In honor of the 75 year anniversary of the caped crusader, we’ve been doing a series of articles looking back, forward, and all around at all things Batman. You can head here to read the others installments in this series. This time, what we’re going to talk about is only tangentially related to Batman at all.
The first man to ever play Batman on film was Lewis Wilson in 1943. Newly arrived in Hollywood from Broadway, the fresh-faced 23-years-old’s career was on an incredible rise after just one year in the biz. He immediately appeared in several bit roles before scoring a leading role in Redhead From Manhattan and a supporting turn in Klondike Kate. Unfortunately, after starring as Bruce Wayne/Batman in the 1943 film serial he would never re-gain the early momentum of his career, popping up in the background of a couple of films before being drafted into the Army in 1944. When he returned from the war in 1946 there were no parts waiting for him, forcing him to settle for performing in various regional theater productions. Things turned around when he landed a supporting role in the 1952 TV series Craig Kennedy, Criminologist, but it was canceled after 26 episodes. Within two years of that, he retired from acting, and worked the rest of his life at a General Foods plant in Hollywood.
And that’s just Lewis Wilson. His story, though sad, is certainly not a tragic one, unlike George Reeves’ post-Adventures of Superman career/eventual death (suicide). However, Wilson’s tale is a common one: many of the actors who have appeared in leading roles in Batman films/shows over the years have suffered the consequences. The first ever Robin, Wilson’s cast-mate Douglas Croft from the 1943 serial, was out of acting within 7 years of Batman, dying at the young age of 38 in 1963, at which point he was working as a short order restaurant cook. The second ever Robin, Johnny Duncan from 1949’s Batman and Robin serial somehow ended up in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), aka, the worst film of all time. TV’s first Batman, Adam West, eventually couldn’t get any work other than in the type of films Mystery Science Theater 3000 rejoiced in mocking. Plus, have you seen Val Kilmer recently?
Obviously, I am cherry picking here, mostly relying on the juicier (translation: most depressing) biography tidbits from Bruce Scivally’s fantastic book Billion Dollar Batman. It hasn’t been all depressing tales of careers gone astray. Robert Lowery was a low budget film actor before donning the cape and cowl in Batman and Robin, and he kept living that life until his 1966 retirement. Mr. “Nipples on the Batsuit” George Clooney has become an Oscar-winning actor (Syriana) and producer (Argo). He reportedly forces himself to watch Batman & Robin once a year to remind himself of the importance of trusting his gut and not picking projects for purely financial reasons. It’s too early to really tell if Christian Bale will suffer to escape from the Dark Knight’s shadow, but the financial and critical success of last year’s American Hustle indicates he’ll probably be just fine, even after his Out of the Furnace flick bombed.
What about Michael Keaton? After Tim Burton sent kids running away screaming with his ultra-grim Batman Returns, the franchise passed down to Joel Schumacher, who decided camp was the way to go. Michael Keaton basically told Schumacher it all looked great before pulling a classic point-upward-and-yell “Oh, my God! What the hell is that?” and sneaking away when Joel turned his head. Ever since then, Keaton has always kind of been around on the periphery of things, but only one of his post-Batman films has been a big hit, 1996’s Multiplicity. Well, that’s not actually true. He was in Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg’s The Other Guys (2010). Plus, he was the (hilarious!) voice of Ken in global box office smash hit Toy Story 3 (2010), and he also did some voice acting in Cars (2006). And this year’s RoboCop was a big international hit. However, he’s also oddly showed up as the lovable dad in several either awful (1998’s Jack Frost, 2004’s First Daughter, 2005’s Herbie: Fully Loaded) or completely under-the-radar family films (2009’s Post-Grad).
He seemed like an actor who was in need for just the right project come around. Thankfully, that project looks like it finally arrived. Behold, the first trailer for Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s very black comedy Birdman:
What is it actually about, other than Michael Keaton sprinting through New York in tighty whiteys and eventually kicking Edward Norton’s ass? The official plot synopsis states:
A washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.
Where’s Abed from Community when you need him to describe just how gloriously meta this film looks: subtract ‘Birdman’, replace it with Batman, and just call Michael Keaton’s character “Michael Keaton.” Boom, now we’re into the version of Being John Malkovich territory. While Birdman doesn’t quite go that far, come on, we all know what they’re talking about with this “Birdman” business. Or, like me, does that Birdman title simply make you think of this?:
Putting beloved Adult Swim cartoons aside, Birdman doesn’t just star Keaton and Norton. Nope. It can also boast about having Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Amy Ryan, and Merritt Weaver (Nurse Jackie) around classing the joint up. Plus, it’s from the same director who did 21 Grams and Babel, which, granted, in no way scream comedy but are two fantastic films, aided by a very visually inventive eye behind the camera.
My only reservation is that I am getting a very Death to Smoochy vibe off of this, and not just because Edward Norton is around, although that doesn’t hurt. Could Keaton’s character be driven mad by Birdman the way Robin Williams’ was by Smoochy in Death to Smoochy? If so, will it actually make for an interesting, funny film as opposed to just an intriguing trailer? Smoochy made for a better trailer than actual film. Hopefully, Birdman fares better. We’ll have to wait to see.
Birdman is due to drop in the U.S. on October 17, 2014.
What about you? Are you intrigued by this very first trailer? Indifferent? Leave a comment to let us know.
If you like this, check out our other “Batman 75” articles:
- Batman 75: How the Tim Burton Batman Set the Stage for Netflix’s New Assault on the Theatrical Release Window
- End of An Era? – 2015 Could Be the First Year in Nearly 2 Decades Without An Animated Batman Series on TV
- Batman 75: How Robin Williams Almost Played the Joker & The Riddler
- Is Fantastic Four Doomed to Because It No-Showed Comic-Con? It Didn’t Hurt Batman Begins
- Batman 75: How We Almost Got a Bruce Wayne Origin Series Instead of Smallville
- Batman 75: Did An ABC Executive’s Visit to the Playboy Club in 1965 Really Inspire the Adam West Batman TV Series?
- Batman 75: Looking Back at Batman’s Film Debut in the Casually Racist & Generally Atrocious 1940s Film Serials
- Batman 75: Will We Ever Be Able to Accept a Non-Bruce Wayne Batman on Film?
- Batman 75: Test Your Batman Knowledge With 11 Questions from NPR’s Comic Book Critic Glen Weldon
- Batman 75: Watch New Animated Batman Beyond Short & Assault on Arkham Trailer
- Batman 75: Watch Bruce Timm’s New Animated Short “Batman: Strange Days”
- Batman 75: How the Joker Was Created & Then Saved from an Early Death
- Batman 75: Bill Finger – The Man Who Co-Created Batman