It’s hard to think of an actor whose career has been as up-and-down as Michael Keaton’s. Getting his start as a production assistant on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the Pittsburgh-born Keaton would eventually catch his big break as an actor in a slew of comedies during the 1980s, including Mr. Mom (1983) and Johnny Dangerously (1984), while his performance in Ron Howard’s Gung Ho (1986) allowed him to attract the attention of other up-and-coming directors. Keaton became a full-blown star following his collaborations with Tim Burton, which saw him headline two of the director’s most popular films, Beetlejuice (1988) and Batman (1989), in consecutive years. From there, Keaton has taken on a myriad of different roles that have run the gamut of emotion and genres, even as his work in the late 1990s and 2000s gradually sent his star on a downhill trajectory.
Since his momentous return to A-lister status in the mid-2010s, it was like welcoming an old friend back to the (Tinsel)town in which he grew up. Keaton has been able to introduce himself to a new generation of audiences while reminding the previous one of why they fell in love with him in the first place. Regardless of what kind of wry humor or borderline berserk energy he imbues many of his performances with, Keaton has always maintained a humble, down-to-earth humanity that makes his characters easy to identify with — well most of them, anyway. Simply put, he’s one of the most likable actors still in business, and we can thank his lucky star that he’s still around to continue giving such memorable performances. So, to recognize just how far Keaton has come since his modest origins, we’ve ranked what we believe are his ten best performances.
10. Captain Gene Mauch, The Other Guys (2010)
A recurring trend for Michael Keaton has been his ability to make the best of limited screen time. While his decisive roles in ensemble pieces like Jackie Brown (1997) and The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) confirm that notion to a T, they can’t hold a candle to his scene-stealing performance as a bumbling police captain in this buddy cop comedy. Keaton holds his own against the film’s leads, Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg, who play mismatched partners attempting to take down a corrupt venture capitalist. Always one to break molds in his performances, conventional wisdom should tell us that Keaton’s Gene Mauch is the straight man of The Other Guys, doing everything he can to keep his two most incompetent officers in their place. But in a delightful subversion of expectations, Keaton not only puts up with their antics but also matches the buffoonish energy of his co-stars.
Whether he’s breaking up a scuffle during a police funeral in hushed tones or assigning one of his officers a wooden gun in order to teach them a lesson, the actor’s origins in comedy come back to boost his presence. His natural style of delivery adds additional layers of farce to the madness, especially once Captain Gene starts quoting TLC without context. Add to that his character’s second job as a night manager at Bed Bath & Beyond and you’ve got one of the 21st century’s most understated comedic turns. One has to wonder how Keaton ever managed to fade from public view; with this performance, it was as if he had never left.
9. Ken, Toy Story 3 (2010)
Although it would be a few more years before his career would find a second wind, 2010 saw Keaton setting himself up for greatness with The Other Guys and his voice work in Toy Story 3. Playing the lively Ken to Jodi Benson’s Barbie, the iconic dolls instantly hit it off after Andy’s toys arrive at Sunnyside Daycare. Much like Buzz Lightyear in the Pixar franchise’s first installment, Ken takes his image very seriously, a characteristic that Keaton is more than willing to lean into as Ken owns his style and refuses to be condemned as “a girl’s toy.” His crooning voice sells us (and Barbie) on his appeal while his smug facade and affinity for designer fashion have us chuckling all the while.
Keaton may not be given as much to do as Tom Hanks or Tim Allen, and his performance flies under the radar for this very reason. However, of the newer characters, Ken has the biggest personality to speak of, in large part due to how much energy and life Keaton injects into the role. Even as he’s briefly pigeonholed as the right-hand man to the film’s antagonist, Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear (Ned Beatty), Ken is a standout due to his incessant self-adoration and Keaton’s ability to get in touch with the character’s heart. It’s a different brand of humor for a Pixar feature, as there’s just something inexplicably funny about a character this narcissistic thriving in the world he creates for himself within his Dream House.
