comic book movies

God vs Man: A comparison of Keaton and Bale’s Batman

comparison keaton vs bale batmanIt’s the battle of the Batman’s, but when I say battle I really mean having a look at the characterisation of two very different, yet great Batmans. I’ll be taking a look at Michael Keaton’s Batman as portrayed in the 1989 film Batman, comparing it to Christian Bale’s Batman from the 2005 film Batman Begins.

Keaton and Bale’s Batman’s were very different. Batman (directed by Tim Burton) and Batman Begins (directed by Christopher Nolan) were very different films. When asked who is your favourite Batman, the typical answer is either Keaton or Bale. I’m not here to discuss necessarily whose Batman portrayal was better, but more so to discuss the way Batman was characterised in their respective films, and how Keaton’s Batman was about an almost mythical and god-like person, whereas as Bale’s Batman was just about a man.

Lets look at our first introduction to the character in both films. In Batman Begins we first see Bruce as a child, falling down a well, being scared. We then cut to Bruce Wayne in a foreign prison, he’s dirty and lost, but has an anger to unleash. In Burton’s Batman our first look at Bruce Wayne is of him being Batman. He descends from the sky and beats up a couple of guys. He’s confident and sure of himself.

So just from the introduction of the character in these films we get a very different perspective of this character. Burton builds Batman up as a myth and legend at the start of his film. The bad guys talk about this mysterious Bat guy who may or may not exist. And the first time we see him, he looks mythical with his cowl spread as he descends from the sky with the moonlight highlighting him. Nolan builds up Bruce Wayne the man first and foremost. He was the scared little boy, he’s trying to find himself.

keaton vs bale batman

It’s the image of a god verse the image of an ordinary man. Batman in the Burton films is made to seem more mythical and god-like, beyond just a man. Batman in the Nolan films is made to seem like a broken man who is trying to find his way.

What’s obviously similar about both characterisations of Batman in the films is that the character is made to seem like he is very alone and isolated. In the Burton film Bruce Wayne goes on a date with Vicki Vale. We get a shot of the two of them on a very long dining table. This evoking the idea of Bruce’s separation from the rest of humanity. Eventually the two of them decide to ditch the ridiculously long table to hang out in the kitchen, where we hear stories about Bruce being a boy from Alfred. Even though he has been built up as some mythical god by the bad guys, we the audience see that Batman is just some guy figuring his way out, but the question is does Bruce himself consider him to be just a man or more than a man?

This sense of a lost man trying to find his way is also a very big part of Batman Begins. We find out in the first act that Bruce has been gone from Gotham for years, travelling the world, trying to find some answers about what he should do and the type of man he should be. 

But even though both films showcase a lost man trying to find his way, they have different perspectives on the true identity of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Burton gives us the idea that the true identity is Batman. After his date with Vicki, Vicki wakes up to see Bruce swinging upside down in his sleep, obviously very bat like, this is how he really views himself, his true nature. Nolan on the other hand gives us the idea that the real identity is Bruce Wayne. Although I want to keep this discussion mainly within the first Burton Batman movie and the first Nolan Batman movie, Nolan’s whole idea of Bruce Wayne being the true identity becomes painfully clear in The Dark Knight Rises. One of the biggest complaints about that film was that “Batman” was only shown for about 20 minutes altogether. And the reason is because Nolan doesn’t believe he is telling the story of Batman, he believes he is telling the story of Bruce Wayne (which he has said himself in multiple interviews).

keaton batman This is about Bruce Wayne’s struggle. When Bruce Wayne finally gets over his massive existential crisis he stops being Batman (by the way that end scene of The Dark Knight Rises totally wasn’t a dream, Bruce didn’t die!). Bruce used Batman as a means to an end. A way to help him figure out who he is. Once he figured that out, did what he was set out to accomplish, he didn’t need Batman anymore, he could just be himself again.

And yes I know that in Batman Begins Rachel talks about how Bruce Wayne is the mask and Batman is who he really is, but Rachel’s an idiot (sorry not going to lie I could have done without her character). Bruce Wayne built Batman so that he could be the best person he could be. He grew up seeing the great that his parents did, and when he came back to Gotham he saw all that goodness died when his parents died. We see Bruce Wayne try to deal with this problem poorly by trying to kill Joe Chill, until we see him evolve emotionally until he becomes Batman. By becoming Batman, Bruce Wayne was able to overcome the emotional barrier that was stopping him from accomplishing good, but Batman was never who he really was, as I said it was merely a means to an end of his existential crisis.

keaton vs bale batmanSo we see this emotionally flawed Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, lets take a look back at Bruce Wayne in Burton’s Batman film. There’s one scene that really stands out to me. Bruce Wayne goes to Crime Alley to place flowers where his parents were murdered. If this was Nolan’s film, we would probably hear a very slow somber score that emphasises the sorrow Bruce Wayne feels. But this is Burton’s film, and instead the score is triumphant in this scene. The score shows how Bruce Wayne has evolved so much emotionally, he has completely transformed since his parents death, he is no longer that scared little boy, he is now Batman.

