The Batman Controversy That Had Tim Burton Fighting For Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton is and has always been my Batman. Don't get me wrong. I love all the actors who have played him over the years — both live-action and animated. It's just that Michael Keaton was the first Batman I saw taken seriously. I'd only watched the Adam West TV reruns before that, and as much fun as they were, they just didn't give me the same thrill the comics did. Then one day, I saw the poster with the logo, and it just sparked something. I was too little at the time to really know about the casting controversy Keaton sparked. I just knew that we were getting a Batman movie, and I was happy.

No one else was, it seems. We think about casting controversies today, and there are more of them every day. Sometimes it's for good reasons, and sometimes it's because Jennifer Lawrence doesn't have the same hair color as Katniss Everdeen did in the books (And oh my God! What is the world coming to because wigs and hair dye don't exist or something?). 

For Michael Keaton's casting though, it was because he was a comedy actor known for movies like "Mr. Mom" and "Night Shift." I knew him from those films as well, but as a kid, you don't understand typecasting. Believe it or not, even back in the late 1980s, fans were ripping up publicity info about his casting and writing letters to say how terrible it all was. Just think about that for a moment. Can you imagine a world where the Tim Burton "Batman" and "Batman Returns" Batman was played by Bill Murray, Mel Gibson, or Pierce Brosnan? We could have lived in the darkest timeline, friends. 

(Kidding. Gibson would have been the darkest timeline. The other two would have been great, but very, very different.)

I'm Batman

I spoke to "Batman" producer Michael E. Uslan about the casting. He told me:

"It was Tim Burton who realized that if we were going to do the revolutionary first feature film of a comic book superhero that was dark and serious, then the audience needed to believe in Bruce Wayne, and the actor had to be able to convince them that Bruce Wayne was someone they believed was so driven and so obsessed to the point of being psychotic, and that they would therefore say, 'Yes! That's a guy who would get dressed up as a bat!' Michael Keaton delivered on that and more! For people around the world who had never read a comic book, he led them into suspending their disbelief and journeying into Gotham City."

Burton was right, and fans certainly ended up believing in his version of Batman. In the book "Burton on Burton," Burton said:

"In my mind I kept reading reviews that said, 'Jack's terrific, but the unknown as Batman is nothing special.' So I saw a zillion people and the thing that kept going through my mind when I saw these action-adventure hero types come into the office was, 'I just can't see them putting on a bat-suit. I can't see it.' I was seeing these big macho guys, and then thinking of them with pointy ears, and it was, 'Why would this big macho, Arnold Schwarzenegger-type person dress up as a bat for God's sake?'"

Have you ever danced with the devil?

It makes sense. There has to be a darkness to Batman for a film like this, but Burton's "Batman" films had something else. They had a level of surreality and a dark circus atmosphere. You can't put an actor like Pierce Brosnan in there and make him fit (love him though I do). You need a comedian. You need someone who can balance the knowledge of what he's doing (he's dressing up like the cutest flying mouse) with the understanding that this is an odd thing to do — all while being haunted enough to actually do it. In Keaton, you also have an actor who can stand nose to nose with Jack Nicholson's Joker and not back down.

Burton also spoke in "Burton on Burton" about how Keaton's work in "Beetlejuice" makes him perfect for this:

"A bat is this wild thing. I'd worked with Michael before and so I thought he would be perfect, because he's got that look in his eye. It's there in Beetlejuice. It's like that guy you could see putting on a bat-suit; he does it because he needs to, because he's not this gigantic, strapping macho man. It's all about transformation. Then it started to make sense to me. All of a sudden the whole thing clicked, I could see the pointy ears; the image and the psychology all made sense. Taking Michael and making him Batman just underscored the whole split personality thing which is really what I think the movie's about."

An unhinged charm

There has always been room for different interpretations of Batman, no matter what fans say every time another Batman is cast. Remember Ben Affleck and the backlash there? He was great, whatever your opinion of the films. Remember Robert Pattinson? Everyone calmed down as soon as they started thinking about the incredible acting work that Pattinson has done, but the first reaction was, "A guy from the 'Twilight' films?"

There is something about Keaton's smile that is just ... unhinged, I guess. It makes it all work. He's that guy at a bar that is super charming, yet you just know you shouldn't date him. Something is just off, and while you love his crazy stories, long-term that might be an issue. Perhaps it's an odd comparison, but you know immediately what I'm talking about, don't you? Well, Vicki Vale doesn't, but that's on her. (I'm not worried about Catwoman. She can handle herself.)

There is a reason Keaton's Batman is coming back. It's because he's great. And it doesn't hurt that he still fits in the Batsuit after 30 years.