I have a good friend from high school who co-hosts a fun radio show out of Cleveland, Tennessee, with his long-time friend, Rob Alderman, Slinky’s lovely wife, AMC Mike, and an occasional assist from the Ken Dog. My friend’s radio code name is the Hollywood Slinky, and their show about movies and pop culture is called Lights, Camera, Cleveland. The show runs on Mondays on WOOP FM 99.9 at 6:00-8:00 p.m. EST (That’s tonight at 5:00 for my Chicagoan readers). They have interesting and goofy radio conversations that range from the nuances of Star Wars vs. Star Trek fandom to “How to Be a Good Parent by using How to Train Your Dragon.”
My friend, the Hollywood Slinky, tends to be a harsh critic from time to time. Here’s a snippet of an exchange—what Rob called straight talk—from a couple of weeks ago on the radio:
Rob Alderman: You [Hollywood Slinky] let the fans of people [film creators] dictate whether you like those people…I don’t think he likes to be at the whim of groups of people.
AMC Mike: Hollywood Slinky is like an old, grumpy man who just wants to yell at any fandom to get off his lawn…he’s just like, “get off my lawn, you young, happy people who like things!!”
Ken Dog: There was a look in your eye that said, to me, Slinky, that said to me, “She’s not wrong. That’s not completely false, inaccurate.”
Hollywood Slinky: I will be the first to agree with you in that, um, fandom that has become so obsessed that they are unable to see the flaws in the thing that they are fans of…is something that really grates on my nerves…it is something that absolutely drives me nuts.
Hollywood Slinky reads my blog from time to time, and he has suggested to me that I need to write more fun things. He occasionally provides suggestions about pop culture upon which to write…requests, if you will. Recently, after a boring political article about Rand Paul was published, he wrote to me, “Tomorrow’s blog should be an examination of which actor, of all actors who have done so, played the best Batman/Bruce Wayne.”
Okay. I’ll bite.
First, we have to winnow down the contenders for best Batman. I think it’s safe to say that Val Kilmer and George Clooney are disqualified; I suspect there will be no Joel Schumacher fans writing me letters of protest. Campy Adam West was more concerned with establishing Adam West as a brand name than Batman. We should stick with the live-action actors of Batman, as the plethora of animated renditions are well-wrought, but we’d be here for a while if we included all the voice actors and animators who colluded to put together the beloved animated DC character…and we’ll have to wait and see how Ben Affleck fares in the latest on-screen portrayal.
So that leaves us with two worthy contenders: Michael Keaton from Tim Burton’s Batman films and Christian Bale from Christopher Nolan’s latest Batman trilogy. We should examine the greater films first before we make a judgment on either actor.
Tim Burton’s two films, Batman and Batman Returns, are staples of my teen/early adult viewing library. 1989’s Batman is one of those films that I can watch blind-folded and still visualize the cinematography as I recite the lines one-by-one. Burton’s vision for Batman was the unique blend of colorful campiness and gruesome psychosis that satisfied this long-time reader of the Dark Knight. Tim Burton was the perfect director for the film, even if it is a bit commercialized…once Burton might have been more of a reclusive, withdrawn creator, but he has mostly abated himself of that character trait. Jack Nicholson was sublime as the Joker, and his performance still holds up to scrutiny (even if I prefer Heath Ledger’s portrayal more…however, we’re not having that debate here). I’ve re-watched the film, and like so many films I enjoyed as a youth to which I return, I spot quite a few more flaws than I remembered as a kid…
…which is strange because, as a kid, I wasn’t as impressed with Batman Returns when I first watched it….and I saw it in the theater in 1992 with the Hollywood Slinky, the past and future film critic! Upon repeated viewings, I have to state that I actually prefer Batman Returns to Burton’s original Batman. We get to see a more introspective Bruce Wayne and the dichotomy that Batman presents, reflected off the dual personas of Catwoman and Selina Kyle, played spectacularly by Michelle Pfeiffer. Batman Returns might be responsible for the established trend of cramming multiple supervillians into a superhero movie because it does so quite well. Danny Devito’s Penguin is appropriately despicable and cringeworthy…and Christopher Walken ends up being one of the greatest villians within Batman’s film mythos as Max Schrek (for younger film enthusiasts, please watch the Deerslayer for war film perfection…or if you prefer a more juvenile Christopher Walken, watch Disney’s The Country Bears to see Walken play Reed Thimple, a villain who prominently plays a mean armpit instrument…that’s right, you can see Christopher Walken making armpit farts on screen.).
What’s important for this debate is Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne in Batman Returns. While his role in the original Batman is overshadowed by Nicholson’s Joker, Keaton shines in his rendition of Batman in the sequel. The chemistry between Keaton’s Bruce Wayne and Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle is magnificent and successfully shows the flawed character of Wayne and the inner mania that compels Bruce Wayne to play the role of the Bat. (A flaw of the original is that Kim Basinger never matches Michelle Pfeiffer’s intensity as Vicki Vale, who comes off more as a scream queen than successful foil). Michael Keaton’s acting in Batman Returns makes him a strong contender for best onscreen portrayal of Batman.
As for Christian Bale’s take on Bruce Wayne, I need to confess about Christopher Nolan first. I like Christopher Nolan for attempting unique stories on film. Memento is a wonderful experiment of time manipulation and film noir, and Inception is one of my favorite recent sci-fi films for its unique premise…but Nolan films can be a bit heavy-handed and thick with superfluous dialogue…and this is especially true with the Batman trilogy of films. I liked them all, but I didn’t love them. In fact, the best thing about the trilogy was ultimately Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. I find myself gravitating towards watching The Dark Knight film mostly, and I fast-forward to the scenes with Ledger’s Joker most of the time. The rest of the trilogy is just too slow and wordy. It takes too long in all three films to reach their climactic ends, and the only satisfying conclusion can be found in the Dark Knight. These films do a good job of taking the superhero universe of Batman and putting a realistic setting on film, but the establishment of characters is fraught with unnecessary extension and awkward plot elements.
Christian Bale is a wonderful actor (The Machinist!), and he admittedly performs a convincing Bruce Wayne/Batman on screen. However, it’s my preference for the Tim Burton films that ultimately makes my final decision for the best Bruce Wayne as Michael Keaton. It’s not by a landslide, but Keaton has a couple of lengths on Bale in this race.
My correspondence with the Hollywood Slinky continued after his initial request:
Hollywood Slinky: Tomorrow’s blog should be an examination of which actor, of all actors who have done so, played the best Batman/Bruce Wayne.
Maniacal Professor: That’s easy. Michael Keaton.
Hollywood Slinky: Sometimes you surprise me, old man.
I’m going to assume that Hollywood Slinky’s closing comment is the equivalent of a grumpy, old man telling his grumpy, old neighbor, “Your lawn looks okay, but make sure you keep it nice and trim like my lawn,” as he shakes his fist at me.
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