• Golden Globe Awards

Out of the Archives, 1995: Val Kilmer on Playing Batman

In Top Gun: Maverick (2022), opening the 75th Cannes Film festival, Val Kilmer reprised the role of Iceman that he had played in Top Gun (1986) with Tom Cruise. Back in 1995, Kilmer took over the role of the Caped crusader in Batman Forever, directed by Joel Schumacher, replacing Michael Keaton who had played the DC Comics superhero in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) directed by Tim Burton.
Kilmer would decline to return for the sequel, to be replaced by George Clooney in Batman and Robin (1997). Christian Bale played Bruce Wayne/Batman in the trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Ben Affleck played the character in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) by Zack Snyder, Robert Pattinson in the 2022 The Batman reboot directed by Matt Reeves. 
Kilmer spoke with the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press in 1995 about his take on Batman.
The actor said that he had not read the comic books or watched the 1960s television series Batman with Adam West: “I was not a fan, we didn’t watch much television in our home. But my mother knew the man who did the special effects for the television show, and, when I called her to tell her I had this job, she reminded me that we went to visit the set once, and my father put me in the Batmobile from the TV show. However, I was asleep, and I didn’t remember it, I had no memory of it until she told me. That was my only relationship to Batman.”  
Kilmer was not apprehensive about taking over a role that had been played by another actor, Michael Keaton, in the first two Batman movies: “It might have been different if Tim Burton had chosen to do a third one because he did a wonderful job of stylizing his own version of the story, which is what he uniquely does in whatever genre of film he’s doing. But, since he didn’t, the way Warner Brothers introduced the story to me, what they were going to do, and what we achieved was a very different style; not only because there was a new director, but because they consciously wanted to make the film different, more in the tradition that Bob Kane created. So, I didn’t really have any feelings of competition or hoping to surpass the first two.”
Kilmer explained how the character of Robin played by Chris O’Donnell was introduced, and what Bruce Wayne teaches his pupil about violence: “It’s dramatized well, because we were in a sense telling the first story that Bob Kane created, while Tim Burton used other aspects in the first two Batman films. The interesting thing that they did in the first one was to have Jack Nicholson, the Joker, be the same man that had shot his parents; that wasn’t how the story was originally told, but it worked very well. In our film the whole structure and the plot is how Dick Grayson becomes Robin, Bruce Wayne becomes his ward and they become partners. Bruce witnesses a young man suffer the identical plight that traumatized him as a kid, and created this manifestation of that trauma, which is Batman, and a lot of it remains mysterious to him until it becomes resolved. The simple ideas are that Dick wants to kill the scumbags who killed his parents and his family, but Bruce did that in his own life and realized that revenge as a motive is different than justice, so that’s what he’s trying to communicate to Robin.”
The actor does not believe that violence in movies would inspire violent behavior in young and impressionable audiences: “For good or ill, art, if you call movies that, or communication is reflective of the times, but it doesn’t inspire them. There are violent movies that are worthless, because it’s impossible to learn anything about violence by how they’re constructed. Those films can be dangerous because they celebrate violence; but what allows it to have meaning is the condition of the culture in the society that’s viewing them. So, I don’t believe that a movie can make a serial killer, that comes from social causes. It’s a very naive idea to take the position that our government is involved in right now and debate that entertainment can be the cause of the violence.”
It was not difficult for the actor to play both sides of the character, to be way over the top as Batman and quite subdued as Bruce Wayne: “Innerly I was laughing hysterically most of the time, because it was fun. Every movie is stylized and make-believe, whether it has more special effects or less, so the challenges for an actor are the same. You have to have a lot of physical strength and discipline in a movie like this, because it’s so big; it’s hard when you walk into your house as Bruce Wayne and the foyer is 400 feet wide. But how you choose to look around in that room and behave it’s the same kind of challenge as when you are Batman. It isn’t a pretend Batmobile, it actually exists, and the art department had such joy in building it that it was easy to get inside it, knowing that everything was so finely created. I never had so much fun.” 
Kilmer was not worried about getting identified with Batman forever like it happened to Christopher Reeve with Superman or to Sean Connery with James Bond: “It would be different if this character were something that was being created, but this is a franchise that is fifty years old. I probably would have had more concerns and would be more thorough in investigating exactly what I was getting into if Batman wasn’t wearing a mask, but people already know the character I’m playing and what it’s all about, so it’s like any other job. It’s an actor’s objective, unless he’s deranged, to be successful, so you hope you succeed in whatever film you do, but more times than not, though actors don’t often admit it, the success is almost totally dependent on who you’re acting with and on the director.”
The biggest joy and reward of playing Batman on the big screen was its appeal to children: “For me the most pleasure I had in going to work was when children would come by, which was often because there’s something about a guy dressed up as a bat that’s completely captivating to children. It was really satisfying to see the look in their eyes, because it didn’t require much effort on my part; they just liked looking at the mask and their own imagination did the rest.”
The actor did not think that the back story of Bruce Wayne losing his parents was too scary for children: “Bob Kane was nineteen when he created it, so he was a kid himself, a teenager. Whether this story is healthy or not, it has endured for fifty years with all the changes, in the United States and internationally; now it’s a totally different world than it was back then, and people are still entertained by it. If you have children, then you’ve read them fairy tales, and there are none that don’t have an evil stepmother or an aunt, like the witch that tries to kill Snow White feeding her poisoned apples. That’s what makes them strong, because children like to be scared and that’s part of the power of the story. Batman is odd, but he’s not deranged, what he has done with this traumatic event is community service, he goes out to fight crime. Granted, he’s always in hot water with the community, but that’s part of what makes the story powerful. It’s not always good or bad, it’s relative, it is closer to real life, even though it’s painted on a really spectacular and strange canvas.”