‘Birdman’ is Excellent, But Michael Keaton is Not Birdman
In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Birdman’ (which is the closing night film of this year's New York Film Festival and, by the way, is my favorite movie of the year), Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a veteran actor whose biggest claim to fame is that he used to be in a series of superhero movies. Now, Riggan is attempting to make his comeback by staging a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. It’s been lost on no one that Michael Keaton also used to be in a series of superhero movies and hasn’t had the most prolific output over the last 15 years – and is, now, making a comeback (of sorts) with ‘Birdman.’ For his part, Michael Keaton is distancing himself from this comparison, telling New York Magazine, “I related less to him than almost every other character I’ve played, in terms of the desperation.”
To be fair, Riggan Thomson gave up playing Birdman after three movies, and Michael Keaton only played Batman twice. So, there’s a huge difference. (I am being deliberately smug.) The thing is, I actually agree with Keaton’s statement. And it’s a weird thing to say “I agree” with something that really only Keaton could know one way or another, but I don’t think he’s being purposely dismissive of something that just has to be inherently true. This ‘Batman’/’Birdman’ narrative is something we created, not Keaton.
In ‘Birdman,’ Riggan Thomson is a bit of a loser. He’s prone to hearing the voice of the scowly-voiced hero he once played and has a bad habit of trashing his dressing room. I can understand why Keaton wouldn’t want to say, “Oh, yeah, that’s totally me.” And we get the impression the Riggan is really only known for playing Birdman – when people meet Riggan, Birdman seems to be always mentioned, one way or another.
Keaton became Batman. When people accepted Keaton as Batman, which they did, people forgot what they liked about Michael Keaton.
If there’s a comparison to be made between character and star, Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner fits that mold better than Keaton. (For his part, Norton doesn’t see this connection either.) Shiner is an extremely talented, yet temperamental actor who has a habit of taking over productions as he sees fit -- the first time Shiner and Thomson meet, Shiner is already telling Thomson how to say his lines – to the point that it becomes a gamble to ever have Shiner in a cast. Shiner will most likely be brilliant, but he will also most likely cause strife. There’s no doubt this is an exaggerated creation of Norton’s reported reputation, but it’s still a more deft comparison than Keaton. Norton seems a lot more like Shiner than Keaton is like Thomson. (And even though Shiner's a hell-raiser, he's still charming and likable.)
‘Batman’ and ‘Batman Returns’ are Michael Keaton’s two most financially successful movies, but when I think of Keaton’s career, ‘Batman’ is not at the top of the list. I think of ‘Beetlejuice’ and ‘Mr. Mom’ and ‘The Paper’ before I think of ‘Batman.’ The thing is, Michael Keaton is such a personality, the movies that showcased his personality are what come to mind before ‘Batman,’ which, let’s face it, didn’t give Keaton a whole hell of a lot to do. Keaton can connive on screen as well as, say, Robert Downey Jr., but Keaton’s stoic Bruce Wayne wasn’t Tony Stark – in fact, a young Michael Keaton would have better suited to play Tony Stark than Bruce Wayne. If Keaton had done ‘Batman Forever,’ it’s not like anything would be different today (except that he probably wouldn’t have done ‘The Paper,’ and that would be a travesty).
In the ‘80s, Keaton (born Michael Douglas) basically traded off with Tom Hanks as the princes of the inoffensive comedy (both got their big breaks in Ron Howard movies, ‘Night Shift’ and ‘Splash,’ respectively). Some of Keaton’s films were memorable (‘Mr. Mom’), some weren’t (‘The Squeeze’). ‘Beetlejuice’ changed a lot for Keaton. Not only was it a smash hit and let us see a cosmetically grotesque side of him, it also introduced him to a director he’d grow to love, Tim Burton.
It makes sense that ‘Batman’ would appeal to Keaton. First of all, no one would ever expect Keaton to play the part. (Can you even imagine the outrage had the Internet existed?) Second, once again stepping into a world created by Burton had to be enticing, but the only problem is that Batman is Batman. He’s dark and mysterious. Keaton would go on to win over many of his doubters – to this day there’s a contingent that swears his portrayal has never been topped – but the truth is, Keaton was never wrong for the role, the role was wrong for Keaton. Keaton became Batman. When people accepted Keaton as Batman, which they did, people forgot what they liked about Michael Keaton.
The problem is, once you give up something like Batman – which Keaton did once he found out Tim Burton wouldn’t be directing ‘Batman Forever’ – where do you go from there? We’re kind of watching it play out again right now with Robert Downey Jr., but even he’s not giving up ‘Iron Man’ entirely. Since Keaton, Christian Bale and Tobey Maguire are the only other actors who have given up a successful (that’s the important word here) run as a superhero. Bale has always been an actor, so he’s just thrown himself into as many roles that don’t look like Batman as possible. Maguire, like Keaton before him, seems a little bit adrift.
Seems adrift, because the reality is, once you’ve had that white-hot spotlight, I suspect Keaton and Maguire and Bale just want to do what they find interesting. And Keaton made three interesting movies right after leaving Batman: ‘The Paper,’ the underrated ‘My Life,’ and ‘Jackie Brown.’ (He also made ‘Multiplicity,’ which at least on paper – getting to play multiple personalities while being directed by Harold Ramis – made sense, but was a misfire.) I believe Keaton when he alludes to not caring about remaining in the spotlight. His output from 1998 through 2006 – which included titles like ‘Jack Frost’ and ‘Herbie: Fully Loaded’ -- looks like that of someone who just wasn’t that into it anymore.
But Keaton was never really out of the spotlight. In 2013, he received a warm reception at San Diego Comic-Con. Earlier this year he co-starred in a 'RoboCop' remake that made just under a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide. And it wasn’t that long ago he was quoting TLC lyrics in ‘The Other Guys.’
And that’s a key difference between Michael Keaton and Riggan Thomson: Thomson craves the spotlight; he desperately wants that comeback hit. And I get the sense that, still, Keaton doesn’t really care all that much.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.