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Michael Keaton explains why he walked away from Batman

The actor wanted his Caped Crusader to walk the line between ‘quirky’ and dark

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Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) standing in front of a silhouette of the bat signal in Batman Returns. Image: Warner Home Video

When telling a story about Batman, perhaps the first question any creator would have is about who or what defines Batman. Is he Bruce Wayne in a bat costume, or a vigilante masquerading as a billionaire? This question of dueling identities has been at the core of the character since his earliest days in Detective Comics in 1939. The character has gone through a wide variety of transformations since Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s day, and Michael Keaton’s Batman presents one of those key moments.

While on the Backstage podcast, Keaton talked through his performances in Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, and why he declined to go forward with Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever. The gossip is pure ’90s, but the questions Keaton had at the time remain crucial for understanding the character.

The podcast, which was first spotted by The Playlist, includes these details around the 50 minute mark, when Keaton gets asked about roles coming full circle in his long career. One example is the thematic connections between the 1988 movie Clean and Sober, which focuses on addiction, and the recent Hulu miniseries Dopesick, in which Keaton plays a doctor who becomes addicted to painkillers. But more directly, his role as Batman has come back again, with his casting in The Flash as well as Batgirl.

Michael Keaton as Batman in Batman Returns
Keaton as Batman in Batman Returns
Image: Warner Bros. Entertainment

Burton played a large role in making Batman “artistically iconic,” Keaton says. As for the actor’s view on his performance as Batman, he says, “I always knew from the get-go, it was Bruce Wayne. That’s the secret. I never talked about it. [People would say,] ‘Batman does this,’ and, you know, y’all are thinking wrong here. It’s about Bruce Wayne. Who’s that guy? What type of person does that?”

Batman Returns was a hit both financially and critically, but that came with cultural caveats. Neither Warner Bros. nor corporate partners like McDonald’s were happy with the mature nature of the movie. As one anonymous rival studio exec told Entertainment Weekly in 1992, “If you bring back Burton and Keaton, you’re stuck with their vision. You can’t expect Honey, I Shrunk the Batman.”

McDonald’s was widely criticized for promoting a PG-13 movie to younger audiences, even earning the ire of a New York Times editorial that read, “despite its comic-book origin, this summer’s Batman sequel, Batman Returns, isn’t a film for young children,” and that the fast-food restaurant chain had made an “annoying marketing misjudgment” in promoting collector cups and toys.

Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and The Penguin (Danny DeVito) in Batman Returns were two reasons why critics felt the movie was inappropriate for kids
Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and The Penguin (Danny DeVito) in Batman Returns were two reasons why critics felt the movie was inappropriate for kids
Image: Warner Bros. Entertainment

After claiming that the toys weren’t “intended to encourage young kids to see the movie,” the company eventually cut the promotion. Entertainment Weekly wrote at the time that Batman Returns had “displeased both poles of its audience — the flood of juvenile tie-ins has undermined its appeal to adults, while its kinky weirdness turns off some kids.” Still, though, EW’s coverage theorized that “the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for Gotham-related tchotchkes all but guarantees that Warner will keep spinning out follow-ups through the end of the century.”

Entertainment Weekly was right about Warner Bros., which sought to course-correct by bringing on Joel Schumacher, who had recently made waves with his dark comedy Falling Down. But Keaton said that after meeting a few times with Schumacher, the actor could tell he wouldn’t be bringing a similar attitude to the next Batman movie.

“I remember one of the things I walked away from thinking, ‘Oh boy, I can’t do this,’ [was] where [Schumacher] said, ‘I don’t understand why everything has to be so dark and so sad.’ And I went, ‘Wait a minute. Do you know how this guy got to be Batman?’” Keaton cites Frank Miller’s work on the character, as well as Burton’s vision, as aligning with his own.

That vision didn’t mesh with Schumacher’s, whose Batman Forever saw Val Kilmer don the cowl instead. Similarly to what had transgressed with Burton, that movie’s success led to a sequel, but that follow-up was widely seen as veering too strongly in one direction. While Batman & Robin ended up knocking the World’s Greatest Detective out of theaters for some time, eight years later, a new reboot called Batman Begins started asking those same questions about Bruce Wayne and who exactly was behind the mask.

Keaton’s version wasn’t all dark and brooding, though. He says he saw Bruce Wayne as “quirky,” “not always sure of himself,” and “kind of an odd, unusual guy.” He also describes trying to find the humor in the character with Burton, something that doesn’t resonate strongly with most modern live-action portrayals. In his upcoming roles as the character, he’ll have a chance to show current audiences what they’ve been missing.

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