Holy makeover, Batman! With a new buff bod, a close-cut coif, and a pierced ear, the once sweet and doughy-faced Chris O'Donnell has taken the boy out of the Boy Wonder. And judging from his dashing appearance in Batman Forever, the transformation has vaulted the actor himself to the coveted rank of Hollywood sex symbol. Looking like a graduate of Keanu Reeves' ''How a Haircut Can Change Your Career'' seminar, O'Donnell's manly rendering of Batman's youthful sidekick is the biggest surprise of the Bat ads no easy feat considering that the movie, which opens this week, stars Val Kilmer and Nicole Kidman, not to mention America's favorite scene-stealers, Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey. Forever director Joel Schumacher takes credit for engineering O'Donnell's new look. After casting him as Robin, he urged the 24-year-old actor to bulk up even though ''he had a good body to begin with.'' And O'Donnell's Mad Love and Forever costar Drew Barrymore, who calls him ''the brother I never had,'' claims she, too, had something to do with the change in his image. His new buzz cut ''came from the girls'' on the set of Mad Love, says Barrymore. ''We made Chris get his hair cut. He had this bushy head and we all said, 'Chris, cut it now.''' Also key to O'Donnell's metamorphosis was his already-notorious Robin costume, which has lots of muscle definition, a codpiece, and nipples on the breastplate a Bat movie first (ditto for Kilmer's Batman outfit). ''These characters are just dripping with sensuality,'' says Barrymore, who plays a villainous vixen in the movie. ''And I think that's so f---ing hot.''
But some are cool to the new O'Donnell. ''Batman's not exactly a thinking man's movie,'' says the head of one Hollywood agency. ''It's a great career move, but it is a departure from the smaller, more interesting stuff he did earlier. It either shows he's reaching as an actor or that he's reaching as a capitalist.''
There's no doubt that O'Donnell is profiting. ''He's a mini Tom Cruise,'' says one agent privy to negotiations to have O'Donnell star in the sci-fi movie Afterlife. Sources say the Chicago native is earning between $2.5 million and $3 million per film (up from $1.5 million for Mad Love) and could increase his paycheck even more if he lands Universal's adaptation of the John Grisham novel The Chamber.
O'Donnell admits to being torn between small films like Mad Love and Circle of Friends, both of which enhanced his image as a romantic hero, and bigger action movies. ''Working on a film like Three Musketeers or Batman, it's exciting to watch how they make it,'' he says, ''but it can be very boring from an acting standpoint, because you're sitting around without much to do. I'd like to alternate, because you need some commercial success to get other films that you want to do.''
Evidently, the Boston College graduate has learned something about career smarts, which might explain why he's so willing to go along with a head-to-toe makeover. As Beaches producer Bonnie Bruckheimer points out, ''It's gratifying to know that he's a wonderful, talented actor, but sex sells movies. Chris was warm and lovable in Circle of Friends, but he's very, very sexy in Batman Forever.''
Either way, there's no arguing that this boy wonder has arrived and he's almost got the billing to prove it. Says Schumacher, ''I suggested that when they do the next one, they call it Batman and Robin.''
(Additional reporting by Elisa Leonelli)