“Batman” swooped into theaters on June 19, 1989, helping set the stage for more blockbuster superhero movies as well as more adult, ambitious takes on the comic-book fare that, this century, has become the dominant movie genre in box-office terms.
The run-up to the Dark Knight, however, also underscored a darker side of fandom, one that seems to become uniquely passionate – and in some quadrants, enraged – when it comes to casting actors to play Gotham’s hero, from Michael Keaton to Ben Affleck to, now, Robert Pattinson.
Twitter didn’t exist when Keaton landed the role, but if it had, the entire Internet might have overloaded. Many longtime readers of the comics (including this one) wondered how director Tim Burton could tap a comedic actor, his “Beetlejuice” star, to play a character with the mind of Sherlock Holmes, the physical prowess of James Bond and the nasty streak of Dirty Harry.
Still, the “Batman” that emerged became a huge success, perhaps as much in spite of Keaton as because of him. He was fine, but it was everything else – Jack Nicholson’s loopy but menacing Joker, Danny Elfman’s sensational score, a way-cool new Batmobile, and a general look that resembled the work of comic-book artists Neal Adams, Marshall Rogers and Frank Miller – that defined this Batman, and separated him from the “Wham! Biff! Pow!” camp of the 1960s TV show starring Adam West.
The good news, alas, didn’t last, as the movies became increasingly campy, with first Val Kilmer and then George Clooney taking turns under the cowl.
The character sat dormant for nearly a decade, before director Christopher Nolan cast Christian Bale in his great trilogy, which kicked off with a rousing origin story (“Batman Begins”) before unleashing an anarchic Joker played by Heath Ledger, in his Oscar-winning final role.
All seemed well in Gotham, until the news in 2013 that Ben Affleck would be taking over, which elicited a response that bordered on hysteria. Sure, Affleck’s starring turn as another caped hero, “Daredevil,” wasn’t great, but the response seemed to reflect both short memories and a decided lack of perspective.
A few movies later, Warner Bros. (like CNN, a unit of WarnerMedia) is ready to hit the reset button again, unwilling to let one of its two signature heroes (the other wears a big “S” on his chest) idle for long.
Enter Pattinson, the former “Twilight” heartthrob, who has done plenty of movies since, which hasn’t prevented another flurry of hand-wringing over whether “Battinson” was really a good fit.
Obviously, fans have their own preconceived notions of what’s right for such franchises, but the level of angst – or for that matter, enthusiasm – is hard to fathom. As earlier incarnations of Batman make clear, there’s a lot more that goes into these movies than any one factor, even if it’s as seemingly significant as who stars in them.
Pattinson’s collaboration with director Matt Reeves might yield a terrific movie, or one that they’re laughing about years later, as Clooney has done. In a recent interview, the actor-director recalled telling Affleck not to take the part, and said of the 1997 movie, “I wasn’t good in it, and it wasn’t a good film,” adding that he “learned from that failure.”
Based on his career in the years since, it would appear that Clooney did take some lessons to heart. Those having a stroke about the latest Batman casting news, not so much.