Superheroes aren't supposed to walk away. But in real life, lots of things can keep a masked avenger from his good deeds. Just ask Michael Keaton, 42, who sent Hollywood spinning last week when he dropped out of his starring role in Batman Forever, part three in Warner Bros.' lucrative saga of the Caped Crusader.
Although the studio instantly heralded Keaton's replacement Val Kilmer, best known for his Jim Morrison in The Doors, and most recently of Tombstone and rushed to put a candy-coating on the shake-up, insiders soon began telling stories of turmoil in Gotham City.
According to one source close to the production, Keaton, who starred in 1989's Batman and 1992's Batman Returns (which earned a combined $414 million), was making some thorny demands. ''He wanted $15 million,'' says the insider. ''He wanted a chunk of the gross, he wanted a chunk of merchandising.''
The Keaton camp strongly denies the showdown was about salary alone. ''Money was never the issue,'' says Keaton's producing partner, Harry Colomby. ''Not doing this movie means he probably gave up $30 million, based on his back-end deal.'' According to a source, Keaton was concerned that the Batman juggernaut was rolling without any input from its star.
What did Keaton want? A script that swirled around the superhero himself, as opposed to the enchanting menagerie of psychos like Jack Nicholson's Joker, Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, and Danny DeVito's Penguin who upstaged his character in the first two installments. ''Let's face it, the Batman movies are about who's playing the villains and there's Michael stuck in a rubber suit,'' says the production insider. As Keaton undoubtedly knew, there would be even more over-the-top evildoing in Batman Forever: The cast includes plastic-faced Jim Carrey as the Riddler and Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey ''Two- Face'' Dent, as well as Scent of a Woman's young heartthrob Chris O'Donnell as Batman's sidekick, Robin.
A Keaton supporter pooh-poohs the charges. Keaton just wanted what's best for the Batman franchise, the supporter says, and felt the studio could ''rescue'' the increasingly dark and disturbing series by beefing up the good guy. ''His concerns were not self-serving. They were about the project.''
Making matters worse was an increasingly tense relationship between Keaton and the film's new kingpin, Joel Schumacher, who replaced Keaton's friend Tim Burton as director. ''[After one meeting with Schumacher] Michael was not feeling confident,'' says the Keaton source. ''Creatively, it wasn't happening. He was worried that the character he'd lived with for two films wasn't going to be developed the way he wanted it to be developed.'' As the script was being revised, ''no one ever called [Keaton] to say, 'Wait! You've got to see this!' Or, 'Wait 'til you see what we've got for Batman!'''
Schumacher downplays the drama. ''Some people don't want to play superheroes the rest of their life,'' he says. ''Even Sean Connery left James Bond.''
Schumacher declined to comment on any other contenders for the cowl, though there was speculation that William Baldwin was considered for the role. Instead, the director serves up great praise for Kilmer, who got the Batman bid while roaming the African veldt researching a screenplay. ''At first we couldn't find him,'' says one insider. ''Then we got this resounding, 'Yes!'''
His arrival is good news for Batman's longevity Kilmer will get a fraction of Keaton's take, and, at 34, he's young enough to keep the franchise alive for years to come. But his casting may come as bad news for Rene Russo (In the Line of Fire). Russo, 40, was reportedly tapped just a week ago to play Batman's love interest. Studio honchos may now opt for someone younger a Sandra Bullock type to work her wiles on Kilmer.