Nolan’s Batman film kept reminding us that Batman was human, that he was Bruce Wayne. We see Bruce break down, we see him plead to Rachel. Burton’s Batman film kept reminding us that Keaton was the goddamn Batman. When the Joker first starts trouble in the streets we see Bruce Wayne get shot in the shoulder, to which he acts like nothing has even happened, he just shrugs it off and keeps on walking. Keep in mind he isn’t in his Batman suit at this point in time, making it seem like he was more than human, he was and always is Batman.

keaton batman you want to get nuts

(source: joetalksmovies.blogspot.com.au)

This whole god vs man portrayal becomes clearer when you compare the way the Keaton’s Batman fought bad guys to the way Bale’s Batman fought bad guys. Keaton’s Batman was far less restrained compared to Bale’s. When the Joker fell to his death, Keaton’s Batman didn’t really care. This whole ‘no killing’ rule wasn’t really that much of a thing for Keaton’s Batman. Keaton’s Batman was intense and aggressive and really didn’t give a shit as long as he got his bad guy. Yeah Bale’s Batman was also somewhat intense and aggressive (SWEAR TO MEEE!!!), but he was a lot more restrained compared to Keaton’s Batman. Bale’s Batman was a lot more strict on that whole ‘no kill policy’, because he did give a shit. Now I know he pretty much killed Ra’s Al Ghul but he pretty much rationalised that in his head he didn’t kill Ra’s Al Ghul, he just didn’t save him either, because this Batman, this Bruce Wayne, is a lot more attached to his humanity compared to Keaton’s Batman.

swear to me batman beginsBale’s Batman says he will give up being Batman to be with Rachel, Keaton’s Batman has a new girl by the second movie, he ain’t got no time for the one woman, he’s bloody Batman! At the end of Batman he ditches Vicki Vale to go be Batman, Bale’s Batman would have done the opposite for Rachel Dawes. 

Even though we the audience see that Keaton’s Batman is just a man, I don’t believe that Keaton’s Batman saw himself as that. I believe he saw himself the way the bad guys saw him, the way the cops saw him, as a myth, a legend, almost god-like, more than a man, he chooses to always be Batman because he is Batman. Bale’s Batman understood he was just a man. He didn’t want to be Batman forever because that’s not who he is, he is Bruce Wayne.

keaton vs bale batman

So when the question comes up about who was the better Batman, it depends on how you like the characterisation of your Batman. Do you like when he is made to seem more than human, god-like, yet still just a man. When he well and truly is Batman. Or do you like when Batman is made to seem a lot more human, when you see his emotional and personal struggles are emphasised as Bruce Wayne. Me personally I like a bit of both. I’m hoping Ben Affleck’s Batman gives us a Batman that is somewhere in the middle between the characterisation of Bale’s and Keaton’s Batman.

But anyways what type of Batman do you prefer? God or Man? Let me know!

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17 replies »

  1. Goof. I actually prefer Adam West. And yes, I know it is a sign of bad taste in the eye of every true batman fan, but I always loved how Adam West could sell something so riddiculous with so much seriousness. It was always a joy to watch him. Plus he is the only one of the live action incarnations who is actually doing some detective work instead of randomly driving through the streets or being conveniently present when the villains attack.

    Love your analysis, and I agree with you. But I think what both Burton and Nolan have in common is that they put a very strong emphasis on style to a degree that sometimes the story is suffering for the sake of it. Also a tendency to be melodramatic (Nolan a little bit more than Burton). If I had to pick…I think I would go with Burton. Mostly because he embraces his own concept more. When he has the idea for a weird imaginary he goes for it no matter if it makes sense or not. He doesn’t even pretend to tell a coherent story, it is all about the experience, about seeing the world from Batman’s perspective.
    Nolan on the other hand tries to add “meaning” to the story which then results in lines like the “batman is you true self and Bruce Wayne is your mask” or “I can’t be the hero the city needs” which do sound impressive upon first watch, but become more and more riddiculous with time. I sometimes want to scream at the characters “why can’t you talk normal?”.
    Plus, the relatable human Superhero…I think that is actually more Marvel like than typical DC.

