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It seems as if dozens of superhero movies come out each year. There was a time when they very much weren’t the norm, however. 1989’s Batman was a groundbreaking film that, along with Richard Donner’s Superman series, helped usher in this current era of comic book films. The linchpin of that film was the performance of Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader himself. 

There have been numerous Batman films made since that original, including one sequel starring Keaton. The series’ producers attempted to get Keaton back for a third film but couldn’t. Here’s the story of how that happened. 

A history of ‘Batman’ on film

In the modern era of filmmaking, five actors have portrayed Batman on the big screen in live-action roles (many more have depicted his voice in animated features). Those actors include: 

  • Adam West (The 60s Batman TV series)
  • Keaton (Batman, Batman Returns)
  • Val Kilmer (Batman Forever)
  • George Clooney (Batman and Robin)
  • Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Trilogy)
  • Ben Affleck (Batman V Superman, Justice League, Suicide Squad)

The next man on deck to play Bruce Wayne? Robert Pattinson, who’s already begun filming for the role in Matt Reeves’ upcoming film The Batman. It’s a tough role to cast and for actors to pull off, for numerous reasons: 

  • Because of Bruce Wayne’s nature, you’re really playing three characters in one: Batman, the billionaire playboy facade that Wayne engages in as a cover, and Wayne himself. 
  • Batman’s loud and compelling villains make it hard for Batman to stand out as a character. 
  • It’s a beloved character and each adaptation is sure to draw a lot of fan attention and speculation. 

Michael Keaton as Batman 

Michael Keaton
Michael Keaton

When producers cast Keaton as Batman in the lead up to the 1989 version, it surely left many fans scratching their heads. To that point, Keaton was known for comedies like Mr. Mom. Other actors up for the role included Harrison Ford and Bill Murray — both bigger names than Keaton. 

Keaton proved to be a home run, however. According to Box Office Mojo, the film grossed over $411 million worldwide on a budget of $35 million. There’s no question that the film had plenty of star power with A-Lister Jack Nicholson on board to play classic Batman nemesis the Joker.

But Keaton’s portrayal of Batman drew rave reviews. It was so successful, director Tim Burton brought him back for a sequel with Batman Returns.

After that film, Burton was out, but the Warner Brothers attempted to bring Keaton back for a third time out as the Dark Knight. They were unsuccessful in their attempt. 

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WB courted Keaton for a third Batman film, with this outing set to be directed by Joel Schumacher. According to, the studio offered Keaton a whopping $15 million to return and don the cape and cowl again.

It sounded like an easy decision on everyone’s part: WB would bring back a popular actor who previously succeeded in the role. Keaton would get an ungodly amount of money. It’s the very definition of a win-win. 

There was just one problem: the script. 

Keaton took one look at the film’s screenplay and rejected it, calling it “awful” and saying it “sucked.” Because of this, WB had to move on to their next choice: Val Kilmer.

The film ended up being a much campier on-screen adaptation of Batman called Batman Forever, with Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey playing cartoonishly over the top versions of Two-Face and the Riddler, respectively.

The next film in the series, Batman and Robin, was even worse. These two artistic flops paved the way for a total thematic reboot with Christopher Nolan’s grounded Dark Knight trilogy starting in 2005.