No, that’s not the title of the next Batman movie. Well, it might be. I suspect Warner Bros. hasn’t thought that far ahead. They’re too busy trying to make their Aquaman movie without giggling themselves to death.
A couple nights ago I was watching Batman Returns – you’ll recall that was Michael Keaton’s second and final Batflick. At the time of release, which was 1992, I thought it was an uneven movie. By and large, I liked the Catwoman stuff but I thought the Penguin parts were… foul. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the movie, so when I surfed past it at a quarter-to-two in the morning, I thought it might be fun to check it out with my older and even more jaded eyes.
I was amused to discover the movie was broader than I remembered, but just as dark. It was almost as if Stanley Kubrick made the movie as a tribute to the 1960s teevee show. The Catwoman scenes weren’t as strong as I remembered, the Penguin scenes were better acted (but no better realized) than I thought, and the scenes with Michael Keaton that didn’t include either villain were, by and large, really good.
So what happened in the past 22 years? Certainly most of us enjoy the avalanche of Marvel Studios movies, the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe that, properly, excludes Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. But the tone and texture of the DC Movie Universe should differ from the tone and texture of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, just as your average DC Universe comic book differs from its Marvel counterparts – when done right.
(Yes, you read that right: I referred to the DC movies as a separate “Universe” from the DC teevee shows for one simple reason: they are separate. Completely separate. Needlessly and confusingly separate.)
So… what changed? Batman Returns really isn’t dated. Why would I be so taken with Keaton’s work this time around?
One word. Birdman.
You know the concept: an on-the-ropes actor best known for his playing a costumed superhero on the big screen tries to resurrect his career and give his life meaning by directing and starring in a Broadway play. For this effort, Keaton has been awarded top acting honors from the Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA, the Independent Spirit Award, the Satellite Award (from the International Press Academy, not to be confused with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globes) and the AACTA International Award for Best Actor – that’s the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts.
Keaton has also received an Oscar® nomination for Birdman, in a particularly tough category this year. “It’s an honor just to be nominated…”
I always liked Keaton, and he really knocked me over in Clean and Sober. But Birdman surpasses his previous efforts because he knows we will conflate his character with his career. He relies that pre-existing relationship, and he pulls it off magnificently.
I don’t think Keaton’s career has been on the ropes, but it was no longer as high profile. I suspect he liked it that way. But, post-Birdman, he is an A-Lister once again. And this is strictly because he decided to do Batman in the first place – and because he thought it over and appreciated what that meant to both him and his audience.
All top-drawer superhero actors age… with a few unfortunate exceptions. The plot to Birdman is all about what you do with yourself after you shed your tights. Keaton figured it out.
(“Oscar” is a registered trademark of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, so watch your ass.)