It was a casting decision that made waves the likes of which had never been seen before. When Warner Bros. Studio first announced Michael Keaton would be portraying Batman in their big budget adaptation, purists and comic fans feared another campy, cartoonish take on The Caped Crusader in the vein of the 1960s TV show. Keaton, it would turn out, brought both a nuanced charm and real gravitas to the role, at a point when the genre of comic book movies was still in its infancy.
At first, Burton was looking to cast an unknown actor, despite pressure from the studio to cast a big-name movie star. Caving to pressure from Warner Bros., who had been considering everyone from Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen and Bill Murray, Burton offered an audition to Ray Liotta, who declined, as did Pierce Brosnan. Willem Dafoe was also approached at one point early on, though nothing ever came of it.
Eventually, producer Jon Peters suggested Michael Keaton, based on his performance in Clean and Sober the year prior, which was the actor’s first ever dramatic role. Burton, who’d worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, agreed.
Given that there were no online social media outlets at the time, upwards of 50,000 letters were sent to the studio from enraged fans. It was such a monumental response that the Wall Street Journal even published a story about it.
Not limited to the masses of comic book readers, Batman creator Bob Kane and Executive Producer Michael Uslan, a life-long fan who’d acquired the film rights to Batman back in the 1970s, questioned Burton’s choice. “He’s a comedian. I mean, what’s the poster going to say? That Mr. Mom is Batman?” Uslan asked the director.
Peters vehemently defended his choice, stating that they “wanted a guy who’s a real person who happens to put on this weird armor. A guy who’s funny and scary. Keaton’s both. He’s got that explosive, insane side.” Eventually, even Uslan was convinced, telling Slaughterhouse Magazine in 1989 that Keaton “looks sensational and works beautifully.”
The film was shot in London, and the entire production was kept very secretive, which helped build both curiosity and anticipation for the film – contrast that with the onslaught of Suicide Squad information that we’re seeing.
Despite the mounting pressure and escalating budget of the film, Keaton became increasingly withdrawn, as he told the LA Times in 2011:
“It was a lonely time for me, which was great for the character, I suppose. I would run at night in London just trying to get tired enough so I could sleep. I didn’t talk to people much. My little boy was a toddler, and the woman I was married to at the time, we were not together but we were trying to figure it out and get back together.”
He would also use the restrictions of the batsuit to help deepen his connection to the character. Wearing it, he wasn’t able to hear or move correctly, saying that it “made me go inward and that’s how I wanted the character to be anyway, to be withdrawn.” He’d also use his background in comedy to hep make Bruce Wayne a more likable character, like the “I don’t think I’ve ever been in this room before” quip while dining with Vicki Vale.