Michael Keaton’s Batman in The Flash transcends the usual crossover cameo

If you want to see how pop culture eats itself, go watch it The flash, a film that begins as a vibrant superhero adventure and then dissolves into a self-referential requiem for the DC Universe. It’s drenched in winking cameos for every DC movie character you’ve ever loved, a few you’re probably ambivalent about, and one that never existed. (DC apparently now celebrates its failures.)

Many of these cameos take place during a stunningly clumsy climactic parade of digital wax figures, heavy with undeserved triumphalism. The flash there’s that bit Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness with Patrick Stewart’s Professor X, John Krasinski’s Reed Richards, and the rest – only it’s the whole movie.

The irony is that The flashThe greatest nostalgic trick is ultimately the saving grace. Michael Keaton’s return to the role of Batman, which he played in Tim Burton’s two iconic 1989 and 1992 Batman movies, is pivotal to the movie (and clearly critical to its marketing). Desperate to please, director Andy Muschietti and his team surround Keaton with props from movies he starred in more than 30 years ago: Look, there’s the classic Batmobile! But Keaton is too crafty and enduring a movie star to fall into this trap or lean on his legacy. Instead, he gives us the best cinematic Batman we’ve had since Christian Bale.

Image: DC Studios/Warner Bros.

The key to Keaton’s success is that he doesn’t play the Burton Batman at all. Sure, he’s got the equipment, and he dutifully grunts: “I am Batman.” But Keaton, acknowledging that he’s in a very different kind of movie now, adjusts his performance. He broods less and jokes more. He’s a little looser, a little livelier. Keaton is in the moment, playing the part as written in what is overall a pretty comedic movie. He hits back at Ezra Miller’s antics with his comedic backhand. Keaton is 71 years old, but his livewire alertness — perhaps the quality that led Burton to counterintuitively cast this diminutive comedian as a menacing, stoic embodiment of vengeance remains undiminished.

He gets an assist from the script. Like everyone else from Ben Affleck to Gal Gadot, Keaton eventually has to walk to the goal, make the face, say the line, and pause for the applause break – but not right away. Instead, we meet him hiding behind a curtain of unruly hair and beard, and he has multiple scenes of exposition and banter before having to adjust. He gets to act, create a role, before he has to pose.

But when Keaton is finally in the suit, there’s a wonderful lack of hustle for his Batman. He emphasizes the character’s cunning and ingenuity and makes efficient, decisive moves. He is just as often seen struggling to keep up as he is to stay one step ahead of him. (There’s a brilliant case involving a calculator, an explosive, and a tape measure from his utility belt.) In hands-on fight sequences, whether played by Keaton or a stunt stand-in, this Batman has a wonderfully plausible physicality. He’s tough, visibly older, cleverly defensive, not overly violent. He is not vengeance; he is an old man in a hurry.

Batman spreads his cape, bullets spark as they bounce off them in The Flash

Image: DC Studios/Warner Bros.

The flash borrows two things from Burton that really work: the unforgettable motif of Danny Elfman’s score and Bob Ringwood’s classic Batsuit design. The latter, with its sharp, pitch-black outline and leathery muscles, has not been enhanced on film. Batfleck’s unwieldy armor and grooved molten candle hood look absurdly overdesigned by comparison. What the classic suit loses in mobility it gains in iconic silhouettes – Muschietti gets a lot of mileage out of blooming the flak cape in particular.

But Keaton is the key element that makes this fresh, surprisingly humble take on Batman sing. He gets some necessary speeches about how he’s defined by his pain, but what sticks in his memory is watching this weathered hero act fatherly and remorsefully clean up after a few erratic kids, for the whole world like Adam West in the years 1966 Batman movie, try not to drop a bomb on a box of kittens. I’ve missed this Batman, even though we’ve never actually seen him in theaters, not even in the Burton movies.

I don’t think Keaton will be coming back to the DCU – he would show up bat girl, which Warner Bros. Discovery eventually shelved – but I’d love it if some parts of this Batman did. With Muschietti now confirmed to direct the next feature film Batman, The brave and the boldmaybe they will.