BATWIMP NO MORE

By Henry Mietkiewicz

From The Toronto Star, 06.18.1989, Sunday Second Edition

Batman's love of the secluded Batcave is an obsession Michael Keaton has understood ever since he took refuge in England last year.

It was there that he donned cape and cowl to play the shadowy crime fighter in Batman, the $35 million comic book adventure that opens Friday.

And it was also there that Keaton was spared the wrath of hundreds of thousands of North American Batfans who were outraged that a comic actor had been cast as their sombre, vengeful hero.

Warner Bros. and DC Comics (Batman's publisher) were deluged with petitions demanding the removal not only of Keaton but Tim Burton, the visionary director behind the madcap hits, Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.

And only grudging approval was granted to manic Jack Nicholson (unavailable for interviews last week) as Batman's arch-enemy, The Joker, and glamorous Kim Basinger (a late replacement for the injured Sean Young) as the caped crusader's love interest, photojournalist Vicki Vale.

Batman, fans feared, was clearly in danger of becoming a comedy that would mimic the reviled, campy TV series of the 1960s.

Even worse, it threatened to publicly disgrace the Dark Knight, who had emerged in the comics of the 1980s as a brooding and psychologically complex character with particular appeal to adults.

"Being in England turned out to be the biggest bonus of all," Keaton said in an interview last week. "That way, I never became fully aware of the depth of the fans' proprietary feelings toward Batman, so I didn't get hurt by them.

"When you're overseas, you can concentrate on making the movie and not think about the external things. That turned out to be a blessing."

Keaton believes much of the criticism might have been avoided through wider distribution of Clean And Sober, a 1988 drama where he departed from his familiar, comic style to play a cocaine and alcohol addict.

"It probably would have answered a lot of questions about what I could do," he said with a sigh. "Or, at least, made people calm down for a couple of minutes.

"But it was only when shooting ended and I got off the plane in New York that I realized the sort of excitement and anticipation that Batman was generating, even months before its release.

"I was coming down the ramp, when I met this baggage handler. And the first thing he said was, 'Hey, good luck with the movie! Don't worry about what they're saying. By the way, how'd it go?'

"At first, I just gave him a kind of generic, 'Oh, it was great.' Then it hit me that the movie he was talking about--the movie he already knew a heck of a lot about--was Batman!

"And I thought, 'Geez, so that's what's been going on while I've been away.' People over here were already talking about it as The Movie. I was amazed. And, to tell you the truth, I'm still amazed."

As it turns out, Burton has given Batman precisely the sort of grimness, violence and believably eerie atmosphere that fans always wished for.

But the profusion of rumors is hardly surprising, since producers Jon Peters and Peter Gruber had been trying for nearly 10 years to develop Batman. That left plenty of opportunity for misconceptions based on abandoned, earlier plans.

"At one point, we were even thinking of Bill Murray in the leading role," Peters said. "Believe it or not, we actually played with the idea of Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy as Batman and Robin.

"It was never our serious intention to cast them, though. Murray was in our minds more for tone than anything else. We wanted someone with his kind of comedic sensibility, plus a dark and explosive side like Murray's.

"It wasn't until we saw Beetlejuice that we realized that the guy who played Mr. Mom had a ferocious side and could be completely, unbelievably explosive."

Even cartoonist Bob Kane, who created the Dark Knight 50 years ago, had early misgivings about Keaton, Peters recalled. And Kane's fears intensified after publication of an article last year in the Wall Street Journal "where they absolutely, completely crucified us.

"They went to comic book conventions across the United States, where fans were booing the concept of Michael as Batman, and they really felt we were bastardizing the idea.

"So Peter and I went into the editing room in December, cut a brief trailer and took it back to the United States. It had no narrative, no dialogue, no music, no credits--just some dynamic bits of footage.

"It was shown in theatres in January and February, and it basically changed the whole direction and perception of the movie, because people realized Batman would be a dark adventure and not a farce.

"And that's what really got Bob Kane on our side. Of course, he always supported us, but until then, I don't think he believed it would be what we said it would be. He was scared of the character being called Batwimp."

Asked whether he resents the fans' protests, Peters shook his head. "Let's face it, the fans are the core of our audience. On the other hand, I didn't intentionally try to figure out a way to please them."

Psychological coin

Ironically, neither Keaton nor Burton got involved with Batman out of any love for the character or for comics in general. But they were intrigued by early versions of the script by Sam Hamm, who treated Batman and The Joker as two sides of the same psychological coin--one driven by pathological rage to fight crime, and the other driven by madness to commit crime.

"I actually find comics too unvisual for me," Burton said. "I find them very claustrophobic and I can never tell which panel to read first. Comics just weren't my thing.

"But I've always enjoyed the images associated with Batman. Somehow, they strike a very primal chord. Maybe it has to do with bats, because they're such great creatures. Show anyone a bat and right away, they'll perk up.

"They're very beautifully designed creatures, very primal, very old and very interesting. They're there throughout history, from Dracula to opera. When you see that image of the Bat logo out there now, it's like you've got the DTs or something."

For Keaton, it was a question of taking a much needed rest or plunging into a project that piqued his curiosity. "I was just done working for a while. I thought I'd take a break and look some scripts over and get some ideas and regenerate and get some juices going again.

"I also hesitated because I wanted to work with Jack Nicholson, but I wasn't sure that this was the movie for us. Then I thought about it some more and talked to Tim some more and decided it would be a good thing to do."

The result is one of the most talked about and eagerly anticipated movies of the summer, coupled with a bonanza for merchandisers and memorabilia collectors. Back issues of Batman and Detective comics from the 1940s and '50s have skyrocketed in price, while stores are flooded with Batman key chains, magnetic stickers, audio tapes, tote bags, ornamental pins, caps, T-shirts, commemorative books and dozens of other items.

Too ludicrous

Naturally, given Batman's potential earning power, there's speculation about a sequel. But Keaton and Burton ignored questions about follow-up movies or treated the subject as too ludicrous to discuss.

However, Peters said he'd give the matter serious thought if Batman broke the $100 million mark at the box office. In fact, he added, a trilogy would be the best way to handle the saga.

"In the second one, we'd introduce Robin to give Batman his traditional partner, as more and more villains try and take over the city. And villains? Take your pick. One of the ones we're looking at is the Penguin. Two-Face is another possibility."

All Keaton knows is that he doesn't want to do any movies until he's had a good, long rest to get Batman out of his system. "I'm certainly thinking about something more personal, with fewer special effects the next time around.

"I haven't said yes to anything because I haven't seen the right script and I desperately need a break. So please, please, don't even talk to me about a sequel."


 
 

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