Over the last few years, Michael Keaton has enjoyed a critical and commercial comeback driven by some excellent and fascinatingly varied work. Of course, for film fans who’ve followed his output since the early ’80s, Keaton’s ability to bring all these characters to life comes as no surprise: from scammers to superheroes and everything in between, he’s built an impressive filmography, and this weekend’s American Assassin gives us the perfect opportunity to take a fond look back. We’ve lined up some of his biggest critical hits, and we’re inviting you to rank your own favorites — it’s time for Total Recall!
Investigative reporting isn’t typically exciting work, but you’d never know it from watching Spotlight. Director/co-writer Tom McCarthy commanded an imposing ensemble cast for this Best Picture Academy Award winner — including Michael Keaton, Liv Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci, and Mark Ruffalo — to tell the sadly fact-based tale of the Boston Globe reporters who fought their way past systemic corruption and indifference to unearth decades of child abuse at the hands of the city’s Catholic priests, all allowed to continue while the church turned a blind eye or actively covered it up. Despite the inherently uncinematic nature of the work, and the fact that most filmgoers knew the end of the story going in, Spotlight proved positively gripping stuff — and a critical and commercial hit that racked up nearly $90 million at the box office on its way to winning Best Picture and Original Screenplay at the Oscars.
Director Ron Howard could have been accused of tempting fate when he elected to direct his Happy Days buddy Henry Winkler in 1982’s Night Shift — a particularly risky move considering that in the movie, Winkler shed his Fonzie cool to play the nebbishy Chuck Lumley, a newly hired morgue attendant who finds himself going against his better judgment to participate in the cockamamie schemes hatched by his fast-talking co-worker Bill Blazejowski (Michael Keaton) and ends up becoming the de facto co-manager of a thoroughly unusual brothel hosted by a free-spirited hooker (Shelley Long). Ralph Malph was nowhere in sight, in other words, but there was plenty of sitting on it going on — and loads of critical praise, including a positive review from Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, who wrote, “This isn’t as snappily directed or as caustically conceived as the subsequent Risky Business, which has a similar theme, but it’s arguably just as sexy and almost as funny.”
Keaton earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work in this technically dazzling Alejandro G. Iñárritu drama, which follows an actor in the midst of a crisis of faith as he makes a last-ditch attempt to salvage his professional dignity by mounting a Raymond Carver stage adaptation. The real-life parallels were interesting — like his character, Keaton was a former big-screen superhero who hadn’t shouldered a feature in some time — but they were far from the most compelling thing about Birdman, which balanced brilliant cinematography against an absorbing narrative brought to life by a talented ensemble of stars. Keaton’s castmates Edward Norton and Emma Stone both joined him on that year’s list of Oscar nominees, but it was his central performance that attracted the most attention; as Rene Rodriguez wrote for the Miami Herald, the film “takes advantage of every facet of Keaton’s talent, from his knack for absurdist comedy to his seemingly effortless ability to tap into graceful profundity without making a big show of it.”
Nearly 20 years after he helped usher in the dawn of our current era of cinematic superheroes, Keaton returned to the comics-inspired fold with Spider-Man: Homecoming, which brought the wall-crawler into a timeshare with the Marvel Cinematic Universe after a pair of Sony-shepherded franchises had run their course. With young Tom Holland thwipping webs and slinging wisecracks as the new Spidey, Keaton got to play bad guy, suiting up as the Vulture — a villain repurposed for the modern age as a blue-collar business owner driven to crime by economic insecurity, with a particular axe to grind against Spider-Man’s pal Tony Stark. Fans had a right to be cynical about the character’s second big-screen reboot, but they — and critics — were almost universally won over by the end result. “This is the Spidey movie we’ve been waiting for,” wrote Newsweek’s Tufayel Ahmed. “It’s also the best Spider-Man movie of the bunch.”
An infectiously fleet-footed comedy about star-crossed lovers and royal deceit, Much Ado About Nothing found director Kenneth Branagh wrangling a typically eclectic roster of stars. On paper, it might have seemed borderline goofy to put Keaton, Keanu Reeves, and Denzel Washington together in a film adaptation of a Shakespeare play, but with Much Ado, Branagh made it work. And while the marquee-friendly cast might have made Shakespeare seem a little sexier to younger filmgoers, Branagh backed up all that glitz with a smart, finely crafted take on the play; as Owen Gleiberman wrote for Entertainment Weekly, the director’s “true achievement” with the movie was that he “found his way to the play’s profound yet populist heart, rediscovering Shakespeare’s vision of romantic fulfillment – celebration with an underlying tug of sadness – for an era that believes itself all too wise to the ways of love.”
