Val Kilmer Saw Batman As A Blank Slate Any Decent Actor Could Play

If you're a Batman fan who spends any time online, you'll no doubt have come across debates over the "definitive Batman." When Matt Reeves' "The Batman" debuted in 2022, the internet was abuzz with fans claiming we'd finally got a Batman who was true to the character's more grounded origins. But almost 20 years prior, when "Batman Begins" debuted, fan sites celebrated Christopher Nolan's 2005 depiction of the Caped Crusader as the ultimate grounded vision. Even we at /Film have attempted some, nicely nuanced if I may say, interjections in this arena, arguing why "Batman: The Animated Series" is the definitive incarnation of the Dark Knight.

At this point, I think we should all agree that there is no definitive Batman. These legendary pop culture figures have lasting appeal precisely because they lend themselves to multiple interpretations. Whether it's James Bond or Superman, we continue to come back to these characters because they transcend whoever plays them or whichever filmmaker puts their spin on the material.

For me, Michael Keaton just is Batman. But I'm fully aware this is a subjective point of view. Was I upset when, as a seven-year-old in 1995, Warner Bros switched out Keaton for a new actor? If anything, I was just excited we were getting another Batman movie. When "Batman Forever" finally arrived, I was spellbound. My favorite hero was back on the big screen. It might not have been Michael Keaton, but that didn't matter to me back then. And it seems, in the course of filming the sequel with a radically different tone than Tim Burton's adaptation, the star that replaced Keaton, Val Kilmer, learned to see things much the same way.

'There is no Batman'

Once Tim Burton's "Batman Returns" debuted in 1992 and apparently traumatized kids everywhere (myself not included), Warners decided it was time to lighten things up. Burton was out as director, and Joel Schumacher, who'd won over younger demographics with 1987's "The Lost Boys," was swiftly brought in as replacement. Along with him came the new Bruce Wayne in the form of Val Kilmer. Fresh off appearances in "Tombstone" and "True Romance," Kilmer took on the Dark Knight role apparently without recognizing the challenges that would come with it.

During the filming of "Batman Forever," the actor would experience Batsuit woes from day one. He couldn't hear what anyone was saying due to the rubber cowl covering his ears, and the suit, which weighed over 100 pounds, dramatically restricted his movement. In the excellent documentary "Val," the actor noted, "Whatever boyish excitement I had going in was crushed by the reality of the Batsuit."Being isolated in that way no doubt contributed to the actor's reputation as being difficult to work with. But he was at least gracious enough to stick around during filming one day to greet billionaire Warren Buffet, who brought his grandkids to set.

According to a New York Times profile, Kilmer was about to take off the Batsuit when Buffet and the kids arrived. He kindly stuck around to greet them but quickly learned the kids were more interested in the Batmobile and trying on the cowl for themselves. That prompted a sudden realization in the actor: there is no Batman, just people projecting themselves into his image. As he told the Times, "That's why it's so easy to have five or six Batmans. It's not about Batman. There is no Batman."

One and done

Kilmer wouldn't return as the Dark Knight after "Batman Forever." Joel Schumacher's take on Batman proved massively popular, bringing in $336 million at the box office, and Warner Bros. quickly greenlit a sequel. So quickly, in fact, that Kilmer said he'd already agreed to another film and couldn't come back. He was replaced by George Clooney in the ill-fated "Batman & Robin," but accounts of how this happened vary. In a behind-the-scenes eaturette, Kilmer maintained:

"I had agreed to do another film, 'The Saint,' and [Warner Bros.] never called the agents and they never called me and told me they were going to go right into production inside of a year [...] I look back and I think 'why would they do that?'"

Joel Schumacher, who passed away in 2020, said it was actually Kilmer who didn't let him know he wouldn't be coming back, "I was angry with Val and his representatives at the time because they'd let us know [that Kilmer wasn't doing the sequel] at the last second."

Once the debacle was all over, Kilmer would struggle to get roles, something which, according to his New York Times interview, he views as a result of him trying to "empower directors, actors, and other collaborators to honor the truth and essence of each project." If you've seen "Val," you'll get the impression that he honestly believes what he says here. Throughout his career, the former Batman star seemed earnestly to want to try to wring as much truth from his roles as possible, often at the expense of alienating his colleagues – Joel Schumacher eventually called Kilmer "psychotic," after working with him. Either way, he was at least insightful enough to recognize what many of us are perhaps just realizing: there is no definitive Batman.