He wasn’t the first example of fan backlash at casting. Not by at least fifty years. But he’s definitely one of the most noteworthy examples. He’s a comedian with—with all the love in my heart—a weak chin. He’d done drama, but he’d definitely never done action. There was a fear that casting him proved that they would be going the Adam West route, as opposed to the Very Serious Batman the comics were going for. Some people learned their lesson from that incident and stopped fighting over casting decisions until the movies were actually released, but it’s obvious not many of them did.
Honestly, I’d argue that, even in the late ’80s, he wasn’t a terrible choice for the role. I mean, playing Johnny Dangerously wasn’t the world’s best preparation for playing Batman, I grant you. Then again, I’ve always liked his Bruce Wayne better than his Batman anyway. His Bruce Wayne is, as you’d expect from a comedic actor, light and calm and kind of goofy. You wouldn’t suspect that he’s the sort of person who will go from there to dressing like a bat and beating up criminals. Oh, some of that’s the script, and some of that’s Tim Burton’s direction, but still. He handles the job better than the worst of his naysayers feared.
What’s more, though, many of those early comedies were men with a core of anger to them. Yes, he’d done Beetlejuice, or Betelgeuse if you prefer that spelling, for Tim Burton, and that’s a role that’s funny and dark and toxic all at once. And of course Johnny Dangerously, though he’s not the scariest person in that movie. (I’ve seen it once. Once.) But in a way, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate Michael Keaton role, probably why he’s going back to it. A mild, funny guy with a dark streak.
Not that I know this of Michael Keaton the person, you understand. But it is the case of a lot of his movies both before and after. Yes, all right, there’s the sub/dub debate, but let’s be real, that’s a pretty good description of Porco Rosso, making him a great casting choice. Maybe not Jean Reno great, but great. Dogberry, played by Keaton, seems to be angry at not being taken seriously despite being someone you could not possibly take seriously. Which is not a unique take on that character, but still. The Vulture, played by Keaton, goes from being an iffy, maybe even second-tier, Spider-Man villain to being a compelling character you could actually do things with.
Now, I won’t say that his superhero history is why he doesn’t yet have an Oscar, though his only nomination comes from the kind of superhero movie the Academy can get behind—one that’s really about a mental breakdown and not actually superheroes and also it’s about movies. It’s also his history in comedy; the Academy is sparing at giving acting Oscars to comedic performers. Mark Ruffalo is seen as an indy actor who’s dabbled in superheroes, not a comedic actor who does blockbusters, and that’s why he was the Oscar nominee from Spotlight and Michael Keaton wasn’t.