Batman Versus: Michael Keaton vs. Christian Bale

Batsymbol_240 Andy: Ryan, I’m sort of hesitant to mix it up with you today. My record isn’t great. I definitely lost our Indiana Jones battle royale, and the women of G4 ended in a draw because… well, their shows are both good. Now, I’m about to argue the unpopular side of the sort of discussion not seen since the basement-dwellers tried to compare Kirk and Picard. Yes, I’m going to argue Michael Keaton is a superior Batman to Christian Bale. Cue the boos from the peanut gallery.

Ryan: I’d rather cue the woman from The Princess Bride: BOOOOO! BOOOOOO! You’re siding with Jack Frost over American Psycho? Mr. Mom over Quinn Ambercromby? I’m surprised you didn’t go whole hog and pick Adam West as your favorite Dark Knight.

Andy: Let me preface this by saying Robert Downey Jr. has already turned in what I consider to be the best billionaire-turned-superhero performance of all time. He absolutely nailed what it would be like to have more money than God and then use it to fight crime. Part of me wishes we could see Downey try his hand at Bruce Wayne, but Tony Stark really is a narcissistic cad at heart, while Brucie just plays at it. So, consider that wish best left unfulfilled.

Ryan: Know what Downey brought to the role? Joy, an emotion almost forbidden in current iterations of superhero drama. When either the Keaton/Bale versions of Bruce Wayne live it up, you’re 100 percent correct: They do so only to maintain appearances, appeal to decorum, blend in with the bourgeois. Even after accepting his mantle of personal responsibility, Stark’s still a man you wouldn’t mind hanging out with, especially if it’s in a plane with a champagne room.

Andy: Let’s face it: It’s easy to play the Batman side of Bruce Wayne’s split personality. You growl a lot and punch people. Aside from Adam West’s incarnation, you don’t have to make glib jokes or pretend to be frightened or anything. In many ways, Batman is the least interesting part of his own stories, which is why (at least pre-nipplesuit) the villains were the real draw.

Ryan: Andy: George Clooney just called, and asked you to take that "Batman doesn’t have to make glib jokes" statement back.

Batman Andy: In 1989, though, bizarro director Tim Burton at least tried to show how truly weird Bruce Wayne was, to put on a rubber armor suit and flounce around in a universe populated by true demigods like Superman. Think about that: Not only does it take a special brand of crazy to dress up and fight crime in our world, but in Bruce Wayne’s world, beings with actual superpowers are doing the same.

Ryan: I would say that, unlike the recent Marvel movie enterprise, the cinematic Batman doesn’t exist in the same universe as Superman. While I agree that Burton’s vision painted Batman as symptomatic of a sect of society often resigned to the shadows, the Caped Crusader nevertheless existed in a world where the Batman and his nemeses merely reflected the fractured id, ego, and superego of those caught in their path. While it looks as though The Dark Knight might probe similar concerns, it’s doing so through a cultural, not psychological, angst that permeates those in Gotham.

Andy: I’ve been dancing around the meat of this Versus, though, and that is Michael Keaton’s performance as Batman. The movie’s release coincided with the height of my comic-book collecting, and I remember shock and very little awe at Keaton’s casting among your stereotypical Comic Book Guys. Worst Casting Ever, indeed. Remember, this was an actor best known for Mr. Mom, and at the time Batman was only just resurgent thanks to Frank Miller’s hard-edged vision. What was Tim Burton thinking? What he was thinking was that Keaton was perfect as Bruce Wayne the playboy, yet always had a dangerous little twinkle in his eye. You weren’t shocked to find this Bruce asleep while hanging upside down.

Ryan: I think, had I the access to technology, Web sites, and magazines that I do now, the 1989 version of myself would have been blogging about how weird it was that the same guy from Gung Ho was going to fight The Joker. I think I was too excited about Prince’s Batdance to truly grapple how odd the casting decision was. I knew I loved him as Beetlejuice, and that was good enough for me. (I like to think my tastes are more discerning now, especially when it comes to music.)

Andy: It’s madness that made Keaton different. You certainly never saw the same fire in the jokey non-Burton sequels, whether Bruce was played by Val Kilmer (himself so notoriously kooky and yet such a bad fit) or George Clooney. Christian Bale, I would argue, is the other extreme. Bale’s cheekbones and chin are sharp and dangerous. You fully believe he’d be capable of beating down evildoers. Keaton is a surprise: He looks soft and rich, and then pulls on the Batman suit as a second skin. That’s what Bruce Wayne should be.

Christianbale_batmanbegins_240_001 Ryan: You know, I love Batman Returns, as a case study in incredibly disturbed personalities, not as a super-hero movie. I’m going to pull a Bill Simmons here and pretend that the Joel Schumacher editions never existed. As part of a universe in which the reason people hide behind masks is the central theme, the Burton films are fine. But as films in which I want to believe in my protagonist as mentally and physically capable of defending Gotham, I’ll go with Bale any day. Nolan’s vision, set in an architecture fundamentally related to our own, calls for a hero we can truly believe in. Keaton makes a fine Batman for Burton’s world; Bale makes a compelling figure for our own.

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