Keaton reunited with his Night Shift director Ron Howard for a very different kind of project in 1994: The Paper, an ensemble dramedy about the frantic goings-on behind the scenes during 24 hours in the life of a New York City newspaper. While things have changed drastically for the publishing industry in the years since The Paper’s release, rendering the movie’s backdrop rather quaint, the sharp writing (from brothers David and Stephen Koepp) and rock-solid acting — rounded out by a showy cast that also included Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Jason Robards, and Marisa Tomei — are timeless. “Howard, after stumbling with Far and Away, is back in form, and perhaps at the top of his game,” enthused Chris Hicks for the Deseret News. “There are times when the sheer size of the film seems enough to throw it off the track, but Howard manages, for the most part, to keep things rolling along in his usual slick, if sometimes obvious fashion.”
Three years after achieving “young Hollywood genius” status with Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino re-emerged with Jackie Brown, a 154-minute adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch that served as Tarantino’s homage to ‘70s blaxploitation while resurrecting the career of one of the genre’s biggest stars: Pam Grier. Hitherto known for playing the title role in 1974’s Foxy Brown, Grier returned to the big screen in pretty good company, including Keaton — whose character, ATF agent Ray Nicolette, resurfaced the next year in Out of Sight — Bridget Fonda, Chris Tucker, and Samuel L. Jackson. While it was ultimately a bit of a critical and commercial letdown after the raging success of Pulp Fiction, Jackie still proved a favorite for scribes like Chuck Rudolph of Matinee Magazine, who wrote that it “Achieves the soulful edge lacking from Tarantino’s previous efforts. Forster and Grier’s performances deserve to join the short-list of all-time greats.”
More than 30 years later, Mr. Mom‘s central conceit — that a dad downsized out of his office gig would find himself woefully outmatched as a homemaker — isn’t quite as hilarious as it was in the early ’80s. But it’s still easy to tell why audiences turned out in droves for this hit comedy, which puts Keaton’s Jack Butler through a series of domestic pratfalls when he loses his job and trades places with his wife (Teri Garr) after she returns to the workplace. A film that drew on the manic energy that ran through much of Keaton’s early career while proving he had the chops to handle dramatic roles — and elevate a rather middle-of-the-road screenplay — Mom earned applause from critics like DVDTalk’s Scott Weinberg, who wrote, “Even with Erma Bombeck-style domestic humor like <em>Mr. Mom</em>’s got in spades, Keaton consistently rises above the mawkish material.”
Keaton’s always excelled at playing hucksters, but some of his most affecting work has a deep melancholic streak that makes it possible for him to believably bring rather unlikable people to life while hanging on to the character’s essential humanity. He was, in other words, the perfect actor to portray McDonald’s mastermind Ray Kroc in The Founder, the 2017 biopic that traced its subject’s meteoric rise from struggling salesman to the (arguably less than benevolent) driving force behind one of the world’s most widely consumed brands. “Without Michael Keaton’s fascinating and slyly ferocious performance as Kroc at its heart, The Founder might still be a biting critique of Kroc in particular and rapacious corporate capitalism in general,” wrote an appreciative Cary Darling for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “But it wouldn’t be nearly as delicious.”
One of 1988’s most successful movies, Beetlejuice offers a singularly absurd ghost comedy starring Michael Keaton as the titular “bio-exorcist” that a pair of ghosts (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) hire to rid their home of its obnoxious living residents. Bustling with kooky special effects, off-the-wall humor, and Harry Belafonte songs, it racked up almost $75 million in domestic grosses, cementing director Tim Burton’s status as a bankable filmmaker (and laying the groundwork for Burton and Keaton’s Batman in the bargain). More than just a fine early example of Burton’s skewed sensibilities, Beetlejuice remains a thoroughly enjoyable comedy; in the words of eFilmCritic’s Scott Weinberg, it “Coasts by like a rocket, thanks to Keaton’s inspired performance and Burton’s dark-carnival lunacy.”