Why Tim Burton Had To Cast Michael Keaton As Batman (Despite The Backlash)

Michael Keaton’s Dark Knight is iconic, and Tim Burton had a specific reason why he had to cast the actor in Batman 1989, despite fan outrage.

Despite the considerable backlash, Tim Burton had a strong reason for why he had to cast Mickael Keaton in Batman 1989. Before its release, comic book movies were seen as light, child-oriented entertainment. That would all change with Burton’s iconic take on the Dark Knight, but Batman 1989 wasn’t without significant controversy, specifically Keaton’s involvement.

Tim Burton brought his trademark gothic visuals and macabre humor to the world of Batman, depicting a monstrous vision of Gotham City in which Batman battles the Joker (Jack Nicholson). Batman was a defining moment for the superhero genre, but it was an uphill battle to get everyone on board with Burton’s plan. Michael Keaton’s haunted portrayal of Batman is now beloved, with a highly anticipated return in the upcoming The Flash and Batgirl, but his casting was originally ridiculed.


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In the 1980s, Keaton was best known for comedies, so his Batman casting came as a shock, resulting in one of the earliest examples of fan backlash regarding a casting. Even producer Michael Uslan took some convincing, as he recalled during an interview on a podcast. Uslan described how Tim Burton had to cast Michael Keaton as Batman because he “didn’t know how” to use a “serious” actor in the role. He insisted Keaton could harness the humanity and obsession within Bruce Wayne and the typical physicality of Batman shouldn’t matter. (via Hollywood and Levine)

Uslan was determined to return Batman to his dark comic roots. He cited Jack Nicholson’s Joker casting as “the greatest moment of my career” but was “apoplectic” when he then heard about Michael Keaton. Uslan recalled, “I thought he was kidding, and it took 20 minutes before they convinced me this was a real thing.” He’d spent over seven years developing the project, but Tim Burton insisted that, if they were to make the first dark, mature superhero film, they had to go in a new direction. Uslan remembered Burton telling him, “I do not know how to take a ‘serious’ actor and show them getting into a bat costume without getting unintentional laughs from the audience.” Names that were considered were Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner and James Caan, so Uslan’s confusion at the suggestion of Keaton was understandable, but Tim Burton knew that focusing on Bruce Wayne was crucial to Batman 1989’s success. He isn’t an action director, and reviving Batman in Burton’s Gothic image might have been jarring if he had cast a muscular action hero.

Burton was adamant Keaton could portray Bruce Wayne’s obsession “to the point of being psychotic” so audiences would believe this person would dress as a bat. That was most important for Burton. For anyone to take Batman seriously, they must first understand the man underneath the mask. Burton specializes in misunderstood outcasts, so it makes sense he would relate to Keaton’s more ordinary, socially awkward Bruce. After a screening of Clean and Sober, Uslan was sold on Keaton’s dramatic talent but was still concerned he looked nothing like Batman in the comics. Director Tim Burton’s response: “A square jaw does not a Batman make.” He argued that film is a different medium from comics, and he could easily provide the illusion of height and “carve musculature into the costume.” An idealized physique is sometimes important but should always come second to capturing the character’s soul. After all, much of Batman’s power comes from his costume and intellect. Ingeniously, Keaton’s unassuming nature perfectly concealed Bruce’s simmering rage.

Nobody would expect Keaton’s Bruce was an intimidating vigilante, but that meant his torment had to take precedence over heroics. Therefore, Burton knew “Gotham must be the third most important character” to make Batman and Joker’s existence believable. This notion is often ignored in modern depictions of Gotham, but Batman 1989’s cruel, nightmarish city justified Michael Keaton’s more ordinary Bruce feeling compelled to fight back.

Next: Affleck’s Batman Fatally Ignored Tim Burton’s Reason For Casting Keaton

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Why Tim Burton Had To Cast Michael Keaton As Batman (Despite The Backlash)