review roundup

What Did Critics Say the First Time Michael Keaton Played a Superhero?

Photo: Warner Brothers

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which opens in limited release Friday, has already made a major impression on critics nationwide. Of particular interest is the movie’s somewhat self-reflexive leading role, in which Michael Keaton plays an actor attempting to re-establish himself after a career defined by an iconic big-screen superhero role. Keaton himself became a star after his turns in Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. Although the former Caped Crusader has worked sporadically in the 25 years since, nothing has quite matched those films. We dug through the archives to see what people said about Keaton as Batman.


“The film meanders mindlessly from one image to the next, as does a comic book. It doesn’t help that the title character remains such a wimp even when played by Michael Keaton. Nobody could do anything with this ridiculous conceit, but asking Mr. Keaton, one of our most volatile actors, to play Bruce Wayne/Batman is like asking him to put on an ape suit and play the title role in King Kong … As Bruce Wayne, Mr. Keaton is modest and straight-faced, as any number of other actors might be given the circumstances and the paycheck.” —Vincent Canby, the New York Times

“Nicholson’s Joker is really the most important character in the movie in impact and screen time and Keaton’s Batman and Bruce Wayne characters are so monosyllabic and impenetrable that we have to remind ourselves to cheer for them.” —Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“For Batman purists, Michael Keaton was an upsetting choice, but it’s a choice brilliantly redeemed in realization. What Keaton brings to his characterization of both Batman and his millionaire-playboy alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is a quality of coiled concentration, a wary vigilance … This is a true star performance, subtle, authoritative and sexually vibrant.” —Hal Hinson, Washington Post

“Michael Keaton plays his underwritten part with a brooding style and charm that suggests much more than meets the eye.” —Jack Kroll, Newsweek (not archived online)

“[Michael Keaton’s Batman] and Jack Nicholson’s manic, over-the-top Joker are opposite sides of the same obsessive psyche, he realizes, and he doesn’t like it. The dark, labyrinthine Batcave seems a metaphor for Batman’s own mind … He’s a guy on the edge, daring to be muted, piling up presence while the far showier Joker rants.” —Jay Carr, Boston Globe

“Michael Keaton, usually a dervish on screen, is oddly subdued and tentative.” —Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune

“The volatile Keaton, an extremely interesting casting choice if he had a chance to let some of his dangerousness out, remains tamped-down and muted. His Bruce Wayne is as magnetic as one can make a character carved out of soap, but it’s hardly Keaton’s fault.” —Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times

“Keaton is a good choice — no, a great choice — for the role of the Caped Crusader. He is a steady captain, an actor capable of steering the film toward quiet reason when things get too explosive.” —Ryan Murphy, Miami Herald

“It’s not a perfect world … Michael Keaton makes the statement, either as Bruce Wayne or as Batman; it makes no difference because, as either character, Keaton shows all the emotion of a flower pot and all the acting range of the Washington Monument.” —Joe Pollack, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Keaton’s Batman is stoic, almost mechanical. When he sheds his armor, the emotional barrier remains. There isn’t much shading to Keaton’s superhero. That’s the point. His psyche is scarred almost beyond repair. He’s a vacuum, in danger of imploding. It is a riveting, understated performance.” —Hal Lipper, St. Petersburg Times

Batman Returns

“Mousy secretary Selena Kyle (the superbly inventive Michelle Pfeiffer) finds power and madness as Catwoman; Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is a walking identity crisis — these two were made for each other. And the ballroom scene, in which each realizes who the other really is, packs more emotional whomp than anything in the first film does.” —Ty Burr, Entertainment Weekly

“As in the first film, Michael Keaton is encased in a role as constricting as his superhero costume, and while the actor’s instincts seem right, the range he is allowed is distinctly limited. Given the psychological dimension provided to the other lead characters, the vacuum at the center stands as the most prominent shortcoming of the Batman features to date.” —Todd McCarthy, Variety

“Indeed Batman, who was orphaned, and Penguin, who was abandoned, are virtually birds of a feather — which makes for an interesting relationship that Keaton explores with subtlety.” —Rita Kempley, Washington Post

“Michael Keaton was criticized as a weak choice to play Bruce Wayne/Batman in 1989, but Burton recognized the underlying tension in Keaton, something he saw as crucial to his angst-ridden vision of Batman. Now, free to follow that original concept, Burton and Keaton bring out the neuroses of a man who dresses up as a bat to fight crime.” —Frank Gabrenya, Columbus Dispatch

“Keaton, so wacky and wild in Burton’s Beetlejuice, apparently views Wayne as a confused and intelligent man with a thirst for blondes and Batman as a barely controlled homicidal maniac. But while the actor’s blue eyes glow with enmity through the slits in his rubbery mask, the anger is reined in, subdued. Although a valid characterization, Keaton’s duality is somehow incomplete, unsatisfactory.” —Malcolm Johnson, Hartford Courant

“If the underutilized Michael Keaton looked unhappy in the first Batman, he seems even more so now, and it takes an act of will to remember that he made his reputation as a talented comic actor.” —Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

“Fortunately Keaton remains an appealing and complex Batman. Brooding, pessimistic, skeptical. He is an odd hero, with no team spirit and no romance or sentiment. Talk about the ultimate outsider. Though the surrounding movie is played for laughs and spectacle, Keaton’s performance hints at something more interesting — a Batman who knows that eventually the bad guys are going to win and that everything up until then is just a matter of going through the motions.” —Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

What Did Critics Say When Keaton Played Batman?