If you want to watch pop culture eat itself, go see The Flash, a movie that starts out as a sprightly superhero adventure, then dissolves into a self-referential requiem for the DC Universe. It’s saturated with winking cameos for every DC movie character you ever loved, a few you’re probably ambivalent about, and one that famously never existed. (DC is apparently celebrating its failures now.)
Many of these cameos occur during a staggeringly clunky climactic parade of digital waxworks, heavy with unearned triumphalism. The Flash is that bit in 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 entire movie.
The irony is that The Flash’s biggest nostalgia ploy ends up being its saving grace. Michael Keaton’s return to the role of Batman, which he played in Tim Burton’s two iconic Batman films from 1989 and 1992, is pivotal to the movie (and clearly pivotal to its marketing). Desperate to please, director Andy Muschietti and his team surround Keaton with props from films he was in more than 30 years ago: Look, there’s the classic Batmobile! But Keaton is too wily and durable a movie star to fall into this trap, or to lean on his legacy. Instead, he gives us the best cinematic Batman we’ve had since Christian Bale.
The key to Keaton’s success is that he’s not really playing the Burton Batman at all. Sure, he’s got the gear, and he dutifully grunts the line: “I’m Batman.” But Keaton, acknowledging that he’s now in a very different kind of movie, adapts his performance to suit. He broods less and quips more. He’s a little looser, a little livelier. Keaton is in the moment, playing the part as written in what is generally quite a comedic movie. He bats Ezra Miller’s antics back at them with his whipcrack comic backhand. Keaton is 71 years old, but his livewire alertness — perhaps the quality that led Burton to counterintuitively cast this diminutive comedian as a looming, stoic embodiment of vengeance — is undimmed.
He gets an assist from the script. Like everyone else, from Ben Affleck to Gal Gadot, Keaton is ultimately required to walk up to the mark, make the face, say the line, and pause for the applause break — but not straight away. Instead, we meet him hiding behind a curtain of unruly hair and beard, and he has multiple scenes of exposition and banter before he has to suit up. He gets to act, to create a part, before he has to pose.
Once Keaton’s finally in the suit, though, there’s a wonderful lack of fussiness to his Batman. He emphasizes the character’s cunning and resourcefulness, making efficient, decisive movements. He’s as often seen scrambling to keep up as staying one step ahead. (There’s a brilliant bit of business involving a calculator, an explosive, and a Bat-tape-measure whipped from his utility belt.) In practical fight sequences, whether played by Keaton or a stunt stand-in, this Batman has a wonderfully plausible physicality. He’s tough, visibly aging, smartly defensive, not excessively violent. He isn’t vengeance; he’s an old man in a hurry.
The Flash borrows two things from Burton that really do work: the unforgettable motif of Danny Elfman’s score, and the classic Batsuit design by Bob Ringwood. The latter, with its sharp, pitch-black outline and leathery musculature, hasn’t been bettered on film. Batfleck’s cumbersome armor plating and furrowed, melted-candle cowl look absurdly overdesigned by comparison. What the classic suit loses in mobility, it gains in iconic silhouettes — Muschietti gets great mileage out of flourishing the bulletproof cape in particular.
But Keaton is the key element who makes this fresh, surprisingly unassuming take on Batman sing. He gets the requisite speeches about being defined by his pain, but what lingers in the memory is watching this weatherbeaten hero act paternal and ruefully clean up after a couple of erratic kids, for all the world like Adam West in the 1966 Batman movie, trying not to throw a bomb on a box of kittens. I’ve missed this Batman, even though we’ve never really seen him in the cinema before, not even in the Burton films.
I don’t think Keaton will come back to the DCU — he was set to appear in Batgirl, which Warner Bros. Discovery ultimately shelved — but I’d love it if some parts of this Batman did. With Muschietti now confirmed to direct the next mainline Batman movie, The Brave and the Bold, perhaps they will.