When Michael Keaton became the Caped Crusader for Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, it gave audiences a version of the superhero not seen before outside of comic books. We had grown accustomed to Adam West’s corny but lovable version of Batman, but now we got to see something much darker in both look and tone. After Batman Returns, however, Tim Burton left and Keaton soon followed due to creative conflicts with the next film’s director, Joel Schumacher.

Val Kilmer stepped in and did an admirable job for 1995’s Batman Forever, but after one film, he was gone as well. His replacement, ER mega TV star George Clooney became Batman after that in a move that was a complete disaster, as 1997’s Batman & Robin is regarded as one of the worst superhero movies ever made. But what happened to cause Kilmer to exit such a popular franchise after only one movie?

RELATED: Why Joel Schumacher’s ‘Batman’ Films Are a Loving Homage to the Silver Age

In 1995, Val Kilmer was at the peak of his career and a perfect choice to be the next Batman. When Michael Keaton was cast in the same role in the decade before, he had to deal with a lot of criticism from fans who thought the guy best known for Mr. Mom wasn’t worthy of such a huge responsibility. There weren’t the same doubts about Kilmer, though he did have to deal with Keaton’s shadow, as Keaton had done a phenomenal job in his two outings as the Caped Crusader. Kilmer had long become more than just Iceman from Top Gun. He had taken off as a leading man in the 1990s with roles as Jim Morrison in The Doors and Doc Holliday in Tombstone. The latter especially showed how he could so effortlessly play a cool character. It was the ideal audition for Batman.

Director Joel Schumacher, best known at the time for films like The Lost Boys and The Client, aimed to make a lighter Batman film that felt more like a comedy than something so dark and serious. Batman Forever was hit-and-miss in its tone and execution, but Kilmer did an adequate job. He had a lot of pressure on him in replacing someone as loved as Michael Keaton, and while he’s not seen as being as good as Keaton, he was believable in the role and didn’t embarrass himself like his successor would. The only real problem with Kilmer’s Batman is that Batman Forever wasn’t much about him. Jim Carrey’s high energy scene-stealing role as The Riddler made the film feel more like The Jim Carrey Show than anything else. Still, the third film in the franchise was the biggest box office draw of 1995. Kilmer followed this up with his role in Heat, making 1995 the biggest year of his career by far. It was expected that Kilmer would be back for Schumacher’s Batman & Robin follow-up, but he had no desire to do it.

In a 2020 interview with The New York Times, Kilmer explained why he shockingly quit Batman, a role that made him one of the biggest names in Hollywood. During the filming of Batman Forever, Kilmer heard some people were stopping by who wanted to see him in the Batman costume, so he stayed in it even after shooting. The person stopping by happened to be none other than Warren Buffett. He had brought his grandchildren with him, but no one paid much attention to Kilmer. Instead, they toured the set and ogled at the new Batmobile while Kilmer stood there in his costume feeling invisible. He realized it didn’t matter that he was Batman. He was just a guy in a suit. “That’s why it’s so easy to have five or six Batmans. It’s not about Batman. There is no Batman.” While that explanation may not make sense to some, it’s fitting for someone like Kilmer, who has long been known for his eccentricities.

Val Kilmer wasn’t just known for being a little odd and eccentric. He also had a reputation for being hard to work with. It’s an accusation that he’s admitted to being guilty of, saying in the same New York Times interview, “Everyone has to work out their own salvation. How to live and by what morality, and I found that the part that I feel bad about is hurting somebody in the process.”

In a 2017 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Schumacher, who passed away in 2020, talked about what it was like working with Val Kilmer on Batman Forever. “Batman Forever, when we were on the world tour, it just really went to his head. I’m not going to get into that. He wanted to do Island of Doctor Moreau because Marlon Brando was going to be in it. So he dropped us at the eleventh hour.”

Two decades before, in a 1996 interview with Entertainment Weekly, when the wounds of Batman Forever were still fresh, Schumacher said he “had heard horror stories about Val and was warned not to hire him… But I have heard that about many talented people, hired them anyway, and had no problems whatsoever.” During filming, however, Schumacher and Kilmer “had a physical pushing match. He was being irrational and ballistic with the first AD, the cameraman, the costume people. He was badly behaved, he was rude and inappropriate. I was forced to tell him that this would not be tolerated for one more second. Then we had two weeks where he did not speak to me, but it was bliss.”

With Kilmer out, Warner Bros. needed to find a new Batman for the second time in two years for their next Caped Crusader movie, Batman & Robin. Just as Val Kilmer had been at the height of his career in 1995, so was George Clooney in 1997. While he wasn’t a huge movie star quite yet, he did star in From Dusk Till Dawn the year before. Clooney was maybe the biggest TV star in the country though thanks to the phenomenal success of the NBC series ER, where he starred as Doug Ross. Both Ross and Clooney himself had that cocky playboy-like attitude, but with an easy likable charm. It made Clooney the perfect choice to play Bruce Wayne and a Batman that would be even more light and comical.

In a 2020 interview with Netflix, George Clooney talked about why he took the role of Batman. “You know, I get a lot of crap about Batman & Robin still. I was offered to play Batman & Robin in a three-picture deal, for a lot of money, and I’d never made a lot of money. I’d always done okay, but this was like ‘movie star’ money. I called all my friends, ‘I’m gonna be playing Batman’, and you know we’d scream and yell. Up until that point, I was just an actor, and actors get offered a part, and they can’t believe it.” In his Hollywood Reporter interview, Schumacher said, “I went to the Valley, where George lived with his pig and his great friends, and we said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Even with Schumacher returning, along with Chris O’Donnell coming back as Robin, and the huge additions of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, and Alicia Silverstone, Batman & Robin was a spectacular failure. The tone was so light that it came across like a cartoon or something on par with Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The script was bad, the sets were awful, the acting and dialogue were cringe worthy. Nothing worked, including the over-the-top design on the Batmobile. The movie was so panned that it ended the franchise. It would stay in its cave until Christopher Nolan brought it back with Christian Bale behind the cowl in 2005 for Batman Begins.

George Clooney has owned how bad the film is many times over the years. In a 2021 interview, Clooney said, “I did one superhero movie and I f****d it up so bad they won’t let me near the set.” He said he won’t even let his wife watch Batman & Robin. “There are certain films I just go, ‘I want my wife to have some respect for me.’”

The disaster that was Batman & Robin could have been a career killer, but instead Clooney’s popularity and success only grew afterward. In the four years after playing Batman, Clooney would become one of Hollywood’s most wanted leading men due to roles in movies such as Out of Sight, Three Kings, O Brother, Where Art Thou, and Ocean’s Eleven. Still, even 25 years later, he’ll always be remembered as the guy who once wore a Batsuit with nipples on it as well.

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