The Best Michael Keaton Batman Moments From the Burtonverse to The Flash

Michael Keaton has gone from fan-reviled to fan-favorite, making his return as Batman one of the best reasons to see The Flash. Here are the Bat-moments that made his Batman so beloved.

Michael Keaton as Batman in The Flash
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

In the late ’80s, few things were more insulting to comic book fans than the fact that scrawny comedian Michael Keaton had been cast as Bruce Wayne for 1989’s Batman. No one complained about top-billed Jack Nicholson taking on the role of the Joker, even when he became the highest-paid actor ever (at least at that time). But when Keaton took the Batman role, hate letters flooded Warner Bros. offices, with fans convinced that the darkness of post Dark Knight Returns comics would be discarded in favor of the silly tone of the 1966 tv series with Adam West. They wanted fidelity to the comics.

That’s not exactly what fans got from Batman, and even less so from the weirder follow-up Batman Returns. Keaton’s Batman has no qualms about blowing up street criminals and doesn’t gripe at Alfred for letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave. But after getting George Clooney‘s movie-star Bruce Wayne in Batman & Robin, Christian Bale‘s military-tech ninja in The Dark Knight, and Robert Pattinson‘s beautiful brooder in The Batman, Keaton’s unique take has only grown more beloved.

Keaton’s Batman return has been a key selling point in the universe-rewriting The Flash, especially as his first comeback in the shelved Batgirl will never be seen. How did Keaton go from ultimate insult to superhero elder statesman? These ten best Bat-moments provide the answer.

“I’m Batman”

Fans certainly brought their many reservations into theaters when they watched Batman in 1989. But those all fell away when Keaton delivered his first line, grabbing a thug and growling, “I’m Batman.” Yes, in-universe, Batman directs the line at the thug, saving another little boy from befalling the same fate that transformed Bruce Wayne. But it’s impossible not to feel like he’s also saying it to viewers; to everyone who insisted that there’s no way the manic guy from Beetlejuice could be the Dark Knight.

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Looking back at the line today, it’s almost shocking how little emphasis Keaton gives the reading. We’re used to heightened Batman voices, whether its Bale’s over-the-top snarl, or Kevin Conroy‘s signature baritone. But Keaton doesn’t add much gravel to his throat, doesn’t twist his lips into a grotesque grimace. Instead, he just grabs the thugs and whispers, confident that regardless of what anyone else thinks, he knows who he is. He’s Batman. Going on four decades later, no one would disagree.

“Which of These Guys Is Bruce Wayne?”

Whatever hesitations people had about the decidedly un-buff Keaton embodying a creature of the night disappeared when he donned the amazing costume designed by Bob Ringwood and Vin Burnham. But Keaton’s was best outside of the suit, portraying Bruce Wayne as a reclusive oddball who doesn’t fit in society.

Viewers got their first taste of weirdo Wayne in an early party scene in Batman, in which reporter Vicki Vale taps a dapper bystander and asks, “Can you tell me which of these guys is Bruce Wayne?” Her interlocutor is in fact Bruce Wayne, but rather than give Vicki a straight answer, Bruce says, “Well, I’m not sure” and then follows her as she walks away. Why the ruse? There’s no telling, but Keaton immediately convinces viewers that Bruce would be more comfortable on a rooftop in black leather than in a party in a tux.

Axis Chemical Attack

It’s all about the lips, baby. The Axis Chemical scene remains divisive for fans, with some annoyed by the body count racked up by the famously anti-murder superhero (“Wait ’till they get a load of me,” thought Ben Affleck‘s Snyderverse Batman), and others unable to deny the pure spectacle of the scene. But there’s one thing no one will dispute: Michael Keaton looks amazing in the cape and cowl. Even when he’s just sitting in the Batmobile, Keaton has the perfect facial structure to compliment the Batmask: his arched eyebrows, pursed lips, strong cheekbones. This Batman had his mask specially designed to suit his needs; he didn’t just load up on Army surplus Wayne tech.

Even better is the fateful scene in which Batman battles Nicholson’s pre-Joker persona, gangster Jack Napier. As always, Keaton uses the Batsuit to great effect, translating his stiff movements into intentional menace. But when he breaks for a moment to keep Napier from falling into the vat of acid, Keaton uncovers another layer to his brooding Batman persona. The mask cannot contain the look of horror on Batman’s face as he tries in vain to save Napier, as if the Dark Knight realizes that his flagging grip will give birth to his greatest nemesis.

Date Night

These days, we all know Michael Keaton as a fine actor, responsible for memorable roles in Birdman and Spider-Man: Homecoming. But moviegoers in 1989 knew him as a comedian, something he mostly fought against in Batman. However, he really got to stretch his comic chops for one scene, in which Vicki Vale visits Wayne Manor for dinner. A great bit of editing shows Bruce and Vicki quietly eating their soup, before a wide shot reveals them at opposite ends of a grand dining room table. Even better is Keaton’s bumbling walk across the table to pass Vicki the salt, another example of his inability to just be a regular person.