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    • Haha hey Adam West is great!
      That is true about Nolan’s Batman being a bit melodramatic, some of the lines make you eye roll when you watch the movie over again.
      My biggest problem with Burton’s Batman is that he really tries to drive the fact that this guy was crazy, I don’t really like the stories that try to push that Bruce Wayne is super crazy, I prefer when they push stories where Bruce is the sanest of all of us, and the world is just super crazy.
      Anyways both Burton and Nolan had very specific interpretations of the character, which is why I prefer a Batman more in the middle of the two of them, and yes one that actually does some real detective work

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      • True…neither variant is the right one. I just really don’t like too much melodrama (which was the main reason why I dropped Arrow, I couldn’t stand it anymore). And too much negativity. I don’t mind dark, but I need the light at the end of the tunnel.

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  2. Great analysis, keaton really sold it for me as bruce wayne, and your correct about Burton’s films. However nolan really got into the psychology of why someone would do those things, i like that approach. I understand that a lot dont however, they just wanna see theyre god like superhero, it’s a fantasy trip.
    Nolan and goyer both did the same thing with man of steel. Why would that guy wanna work at the daily planet? Because he meets lois lane outside first and then wants to be there with her. Why does lex luthor hate him so much? After man of steel we have our answer. Instead of placing a character in a particular story, you study your character and let things unfold naturally. Same thing with kevin costners character that people hated. Of course if your son was like that you would keep it a secret, or else hes a lab rat. Basically if you want superman to be an omnipotent, omnipresent, almost perfect god, you hated man of steel.
    So yeah as far as the preference of burton or nolan? I prefer nolans batman but theres no right or wrong answer.

    By the way if your wondering whats the deal with the fantastic four reboot i read some disturbing news that i hope isn’t true. Type up (Did director josh trank trash the fantastic four set during filming? Superhero movie news)

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    • I love your comment! I think it’s really important to get into the psychology of these characters and the reasons behind their actions, which Nolan does really well.
      And wow I hadn’t heard about that, if we find out Josh Trank isn’t back for the sequel then it might actually be true, and could explain why we haven’t heard anything about the movie. I hope it’s not true, this movie was already on a downward spiral before!

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      • Nolan has really had an impact on the genre, but it seems that people are growing tired of gritty and want more light hearted stories. That’s understandable, people want an escape not a reminder of the real world. It’s not that i prefer darker to light hearted stories necessarily. I just prefer deeper more believable character studies, and the grittier stories do that, or that’s my perception of things.

        Look at arrow, nolans batman greatly influenced that show in my opinion. At first i thought the show was complete rubbish. (It is to an extant, it’s a freaking superhero show) Green arrow was suppossed to be a light hearted guy who was on a deserted island and now shoots arrows at people, but the character was created decades ago. Today its more likely that an island like that would contain merceneries who would hold you there against your will. Therefore someone like oliver queen would be very dark. Ultimately superheroes are all unbelievable, but id rather watch something thats at least somewhat conceivable.

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      • Oh I agree, I prefer the “grittier” stories for that exact reason as well, which is why I prefer DC over Marvel

        But in regards to Arrow, to be fair they made that Arrow character similar to how they made him in Smallville. Basically his role in Smallville was to be Batman because they weren’t allowed to use Batman, so they carried that similar characterisation over to Arrow as well, but obviously the Nolan influence is very clear in the earlier episodes of Arrow

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  3. Cool article man, really enjoyed it.
    Nitpicking here, but I see that Nolan’s Batman was not necessarily less confident (well he was), it was just that it the beginning of Bruce’s career as Batman, where as Keaton’s Batman had obviously been at it for at least couple years, if not longer, hence was more confident.

    As a kid I loved Keaton/Burton Batman, but as an adult it bothers me how many people he kills in that film.

    Tim Burton claims not to read any comics, but then him and Anton Furst say they wanted to go back to the beginning of the character. I’ve not seen it explicitly said, but if they did focus on first year of Batman (from Detective #27 onward) where he did kill a bunch of people, then Burton’s Batman is true to THAT version of the character. But that version only existed for about a year. Then you have 50 years (in 1989) of stories where Batman was NOT a killer (not on purpose anyhow), and it seems odd to make the a film at odds with that.

    I like the production design on Batman 1989, and Burton’s movies in genera, but when Batman Begins came out, I just said, thank god somebody finally cared enough to pay attention to the character, and not just make a movie that happened to have Batman in the background while a bunch of stuff happened that didn’t really make sense.
    Batman Returns? The less said the better, I think Batman is in there for like 5 minutes just before the end credits roll.