8. Dogberry, Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s flair for adapting Shakespeare’s classics for the big screen translates to his ability to cast the right actors to bring his hero’s characters to life, and Keaton is no exception to that. For an adaptation starring a who’s who of big-name talent, it says something that Keaton’s Dogberry remains the most memorable aspect of this gossip- and deception-fueled comedy. Another bungling law enforcement official, this unhygienic, poorly dressed constable is best remembered for the various malapropisms bestowed upon him by the Bard, all of which Keaton uses to heighten how seriously his character takes himself. Dogberry is a man who loves the sound of his own voice and really has no reason to be as good at his job as he is, especially since he usually finds himself stumbling into problems that need to be solved.
The problem, in this case, is the sinister Don John (Keanu Reeves), who is conspiring to break up the impending nuptials of Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Hero (Kate Beckinsale), all while the engaged couple is trying to set up the mismatched Benedict (Branagh) and Beatrice (Emma Thompson). Thankfully, Dogberry and his equally dim-witted band of watchmen, all of whom admire him without question, come along to thwart the scheme. Despite the mix of grace and intensity that many actors typically employ in their interpretation of Shakespeare’s words, this particular role requires the actor playing it to sacrifice one for the other. Dogberry is the most ungraceful character, but Keaton dials up his physical comedy to an eleven as the constable slurs his words and improvises his way through an investigation. Keaton simply knows how to have fun in the role, and becomes an easy standout in the process.
7. Ray Kroc, The Founder (2016)
Was Ray Kroc for the food service industry what Mark Zuckerberg is for the communications industry? That’s certainly the perception The Founder has of him. However, what Keaton accomplishes as the salesman-turned-real-estate-mogul is in direct contrast to Jesse Eisenberg’s display of awkward introvertedness as the Facebook creator in The Social Network (2010). The Founder offers a critical view of Kroc’s life story, especially in how it portrays his contentious relationship with Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch), the two brothers whose family-named burger stand would be taken away from them and turned into one of the biggest corporations in the world. However, Keaton is so charming in the lead role that he almost fools the audience into thinking he’s the good guy.
Playing a real-life Hamburglar, Keaton stays true to his character’s origin in sales, winning the trust of those he views as competition before coldly leaving them with nothing to gain for themselves. Equal parts persuasive, clever, and persistent, he works overtime to convince us that what he’s doing is in everyone’s best interest, even when it’s abundantly clear that only he can come out on top and be satisfied with that. As the success of McDonald’s grows, so too does Kroc’s opportunistic megalomania. Keaton, of course, knows how full of it his character is, but that doesn’t stop him from leaning into Kroc’s sliminess. In fact, he’s so good as the anti-heroic businessman that The Founder can’t seem to decide if he’s a genius or a crook. The answer is likely both, but it also invites the question of why we were willing to let Kroc win.
6. Adrian Toomes/The Vulture, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Another villain who made it quite difficult for us to despise him, comic book fans everywhere were more than curious to see how Michael Keaton would interpret the Vulture in his high-profile return to the superhero genre, but few were expecting the winged foe to be one of the best the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to offer up to that point. Taking what had previously been one of Spider-Man’s B-tier nemeses and providing him with a refreshing foundation, Keaton’s Adrian Toomes is neither the result of a science experiment gone wrong nor a mad-with-power tyrant hell-bent on watching the world burn. Instead, his grounded motivation and self-built power suit only enhanced the low stakes of Spider-Man: Homecoming, which finally gave audiences a proper taste of Peter Parker’s life in high school.
A salvager whose plan to clean up the Avengers’ mess in New York results in his company’s downsizing, Toomes is perhaps the most realistic Spidey foe we’ve seen on the big screen to date, and that largely boils down to Keaton’s everyman persona. As the Vulture, Keaton earns the audience’s sympathy playing a hard-working family man who will do whatever it takes to give those he loves a better life, even if it means selling alien technology to dangerous criminals and taking out everyone’s favorite web-slinger in the process. He may be a baddie, but he’s never batty (don’t worry, there’s plenty of “battiness” to come!). Nevertheless, Keaton imbues the character with plenty of edge that serves to make him all the more complex in the eyes of the viewer. He’s got charisma for days as Toomes straps on his wings with a calm, cool, and collected manner, perfectly content to take risks when the reward becomes personal.
