For many superhero movie fans, Michael Keaton’s Batman will always be the best — not just because he was the first actor in the Warner Bros. movie franchise, but also because he gave the character such a weird edge. Because of this, it’s easy to forget that many comic book fans, comics writers and even people involved with the first Batman movie in 1989 were skeptical that Keaton was right for the part.
When fans learned the comedic actor, who starred in Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice, would play the caped crusader, they voiced their displeasure by sending the studio more than 50,000 complaints and letters of petition and airing their grievances in fanzines as well as national media.
“Treating Batman as a comedy is like The Brady Bunch going porno,” read one letter to a fanzine, according to Rolling Stone. “It's like Rodney Dangerfield in a Bat-suit,” said DC Comics writer Ralph Cabrera to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “You'll laugh at it.”
And it wasn’t even just the fans who were skeptical. Some professional film critics also questioned whether Keaton had the gravitas to play the famous superhero.
“Best known as a wacky prankster in Burton's 1988 comedy Beetlejuice, Keaton has a receding hairline and a less-than-heroic chin,” wrote Kathleen Hughes in The Wall Street Journal. “He stands at an estimated five feet 10 inches tall and weighs in at 160 pounds or so. Michael Keaton is no Sylvester Stallone.”
“The internet of course wasn’t around yet in 1989 — if it had been we have no trouble imagining how it would’ve just blown up,” says Dennis Bingham, director of the Film Studies Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. To understand why the reaction was so strong, “we kind of have to put ourselves back 30 years and realize that there weren’t Batman movies, that the TV series was all that people knew besides the comics.”
In the late 1980s, Batman comics had taken a dramatic turn with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns series and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke issue. Many fans and comic book creators resented the tongue-in-cheek TV show that had starred Adam West in the ‘60s and didn’t want Keaton, who was known for his manic comedic roles, to make Batman silly again.
“That awful TV show still rankles a lot of people,” said Don Thompson, co-editor of Comics Buyer's Guide, in the same South Florida Sun-Sentinel article. “It’s been 20 years since the show, and if your story appears without a ‘Holy something-or-other,’ it would be a first.” (Indeed, the headline of the article that quoted him was “Holy Comics, Batman! What Do Film Fan Want?”)
Critics weren’t too sure the film’s director, Tim Burton — who had previously shot Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice — had the chops to deliver a good Batman movie, either. Yet both Burton and Keaton turned out a gritty film that made over $400 million at the box office. It’s now considered one of Keaton’s most iconic roles, a fact that he parodied in the 2014 film Birdman, which won Best Picture at the Oscars.
“It was well-reviewed, it was well-received and people thought Keaton brought an interesting originality to Bruce Wayne, which was very different from what they remembered of Adam West,” Bingham says. “The ‘89 film is important in that it not only launches the Batman franchise, but it re-launches the superhero genre as something that’s important in people’s minds.”
Thirty years after its premiere, Warner Bros. has announced the sixth actor to play Batman will be Robert Pattinson, whose breakout role was as the vampire love interest in the Twilight series. As happened with Keaton, some comic book fans are upset with this decision and have petitioned the studio to change it.
But there are also plenty of fans who are happy with the decision and think Pattinson can pull it off. The actor has taken on a series of more interesting dramatic roles since Twilight. And as Esquire points out, Batman is “the most vampiric of comic book heroes.”