Back when Michael Keaton was announced as Tim Burton’s choice to play Batman, as I probably don’t need to tell anyone reading this, comics fans went into a panic. We wanted for Batman to finally be taken seriously, yet the man to play him was one best known for comedy? We wanted to get away from the look of the Adam West Batman and towards the still-novel Frank Miller version…and Burton was going to give us a middle-aged looking guy with a receding hairline? This was a bad sign: Bruce Wayne needed to be a handsome dude with a comic book physique who could also act. But in the ’80s, therein lay the problem.
See, back then, we didn’t have guys like Chris Hemsworth who were both ripped and wry. You could choose – get a decent actor, like a Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford or even Bill Murray (who was once rumored attached to be a comedic Batman), OR get a guy with a comic-book physique whose biggest battles were with line-readings: your Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, Stallone type. “Both” was not an option, and Tim Burton opted to get an actor.
Opinions vary on how well Keaton did, though most agree he was not as terrible as had been feared. Still, as Bruce Wayne, particularly in that scene where he’s sleeping upside down like a bat, he is hardly the picture of intimidation. It took a bulked-up muscle suit to help him look the part, and that became the big-screen superhero template for years.
Critics of the Keaton-haters said you’d never find a guy with a perfect square jaw and muscular build with any kind of acting chops to properly bring Batman to life. Some may also have said that the comic-book costume wasn’t practical onscreen. And a Frank Miller version of the character? Dream on. Mainstream audiences would never cotton to it.
Well, let’s see: we have a guy with a square jaw and the right bod, who has occasionally been acclaimed as an actor. He has a black and gray costume, and some of the scenes in his movie look like they could have been storyboarded by Frank Miller himself. And guess what? We’re still not happy. In part, because Ben Affleck is not as interesting an actor as Michael Keaton.
Granted, I’m not now and never have been a huge fan of the “Batfleck” casting, so I’m as guilty as anybody here. Affleck can act at times, but too often he doesn’t, mainly because he takes roles that stay within his comfort zone of the vanilla good guy – if you ask me, his best parts are in Gone Girl and Mallrats, largely because he plays a jerk in both. Zack Snyder is not a guy you think of as challenging his actors in any emotional sense, but he does deserve credit for being great at casting – Watchmen, whatever its faults, had the best available big names for most of its roles, and Gerard Butler redefined his entire career in 300. Even Dawn of the Dead somehow landed Sarah Polley and Ving Rhames.
But nowadays, we can afford to be picky. We can get a guy like Robert Downey Jr. – previously perceived as a physically smallish character actor – to bulk up and grow those superhero muscles. If Seth Rogen could get in shape for The Green Hornet, anybody can. Such is the blessing and the curse of the modern superhero movie – we’re spoiled for choice. And what would have been dream casting in 1989 is not enough any more.
These days, what we long for are interesting takes on the material, like James Gunn putting his spin on a lesser-known title, or an Edgar Wright doing Ant-Man. Ironically, Burton and Keaton gave us that in spades.*
*this was, of course, the younger and more interesting Burton. Nowadays we all know he’d just cast Johnny Depp and give him no direction.