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5. Henry Hackett, The Paper (1994)
Keaton would give his breakout performance in Ron Howard’s crazed sex comedy Night Shift (1982) alongside a straight-laced Henry Winkler, but a later collaboration between the actor and director proved to be a more nuanced film. In this dramedy set in the world of tabloid journalism, Keaton plays Henry Hackett, the city editor of the fictional — and financially dire — New York Sun newspaper. Although Henry loves his job, he is frequently hounded by his superiors and is pressured to take a higher-paying job with a baby on the way. Keaton ably conveys Henry’s world-weariness as he struggles to balance his hectic lifestyle while remaining obsessed with finding the perfect story to print. Fortunately, he finds an opportunity to save the newspaper by uncovering the truth behind a recent double homicide charge, which he and coworker Michael McDougal (Randy Quaid) are convinced is a cover-up for something greater.
Over the course of a turbulent 24 hours, the two work tirelessly to investigate the evidence surrounding the arrest as Henry deals with the demands of his managing editor (Glenn Close), the paper’s owner (Jason Robards), and his wife (Marisa Tomei). As a journalist, he not only understands the importance of maintaining his readers’ interests but also the gravity of what can happen when they are misled. He’s in it for the pure thrill and rush of the job, and Keaton’s neuroticism does well to convey such a never-ending cycle. So, too, does the film’s fast and snappy dialogue, which the ensemble cast, Keaton included, handle very well. The Paper could’ve easily gotten as lost in the chaos as its central group of journalists regularly do, but Keaton’s human performance gives the film an axis to revolve around. Henry can’t rest until the job is done, and the job is only done as long as he’s given his readers and his family exactly what they need.
4. Walter “Robby” Robinson, Spotlight (2015)
Starring in back-to-back Best Picture winners was more than a boost for Keaton as he mounted a comeback in the mid-2010s, and given the delicate subject matter of this journalism drama, you can’t exactly argue with the results. From one editor to another, from fiction to reality, Keaton leads an outstanding ensemble cast as the head of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, a select group of investigative journalists who made waves after reporting on the widespread cover-up of molestation and child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church in 2002. Backed by his team members, played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James, Keaton brings quiet, stoic energy to one of his most understated roles. Given the impressive nature of the star-studded cast, Keaton could’ve easily taken a back seat to the fact-finding and truth reporting, but he instead harnesses that energy as the man calling the shots.
As Robinson, Keaton not only remains respectful of his real-life counterpart but also serves as a presence his reporters, along with the many victims they interview, can rely on. He’s perhaps the character most dedicated to uncovering the truth, as he is able to convince his team to keep investigating and only publish their findings once they are certain they have the information they need to break the silence on such a disturbing series of events. The Spotlight team treats the investigation with the utmost severity and sincerity, and are as shocked as the rest of us to discover the extent to which the atrocities within the church played out. It rocks their community, and eventually the rest of the world, to its core, an effect Keaton and the rest of the cast nobly convey as they contend with the weight of their work and the millions of people they represent.
3. Betelgeuse, Beetlejuice (1988)
Having broken through as a comedic force in Night Shift and Mr. Mom, Keaton beat out the likes of Dudley Moore and Sam Kinison for the titular role in Tim Burton’s celebrated horror comedy. As previously mentioned, Keaton sure knows how to make the best of his screen time, and that’s especially true of his zany turn here, which you’d be surprised to learn only constitutes roughly 17 minutes of the film’s hour-and-a-half runtime. Following the recently deceased Maitlands (Alec Baldwin & Geena Davis) as they find themselves haunting their old home, their efforts to rid the house of its unbearable new tenants, the Deetzes, lead them to employ Keaton’s ghoulish “bio-exorcist.” But when the couple finds themselves growing attached to the Deetzes’ lonely daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), Betelgeuse begins to reveal his ulterior motives, and it’s not long before creepy hilarity ensues.
