The Batman casting controversy started with Michael Keaton

Photo: Batman.. Image Courtesy Warner Bros. / DC Universe
Photo: Batman.. Image Courtesy Warner Bros. / DC Universe /

Long before Ben Affleck was chastised for being cast as Batman, Michael Keaton was in the hot seat after being chosen for the role in Tim Burton’s film.

Tim Burton’s Batman is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It was a movie that became a phenomenon (Batmania) and set a lot of standards for modern comic book films.

Batman himself is one of the most iconic characters in fiction, which means he definitely has a passionate fanbase. Every Batman fan picks and chooses what they like about the character, so their definitive vision of him gets built up in their head.

When Warner Bros. decided to make a serious, big budget Batman film, fans were excited. Richard Donner’s Superman wowed audiences a decade earlier, and it was now Batman’s turn to get that treatment. When people at the time thought of Batman, they thought of the campy ’60s Adam West show.  It was time for Batman to be taken seriously, but who would don the cowl?

NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 25: Michael Keaton attends the “Spider-Man: Homecoming” Photo Call at the Whitby Hotel on June 25, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images)

Famous actors like Pierce Brosnan, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, and Bill Murray were considered, but the role went to Michael Keaton.

Keaton, at the time, was known for comedies and had appeared as the titular character in Burton’s Beetlejuice. Fans were not happy, to say the least. Even before the time of social media, fans made it clear that they weren’t happy with Keaton. Fans were sending hate mail to publications and expressing their displeasure over the studio’s decisions. In a 1989 story for the Florida Sun-Sentinel, DC Comics writer Ralph Cabrera said, “It’s like Rodney Dangerfield in a Bat-suit. You’ll laugh at it.”

Even one of the film’s producers, Michael Uslan, confronted Burton directly about Keaton:

"“Yeah, but he’s a comedian. I mean, what’s the poster going to say? That Mr. Mom is Batman?” I said that he’s my height, he doesn’t have the muscles; for god’s sake, he doesn’t have the square jaw of Batman.”"

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Burton stated that he had a good, working relationship with Keaton and knew he could get the performance he needed out of him.

Despite all the criticism, Batman was a smash hit. It topped the domestic box office and became the second highest-grossing film worldwide that year.

Keaton came back for Batman Returns, with the last two films in the quadrilogy having two different actors donning the cape. When fans look back on the four films released between 1989 and 1997, a lot would agree that the Keaton-led films were the best.

Batman will always have a passionate fanbase. The character has been around since 1939, so generations of fans will always have their own ideal version of the Caped Crusader that might clash with another creator’s vision. Fan outrage of this magnitude over casting was unheard at the time, but has continued since.

There wasn’t much reaction to Christian Bale’s casting because fans just wanted a new serious Batman film. When it was announced that Heath Ledger was cast as the Joker for The Dark Knight, fans were infamously not happy. Fans negatively associated him with his past roles in romantic comedies and Brokeback Mountain. Ledger tragically passed away months before the film’s release but, once people saw that trailer hearing his menacing laugh, he had instantly won over the audience. The Dark Knight was the biggest film of 2008 and is still considered by many to be one of the best comic book films ever. Ledger’s Joker role is considered by some to be one of the best performances ever on film, and he posthumously won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Ben Affleck was cast as Batman in the polarizing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Even after his film Argo won Best Picture, there were a lot of people who had doubts about the casting because of his past role in the critical flop Daredevil. While Affleck’s Batman portrayal remains a dividing topic, some (including myself) consider him one of the best actors to don the cowl.

And now, Robert Pattinson is Batman. Pattinson is known for his role in the Twilight series, which, for some, makes him unqualified. Pattinson has made a name for himself in the indie scene and will be starring in Christopher Nolan’s next film Tenet. The next Batman film will be directed by Matt Reeves and will release in June 2021. Only time will tell how Pattinson will do, but Warner Bros. must have seen something special in him.

A couple of factors should be considered as to why the Keaton outrage happened and why it hasn’t stopped since.

Successful comic book films taken seriously by filmmakers were still a new thing in the ’80s. Batman is one of, if not the biggest name in comics, but the shadow of the campy ’60s show loomed over hardcore fans. Hiring a comedic actor like Keaton made it seem like they were going into that direction again. It’s funny how the later sequels went into the campy territory fans were initially afraid of. Now Keaton is remembered fondly along with Bale. Fans had the highest expectations for the first serious Batman film, and they wanted to make sure the studio was meeting them.

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Since then, it seems like any casting decision for a major upcoming comic book film is met with the utmost scrutiny, But it seems like the casting of a new Batman film will always have fans up in arms.