Michael Keaton as Batman seemed as improbable as John Wayne as Genghis Khan--but there is something about Keaton’s mouth jutting out of the bottom of that Neal Adams-ish mask--the ear-points high, somehow threatening--that erases Mr. Mom and Johnny Dangerously and even Beetlejuice. Keaton and Tim Burton go poking around in Stately Wayne Manor and find Bruce as alone as Charles Foster Kane in front of the big fireplace and brooding like Michael Corleone--but this time over the sins of others, his voice calm, his eyes blank--while those lips purse as he gets ready, his motions as sure and precise as you want them to be--as he is compelled to make them, given the position he’s put himself into: to be a comic book hero without pleasure, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight one step away from Arkham Asylum.
And of course there’s the other casting hurdle: Jack Nicholson as The Joker--but Jack makes it easy for us, willing as he is to be a creep--like his other Jack in The Shining--funny in a horrible kind of way, a real ham, his homicidal voice trailing along in the fadeout, unwilling to give up center stage. Together, they remind us that costumed superheroes look better in our heads than on the page--and climb right up in there, myth-making despite the silly antics and inevitable banter, Batman’s uninflected proclamations as resonant as The Joker’s lookit-me! cackle, surprising me with my own willingness to take them seriously.
Batman had always been my favorite--he’d survived the campy sendup of the TV show, and gave himself plenty of time in the next twenty years to harden his muscles and firm up his jawline. Like the other great bat, Dracula, he lives best by night--and does just fine in a movie that is unembarrassed by grown men in tights.