Val Kilmer was a better Batman than Michael Keaton.
There. I said it.
This feels topical now that all of the Burton/Schumacher films have had a re-release in honor of Batman’s 80th Anniversary. It’s even more pressing since, as he was most people’s first serious Batman, Keaton seems cloaked in nostalgic Teflon. His material hasn’t had an objective look lately while Kilmer gets brushed aside entirely.
Here I’d like to focus squarely on the Batman elements of their respective films and argue that it was Kilmer, not Keaton, who back in the day was the closest we had to a traditional Batman/Bruce Wayne.
I won’t be covering the villains so if your immediate reaction is to think up a Jim Carrey or Tommy Lee Jones joke let’s put that away for now. After all, it would be unfair to judge Kilmer’s Batman based on his villains as much as it would be to think less of Keaton because of a black bile vomiting “Penguin” who eats cats for breakfast.
THE PUBLIC BRUCE WAYNE
First, Kilmer and Keaton’s Batmen have plenty of similarities. Both are OK detectives, Kilmer reads up on criminal psychology and Keaton knows chemistry. Both can pull off a turtleneck. Both are too loose with their secret identities due to their romantic sub-plots. Both are technically the same Batman, with BATMAN FOREVER referencing Catwoman and the same actors playing Alfred and Gordon.
Let’s compare their downtime, though. Keaton in the Burton films is a rich man with no purpose. His face isn’t known by many, even reporters/photographers don’t know who he is. He’s mostly a shut-in waiting for the Batsignal to shine (“These things beg the question as to what exactly does Bruce Wayne do with his time and his money”).
Contrast this with Kilmer who portrays a Gotham philanthropist. In fact, FOREVER gets major bonus points in my book for actually having a Wayne Enterprises. Bruce Wayne has a job and a business that allows him to contribute to charitable causes. The tabloids love him and he plays up the role of a billionaire playboy as a means to do some good as Bruce Wayne while still fighting crime as Batman.
One scene, in particular, I’ll always give props to Kilmer for is just after the Ed Begley Jr. character has supposedly committed suicide.
He tells his secretary to ensure that the family gets full benefits, is told that suicide not covered by their corporate insurance policy, and he approves it anyway. Damn the red tape, just do the right thing for your employees.
That’s a solid Bruce Wayne moment right there.
FIGHT SCENES AND THE BATCAVE
Until the Nolan-era, Kilmer had the most competent action scenes. And all of them were shot with a Batsuit that was similar to Keaton’s aside from those damnable nipples and the utility belt (which, while not yellow, looks more functional).
His Batman gets a kick-ass opening where he fights multiple goons at once and hangs from a helicopter in pursuit of Two Face. Stuntman Keith Campbell also deserves a lot of respect for doing a somersault off of a fountain wearing that heavy Batsuit. And come on, that moment when the Batcape becomes fireproof to escape a fiery inferno is sick.
Kilmer also lucked out and got the most practicable Batcave. I’d rank it as the best so far. You have a clear entrance via a stairway from Wayne Manor, a designated crime lab area, a car elevator that to me always lead to spare Batmobiles, a real dressing room aka the vault for all the Batsuits/Batgear and the cave had a sweet holographic exit.
THE ONE RULE
If you get worked up about Batman killing — and have used that passion to object to other takes on the character — then Keaton should rank near the bottom for you. Keaton’s Batman has no aversion/regrets about killing. None at all.
In BATMAN ’89, the character has just begun his mission so he should be at the zenith of his moral fortitude. But instead, Batman throws people off buildings, cuts down goons with rockets/mini-guns from the Batplane, explodes others with grenades from the Batmobile and flat out tells the Joker he’s going to kill him.
In BATMAN RETURNS, Batman literally smiles after he attached a bomb to a guy and causes The Penguin to die by launching a swarm of bats at him from the Batskiboat. That last one always bugged me. Batman takes bats and loads them into a projectile to be shot out of? Seriously, where the hell was PETA when RETURNS came out?
Contrast this with FOREVER. In the opening fight scene alone Kilmer uses only non-lethal force, stunning one goon with a taser gun and deciding NOT to drop another down an elevator shaft. When confronting Two-Face he does not say he’s going to kill him but instead says, “You need help, Harvey!”
There’s even a deleted scene where that conversation continues with Two-Face laughing off Batman’s plea by saying, “You’re a killer, too!” That painful truth takes shakes up Batman and was supposed to kick-off his soul-searching in that film (#ReleaseTheRedBookEdition).
Regardless, in FOREVER Kilmer’s Batman does his best to reconcile with the killing done by Keaton. He takes in Dick Grayson after tragic events at the circus and tries to ensure that Grayson does not repeat his mistakes by killing Two Face.
The highlight of the film is the conversation the two have in The Batcave where Bruce says that in killing, “Your pain doesn’t die with Harvey, it grows” to the point where “revenge has become your whole life…and you won’t know why.”
All this builds-up to Robin’s defining moment when he has the opportunity to murder Two Face but instead of following him to hell declares, “I’d rather see you in jail.”
I freely admit that things don’t go so smoothly with Two Face after that. But an attempt was made and contrasted with Keaton’s lack of morals Kilmer is comparatively a saint by stopping Robin from becoming a murderer.
Finally, the “I’ll get drive-thru” line has also been the brunt of many jokes. But I’ll be damned if I’ll allow people to begrudge Batman getting a hamburger. This is America and crime-fighters need their protein, dang it!
THE FINAL WORD
BATMAN FOREVER might not be as consistent in tone as BATMAN ’89. I freely admit I’ve watched BATMAN ’89 more and it’s a better movie. That said, if you have to revisit the Batfilms of our youth let’s give a shout out to the version of the character who had a more established Bruce Wayne, gave us some kick-ass fight scenes for the time and was less inclined to murder.
Kilmer may not be the Sean Connery of the Batman franchise but he ought to qualify for George Lazenby-level respectability. – James Armstrong
James Armstrong is part of Team BOF and currently reviews NIGHTWING for the site. Follow him on Twitter @JAMZARM.