Once upon a time, we almost got a very different Batman franchise. At one point Michael Keaton and Tim Burton were expected to stick around and follow-up Batman Returns with a third film starring the Keaton incarnation of The Dark Knight. Then Burton moved on to other projects (including an abandoned Superman film), and eventually Keaton moved on, too. But not at first.
Keaton actually initially intended to stay with the character and play Bruce Wayne for a third time even without Burton in the director's chair. So, why did he ultimately go?
In a fascinating new interview with The Guardian to promote his new film American Assassin, Keaton gives a very simple answer: The project just wasn't meeting his standards.
“[The film] just wasn’t any good, man. I tried to be patient, but after a certain point, I was like, I can’t take this any more, this is going to be horrible. But, look, there was some really horrible taste in the 90s, and I probably contributed to that, unfortunately," Keaton said. "It was a time of nouveau riche excess – everyone was known for their jets and their stuff. And I thought, I’m in this job for the long run, I don’t want this. And the truth is, I’m not boasting, but I was correct. There are a whole load of people who ran things that are long gone.”
Keaton was indeed correct, so he dropped Batman. Director Joel Schumacher came aboard as Burton's replacement, found Val Kilmer, and we got Batman Forever and, eventually, Batman & Robin. Even as the quality of those films has undergone a bit of a reassessment in recent years, the Schumacher era is still regarded by many as one of the most notoriously bad pieces of superhero storytelling ever. It's tough to tell if Keaton could have improved on that had he stayed. Would having him in the cape and cowl for either of those films really elevate them at all? Would he have had enough pull to make changes to the script? We'll never know.