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Monday, July 15, 2024

How Michael Keaton’s Batman Went From Flop to Phenomenon

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It’s 1988, and the new Batman has just been announced.

There’s no internet, because it’s 1988, so I’m hearing this news on the corner of 12th Street and Broadway at Manhattan’s comic-book mecca of the time, Forbidden Planet. But the thing is, people are pissed. Michael Keaton? Mr. Mom?!

How could this guy be Batman?!

But it wasn’t just the fans. The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story in November of that year questioning the casting of Keaton as Batman. That in turn spurred on even more media speculation about the choices being made on this multi-million dollar movie.

And then there were the petitions and the letter-writing campaigns where fans are said to have pleaded with Warner Bros. to get rid of Keaton and change the course of the film – some reports say there were 50,000 letters written!

So let’s look back at the inauspicious debut of Michael Keaton’s Batman, and how his Dark Knight would go on to soar all the same, paving the way for the big-screen dominance of the character ever since.


The role of Batman is so huge now, as is Keaton’s part in making the character the big-screen legend that he is, that it’s hard to conceptualize today what a shock his casting was in 1988. But at the time, the actor was mostly known for his comedic roles.

“After Beetlejuice, I wanted to see what was next. Batman came out and it just completely blew my mind,” recalls The Flash director Andy Muschietti.

Of course, the echos of Tim Burton’s Batman still influence the superhero movie genre to this day, even as Keaton himself returns to the role for The Flash some 31 years after being away. But it’s easy to forget now that when he first donned the cowl and eyeliner, there were a ton of fans who couldn’t handle the notion of Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice, the Clean and Sober guy, and so on playing Batman. And for better or worse, it would be a trend that would continue with pretty much every Batman since.

The Long Road to Gotham

Although Batman has been around in comics form since 1939, his live-action appearances were scattershot for the first few decades of his career. A pair of movie serials brought the Caped Crusader to theaters in the ’40s, but it wasn’t until the Adam West TV series debuted in 1966 that Batman became an actual cultural phenomenon.

Batman was a transmedia hit, as the show also spawned a theatrical movie, a ton of merchandise tie-ins, and a new direction for the comics themselves that was more in line with the campy nature of the series. But that success was also short-lived, and by 1968 Bat-mania – and the show itself – was over.

Still, the concept of Batman as a straight-laced do-gooder living in a world of colorful, zany, and mostly harmless supervillains would persist in the public’s imagination, even while the comic books themselves soon pushed back against the bam-pow-biff pop-art sensibilities of the show in favor of a darker rendition of the Dark Knight Detective.

Some studio execs could only picture the fun and frivolous Batman from TV. Others thought the character was all washed up.


By 1979, producers Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker had optioned the movie rights to make a new version of Batman, but much to their surprise, they couldn’t drum up interest with the studios. Nobody wanted their Batman movie! Some studio execs could only picture the fun and frivolous Batman from TV. Others thought the character was all washed up. At least one exec told Uslan that since the movie version of Annie had bombed, what chance did Batman have?

But the producers wanted to bring a darker Bruce Wayne to a new generation of viewers. And while it would wind up taking 10 years before their film made it to the big screen, that’s exactly what they would do.

From Caped Clown to Dark Knight

One of the biggest challenges the folks making the new Batman had to face was the legacy of Adam West’s iconic spin on the character. The fatherly, big-brotherly, neighborhood youth counselor who’ll shoot hoops with you while also teaching you a gentle life lesson take that West brought to the Caped Crusader was almost indelible even 20 years after his show went off the air.

And it wasn’t just West’s portrayal that would be upended by this new Batman. By the time wunderkind director Tim Burton had joined the project, the shadowy, gothic nature of the film was assured. Gotham City would become a wondrously creepy place, there wasn’t a Boy Wonder in sight, and Batman’s targets were now skeevy, scary, and dangerous. And that doesn’t even include Jack Nicholson’s Joker, but let’s save him for a different discussion sometime.

And don’t forget. Superhero movies… basically weren’t a thing back in 1989? Sure, there’d be an outlier here or there, but for the most part the only major superhero movies of that era had been the Christopher Reeve Superman films. And Reeve’s Superman was certainly everything the general public thought a comic-book hero should be – bright, smiling, upstanding, and saving cats from trees.

