Most people don’t realise just how risky the idea of a Batman movie was. Here was a character whose footprint in pop culture had been defined by an era of camp comedy, wacky plots and was so far removed from his pulp origins that he might as well have been a different character entirely. While DC Comics had made great strides in the 1970s and 1980s in bringing the character back to his roots as the world’s finest detective and a caped crusader who had dedicated his life to fighting injustice, the mainstream audience always saw Batman as a comic act.
Heck, Batman wasn’t even as popular then as he was today. Producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan managed to secure the film rights to Batman from DC Comics back in 1979, but from there it was an uphill battle until Warner Bros. gave the project a chance. Over the next eight years, Batman would languish in development hell until the breakout comic book success of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: The Killing Joke reignited interest in the character.
In 1985, Warner Bros. hired up and coming director Tim Burton to helm the project. The gears were finally in motion, an A-list team of talent was assembled and the only thing missing was Batman himself. Who could breathe life into the character? Warner Bros. wanted a rugged action star to don the mantle of the dark knight, with Hollywood casting ranging from Mel Gibson to Harrison Ford at the time.
Burton and the producers went in a wilder direction. Michael Keaton got the nod, Warner Bros. agreed after some convincing on the part of Burton and his producers, and Batman fans went nuts. “We were balancing a lot of forces in getting this film made. You have to recognise that when you’re making a movie that you’re in the selling business from the minute the movie gestates. From the minute the movie’s announced, from the minute the first comments reach the press there’s an impression about the movie,” Batman producer Peter Gruber said in an interview years later.
And when you have a property that’s a lightning rod like Batman, when you begin to cast the picture, everybody has an opinion because they know what that character meant to them in their youth or as they read the comic or when they saw the television show and even question whether you should make it. Well Michael Keaton was a firestorm of activity when he was cast.
How bad was the uproar? Around 50 000 letters were sent in from fans, who demanded that the film project recast the lead role and find someone else. “I remember that this was so newsworthy, that the front page of the Wall Street Journal, of all places, had an article about what was wrong with us for choosing Michael Keaton to be Batman. You can’t buy that kind of publicity,” producer Mark Canton said.
“On the front page of the left column, to show you the level of celebrity it reached, said “what a ridiculous choice, this is the silliest choice, this is ridiculous that’s not where the character lies,” Gruber added.
This is a major financial paper, an institution, talking about a creative enterprise. The good news is they’re talking about the creative enterprise. The bad news is, they’re creating questions in the part of management. “Oh my God, what are these folks doing who are managing our asset and our money?” So you always have that yin and yang you know, you got the noise but you also get the light.
With Warner Bros. getting cold feet over the controversy surrounding the casting of Keaton as Batman, it was up to Burton and his production crew to ease their fears. “It was kind of a shock to some people when we cast Michael Keaton and I did hear filtering back from America,” Burton would say.
The “Oh my God, this is going to be a disaster. It’s going to be like the TV show and they’re just going to camp it up.” But we knew that wasn’t the case. I thought he was absolutely right for it. With Michael, you look at him and he’s just got those eyes and he looks crazy. But he also doesn’t look like a superhero. He looks like a guy who would need to dress up like a bat for effect.
And that was the main selling point. It wasn’t so much that Michael Keaton was playing Batman, but that he was playing Bruce Wayne. A troubled and tormented man who only had one outlet that made sense to him, when it came to stopping crime. “The comfort zone was Tim Burton. I knew I at least could put my trust in someone,” Keaton said.
At least to some degree you know, even though it was a huge challenge to him and a risk to him too. It doesn’t seem like that, probably, but it was just a difficult movie to do and a big thing to pull off. When he called me and said “I’m doing Batman,” I was like “Do it.”
Had it not been him, I wouldn’t have even read the thing. But if figured if it’s coming from him, this is worth reading. And then I knew immediately who this guy was. I just knew what I would have done. The risk came in, because I think of the scale of this thing. But if this character doesn’t work, this movie doesn’t work.
Now I kind of knew that, but I didn’t want to think about that. Or I was a dead man.
Being a big fan of irony, I just think it’s great sitting back and looking at it all, I just think this is great fun. But no real vindication. I mean, it wasn’t all that severe. Just people saying…I mean, except for the hundreds of thousands of people protesting in the streets I guess. When they hung me in an effigy, that was a little, for me, harsh.
What did Keaton have that numerous other leading actors such as Dennis Quaid, Kevon Costner and Charlie Sheen didn’t have? An instability that few other actors could convey in the same intense manner that Keaton could. “What Michael Keaton captured, was the traumatised Bruce Wayne, the neurotic Bruce Wayne, the Bruce Wayne who you believe could, at night, put on a suit and could go out and fight crime,” former DC Comics president Jenette Kahn said.
“Tim saw something in Michael’s eyes,” Batman casting director Marion Dougherty added.
They were very alive and interesting and a lot of the time he was wearing a mask or a cowl, and he needed what came from his eyes. I had cast Michael before that, in a picture called Clean and Sober and I knew he was a fine actor. But the eyes got him the job.
Keaton’s performance still stands apart from every other Batman that would come after him. More reserved, but simmering like a volcano of intensity underneath all of that rubber armour, Keaton’s turn as the dark knight didn’t just prove naysayers wrong, it set the bar for every other actor who donned the cape and cowl in the years to come.
Last Updated: June 3, 2019