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Despite the mounting pressure and escalating budget of the film, Keaton became increasingly withdrawn, as he told the LA Times in 2011: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.
“Bruce Wayne was the way in for me,” he said in 2014, explaining that he hadn’t even considered the Batman aspect to the story until it came time to film those scenes. When wearing the suit, however, he simply “made it work for him,” both in terms of his claustrophobia, and the restrictions it put on his physical movement.
A self-described “logic freak,” Keaton also felt the need to differentiate between the Batman persona and Bruce Wayne. He’d considered altering his appearance slightly using contact lenses, and settled on lowering his voice an octave when wearing the cape and cowl, a tactic infamously employed by Christian Bale 15 years later.
Once shooting had wrapped, as part of the ever-mounting speculation from both fans as to Keaton’s ability to play Batman, the studio released a 90-second teaser trailer. The brief collection of music-less footage succeeded in generating a tremendous amount of excitement, as fans were soon buying full-priced tickets simply to watch it.
In the end, all the speculation about Keaton’s ability was cast aside. While Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker was so revered that 19 years later people were doubtful that Heath Ledger could handle the character, Keaton seemed to win the majority of fans over with his nuanced performance both in and out of the batsuit.
Despite those who, after all these years, are still not sold on Keaton’s portrayal, there’s been plenty of praise regarding his unique approach to separating Batman from Bruce Wayne, along with his subtle portrayal of the character’s damaged psyche. Even today, Keaton talks about Batman with a casual, to-the-point response about his identification with the character, even after so many actors have donned the cowl since.
In the end, Batman shattered just about every conceivable box-office record at the time, and remains DC Comics’ fourth highest-grossing film. It also reintroduced audiences to a more classically faithful approach to the character, legitimized the superhero genre as a genuine art form, and, for a time, became the measuring stick that other comic book adaptations were measured against. All this due, in large part, to the selection of Michael Keaton.
Not a bad legacy for the star of Gung Ho and Mr. Mom.