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As a matter of fact, early drafts of the Batman script were too similar to Superman for Burton’s taste.

"It was sort of, kind of a similar take on it, which you know, I think this is very different from Superman, and should be different,” Burton said in an interview in 1989. “It took a while to get to the right tone, I think.”

This is not a knock on the Richard Donner movies or even the misbegotten third or fourth films in that series. It’s just Superman. And you have to figure, just like Christopher Reeve did, the Adam West Batman made a lot of sense in the public consciousness when folks thought about what a superhero was. Square-jawed, handsome, totally nice guys… so much so that you wouldn’t even mind if they dated your daughter!

And then along comes this guy…

But That’s Mr. Mom!

You can’t really blame fans for not being able to get their heads around Keaton being cast as Batman. He got his start on local Pittsburgh TV productions, like Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, before branching out to Los Angeles in the late ’70s where he did stand-up comedy. That led to his first big movie job, in Ron Howard’s 1982 film, Night Shift, where Keaton co-starred with Henry Winkler as a couple of guys who turn the morgue where they work into a brothel. That’s right, Batman’s big break was thanks to Richie Cunningham and the Fonz.

Next up was Mr. Mom, where Keaton took center stage as a dad who loses his job and becomes a homemaker while his wife, played by Teri Garr, has to go out to become the breadwinner. Look, it was 1983, OK? The point is, the film was a hit, but it also left a lasting impression in the minds of audiences. Five years later, when Keaton’s casting was announced for Batman, there were surely many fans who couldn’t shake the image of Mr. Mom battling a vacuum cleaner.

More comedies would follow, like the gangster farce Johnny Dangerously and the culture-clash laugher Gung Ho. But the actor was also trying to cultivate a serious acting side as well during this time, most notably in 1988’s Clean and Sober, where he played a real estate salesman who's struggling with addiction.

But it was the horror-comedy Beetlejuice, which also hit in 1988, that would definitively change the direction of Keaton’s career. While the wackadoodle title ghost that the actor plays in the film is decidedly funny, it was here that Keaton would first team up with the young director Tim Burton. So when it came time for Burton to cast the lead of his next film, he knew that the actor could bring something to the role of Bruce Wayne that his reimagining really required – an unhinged quality that put the bat in the man.

“It’s like with Michael, you look at him, and he’s just got those eyes,” Keaton said in the documentary Shadows of the Bat. “And he looks crazy … but he also doesn’t look like a superhero. It’s like he looks like a guy who would need to dress up like a bat for effect.”

Burton clearly wasn’t worried about Keaton’s history of comedic roles. In fact, it was that weirdness that got Keaton the job.

Bat-Letter Writing Campaign

And that brings us back to me standing in Forbidden Planet, hearing about this casting news. Now look, this was a long time ago, but the way I remember it is I was actually OK with Keaton becoming the new Batman. As a kid who had been watching the Adam West show for as long as I could remember, I was just excited to be getting a new and what at that time felt like a more comics-accuate version of the character on the big screen. But I’m sure there were a lot of other fans standing in Forbidden Planet looking at the image of Keaton who did not agree. What was the equivalent of rage-tweeting in 1988?

Denuo Novo's 1989 Batman Cowl Gallery

“This was so newsworthy that the front page of the Wall Street Journal of all places had an article about what was wrong with us for choosing Michael Keaton to be Batman,” says Mark Canton, who was a Warner Bros. exec on the film, in the Shadows of the Bat doc. “You can't buy that kind of publicity.”

Fans starting letter-writing campaigns is a tried and true and almost always unsuccessful response to when a studio or other corporate entity does something said fans don’t like about their favorite thing. Nowadays these sorts of movements have morphed into social media campaigns or online petitions, but the intent is always the same. It goes back at least as far as the original Star Trek, which may or may not have been saved from cancellation after its second season, depending on who you ask.

You can see why fans might’ve been confused by Keaton’s casting, especially back in those dark, pre-internet days, where typically the first people would hear of a new movie would be when they saw a trailer or poster for it. The constant reporting on movies and TV today during the pre-production, production, and post-production phases, particularly projects of the nerdy variety, and the non-stop drib/drab of information released by studios for those titles just didn’t exist back then.

