Comic-book fans have an understandable fear of not being taken seriously, particularly when it comes to a signature character like Batman, who has been subjected to no end of camp treatment and abuse (sorry, Adam West) through the years.
Still, the collective outrage over the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman reveals not only a stunning level of hyperbole (it’s not like they cast Andy Dick or Oliver Platt, for heaven’s sake) but a remarkably short memory, given how disappointed and disturbed people were when Michael Keaton landed the role back in 1989.
Keaton, of course, was best known as a comic actor, but director Tim Burton had worked with him on “Beetlejuice” and saw something there that others clearly didn’t. And while Keaton wasn’t particularly memorable, nor did he embarrass himself or torpedo the project, in what’s widely regarded as not only a firstrate superhero movie but a pivotal success — along with the X-Men trilogy, which launched a little over a decade later — that helped usher in the current age of comic-book franchises ruling the cinema roost.
Perhaps foremost, Burton’s “Batman” underscored that the primary star doesn’t really have to carry one of these movies, especially when he’s obscured by cape and cowl for much of the action. What really stood out about that film, in fact, was Jack Nicholson’s “Take that, Cesar Romero” twist on the Joker, just as Heath Ledger’s menacing turn helped elevate “The Dark Knight” and Liam Neeson brought gravitas to Christopher Nolan’s reboot “Batman Begins.”
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What distinguished Burton’s “Batman,” ultimately, is how dark and serious it was, in a stark departure from the 1960s TV series and the comic villains in “Superman.” Those qualities were precisely what was lost as the franchise shifted into the hands of Joel Schumacher, despite replacing Keaton with two actors, Val Kilmer and George Clooney, ostensibly much better suited to the role in terms of looks and physical presence.
So while it’s easy to focus on the leads, what’s really important is the director and tone. And with “Man of Steel’s” Zack Snyder set to direct the upcoming Superman-Batman combo, it’s not like we should expect a bunch of “Biff! Wham! Pow!” graphics popping up on screen.
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It’s easy to forget, though, how outlandish and unexpected casting Keaton seemed at the time. As the actor told the Los Angeles Times in 2011, “There was no guarantee that any of this was going to play correctly when it was all said and done. There had never been a movie like it before. There was a lot of risk, too, with Jack looking the way he did and me stepping out in this new way. The pressure was on everybody. You could feel it.”
Come to think of it, if Twitter had existed when Keaton was cast, the service might have exploded.
In some respects, the latest Batman backlash will only help the movie, as the influx of traffic has already inspired other news outlets to weigh in (see CNN’s “The Lead With Jake Tapper” today), which will provide Warner Bros. with plenty of free promotion.
For now, however, write it off as another tempest in a teapot, more bluster in the batcave. And incidentally, with apologies to my bosses at Variety, anybody who would bother to take an online poll on whether Ben Affleck should be Batman is likely to be highly predisposed to voting “NO,” so the results are skewed to the point of absurdity.
Batman’s already made it to the ripe old age of 75, and once the fanboys have finished throwing their latest temper tantrum and cooler heads prevail, he’ll survive this, too.
The already shaky reputation of comic-book geeks, alas, might be another matter.