Michael Keaton is the best Batman. I feel like I need to get that out of the way before I really start this article. As the Caped Crusader, he's angry and vengeful, with piercing eyes that seem to say "You don't stand a chance." As Bruce Wayne, he's aloof, distracted, and seemingly miserable sometimes, which definitely sounds like the profile of a man who lost his only shot at a normal life when his parents were murdered and now can only express himself through beating up clowns.
But not only is he the best Batman, but he's the Batman that we need right now. Because honestly (and I never thought I'd say this), it's a little hard to get invested in movie incarnations of Batman these days. Ben Affleck could've been a solid Batman, but he was constantly stuck between the interpretations of Zack Snyder and Warner Bros., leaving him with two drastically different performances in two movies of middling quality. The saga of the Christian Bale Batman is over, and I doubt either Bale or Christopher Nolan would want to return. And even though Matt Reeves seems to be enthusiastic about his Batman film, it almost feels like no one else at Warner Bros. feels the same.
So while I make no claim that a Michael Keaton Batman comeback tour would "save" the character, it is a more interesting option to me than another divisive Ben Affleck performance, a halfhearted Bale return, or a DCEU Batman soft reboot. There's a weird sincerity to the Keaton Bat that hasn't been replicated in a while, something far more fascinating than the typical "pretend playboy by day, crimefighter by night" dichotomy. A kind of single-minded mission that is barely understood by Batman himself.
It's what makes Keaton's Batman so unpredictable and alluring -- this sense that, in trying to provide order in his life by becoming Batman, he's lost himself. He's not there to provide "hope" to Gotham like Bale. He's not around to "redeem" his soul like Affleck. He's simply Batman, and when he's Bruce Wayne, he's stuck waiting around for a chance to do the only thing he's really good at. Hell, the first time we see him in Batman Returns, he's in the dark, sulking with seemingly no aim in his entire life other than to eventually put on the costume again.
What would that lifestyle do to a person? If you've watched Keaton's recent movies like Birdman and American Assassin, he's not in bad physical shape. The dude is still nimble. However, as Batman, a job that kind of requires you to be an Olympic-level athlete, how have the years taken their toll? If you're the sole protector of Gotham, a town that can't go five minutes without a megalomaniacal freak trying to take over, where do you turn when even your stock of "wonderful toys" isn't enough?
Where do you go after Alfred, the guy who basically made sure that you didn't starve, passes away? Keaton's Batman couldn't tell when his food was supposed to be cold. Does he know how to cook himself dinner on a consistent basis? What does Wayne Manor look like? I'm sure that, if director Tim Burton could be persuaded with a dump truck full of money, he could oversee an incredible-looking, decrepit Bat Cave. But getting him attached to a project like this is a whole other issue.
Now, the most obvious route to take with a Keaton return to the cowl would be an adaptation of Batman Beyond, the cartoon classic that featured an elderly Bruce Wayne taking on a protégé. However, considering that Keaton's Batman could barely be bothered to talk to anyone who didn't also dress up in black spandex, I don't know how willing he'd be to help mentor a second Batman. The Batman of Batman Beyond had at least gone through a few Robins and a Batgirl. Keaton's Batman doesn't seem like much of a father figure, much less the leader of a "Bat family."
That would make a cool movie, though, and people have already been designing fan art for it. However, the plot could also take the route of The Dark Knight Returns, the seminal comic by Frank Miller in which an aging Batman returns after a 10-year hiatus to beat the snot out of crime once more and retake Gotham. This option would require the most physical action out of Keaton, but again, it's not like Keaton is falling apart. He's still trim and lively. Even if he's not doing all of his own stunts, he's not gonna crumble into dust the minute a mask goes on his head.
If I had my way, I'd want to go with the latter idea, mainly because it's exciting to think about the Keaton Batman finally getting to ride off into the sunset (though it's questionable as to whether a sun exists in Tim Burton's Gotham). But would Keaton be up for it? I doubt anyone knows except for him. Out of loyalty to Burton, he might not come back if Tim isn't attached. That said, he certainly seems down, at any and all times, to say his iconic "I'm Batman" line. I know that I can't judge his willingness to participate based on the repetition of one line alone, but at least he's embracing the fact that he played the character, rather than treating it like a silly thing he did in the '80s.
Plus, it's not like an older actor returning to play an incarnation of a character that was seemingly lost to history is uncommon. Arnold Schwarzenegger is totally fine with coming back to be the Terminator again and again. Jamie Lee Curtis is returning to the Halloween franchise in a big way later this fall, even after her series has already been rebooted. Jeff Goldblum seems fine with dropping into modern Jurassic Park sequels when asked. So what's to say that Michael Keaton returning to play Batman in a one-off film is an impossibility?
He's Batman, y'all. He'll tell you that himself.
Daniel Dockery would love to chat with you about how great Batman Returns is on Twitter.