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Michael Keaton Explains Why He Didn’t Return for ‘Batman Forever’

Keaton and director Joel Schumacher butted heads on the direction of Bruce Wayne

The “Batman” franchise went through three different leading men in the 1990s, but Michael Keaton – who originated the role in Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster “Batman” – nearly returned for a third film before deciding against it.

As revealed in a new interview, Keaton says his decision to exit the franchise ahead of “Batman Forever” was due to a difference in vision over the title character with director Joel Schumacher, who took over for Burton on the third film after 1991’s grisly sequel “Batman Returns.”

Speaking on Backstage’s podcast “In the Envelope,” Keaton recalled a meeting with Schumacher where their differences came to a head. “I remember one of the things that I walked away going, ‘Oh boy, I can’t do this,'” Keaton said. “[Schumacher] asked me, ‘I don’t understand why everything has to be so dark and everything so sad,’ and I went, ‘Wait a minute, do you know how this guy got to be Batman? Have you read… I mean, it’s pretty simple.'”

Schumacher, who passed away in 2020, was hired to direct “Batman Forever” after Warner Bros. decided against inviting Burton back following the dark sequel “Batman Returns.” And part of Schumacher’s vision for the franchise was lightening the mood, which bumped up against the sensibility that Keaton and Burton had crafted on the first two films. “One of the reasons I couldn’t do [‘Batman Forever’] was — and you know, he’s a nice enough man, he’s passed away, so I wouldn’t speak ill of him even if he were alive — he, at one point, after more than a couple of meetings where I kept trying to rationalize doing it and hopefully talking him into saying ‘I think we don’t want to go in this direction, I think we should go in this direction.’ And he wasn’t going to budge.”

Keaton was replaced by Val Kilmer, and while “Batman Forever” was financially successful, it moved the franchise into a more cartoony direction in line with the 1960s TV series. The next film, “Batman & Robin,” pushed that tone past the point of no return with George Clooney in the lead role, and the goofy 1997 film received such a poor reception that Warner Bros. put the franchise on ice for a few years. Then in 2005, Christopher Nolan rebooted the series in dark and gritty fashion with “Batman Begins,” offering new life to the hero in the form of Christian Bale’s more serious Bruce Wayne.

Keaton explained during the podcast interview that he always felt the key to the Batman character was Bruce Wayne. “It was always Bruce Wayne. It was never Batman,” Keaton said. “To me, I know the name of the movie is ‘Batman,’ and it’s hugely iconic and very cool and [a] cultural iconic and because of Tim Burton, artistically iconic. I knew from the get-go it was Bruce Wayne. That was the secret. I never talked about it. [Everyone would say,] ‘Batman, Batman, Batman does this,’ and I kept thinking to myself, ‘Y’all are thinking wrong here.’ [It’s all about] Bruce Wayne. What kind of person does that?… Who becomes that? What kind of person [does that]?”

The “Beetlejuice” actor is reprising his role as the Caped Crusader for the first time since “Batman Returns” in the upcoming DC film “The Flash,” which finds Ezra Miller’s superhero entering different universes – including the one in which Keaton’s version of Bruce Wayne is Batman. The actor must have enjoyed his time in the cape and cowl enough, as he also signed on to play the character again in the upcoming “Batgirl” movie which will premiere on HBO Max.