Action heroes never die — even Arnold Schwarzenegger returned after serving as governor of California — they just do Shakespeare.
After the vastly successful “Batman” (1989) and “Batman Returns” (1992), Michael Keaton — who now appears to be an early Oscar favorite for his performance in Alejandro González Iñarritu’s highly anticipated “Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” — hung up the mask to portray Dogberry the clownish constable in Kenneth Branagh’s star-struck adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993).
It wasn’t a major part — the vainglorious, verbally addled poltroon resembles a dumber version of the Falstaff of Shakespeare’s later history plays. But Keaton offered a performance evoking a thinner Orson Welles, resembling the genius ham physically and vocally and bringing to the prolix dunce all the tics and shtick that marked his highly successful first films, “Night Shift” (1982) and “Mr. Mom” (1983).
Those two films, not to mention his protean, Robin Williams-like animated cadaver in Tim Burton’s exhilarating “Beetlejuice” (1988), established Keaton as ’80s comic prototype. He had an embryonic face, scraggly hair, bulging eyes, a pert bud of a mouth, and a receding chin — features that, depending on the scene, made him look like a pre-teen con man, a bewildered wimp, or a demented baby. Yet women found him sexy, and the young male demographic saw in him an idealized reflection of themselves — hyperactive, insecure, and almost as funny as they think they are.
Looking back at those early films, the similarities between Keaton and Tom Hanks, another 1980s rising comic star, are striking. Hanks’s “Bachelor Party” (1984) and “The Money Pit” (1986) echo Keaton’s “Night Shift” and “Mr. Mom.” And when Keaton attempted to break out of comic mode to do a tortured character in “Clean and Sober” (1988), Hanks tried the same in “Punchline” (1988).
But Keaton held the advantage. Roger Ebert described “Punchline” as “a pathetic movie into which a great deal of energy and talent has disappeared.” The National Society of Film Critics gave Keaton its award for best actor.
Then “Batman” happened. It had all the makings of a disaster. A director, Tim Burton, who was a bit flaky. A huge budget. And the condemnation of the army of fanboys who probably loved Keaton when he was playing a cocky nerd like themselves.
Nonetheless, when Keaton put on that cowl and cape, a transformation took place. The weak chin took on the granite squareness of the original 1939 Bob Kane comic book character. He affected a tomb-like, rasping whisper that seemed to emerge from a tortured id and traumatic memories. Somehow the quick-quipped, bumbling dork of “Night Shift” managed to eclipse not only Jack Nicholson’s consummate scenery chewing as The Joker, but even the scenery itself, the oneiric, Metropolis-like cityscape designed by Anton Furst.
Keaton’s fortunes seemed secure. “Batman” made more than $400 million at the box office, and the superhero genre became the mainstay of Hollywood, for better or worse, to the present day. The sequel, also directed by Burton, intensified the macabre morbidity, with disturbing elements such as burning clowns, a severed hand, Michelle Pfeiffer’s deadly dominatrix Catwoman, and Danny DeVito as the Penguin, who plots to kill every first-born male child in Gotham City. And then there was Keaton’s Batman — more melancholy, damaged, and ambivalent than before.
“Batman Returns” did well at the box office, but less so than its predecessor. It raised the question: How much darker could Batman get and still have wide appeal? (As Christopher Nolan would later prove, a lot darker indeed.) When Warner Bros. pushed to lighten up the next sequel, Burton took a pass. And Keaton, though reportedly offered $15 million, passed as well. The result: Joel Schumacher’s ominously titled “Batman Forever” (1995), which one reviewer described as “a threat and a promise,” followed by the same director’s “Batman & Robin” (1997), starring George Clooney in a Batsuit with nipples.
Clearly the franchise needed the overhaul that would finally be provided by Nolan’s “Batman Begins” (2005). But Keaton needed overhauling, too. He would do some decent films in the years after “Nothing” — in particular Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997). None of these, however, brought about the metamorphosis from imp to icon achieved by his erstwhile rival Hanks, who would win Oscars for “Philadelphia” (1993) and “Forrest Gump” (1994).
And few careers could endure a debacle like “Jack Frost” (1998), in which Keaton traumatized the film’s meager audience of children by portraying a dead father who is reincarnated as a hideous snowman. In a scene of mindboggling, misguided bathos the pie-faced, frozen monstrosity squeaks to his son, “I love you!”
He would contribute that voice to animated movies like the “Toy Story” series, but by the time he started reemerging again playing roles in films like “The Other Guys” (2010) and the remake of “RoboCop” (2014), the generation that had identified him with Batman had grown up.
As had Keaton, who had given up that role long ago, attempting to establish his artistic credibility by taking on the Bard back in 1993. It had gone largely unrecognized.
A similar scenario unfolds in “Birdman,” where he portrays an actor not unlike himself who lost his way after a brief heyday as the action hero of the title. Decades later, he wants to reinvent and validate himself, not by performing Shakespeare, but by bringing his own drama to the stage, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” But his efforts come up against many obstacles, not the least of which is his own former incarnation, the Batman-voiced Birdman who provides a constant interior monologue — a solipsistic hell like something out of Samuel Beckett.
No other actor could have done it — can you imagine Arnold or Stallone in the role? And certainly not Tom Hanks. In “Birdman,” Keaton perhaps achieves something truly superheroic — he discards the mask and reveals the void underneath.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.