It’s hardly surprising that two men who have played Batman on the big screen, Val Kilmer and Michael Keaton, should have such wildly different memories of pulling on the character’s cape and cowl. Kilmer, who starred in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever in 1995, is widely seen as one of the worst dark knights of all time, saved only from the ignominy of rock bottom by George Clooney’s rock-faced performance in its 1997 sequel Batman & Robin.
Keaton, meanwhile, is close to the top of polls when it comes to the public’s favourite big-screen caped crusader, perhaps behind only Christian Bale. His understated performances in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and the 1992 sequel Batman Returns helped transform the image of superhero movies from throwaway paycheck flicks to the kind of weighty fantasy cinema that now attracts the Hollywood A-list.
In the new Amazon Prime documentary Val, Kilmer explains why he turned down the chance to return in Batman & Robin. It turns out the actor felt so restricted by the costume that he experienced a sort of on-set alienation from the rest of the cast.
“When you’re in it, you can barely move and people have to help you stand up and sit down,” Kilmer says. “You also can’t hear anything and after a while people stop talking to you, it’s very isolating. It was a struggle for me to get a performance past the suit, and it was frustrating until I realised that my role in the film was just to show up and stand where I was told to.
“Whatever boyhood excitement I had was crushed by the reality of the Batsuit. Yes, every boy wants to be Batman. They actually want to be him … not necessarily play him in a movie.”
Kilmer found himself envious of his cast members Tommy Lee Jones (Two Face) and Jim Carrey (The Riddler), who could engage in interplay on set. The result was an actorly tristesse that he believes affected his final performance.
“[Jones and Carrey] had designed this whole performance … It was just so huge I think it made no difference what I was doing,” Kilmer adds. “I tried to be like an actor on a soap opera. The way I would turn to Nicole [Kidman]. Go count how many times I put my hands on my hips. I don’t know how they come up with this style of acting but they seem to go, ‘Go to soap opera school.’”
Keaton, on the other hand, is set to return as Batman in the forthcoming The Flash, and sounds delighted to be back in the suit at the age of 69. “It was shockingly normal, weird,” Keaton told YouTuber Jake’s Tates. “Then you start to play the scenes and it was like, a lot of memories. A lot of really interesting sense memories.”
Keaton compared the experience to his turn in the 1996 sci-fi comedy Multiplicity, in which he starred as a man capable of making clones of himself with different personalities. Could there be a clue here about how the role of Batman will pan out in The Flash?
Either way, it’s hardly surprising that Keaton, who had his own issues with the Batsuit, is ready to pull on the costume again. Andy Muschietti’s film, which will adapt the Flashpoint comics, is a fascinating prospect due to its emphasis on the multiverse and its potential to unite several dark knights on the same screen. It’s should be just the kind of movie that will allow Keaton to flex his thespian chops as an ageing caped crusader caught up in a clash of alternate realities.
But there is still something sad about the fact that Kilmer, now recovering from throat cancer, is unlikely to get the chance to remind us all of his own enduring screen presence in any future DC films (though we will at least get to see him in the forthcoming Top Gun sequel). Costume design has moved on from the days when Keaton was forced to perfect the “Bat-turn” to counteract his inability to turn his head in the suit.
The same, unhappily, can not be said for his successor. As far as superhero movies and Hollywood posterity are concerned, Kilmer will remain for ever trapped in the Batsuit, struggling to express his undoubted talent.