Illustration by Dave van Patten

Misleading Men: The Reluctant Batman

How Val Kilmer fought against stardom, no matter how badly we wanted it for him

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Playing a superhero is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can quickly boost an actor’s profile; on the other, it can pigeonhole him, especially if audiences reject the movie—or, worse, his portrayal of a beloved character. For every Michael Keaton, there’s also a Brandon Routh — and let’s not forget George Clooney, whose disastrous go at Batman in Batman & Robin became a stigma he had to overcome in order to become a legitimate movie star.

And then there’s Val Kilmer, who has been appearing in films for more than 30 years. The apex of his stardom occurred on June 16, 1995, when Batman Forever hit theaters. He had played the lead in movies before then, but with the exception of Top Gun (which was a Tom Cruise vehicle), Batman Forever is probably the Kilmer film that the most people on the planet have seen. That’s an extremely strange reality for this off-kilter actor, who’s made his living avoiding those sorts of obvious high-profile roles. If it were any other actor, we’d look at his career after starring in a blockbuster and wonder what happened. But with Kilmer, Batman Forever was the bug, not the feature.

Kilmer has described himself as a cliché, in part because he grew up in Los Angeles. “First of all, I’m not just an actor born in L.A. I was born in the Griffith Park Hospital. You can’t get any more clichéd than that,” he said to Interview Magazine in 2011. “My first home was not near LAX, it was at LAX. I mean, it’s now condemned and owned by the airport. Then we moved to the Valley, and it wasn’t near Roy Rogers, it’s next to Roy Rogers. Then my dad bought Roy Rogers’s house. I [was] already 100 percent cliché, and only 11 or 12 years old.”

Interested in performing from an early age, he went to Juilliard and starred in his first movie before he was 25. Top Secret!, the follow-up film from the guys behind Airplane!, spoofed everything from Elvis musicals to war movies. Kilmer played a 1950s American rocker who gets involved with a resistance movement in East Germany, and the actor brought just the right amount of self-aware stupidity to the role, getting lots of laughs by transforming his boyish good looks into the mask of a pretty numskull. He could have been a great comedic star — early on, he grasped that it was funnier to mock his photogenic qualities than flaunt them — and the following year’s wiseass Real Genius seemed to suggest that was his destiny.

But then came Top Gun, where he played Cruise’s dickish nemesis. The two actors had the same agent, and Kilmer initially turned down the part of Iceman. “I just really wasn’t interested in it,” he explained, only changing his mind after director Tony Scott made an impassioned plea. It was a smart move financially: Top Gun remains Kilmer’s biggest moneymaker worldwide. But as his initial reluctance to sign on for Top Gun demonstrates, he didn’t show much enthusiasm for forging a typical movie-star path.

His next real triumph was The Doors, still the best performance he’s ever given. Playing Jim Morrison, the band’s romantically self-destructive frontman, Kilmer epitomized what’s so fascinatingly antimatter about him as a leading man. As handsome as he is with those dreamy eyes and soulful voice — like in Top Secret!, he sang all the songs himself — he wanted to pick apart that façade, lay waste to the cliché of the doomed rock star. (In the process, maybe he was burning down the cliché of the movie star, too.) Few actors in a biopic have so actively made us question why we’re both drawn to and repulsed by the subject.

This perhaps is not the way a star should behave if he wants people to love him — but Kilmer’s portrayal of Morrison played into his own ambivalence about how to cultivate a career.

“I actually regret not having created a persona years ago like all of my wise contemporaries [did],” Kilmer told Vanity Fair in 2012. “Basically, our whole gang of wonderful talent, like Johnny Depp and Nic Cage and Sean Penn — everybody has a pretty solid identity. When I say each one of these [names], you have a very instant opinion about a very particular kind of character. I’m not suggesting that any of these guys altered how they are perceived to be in the public because of somebody else. I think they are all really talented. … I just wasn’t interested in my career that way, or my persona. My acting was really my only priority.”

Instead, he mostly zigged rather than zagged, getting raves for Thunderheart and Tombstone before signing up for Batman Forever — the first Batman movie after Tim Burton and Michael Keaton left the franchise. Director Joel Schumacher wanted to make the character and his world more lighthearted than Burton had, and so the decision to cast Kilmer (whom the director had liked in Tombstone) possessed a screwy logic. Kilmer’s Batman and Bruce Wayne were almost comically straitlaced heroic figures whose deadpan, sarcastic quips punctured the brooding fog that Burton had conjured. Tempted by Nicole Kidman’s gorgeous, willing Dr. Chase Meridian and tormented by Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey), this Batman has to be the level-headed hero, rather than the damaged misfit roto-rooting his psychic scars. Instead of embracing the gloomy grandeur of the Batman ethos, Kilmer played him as the put-upon straight man surrounded by kooks.

Batman Forever was a massive hit, ending up No. 2 at the box office for the year behind Toy Story. It’s also one of the least interesting things Kilmer has ever done, which even he seems to recognize. Years later, he was still grousing about how uncomfortable the Batsuit was:

Lots of actors will tell you how irritating it is to spend hours in wardrobe or makeup to get ready for a role. But in that Conan clip, Kilmer seems especially surly. It might be in part because of his contentious relationship with Schumacher, who later called him “childish and impossible.” (Kilmer declined to do Batman & Robin, a decision that reportedly didn’t leave his director all that heartbroken.) He has long had a history of being a difficult actor to work with, perhaps a symptom of his inability (or general unwillingness) to operate in the rigid Hollywood system.

No greater sign of this exists then when Kilmer went straight from starring in Batman Forever to being a mere supporting player in Heat, Michael Mann’s L.A. crime epic. As Kilmer recalled in 2012, his agent “said that I had just done Batman, so why play the third lead? I said, ‘You don’t think I should be in the poster in between De Niro and Pacino?’ ” Kilmer’s instinct was obvious: Who cares if I’m the third lead if I get to do a movie with those two titans?

He’s bounced around ever since, starring in David Mamet’s underrated 2004 thriller Spartan, hanging out with Nicolas Cage in the 2009 gonzo crime drama Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and spoofing his intensity for the big-screen version of MacGruber. He was a voice in Planes. He teamed up with Robert Downey Jr. for Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. He starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s oddball 2011 horror movie Twixt, in which, among other things, he does an impression of Marlon Brando from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. (Kilmer had appeared in the ruinous 1996 remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau alongside Brando. They supposedly loathed each other.)

On the side he’s played Mark Twain on stage in a one-man show he wrote and directed. He’s also a painter, selling his work to the public on his website. His son, Jack Kilmer, seems to be following a similar passion-driven path. He starred in the 2013 indie film adapted from James Franco’s novel, Palo Alto, and then in last year’s The Stanford Prison Experiment.

Some young actors might look upon Val Kilmer’s arc with dread, lamenting a performer whose viability “peaked” with a blockbuster superhero movie. He does not see it that way. Resisting the clichés of his profession has been his true calling, a battle he hasn’t always waged successfully. Still, he’s Exhibit A for the rewards of coloring outside the movie-star lines. In 2012, Kilmer reflected back on the crooked path his career has taken. “Now that I’ve had so much time away [from the spotlight], I am so much older and I’m better at my job,” he insisted. “It sounds kind of cliché, maybe, but I really feel like not that I’m starting over but that I’m just starting.”

Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch and the author of six books, including Martin Scorsese in Ten Scenes.