Recently, we all read a headline that seemed like it came from one of those sites that just make up stories to see what sticks: Michael Keaton was in talks to return to the role of Bruce Wayne in the upcoming The Flash movie. Except it’s not made up; it actually seems to be happening. Warner Bros. / DC is planning to bring back Michael Keaton as an elderly Bruce Wayne as long as talks don’t fall through.
Now, there’s no official confirmation of this from WB, so everything here would be entirely moot if nothing comes of it. But the prospect of Keaton returning to the role opens up a ton of opportunities for DC to not only make an entirely interconnected universe out of every property it has, but also to rebuild its floundering universe as a massive multiverse. The question is whether or not DC is once again misfiring under the illusion that all it needed was a central character to tie its superhero universe around.
The Keaton Rises
First, however, a bit of history. Keaton’s casting as Batman was an initial disaster. With Tim Burton tapped to direct the films, he eventually turned to Keaton, whom he had worked with before on Beetlejuice, to play Bruce Wayne. Nearly everyone outside of WB hated the decision. Keaton was considered a comedic actor, and fans did not want a return to Adam West’s campy Batman and didn’t think Keaton could offer anything more. If this casting had happened today, Twitter would have erupted and the entire movie would have been digitally recreated to replace Keaton with a fuzzy blue hedgehog.
Thankfully, it wasn’t. Turns out Keaton plays a pretty good Batman (if not a very good Bruce Wayne). He’s also the only actor to do it convincingly without being able to move his neck, so that’s saying something. What resulted were two films that walked the fine line between camp and comic book while still maintaining a dark and disturbing edge thanks to Burton’s Gothic direction and sensibilities. Once Keaton left, WB tried to recast the role with Val Kilmer and George Clooney in Forever and & Robin respectively, but no one seemed to be able to grasp the Caped Crusader as well for multifaceted reasons.
The franchise was eventually rebooted by Christopher Nolan, but his films focus more on the villains than Batman himself. And so, even through the reign of Christian Bale, Michael Keaton has stood as the ultimate Batman. Now he’s set to return to the role.
Reports say that Keaton’s Bruce Wayne will play a guiding role to the younger superheroes in the DCEU, helping to form them together and (speculating) guide the slow build of the Justice League that should have been implemented originally by DC and WB. The idea isn’t exactly new. Ben Affleck’s Batman was supposed to be an older grizzled version of the hero, and his role in Justice League was to build the team after Superman’s death. Keaton seems to be stepping into this role in some ways, but his casting opens the universe up to so much more than Affleck’s Batman ever could.
Whether Keaton’s Bruce Wayne will be the same Batman from the Burton films isn’t confirmed, but it seems likely. This connection to the past will help reground the DCEU, which has flailed around desperately trying to mimic the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has franchises going every direction at this point with Matt Reeves’ The Batman rebooting Batman yet again, Wonder Woman 1984 going back in time, Shazam! only showing Superman’s lower half, Joker being about society, and Aquaman having horror movie spin-offs, and none of it seems very connected or cohesive at all. WB obviously sees Keaton as a way to build back up its franchise on sturdy ground with a recognizable, respected face.
It could also be viewing him as an easy way to introduce audiences to DC’s multiverse.
Imagine a More Literal DC Extended Universe
It should be abundantly clear that, whatever universe the Burton films take place in, it is not the same as the one the DCEU takes place in. However, The Flash is a DCEU film. It’s starring Ezra Miller as the Flash character seen in Justice League. Reports say that Flash will involve not just time travel, but universe jumping as well. Keaton’s casting delivers the possibility that he is somehow pulled into the DCEU universe by the Flash, or, more enticingly, Flash gets stuck in his overtly comic book-style Gotham for a bit.
It’s hard to think of a better way to introduce movie audiences to a multiverse than to have a familiar face do it. By casting Keaton, WB doesn’t have to establish a new universe, a new Batman, or hope people know the character. He even skewered himself as an aging superhero actor in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). He is an easy doorway into a multiverse because most people already know his universe. Once folks are in on the idea of a multiverse, it will let WB do whatever the hell it wants from here on out.
