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Face-Off: Batman - Michael Keaton vs. Christian Bale

Last week, you chose the Pale Man over the pale child, as fantasy PAN’S LABYRINTH won out over ghost story THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE in the showdown to see which of Guillermo Del Toro’s most praised Spanish-language films was tops.

This week, FACE-OFF pits the two best Batmen ever against each other in which only one will rule Gotham (and this column): Val Kilmer and George Clooney! No. Let’s go with Michael Keaton and Christian Bale, whose turns as Batman have collectively earned close to $1.4 billion domestically.

Presence
The key to Bruce Wayne/Batman’s existence is balancing two lives, and so the key to a great performance of Wayne/Batman is balancing both aspects. Keaton, who was most famous at that point as a bio-exorcist, has more charisma than any other Batman on film or television and carried himself well in the costume. But Keaton did not make a great Bruce Wayne—not only because he doesn’t have the look or charm of a playboy, but he played him, at times, as completely unstable. Case in point: “Wanna get nuts?!”
Whereas Keaton made a better superhero than billionaire, Christian Bale proves a better enterpriser than Caped Crusader. Bale, unlike Keaton, has the sexiness that goes along with stacks of million-dollar bills, and we believe that he is worthy of Gotham’s prettiest women. But his take on Batman left a lot to be desired. First, there is the stiffness and inflexibility in how he presents himself, which was such a burden that the costume had to be adjusted as the series continued. But the biggest problem with Bale’s Batman is the voice, which sounds like he’s swallowed a fistful of gravel and makes it nearly impossible to understand a thing he says. Neither actor could find a perfect balance, but because Keaton was a better Batman (and the movies aren’t called BRUCE WAYNE), I’m giving him the slight edge.
Motivation
In the opening scene, young Bruce Wayne watches his parents get killed outside of a theater. A turn of events makes the killer not Joe Chill, but Jack Napier, who transforms into The Joker, the primary villain, thus making the act really the backbone of the first BATMAN movie. It’s not until BATMAN RETURNS that Batman is entirely determined to save Gotham City. While revenge is always a fine motivator for any superhero, it’s putting the needs of many over the needs of oneself that makes for a more admirable hero.
While Bale’s Batman also witnessed his parents’ murders, his revenge was squashed when one of Carmine Falcone’s men had the killer offed early on. In Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, Batman is more about the greater good and genuinely bent on saving the city he loves from the likes of Scarecrow, The Joker and Bane.
Fights/Villain Defense
During Tim Burton’s BATMAN entries, the Caped Crusader dukes it out with The Joker, Penguin and Catwoman, three rogues gallery favorites. And that’s pretty much what it comes down to: fists and kicks. The set pieces (the clock tower, Penguin’s lair) are extraordinary and Keaton handles the action well, but there really isn’t a lot here that fans couldn’t easily perform with action figures.
This Batman has greater challenges, as he not only had to battle seemingly indestructible terrorists like Bane, but also had to engage in head games with The Joker. While there were numerous fisticuffs (with a touch of martial arts), Bale’s Batman had to race against the clock at nearly every turn while trying to outsmart that demented future Arkham Asylum patient, which is far more compelling than tossing Catwoman into a truck of kitty litter.
Suit
On Keaton’s costume, the gold utility belt and yellow logo are prominent features, which stick with the classic look. There’s also the point that his suit actually resembles a bat, which makes him more sinister to criminals. His suit is also easily penetrable by bullets and cat claws, which may seem like a flaw but actually makes it seem like it was constructed by a human and not a tech-savvy sidekick.
On Bale’s get-up, the symbol is so dark it’s hard to even notice. This goes with the “Dark Knight” scheme, but quickly removes it from tradition (as the trilogy progressed, the cape felt less like wings). This costume is also military-grade and high-tech, serving more like armor than disguise, and giving Batman a degree of invincibility through electric current and sonar capabilities (something first seen in, of all movies, BATMAN FOREVER). All of this adds up to making him seem less skilled than geeky and rich.
Toys
The popular mode of transportation, the Batmobile, is Batman’s best toy here. It’s sleek and uncomplicated, but with enough upgrades and power to zoom through alleyways and dodge certain doom. Batman’s utility belt holds other items like the batarang, grapple gun, two-way communicator, and bola, all of which are effective on his enemies without going too over-the-top.
As was the case with this Batman’s suit, his toys rely heavily on being invincibility machines, here resembling armored vehicles. The Batmobile itself is never mentioned and is essentially replaced by the tank-like Tumbler and the Batpod, which it’s hard to deny is fun to watch weave in and out of Gotham streets and tunnels. Other gadgets in his arsenal include some of the aforementioned devices, although each has been upgraded for the 21st-century (the communicator has been updated into a cell phone, complete with Snake). All of these high-tech gizmos are “cool” in design, but they point out the masked man is a billionaire, a trait that should narrow down his identity quite a bit for the people of Gotham.
Keaton's Batman
THE DARK KNIGHT may rank as Movie Fan Central’s third best movie of all-time, but in this battle of the Batmen, Michael Keaton trumps Christian Bale. By donning a costume that’s more intimidating than tech-ridden, toys that get the job done without breaking the bank and simply carrying the Batman character with a charismatic presence that has yet to be touched, Keaton has proven to be the quintessential Caped Crusader.

If you have suggestions for an upcoming Face-Off column, shoot me an e-mail at [email protected]!

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