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Of course, the dinner quickly breaks up for the couple to retire to the kitchen, where they sit closely together while Alfred regales them with stories of Bruce’s youth. Even in this less overtly absurd setting, Keaton dials up the comedic charm, allowing himself to be the butt of Alfred’s jokes. If anyone wasn’t sold on Keaton as the lead yet, the date night scene surely won them over, giving viewers a glimpse of the actor at his most natural, the mode he’s been downplaying to emphasize his live-wire Wayne and stoic Batman.

Batman Breaks In

A lot of the most iconic Batman scenes can’t really be attributed to Keaton, as its usually a caped stuntman doing the cool stuff, augmented by cinematographer Roger Pratt’s dramatic imagery. That’s certainly the case for one of the movie’s most heroic moments, when Batman smashes through the art museum window to rescue Vicki from the Joker and his goons. But as cool as the shot certainly is, it’s Keaton’s performance that makes Batman more than an icon.

Between the window crash and the zip line ride with Vicki, Keaton only gets a few seconds of screen time in the museum sequence. But he makes the most of it, delivering the instructions he barks at Vale with believable gravitas Between these readings and the unflinching way he points his grappling gun in Joker’s face, Keaton provides striking contrast to his jittery take on Bruce Wayne.

Let’s Get Nuts!

Today, it’s commonplace to say that Batman and Joker are true matches for one another, twins who reflect each other’s best and worst tendencies. But the average fan in 1989 had no idea about nemeses’ connection, making the confrontation between Bruce Wayne and the Joker a revelation. There’s genuine joy in Bruce’s voice when he grabs a poker and smashes a vase. “You wanna get nuts,” he asks the Joker, almost begging the bad guy to agree. “Let’s get nuts!”

The scene is even better when watched in context, as it comes after Bruce tries to reveal his secret to Vicki. Standing awkwardly in her apartment, Bruce tries to contrast his life to that of regular people. “You know how a normal person gets up and goes downstairs and eats breakfast and kisses somebody goodbye and goes to a job,” he explains, revealing that he knows next to nothing about what normal people do. As he tries to come clean with Vicki, Bruce begins to realize that he’ll never truly connect with her, his life is too complex. Thank goodness the Joker arrives to break up this pretence of normalcy.

Ascending the Tower

Those being uncharitable might say that the Bat-suit does most of Keaton’s work for him. And make no mistake, it’s an awesome suit, one that always makes for an impressive silhouette. But it’s the way that Keaton actually moves in the suit that makes his performance so special, especially when one learns about the limited mobility available to him. Stunt men had the advantage of partial suits, omitted arm or leg appliances to allow for kicking and punching. But Keaton had to be believable while wearing the whole clunky thing, a challenge for any actor.

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As Batman’s climactic tower climb in the ’89 movie demonstrates, Keaton knows how to make the suit an extension of his performance. When he slowly ascends the staircase, we don’t see an almost immobile actor trying not to trip and break his neck. We see vengeance personified, an unstoppable force coming to the Joker. Even when Batman watches one of Joker’s goons do ornate sword tricks, Keaton comes off as stoic instead of stuck.

Bruce By Himself

With its surreal visuals, outstanding performances, and weird sexual tension, Batman Returns is one of the best superhero movies of all time. But it’s not really a great Batman movie, for the simple fact that there’s not really much Batman in it. Batman and his billionaire playboy alter-ego get crowded out by the movie’s antagonists Catwoman, the Penguin, and Max Shreck, leaving little room for Batman to do his thing. But make no mistake, Keaton takes full advantage of all the screen time he can get.

Take his introduction in the movie, when the Red Triangle Gang attacks Gotham’s holiday revelers. After an establishing shot of stately Wayne Manor, we cut to Bruce sitting bored in his unlit drawing room. When a pair of Bat-Signals flood the room, Bruce stands up immediately, giving his best hero pose. In the hands of a lesser actor, the scene would seem ridiculous, a visual testament to Batman Returns’ disinterest in Batman. But Keaton perfectly captures Bruce’s brooding nature, forcing us to accept that he would spend his nights just thinking about superstitious and cowardly lots.

Rooftop Date

Kim Basinger did her best with Vicki Vale, but there’s no denying the chemistry between Batman and Catwoman, and not just because of Michelle Pfeiffer‘s iconic turn. Vale might have been a good match for Bruce Wayne, but with Catwoman, Batman found the girl for him, another freak who loved hanging out on rooftops in black leather. Pfeiffer dominates every one of her scenes, from her first tossed-off “meow” to her final tragic end. But Keaton deserves credit too for playing the perfect straight man to the vamping villain.

Just look at the range of emotion he conveys when the two first meet, just after Batman challenges the Penguin. There’s a glow of excitement in Keaton’s eyes when he realizes that there’s a beautiful lady weirdo out there, and genuine embarrassment when he falls for Selina’s “defenseless woman” ruse. When Catwoman runs her claws across Batman’s face, purring about the search for the person behind the mask, his inner-conflict is clear, wanting to engage more with her but knowing that removing the mask will only destroy their tension.

