprise because he has to. He never gives any overt explanation for anything, even why he decides to dress as a bat. (His lone comment, “They’re great survivors,” really tells us nothing at all.) He can exist only in the carefully-arranged world of Gotham City; brought into the real world, he’d quickly be beaten senseless or carted away.
And to simplify it further, the Nolan/Bale Batman is determined, while the Burton/Keaton Batman is obsessed. Bale is a man who dresses like a bat because he wants to; Keaton needs to.
So I’ve decided my preference come down to that. I want my Dark Knight obsessed, not just determined.
And for that reason, for me, Batman is (and probably always will be) Michael Keaton.
Alex Bledsoe, author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, and Dark Jenny), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the first Tufa novel, the forthcoming The Hum and the Shiver.