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Michael Keaton: Batman (Finally) Returns!

August 30, 2012

Val Kilmer isn’t the only former Dark Knight who’s all but vanished from mainstream movies. Aside from a couple of Disney gigs—inexplicably taking a backseat to Lindsay Lohan in Herbie: Fully Loaded and hilariously voicing Ken in Toy Story 3—and a supporting role as Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg’s captain in 2010’s cop comedy The Other Guys, Michael Keaton has been keeping an extremely low profile, cinematically speaking, so far this century. That may be all about to change with the news that he’ll replace Hugh Laurie as Raymond Sellars, the villainous CEO of the corporation who builds Joel Kinnaman’s crime-busting killing machine in next summer’s reboot of RoboCop. And it’s about damn time for his comeback.

After sharpening his comedy chops in the late ’70s and early ’80s on TV—guest-starring on Maude, doing sketches on a pair of ill-fated Mary Tyler Moore variety shows, and headlining two short-lived sitcoms, Working Stiffs (with Jim Belushi!) and Report to Murphy—Keaton burned up the big screen with his explosively funny turn as Henry Winkler’s fast-talking sidekick, Bill Blazejowski, in Ron Howard’s 1982 morgue farce Night Shift. That manic persona would define his roles for the next half-decade in comedies good (say it: Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice! Beetlejuice!), mediocre (Mr. Mom), bad (Johnny Dangerously) and downright ugly (The Squeeze).

Then a funny thing happened to Keaton: He started getting serious. He gave an emotionally devastating performance as a recovering addict in 1988’s Clean & Sober, which led to his unconventional casting as Caped Crusader Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s Batman. (He’d previously worked with the director on Beetlejuice, making him Burton’s proto-Johnny Depp muse.) Yet Keaton pulled off the cowled role, holding his own opposite Jack Nicholson’s Joker as well as Danny DeVito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s fierce Catwoman (who makes Anne Hathaway’s version look like a harmless sex kitten) in the 1992 sequel Batman Returns.

But Keaton (and Burton) walked away from the franchise, and the actor started to follow his own quixotic muse. He tried Shakespeare in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing, reteamed with Ron Howard on the underrated newsroom drama The Paper and made a few missteps with the terminally sappy drama My Life, the toothless rom-com Speechless and the unoriginal cloning comedy Multiplicity.

Quentin Tarantino attempted to engineer a John Travolta-style renaissance for him with a showy role as FBI agent Ray Nicolette in Jackie Brown (a character he’d reprise in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight), but Keaton soon found himself relegated to thankless dad roles opposite Katie Holmes in First Daughter and Alexis Bledel in Post Grad.

Keaton has done great work in obscure indies like Game 6 (as a die-hard Mets fan) and The Merry Gentleman (as a suicidal hit man), but RoboCop represents his best opportunity in ages to strut his stuff in a movie people might actually see. And as anyone who caught his indelibly scary turn as a psycho tenant in John Schlesinger’s chiller Pacific Heights can testify, Keaton gives good bad guy. For an actor whose career has gone colder than Jack Frost (the less said about that creepy snowman weeper, the better), he’s earned—to paraphrase the title of his overlooked soccer drama—one more shot at glory.

Are you gung ho about Michael Keaton or is it touch and go? Post a comment!

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