So really, you gotta give credit to the fans who were able to organize at the level they did around Batman. Their fears were based on the legacy of Adam West and the casting of who they saw as a comedic actor.

And so the letters began coming in, to Warner Bros. and DC Comics and, by all accounts, any other fan-adjacent publication with a mailing address. There were petitions too, and while it’s impossible today to calculate how many letters were sent or names were signed, reports vary from the thousands to 50,000. No matter the number, the studio and the filmmakers definitely heard what the fans were saying.

The front page of the Wall Street Journal of all places had an article about what was wrong with us for choosing Michael Keaton to be Batman.


“On the front page in the left column… the level of celebrity it reached,” says the film’s producer Peter Guber in the Shadows documentary. “What a ridiculous choice. This is the silliest choice. This is ridiculous. That’s not where the character lies. Now this is a major financial paper, an institution.”

But Burton and Keaton both knew what they had to do.

From Zero to Hero

The producers knew what they had to do too, and that was to show the fans that they were wrong. A trailer was released that Christmas which was the first step to quelling the worries of fanboys worldwide. Looking at it now, the trailer is a rough grouping of shots and doesn’t even feature any music, but it’s got Keaton’s decidedly non-campy Batman doing some cool Batman shit. Never underestimate a good trailer’s power over fans.

“It was meant to kind of stop the negative rumor mill,” recalls Burton in the doc. “It was a way to kind of stop the campy camp talk.”

The Dark Knight’s fortunes were changing, and so were Keaton and Burton’s. A memorable marketing campaign followed, leaning heavily on the simple but elegant use of the Bat logo to push the filmmakers’ message: Batman was returning, but this was not the Caped Crusader you remember. Other studios would learn from the success of this campaign in the years that followed, as simplistic iconography would become a norm in movie marketing. Indeed, as the film finally made its debut on June 23 in the U.S., a new wave of Bat-mania would overtake audiences, no doubt ignited in part by the mystery and excitement that the posters and trailers promised.

Batman opened to huge box office, breaking all kinds of records, and a rapturous response from fans as well. Keaton’s Batman turned out to be the hero we deserved, and the one we needed. And yes, I just used a Christopher Nolan Dark Knight reference to describe the Michael Keaton Batman. I couldn’t help it.

Keaton and Burton would team again for the strange and wonderful Batman Returns before dipping out of the franchise altogether. But what they built in 1989 would prove to be one of the most sustainable brands on the big screen. Yes, Val Kilmer and George Clooney followed Keaton in the ’90s, but then Batman would return again with the Nolan and Christian Bale trilogy, followed by the Zack Snyder/Ben Affleck iteration, and now we have the Robert Pattinson/Matt Reeves version as well as another incarnation in the works for the DCU’s The Brave and the Bold film. And that’s not even including the various animated versions of the character that have flourished in the wake of the 1989 film. Love that Batman.

“How much fun is it to go see the movie actually and then decide what you think, rather than having a debate about how good would or would not somebody be?” The Flash producer Barbara Muschietti said when interviewed by IGN recently.

Of course, fans have often reacted negatively to the casting of these Batmen as well, and often their rogues too. Fans are gonna fan. But there’s a bright side there, too: Mark Hamill recently revealed that after the backlash to Michael Keaton’s casting, he went into his audition for the Joker for Batman: The Animated Series completely relaxed, because he was sure they would never hire “Luke Skywalker” to play the character for fear of… you guessed it, the fan backlash. Good thing he was wrong.

But back in ’89, Keaton made Bruce Wayne and the Caped Crusader into something we hadn’t ever seen before: a relatable human being who happened to dress up like a bat. Yeah, he kicked ass and looked cool and had all of those wonderful toys, but he also made for a uniquely idiosyncratic superhero in a blockbuster movie that remains one of the pillars of the genre.

In short, he was Batman.


Talk to Executive Editor Scott Collura on Twitter at @ScottCollura, or listen to his Star Trek podcast, Transporter Room 3. Or do both!

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