Before Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale got their hands on the Batman franchise and revolutionized it into a realistic and gritty cinematic behemoth with The Dark Knight trilogy, Batman movies were vastly different entities. 1989 saw the release of Tim Burton’s first cinematic take on the caped crusader with Michael Keaton in the lead role and Jack Nicholson as The Joker and a sequel – Batman Returns – soon followed. Both were more or less well received; the two films were typically Tim Burton-esque in tone whilst retaining some comic book cartoonishness, and despite criticism of Keaton’s casting when it was announced, the actor proved his doubters wrong with a strong turn as Bruce Wayne.
Keaton exited the franchise after Batman Returns and Burton was replaced in the director’s chair by Joel Schumacher, with Val Kilmer taking on the title role. The resulting film, Batman Forever, left fans significantly less impressed than its two predecessors and although there were positives to be found – Jim Carrey’s performance as The Riddler is arguably underrated – the movie began a downward trend and Schumacher’s next effort in the series, Batman and Robin, temporarily killed the franchise.
Now, in an interview with THR, Michael Keaton has explained exactly what made him decide to relinquish the famous cowl and cape and it seems that he had a feeling early on that the franchise’s new direction wouldn’t be a hit with fans. Keaton describes his reaction after reading the script for Batman Forever, claiming:
“It sucked. The script never was good… I knew it was in trouble when he [Joel Schumacher] said ‘Why does everything have to be so dark?'”
Happily, Keaton still has fond memories of his time as Bruce Wayne, specifically working with Tim Burton who he calls “an artist and a visionary” in a same interview. The actor also describes the feeling of risk surrounding the production of that first Batman movie, stating “If it [the movie] went down, we were going down in a big way,” a sentiment that seems almost unthinkable today with the glut of superhero movies on offer.
Keaton’s comments are unlikely to come as a surprise to many of the Batman fans who have seen that initial series of films. Whilst Burton’s take on the character – particularly in Batman Returns – still has elements of humor and fantasy, Keaton’s Bruce Wayne still felt like a very grounded and detailed character. Joel Schumacher’s attempt to take the franchise back to its sixties joviality may have been well-intentioned, but came with the sacrifice of a narrative and characters that viewers of all ages could invest in.
The former Batman actor has been surprisingly candid in recent years about his relationship with comic book movies and given that Keaton’s career stalled somewhat in the wake of his exit from the Batman movies, it wouldn’t be too surprising if he regretted stepping away from the role. After all, neither his immediate successor Val Kilmer, nor subsequent Batman George Clooney endeared themselves to moviegoers as Bruce Wayne and despite the dramatic change of direction, Schumacher’s two attempts at the character would surely have been better received had Keaton stayed on.
With that said, the actor has seen a resurgence in recent years, primarily due to his very meta role as a washed-up ex-superhero actor in Birdman. The Oscar-winning picture has revived Keaton’s fortunes and as a result, the actor will be returning to the comic book movie scene on the opposite side of the Marvel/DC fence in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming. And who knows, maybe if he had stayed on in the Batman franchise – despite the script sucking – Keaton’s career path would never have led him to an Oscar nomination and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.