Arguably Keaton’s most iconic role, which is saying something considering the number of memorable characters he’s played over the years, Betelgeuse is a character largely born from the actor’s imagination. His flair for improvisation lends itself as much to the poltergeist’s makeup and wacky hair as it does his cheeky one-liners, which once again benefit from his natural magnetism. Slipping between wily mischief and demonic malevolence with ease, Keaton’s performance as a being all but removed from time and space fits Burton’s wildly original tone like a glove. The brilliance of his comedic timing in Beetlejuice is that his character fully believes and premeditates the things he says; even when they sound completely nonsensical to the Maitlands, and the audience for that matter, it’s just another day in the life for him.
2. Bruce Wayne/Batman, Batman (1989)
Given the manic vivacity he had previously demonstrated to director Tim Burton, you’d think Keaton could’ve just as easily played the Joker in this groundbreaking superhero flick. After all, he projected the correct aura and the makeup job wasn’t far off, especially when compared to what we’d eventually get from the late Heath Ledger. As fate had it, Jack Nicholson was awarded the part, but it sure is fun to think about how a different casting decision could’ve saved Keaton from the endless amount of backlash he received when his role as the Caped Crusader was first announced. With the odds stacked against him as fans and studio executives alike complained about everything from his height to his lack of experience in dramatic roles, Keaton would eventually silence everyone, delivering a layered and haunting performance that was not only a complete departure from his accomplishment the year prior but also unlike anything that had been seen from a comic book film. It says a lot when at least five different actors have since taken up the cape and cowl on the big screen and Keaton is still, in the eyes of many, the definitive take on Batman.
If not his most memorable performance, Keaton’s darker interpretation of Bruce Wayne is one of his most quintessential, especially when looking at it from the perspective of the veritable Renaissance the actor currently finds himself in. We need only look to this performance to understand why he always deserved to be a star. Serving as the anti-Adam West option the world didn’t know they needed at the time, Keaton plays things close to the chest as Nicholson’s Clown Prince of Crime descends rapidly into campiness. His Bruce Wayne is quiet, lonely, and detached, while his Batman still knows a thing or two about kicking ass. For one of his first high-profile dramatic roles, Keaton makes contact with the character’s double identity and tragic past in ways both engrossing and a bit disturbing. He understands that the two personalities can’t live without the other, and thus embodies both of them to perfection. Criminals quake in fear and even the citizens of Gotham he lives to protect are intimidated by him. The finished product clearly speaks for itself, as Keaton would return to the role three years later in the equally twisted Batman Returns (1992), and is also set to reprise it in a number of upcoming projects.
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1. Riggan Thomson, Birdman (2014)
Alternatively titled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, this modern masterpiece from director Alejandro G. Iñárritu not only brought Michael Keaton’s career roaring back to life but also invited audiences worldwide to reconsider their perception of him. Playing a washed-up actor haunted by visions of a superhero he played in the early ‘90s, Birdman runs afoul with satirical allusions to Keaton’s previous work as Riggan Thomson attempts a comeback by writing, directing, producing, and starring in a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Chandler story. It’s crazy to think that Keaton wasn’t Iñárritu’s first choice to lead the film’s ensemble cast, but looking back on it now, there was simply no one else who could’ve brought to life Riggan’s existential crisis and his desire to be taken seriously the way Keaton did. Perhaps his greatest feat is that he proves his presence in this black comedy wasn’t stunt casting. Instead, he delivers a somber, career-defining performance that sees him getting in touch with himself more so than he ever does with his character.
Even eight years removed from its glorious awards run, which included a Best Picture Oscar and a Best Actor nomination for Keaton, Birdman is still a stunningly original film about stardom and human connection. Iñárritu’s direction and screenplay lend themselves to raw, open honesty, while Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography — which repopularized the convention of presenting a film as one continuous long take — immerses us completely within a chaotic, uncaring world. As Riggan converses with friends, family, and the internal voice of Birdman himself as the play’s opening night inches closer and closer, Keaton invites us to question how we’re meant to view him, both as an actor and as a person. He plays a man who can’t help but be paranoid about his worth when it’s clear the world only cared about the character he played. Keaton and Riggan are one and the same, telling everyone exactly what they think with the genuineness of thespians who still have room in their hearts to give the industry that left them behind a second chance. At least if it’s willing to do the same for them.