Bruce Meets Shreck

If Batman gets the short shrift in Batman Returns, then that’s doubly-true of Bruce Wayne, who barely appears in the villain-centric movie. But Keaton makes the most his limited time, especially in this billionaire standoff between Bruce Wayne and Christopher Walken‘s equally odd Max Shreck. If you just listen to the words Keaton and Walken exchange, you would find that screenwriter Daniel Waters is giving us the usual Bruce Wayne routine, where Batman slyly needles evil businessmen behind his playboy persona.

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But Keaton’s performance undermines any sense of intention on Bruce’s part. His rejection of Shreck’s power plant plan, his calling out of Shreck’s relationship to the criminal underworld aren’t calculated gestures. Rather, they are honest observations from a guy who doesn’t really understand polite company. We can see that in the way that Keaton responds to a perceived insult Bruce leveled against Shreck. When Shreck says he doesn’t appreciate the inference, Keaton pauses and thinks for a moment, muttering, “Sorry, Max, didn’t realize I made one.” With that delivery, Keaton reminds us that Bruce Wayne isn’t a smooth operator; he’s just a strange man stuck in the world of the super-rich.

Holy Bad Driver, Batman

We all know how much Keaton’s Batman loves those wonderful toys. But what about when the toys stop working? That was the problem the Caped Crusader faced in Batman Returns, when Oswald Copperpot aka the Penguin put a remote control on the Batmobile and sent it careening throughout the city. “Just relax,” the Penguin cackles at Batman via the Batmobile’s computer screen. “I’ll take care of the squealing, wretched pinhead puppets of Gotham.”

Instead of relaxing, Keaton lets Batman freak out, just a little. He twists his face into a concerned grimace, playing up the comedy of out-of-control Batman, without making the Dark Knight look ridiculous. But he quickly regains control, remaining stoic as he disrupts the signal to regain control of his vehicle, all while Danny DeVito gives a truly unhinged performance as the ghastly Penguin.

Batman Unmasked

“Bruce Wayne? Why are you dressed up like Batman?” Even if it wasn’t Christopher Walken saying these words in his inimitable cadence, it would still be one of the best lines in Batman Returns. Not only is it funny to think that Max Shreck couldn’t accept that Bruce Wayne is Batman, even when the hero unmasks in front of him, but the joke also defuses the dramatics that preceded it. As Catwoman prepares to kill Shreck, Batman pleads with her to let him live and take him to the police.

Batman’s plea doesn’t just profess a love of justice, but a love of Selina as well. “Don’t you see?” he asks her, shifting into his Bruce Wayne voice. “We’re the same.” Batman’s romantic tension with Catwoman may be well-worn territory for comic book readers, but it gives Keaton another gear for his take on the hero, one that he perfectly nails. Leaning forward toward the frazzled and threatening Selina, Keaton emphasizes the vulnerability in Batman’s predicament, the realization that he’ll never meet anyone who understands his rooftop escapades better than Catwoman.

Bruce Wayne Fights the Flashes

For better or for worse, Michael Keaton’s Bat-comeback has been a major part of The Flash, which saw Barry Allen inadvertently change reality when he went back in time to save his mother. Barry didn’t realize how much he had changed things until he went to Wayne Manor to check in with his Justice League teammate Batman. Instead of finding the dimpled chin of Ben Affleck‘s Bruce Wayne, who he spoke with just before his time-travel adventure, Barry is assaulted by a shaggy, bearded man with striking eyebrows and luscious lips.

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If you haven’t seen The Flash yet, you probably have an idea in your mind about how the scene plays out. After all, we’ve seen countless versions of grizzled old-timers being called back into service. But Keaton brings a puckishness to the role, even as he hurls pizza slicers at the Barrys Allen in his house. He leans into the eccentricities that have always been a key aspect of his Bruce Wayne, showing what would have become of the guy if he didn’t have Batman to express his weird side.

Nuts Redux

Okay, there’s no denying the corniness of having a partially-costumed Batman look down on the two Flashes and Supergirl and say, “You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts.” Obviously, that line exists only to convince people who loved Keaton in the 80s to come out to see a multiverse effects movie starring a criminal. It’s nothing that Batman would “realistically” remember or say. And yet, somehow, Keaton makes it believable as a character moment, not just a marketing hook.

There’s a real joy to Keaton’s out-of-retirement Batman, something that harkens back to the genesis of the character. Burton and Batman screenwriter Sam Hamm pointed to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns as a major inspiration. In that story, Bruce finds meaning in his life when he puts back on the Batsuit and goes about brutalizing punks. Keaton’s Batman was never as cruel, but there is a sense of joy in his eyes as he looks down at the multi-colored oddballs standing in his cave. Finally, after many decades, Bruce Wayne has found his people, other weirdos who love running around in silly costumes. And that is truly nuts.