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The future of Batman

Can George Clooney carry on the franchise’s 60-year run, or is the audience feeling the overkill?

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It’s not easy being a superhero.

First, there’s the whole suit-and-cape thing. Traipsing around with 85 pounds of molded rubber glued to your back doesn’t exactly put you in the mood to snuff out the vermin of the universe. Especially when it’s summer. In Los Angeles.

”Early September in a batsuit is a living hell,” says George Clooney, 36, who, in this summer’s Batman & Robin, becomes the latest mortal to don mask, cowl, and pointy ears in the name of defending Gotham. ”You can’t hear, you can barely move, and the heat! It’ll just kill ya. People ask me if I did my own stunts. And I say, ‘Yeah, I got dressed and walked from the trailer to the set.”’

Flying’s nothing to write home about either. ”They’ve always got some new ridiculous harness they’re throwing you into,” says Chris O’Donnell, 27, who’s reprising his beneficent (and benippled) role as the wily, thug-sluggin’ Boy Wonder. ”You come to the set and some stunt guy’s been hanging up on the ceiling for 10 minutes, looking like his head’s about to explode, and they say, ‘Okay, Chris, this is what you’re going to do.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no!”’

But all that stuff’s guano compared with the challenges facing Batman the character, Batman the franchise, and Batman — dare we say? — the American Institution. As the estimated $100 million fourth installment of the series approaches, the movie franchise is ending its first decade, the character is nearing its 60th anniversary, and people are wondering if there are any more surprises left under Batman’s billion-dollar cape.

In Hollywood’s first revival of Batman eight years ago, everything was a surprise. Tim Burton’s kooky gothic fantasy of a Joker-plagued Gotham — featuring Jack Nicholson on a really bad hair day — made the Dark Knight shine again, to the tune of — Pow! — $251 million in U.S. grosses. Batman Returns (1992) wasn’t exactly Battleship Potemkin, but at least it had Michelle Pfeiffer in a rubber catsuit — a detail that undoubtedly helped the tally to a respectable $163 million (Zap!). Batman Forever (1995) showcased new director Joel Schumacher as well as a new man under the mask (scowling Val Kilmer) and, more important, ascendant star Jim Carrey. The take: $184 million (Bang!).

This time around, however, even Clooney admits he’s not exactly reinventing the Batarang. ”Michael Keaton originated the character,” he says. ”Then Val stepped in to save it. I just hope I’m not the guy they say screwed up the whole business.”

Call it the Friday the 13th principle: For some reason, even the most well-intentioned sequels tend to peter out after three. Remember Rocky IV? (No? Two words: Dolph Lundgren.)What about Death Wish V? Is it surprising that Warner Bros. has tried for five years to launch a fourth go-round of Lethal Weapon without success? Unless you’ve got a Bond or a Star Trek series, it’s three times out before self-parody sets in. (Perhaps that’s why Fox has nixed the 4 in the title of this fall’s Alien Resurrection.) ”There comes a point with most sequels,” says producer David Brown, ”where it becomes about milking and milking something until it ceases to be worth it.”