They’ve both lowered the iconic black cowl over their faces; they’ve both defended the residents of Gotham from the sadistic evildoers who prey upon the weak.
Although separated by two decades, Adam West and Michael Keaton were the first two actors to portray the mysterious Dark Knight, more commonly referred to as Batman. Now, with Christian Bale descending into the Batcave in this month’s “Batman Begins,” the two comic-adaptation icons welcome him to the brotherhood with open arms and a healthy dose of time-tested advice.
“Don’t get your cape caught in the wrong places,” laughed West, the jovial 76-year-old star of the original “Batman” television series, which aired from 1966-68. “Things will change [for you], because Batman is such a huge, iconic character. He’s been around for so long in the public consciousness that [you] will be — many times — perceived as Batman by some. And I think if you have a good sense of humor, this wit about you, you can deal with that, and that’s the best way to handle it.”
Keaton, who is as much the godfather of the so-called “dark” Batman as West is to the more comic portrayals, says he is familiar enough with Bale to know that the “American Psycho” star won’t let the newfound notoriety go to his head. “He’s smart,” insisted the star of 1989’s “Batman” and ’91’s “Batman Returns.” “[Bale is] really talented, and he knows what to do.”
“Good advice,” Bale laughed upon hearing the comments from his predecessors. “That cape isn’t the handiest thing to have around you, especially in the Batmobile or whatever. But Batman needs it, because he can’t fly without it.”
Such observations on Bat paraphernalia distinguishes “Begins” from the adventures of West and Keaton (as well as fellow Batmen Val Kilmer and George Clooney). For this reinvention of the Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan (“Memento”) and writer David Goyer (the “Blade” movies) set out to explain reasons for the existence of every facet of Batman’s costume, right down to the pointy ears with high-grade stereo microphones allowing him to eavesdrop on villains.
There is one essential accessory, however, that West reminds Bale to pack whenever loading up the utility belt for an adventure: Shark Repellent Bat-Spray. “Yes, the shark was rubber,” West admitted of the memorable scene in his 1966 movie, which had him spraying and hitting a hilariously fake not-so-Great White clinging to his leg. “Some of the guys on the set said, ’You can’t hit the shark like that, because it just sounds like rubber.’ And I said, ’Keep it, make it sound the way it is,’ because later it explodes anyway, and really it was kind of the feel, the tenor of the show to have a rubber shark on his leg, and not a real one.”
While Keaton and Bale both concede a fondness for the corny “BIFF!” and “THWACK!” days of West, the star of Tim Burton’s moody masterpieces says he’s happy that the new movie leans more toward his blueprint.
“You can’t ever go too dark for me,” said Keaton, who stars in “Herbie: Fully Loaded” this month. “There is a way into that guy, a trick to it. [Being dark] was the one way to get into him; that is the only way I could get into him, and that’s the way I went.”
“This is not ’Batman 5,’ ” Bale responded, saying that his portrayal takes Keaton’s darkness even further. “I would not be interested in making a fifth Batman movie. This, to me, is the first Batman movie, like the title suggests.”
Speaking of sequels, Bale revealed that he has signed on to do two more films, and hopes that they will push the envelope even further. “I think it can go darker, in fact — whether anybody would ever listen to me or not,” he said, offering up a rare grin. “There is a great place for an R-rated Batman. I don’t want to exclude children, but I think that you can do one movie with PG and R-rated versions as well, because if you look at many of the graphic novels, if you were to depict what they show in the novels straight onto film, it could be nothing but an R-rated movie.”
West, who recently narrated a special Bravo series that ranked the best superheroes, says he would have enjoyed the opportunity to take Batman dark before Keaton got the chance. “I’ve never been asked that, but yes, I would have liked it,” he said, “because I would have been challenged by [giving] Batman a different kind of mission. Even now, at my age, if we were to do another generation of Batman that is an older one, or Bruce Wayne is in troubled waters in the streets, and maybe [needs help] … I don’t mean to sound self-serving or like somebody looking for a job, but I think that would be challenging, and the great thing is it would probably bring in both audiences.”
While Adam West offers to suit up once again, Keaton insists that he got out at just the right time. “[I] kinda got to retire the jersey on that one, you know?” he said of the then-controversial decision to make “Batman Returns” his swan song. “I dug it, it was interesting … One of the reasons I didn’t do the third one was I just didn’t think it was going in the direction I was interested in. The direction that I suggested was, if not a prequel, then some version of a prequel — which is exactly what [’Batman Begins’] is, and that’s really what I wanted to do the third time.”
These three Batmen, spanning five decades and weathering just as many reinterpretations of the character, come from drastically different backgrounds. They do agree on one thing, however: The iconic hero that binds them together is fueled by an original story compelling enough to keep him relevant for years to come.
“It’s the backstory,” West said. “He’s somebody who’s an ordinary human being; who, because his parents were murdered in his presence as a child, becomes someone who wants to pay back and get rid of anyone who might try to do the same thing.”
“He’s such a potentially fascinating character,” Keaton asserted, admitting that he’ll be in line to see the new movie. “I’m curious.”
“I want the Batman persona not just to be Bruce Wayne in a Batsuit,” Bale said of how he’ll tell the story, “but to become a creature … that can channel his rage and his grief and his anger, so that as Bruce Wayne, he is able to function in life without being absolutely psychotic.”
When the legendary Bat symbol lights up the night sky once again on June 15, one thing is certain: every Batman will be watching.
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