This brings new meaning to DC’s branding of its cinematic universe as the DC Extended Universe. Now, every aspect of its storytelling can be part of one giant multiverse: comics, movies, cartoons, television, board games, podcasts, whatever Suicide Squad was. To borrow a phrase from Marvel, it’s all connected.
Of course, this multiverse discussion would all be conjecture if it weren’t already confirmed in the Arrowverse. The Flash television show very quickly set up the concept of a multiverse, with a near-infinite amount of parallel universes existing. This past year they finally all collided in the Arrowverse’s massive crossover event, Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which the majority of past DC film and television content was confirmed to exist in a connected multiverse through a series of cameos and Easter eggs. That includes the DCEU, thanks to a brief cameo by Ezra Miller. The show may have just been having some fun with fans, but canonically it confirmed what now seems to be a driving force for the future of all DC media.
It also busts the doors wide open for WB and DC to make whatever movie they want, whenever they want. One of the major complaints with the MCU is its sameness across the board, a fact that will only increase as Disney takes over X-Men. Barring a potential sudden shift in policy with Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, that will continue. The MCU is also hampered by continuity, which is growing into an ever-heavier weight with each movie that releases. DC, if it establishes a true multiverse with Keaton’s Batman, no longer has to worry about this. DC can just slap a multiverse sticker on projects, assuaging that nagging nerd inside us all who wants to know how it all ties together, freeing them up to experiment and take risks.
But Why This Batman?
All of this makes Keaton’s Batman the perfect choice for playing the Nick Fury role. We’ve already discussed how his nostalgia factor will play into pulling audiences in. Considering that, the choice almost falls to him by default since the most beloved actor to play Superman on film is dead and there aren’t any other options to choose from when discussing pre-2000s DC film superheroes. Who else are they going to cast to get the same pop? Shaq?
However, Keaton’s Batman is also the best Batman for this job. Of the living options, assuming you could somehow convince them to show up, there’s no Batman better balanced to be the leader of a group of young heroes. Val Kilmer’s turn on the role was as bland as… Val Kilmer. The actor doesn’t have the star power needed for this kind of thing either. George Clooney has the star power, but the less said about his entirely comical and over-the-top Batman, the better. You can’t have angry Christian Bale Batman graveling himself all over the place either. It wouldn’t make sense for that character. Hell, even Ben Affleck’s Batman felt too dark and broody to be well-suited for uniting a team of superheroes. Keaton, on the other hand, had a balance of humanity and darkness. You can easily see his Batman pulling together a team of superheroes and yet still being taken seriously.
In fact, it’s the very reasons that Keaton was hated as a choice for Batman in the first place that make him perfect to build a group around. He has that father-figure mentality to him that makes you want to like the guy, but also a darker edge that we’ve seen him pull out many times in recent years. Keaton is an incredibly malleable actor, and it means, even if it’s a bit by default, he’s the best choice to tackle this role.
They Could Screw It Up
If a true multiverse, built on Keaton’s Batman, is the end result of this casting, then it can be nothing but a good thing. DC has a broad and deep collection of heroes and villains that are ripe to use in a massive variety of ways. The ramifications of a strongly established multiverse would be fantastic for not only DC but the comic book genre as a whole, and WB’s use of Keaton to launch it is perfect.
But… this is WB and DC we’re talking about here, and we’re talking a ton of conjecture. If history tells us anything, they’re going to try to force in Keaton as a unifying feature to rush into yet another massive film like Justice League. It’s possible that his Bruce Wayne in The Flash isn’t even connected to the Burton films and WB is stunt casting. They could use those same attributes of nostalgia and recognizability that make him a great bridge into a multiverse to instead draw people to yet another rushed cinematic universe featuring an ill-defined elder Batman. If that is the case and WB has learned nothing, then this is going to fall flat on its face.
Keaton is a great actor and he can play old and grizzled as well as anybody these days, but he won’t be able to shore up another rushed attempt at replicating the MCU. WB has to be in this for the long hall or Keaton’s casting will simply come off as another failed stunt to draw attention to a cinematic universe that people have lost interest in. There’s a right way to utilize Keaton; it’s just unclear yet if DC knows what it is.