George Clooney as a superhero -- The ''ER'' actor will play Batman

Who’d have thought that by the fourth time around, the forces behind Batman would still be winging it?

Last week, media radarscopes went wild with the news that Val Kilmer, who had successfully replaced Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight in 1995’s Batman Forever, had left the cave, and that a new lead actor was to the Wayne manor signed: ER hunk George Clooney.

Having made a big-screen splash last month with From Dusk Till Dawn, and already locked into making two other movies this spring and summer while on hiatus, Clooney is Hollywood’s man of the hour, and Warner’s movie star of tomorrow. Clearly, the company, which also produces ER, is hoping the actor’s broody-lite persona will fit the revved-up RPMs of a franchise it no longer sees as your father’s Batmobile. And Batman and Robin, due summer ’97, is not the only vehicle to which Warner has given Clooney the keys: It will most likely count as the first of three pics he’s signed to do for a reported $25 million to $28 million.

But the newly done deal was hardly the end of the cape contretemps. Hollywood gums are still a-flap as to why Kilmer got the kiss-off.

After all, he was a pouty-pussed hit in Forever. According to sources close to the new production, Kilmer’s outspoken nature gave the studio and Bat director Joel Schumacher pause. As one former Kilmer producer says, ”Working with him…[is] like working with nitroglycerin. [It] can blow up on you.” While filming New Line’s Island of Dr. Moreau in Australia last fall, Kilmer instigated script rewrites and occasionally clashed with crew members. Kilmer’s agent would not comment, and New Line’s president of production, Michael DeLuca, who helped find a new director (John Frankenheimer) for Moreau after Kilmer and costar Marlon Brando ran roughshod over Richard Stanley, insists that Kilmer merely ”has uncompromising artistic integrity.”

Kilmer’s fears about Batman and Robin were much like Keaton’s after the first two films: the incredible shrinking Bat part. With each movie, Batman is upstaged further by the villains, babes, or sidekicks (in the next pic, Arnold Schwarzenegger is Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman is Poison Ivy, and Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone are Robin and Batgirl). ”The others got all the attention,” says a source close to the Batman series. Besides, with intense pressure at Warner to ready Batman and Robin for a September start date and a summer ’97 release (hoping to beat the coming Jurassic Park sequel to the box office), a balky lead actor loomed as large as a rampaging T. rex.

Kilmer, meanwhile, will spend this spring shooting his potentially franchise-friendly new film, The Saint, for which he will earn a reported $6 million (more than three times his salary for Forever).

With Clooney set, all that’s left is to juggle the cape with the catheter — that is, to keep Dr. Ross on call for the coming third season of ER, beginning in late August. According to ER executive producer John Wells, there won’t be any conflict. Since both the show and the Bat sequel will shoot on the same lot, ”George will work two or three days a week on ER, then Batman on weekends,” says Wells. ”It’s not impossible.”

Is Schumacher fazed by the prospect of a new star? Not according to one industry source, who characterizes the director as “thrilled” because he “always wants the newest, hottest person.” Schumacher himself will say only that he’s giddy at the thought of getting Clooney out of scrubs and into high-tech gear. Says the director, “Wait till you see him in leather.”