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    • Yeah I remember rewatching Batman Returns after watching The Dark Knight trilogy and seeing that scene where he straps a bomb to the bad guy and then just blows him up and walks away and I was like ummm wow this is a very very different Batman. Burton’s Batman was just very sure and unapologetic of his actions, unlike Nolan’s Batman which does have a lot to do that Nolan’s Batman was only Batman for a few months altogether really

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  4. First off, great post. I think there’s room for both versions of Batman, and from what I’ve read of the comics, Bruce Wayne is somewhere between them. Michael Keaton is probably the better actor to play Batman, yet Nolan is much better at delving into Bruce’s head.

    As for Burton’s Batman killing people, I never had a problem with it. In the early Batman comics, he killed people all the time and the no killing rule came later. Sure, there are other problems with Burton’s Batman movies like the ridiculous pistol that shot down the Batplane with a single bullet after Batman missed how many shots? And what a mess Batman Returns is. Tim Burton once said that he never has and never will read a comic and that explains a lot about those movies. But in the Burtonverse, Batman is kind of like the Punisher and that’s part of the reason I like them.

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    • Thanks! Yeah you can tell he isn’t familiar with the source material, and Batman Returns was just a full on Tim Burton movie, which doesn’t necessarily fit the character of Batman
      Hahah yeah he is a little more Punisher than Batman in those movies

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  5. Fascinating! Keaton seems more cuddly and down-to-Earth at first than Bale does, but I totally buy your analysis of him as the less “human.”

    Bale said in an interview that most people think “Which is real, Bruce or Batman? Which is the mask?” but Bale felt like they were both masks. The real person is a scared little boy, and he’s created both personas to defend himself. That’s always made a lot of sense to me and helped explain Batman’s actions. He’s a little boy who’s still trying to cope with his parents’ deaths, who doesn’t want to see anyone die again.

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  6. It’s an interesting analysis, but I think you’re missing one key thing about the Burton interpretation: the timing of the release.

    The final issue of Frank Miller’s 1986 mini-series The Dark Knight Returns completely changed the way the world saw Batman. Batman became darker, obsessed… and such a badass that he was willing to take down Superman. As a result of the success, DC authorized more darker material — especially Arkham Asylum, a Grant Morrison story that is best known for Joker telling Batman that one cannot exist without the other.

    It’s that frame of mind that helped fuel the Tim Burton interpretation. The studio’s publicity campaign put a HUGE emphasis on how this version was far more accurate to the spirit of Batman than the 1966 television show… and it was able to do so because Miller’s Batman: Year One had just come out and showed him to be more of a darker figure than the West version.

    The later 90s and early 00s saw a number of stories questioning whether Batman was the mask or Bruce Wayne was — as a direct result of this combination of Dark Knight Returns (in which Bruce cannot let Batman rest), Arkham Asylum (borderline insane), The Killing Joke (Batman’s world will forever be in darkness), Year One… and the movie.

    More importantly: Burton’s interest in visuals had a much bigger impact because Gotham started to become more than just an average city. It now had gothic spires and heavy shadows, a la Metropolis (the movie, not the comic city). It was Burton who introduced the all-black Batman costume and streamlined Batmobile, that in turn impacted the cartoon.

    Nolan’s trilogy starts with an adaptation of Year One. His sequel, however, goes off on a different direction because Nolan and David Goyer are NOT interested in making a superhero movie. Instead, they are interested in taking a modern situation and putting the most human superhero within them.

    As a result, we DO have a different approach to who Batman is, who Bruce Wayne is, and what the relationship between them is. But Nolan’s is also a backlash against Burton, removing the art deco attributes, lessening the spectacle and focusing more on the destructive results.

    Finally, it should also be noted that Burton was never interested in restricting himself to just Batman, and that has a big impact as well. If you look at Burton’s film in context with where WB was at the time with DC, it came after a decade of Superman films that were not officially dead as a franchise (Superboy was on the air) and was simultaneous with the equally dark Swamp Thing. For WB at the time, Batman could have led to a reboot of Superman; indeed, the cartoons were followed by Superman, we had a new TV series, and there was a push for Superman back as the lead.

    Nolan never saw Superman or any other hero a possibility in his universe. He and Bale also put the kibosh on Robin ever entering the series, and that’s by far the most interesting aspect of the Batman character beyond his taking on the costume. For Nolan, it was better to just modify the relationship between Bruce and Alfred (removing the master-servant component that’s central to the books for decades) so that he could limit the cast.

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