The Best Michael Keaton Movie and Why It’s Not Batman

By Nathan Kamal | 2 months ago

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Michael Keaton has low-key had one of the most fascinating careers in modern film. Though he has been a movie star for decades, he is well past the point of being the leading man in most films. But still, when he is cast in a movie, like in the upcoming DCEU film The Flash, he is what fans are more excited about (sorry, Ezra Miller). He began his career as a standup comedian and appeared as the comic relief in goofy movies like Night Shift and The Other Guys up to the present, but he is also lauded at least as much for his dramatic turns in movies like the Academy Award-winning Spotlight and The Founder. He has even been our least typical action hero, as the Batman of an entire generation. But while Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman may be his single biggest movie (and still one of the biggest of all time), it is not the movie that makes the greatest use of his weird, unique energy. The Michael Keaton movie that does? Beetlejuice

That’s right, Michael Keaton’s greatest movie has him playing the Ghost with the Most. And to be fair, it is not wholly due Keaton that Beetlejuice fires on all cylinders. It simply is a perfect movie, in that no one element could be removed or changed without changing the whole thing. Beetlejuice does not exist without Tim Burton’s emerging proto-Goth sensibility. It does not exist without the manic score of Danny Elfman, as he began to shift from Oingo Boingo frontman to one of the most acclaimed film composers of his generation. It doesn’t exist with the bizarre, asymmetrically garish production design of Bo Welch, who would go on to work with Burton on Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns (and marry star Catherine O’Hara). It doesn’t exist without turning two of the most beautiful people alive, Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis into normcore dorks, or without using Ferris Bueller’s principal himself, Jeffrey Jones, into a burnt-out real estate developer who has only the faintest idea of how to relax. But most of all, it works because Michael Keaton is awesome. 

michael keaton

Beetlejuice is unquestionably a Michael Keaton movie; after all, he is the title character, even if the name is oddly spelled Betelgeuse within the movie, one of the stars in the constellation of Orion. But it is all the more remarkable that he so dominates the movie against talents like Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis, both of whom would go on to become major headlining stars, because Keaton is only in the movie for approximately 17 minutes out of a 92-minute film. When you break it down, he is not even a main plot element for the majority of the film. Most of the plot is based around the ghosts of a house’s former owners trying to kick the new owners out, which is also the plot of Casper the Friendly Ghost. He is not even really the main antagonist to the ghost Maitlands, who are more concerned with being swallowed by Martian sandworms or being exorcised by a louche interior designer. And yet for all of that, this is Michael Keaton’s movie. 

Granted, his performance as Beetlejuice is capital letters BIG. He uses all the manic energy of a standup (though he wasn’t that kind of a comic), and all the sinister sexuality of someone in a vampire film (though he has done one). Apparently, all his scenes were shot in two weeks, and he considers it his favorite performance ever. Pretty impressive, considering that originally Tim Burton wanted to cast Sammy Davis Jr. But like so much of the movie, it’s a delicate balancing act. Too much Beetlejuice, and it would just be a weird ghost comedy. Someone else playing him, and his intense desire to marry the 16-year old Lydia Deetz (Winona Ryder) would be…gross, to say the least. But through some strange alchemy, every trick that Keaton could bring to his performance, from the weirdly business-like rundown of his supernatural credentials to his childish attempts to cheat in the Afterlife Waiting Room just…works. 

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Beetlejuice was just Tim Burton’s second movie, and Michael Keaton was nowhere near a bankable star yet. Despite that, it was a box office success and critically well-reviewed; it even won an Academy Award for makeup. But all its success was turned into a footnote when their next pairing, Batman, became a historical landmark in film. It had a children’s cartoon based off it, and a Broadway musical. There has been talk of a sequel for years. But Beetlejuice has become something of a cult movie, which it feels like it always was destined to be. But more importantly, it is the best Michael Keaton movie.