Actor Michael Keaton has played a lot of winged superhero-adjacent roles over the years, including Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming and washed-up superhero movie star Riggan Thomson in the self-parodying Birdman. But perhaps his most famous role of all in this niche field was Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s duology of Dark Knight films, 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns.
After that, however, the Batman movie franchise continued to roll along without him in the ’90s, which begs the question: what caused Keaton to jump ship as the character in the first place?
Keaton recently addressed this burning query in an interview, and it turns out that the answer has everything to do with the franchise changing hands from director Tim Burton to Joel Schumacher, the latter of whom directed Batman Forever in 1995 (starring Val Kilmer) and Batman and Robin in 1997 (starring George Clooney).
Keaton disagreed with Schumacher over the more colorful, lighthearted, and sillier tone of Batman Forever, saying, “I just can’t do it” in regards to returning for a third installment, according to an interview he did with the In the Envelope podcast.
“[O]ne of the reasons I couldn’t do it was — and you know, he’s a nice enough man, he’s passed away, so I wouldn’t speak ill of him even if he were alive — he, at one point, after more than a couple of meetings where I kept trying to rationalize doing it and hopefully talking him into saying, ‘I think we don’t want to go in this direction, I think we should go in this direction.’ And he wasn’t going to budge.”
He went on to say that he told Schumacher he couldn’t play the character if it was departing from the darker tone of the Burton films, to which Schumacher replied that he didn’t understand why “everything has to be so dark and everything so sad.” The pair could not come to terms after the impasse over the film’s tone, with Keaton viewing the darker tone as central to the character.
As for Keaton’s approach to the character in general, he said he puts a stronger focus on the character of Bruce Wayne than Batman.
“I always knew from the get-go, it was Bruce Wayne. That’s the secret. I never talked about it,” Keaton said. He elaborated that while others often seemed to obsess over Batman doing this or that, he realized that that was the wrong type of thinking.
“It’s about Bruce Wayne. Who’s that guy? What type of person does that?”
As for why Keaton decided to return as the Dark Knight in the upcoming movie The Flash, which comes out Nov. 4, director Andy Muschietti said the creative team sent the actor a “great script” and “promised him great direction.”
Keaton himself admitted in an interview back in August that he was wowed by the sheer scale of the film that made him understand the character, and its cultural impact, more deeply.
“This is a big deal in the world to people. You’ve got to honor that and be respectful of that. Even I go, ‘Jesus, this is huge,’” he said.
Keaton will also be reprising his role as the Caped Crusader in the upcoming HBO Max original movie Batgirl, which is slated for release sometime later this year.