Sunday, September 5, 2021

Vital Viewing (Free as a Winged Rodent Edition)


Actor Michael Keaton was born on this day in 1951. He was best known for appearing in movie comedies when filmmaker Tim Burton, who had earlier directed him in the movie comedy Beetlejuice, tapped him to play this dour figure:

Batman was released onto and into the nation's movie theaters in June of 1989, and somewhere around that time Keaton went on Late Night with David Letterman to promote it. I must say, as impressed as I am with Keaton as an actor (loved him in Night Shift), watching this clip, I may be even more impressed with him as a talk show guest. Earlier in his career Keaton had moonlighted as a standup comedian to make ends meet, and his talent for ad libbing  allows him to deftly counter Letterman's wisecracks while getting out the basic information on the film he's there to promote:

Hmm...Maybe too much information is gotten out. As you just heard, it's supposed to be a surprise that the Joker killed young Bruce Wayne's parents. It certainly would have been a surprise to several generations of readers of the comic book. In the 1939 origin story, it's an unnamed mugger who murders the tyke's mom and dad. Finally, in 1947, the cretin's name is revealed to be Joe Chill, whose move up the ranks from street criminal to Mafia boss comes to a lethal end when his gang finds out his role in creating the superhero and thorn in their collective side in the first place. As for the Joker, according to the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, he was just an unsuccessful standup comedian who couldn't get a booking, not even on Letterman.

Here's the opening scene of Batman. As film scholars will note, Gotham City owes a little something to Metropolis. Not Superman's Metropolis, but Fritz Lang's:

Even if they were somewhat nonplussed by the liberties taken (which included giving the Joker an actual name), fans of the comic book mostly greeted the movie with a sigh of relief, along with high hopes that the film's success at the box office might finally replace and erase the legacy left behind by...  

...this actor, whose campy portrayal on the 1960s TV show these same fans felt defamed the reputation of their beloved Dark Knight. So that you can compare the two actors, I'm going to show you this clip not from the actual TV series, but a 1966 theatrical film rushed into production to capitalize on the TV series. You should still get the basic idea what that show was all about:

The riffraff of the world thanks you, Batman.

Honestly, I'm not so sure that Adam West's take on Batman and Michael Keaton's take on Batman were as far apart as those comic book fans would have liked. For one thing, both men talked in hushed tones when they put on that mask. And regardless of whether the surrounding atmosphere was dead-serious or tongue-in-cheek, both men played the character as an anal-retentive moralist who just couldn't enjoy life as long as there was somebody somewhere doing something that they weren't supposed to. And I guess that's to be expected. Hip, laid-back types rarely become masked vigilantes.

OK, this particular masked vigilante is indeed hip and laid-back, but, curiously, only when he's in life-and-death situations involving the criminal element. Otherwise, his alter-ego is quite...


As long as we're on the subject of alter egos...

The biggest difference between Michael Keaton and Adam West is not how they played Batman but Batman's alter ego, millionaire Bruce Wayne. We'll look at West first: 

Bruce Wayne's championing of capitalism would be more impressive if all his money wasn't inherited (as for Dick Grayson, aka, Robin, look what a difference an adoption makes.) But that's neither here nor there. What I hoped you took from the above clip is that the difference between Adam West's Batman and Adam West's Bruce Wayne is, well, no difference at all. Costumed or not, it's the same old (um, 30-something) hushed-tone pontification that you might think would actually bore a criminal into signing a confession just to get him to shut up. Speaking of criminals, I think if the Penguin or the Riddler was in that room just now, it would take them all of two seconds to figure out that Bruce Wayne and Batman are the same person. For that matter, Aunt Harriet should have figured it out by now. Of course, it could be she never met the Caped Crusader. Society matrons and superheroes don't necessarily attend the same soirees.

Now here's Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne: 

Did I just hear the Joker fart?

First off, Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne talks in a regular voice when in civvies, saving the hushed tones only for when he's in mortal combat. Also, he got very emotional there, didn't he? At worse, Adam West might blush if he came across a jaywalker, but otherwise he kept his cool. Then again, Keaton's temper tantrum might have just been a ruse to get the Joker to shoot him (a serving trey hidden in his shirt allows him to survive.) I don't think anything like that would have happened in the 1960s TV series because, frankly, I don't recall ever seeing bullets on that show. Unlike Dallas, Memphis, or Los Angeles, 1960s Gotham City seems to have had rather strict gun control laws (but as you just saw, that was all over with by 1989--the NRA must have bought off some local Gotham politician.)

For our final Michael Keaton-Adam West comparison, we look at affairs of the heart, or the groin, or--just watch the clips and figure it out for yourself.

Twenty-five years later:

Licking may even be more natural--to the point of being animalistic. Pur-r-r-r-r.

Thus ends my Michael Keaton-Adam West comparison. There's no winner because it's not a contest. You're allowed to like them both (I do.) And anyway, the comparison is as much between filmmaker Tim Burton and television producer William Dozier and television writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. as it is between any two actors. The funny thing is, even though the two Burton-directed movies, Batman and Batman Returns, were together seen at the time as a sudden break with the superhero's franchise TV past, if I compare the Burton films with the later, 21st century-but-1970s movieish Christopher Nolan trilogy, Burton's take seems more like the TV version, not less. Sure, one's lighthearted and the other's definitely not, but both versions never forget that it's all based on a comic book and not The French Connection or Taxi Driver. 

As for the various others actors who played Batman--Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, Ben Affleck, whoever's in that one Legos movie--it's not their birthday today. As I said earlier, it is Michael Keaton's, so lets get back to him. In case you haven't heard, Keaton's going to have one more go as Gotham City's favorite crimefighter, though this film's actually about another superhero, the Flash, who lives in another fictional metropolis, (though not the fictional Metropolis.) Keaton turns 70 today. Is that too old to play Batman? Maybe, maybe not. When it comes to superheroes, it matters not the age of the actors that play them as long as...

...the garments remain forever young.

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