With the prevalence of comic book superhero movies in theaters these days, it seems strange to remember a time when blockbusters based on Marvel and DC Comics characters weren’t on the big screen.
But 25 years ago, it was a huge risk to make a movie based on Batman, though the hero was easily recognized within pop culture. Getting studio executives and the audience to buy into a darker, serious interpretation of the character was a tough sell.
Part of the problem with a Batman film was that the general public remembered him as a campy pop icon from the 1960s TV show, with cheesy costumes, storylines and dialogue. The bright colors and action accompanied by “POW!” “ZAP!” “WHAM!” graphics is an image that unfortunately sticks with comic book properties to this day, especially among those who haven’t bothered to look how seriously the material is handled now.
In his book, The Boy Who Loved Batman, producer (and lifelong Batman fan) Michael Uslan detailed his decade-long struggle to convince movie studios that a grittier interpretation of the character — one truer to the comic books of the 1970s and 1980s — was viable as a film franchise. But he couldn’t get anyone to buy in. People remembered the goofy TV show or simply dismissed the idea of a comic book movie because projects like Annie had failed at the box office.
Uslan’s persistence eventually paid off, however, especially after meeting producer Peter Guber, who was intrigued by the idea of a darker Batman that lurked in the shadows, fought criminals through fear and intimidation, and was psychologically damaged by the childhood trauma of his parents being killed by a mugger on the streets.
The movie seemed even more viable when director Tim Burton was brought on and mega-star Jack Nicholson was signed to play Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker. Nicholson gave the project the credibility it had been seeking, much like Marlon Brando’s presence had given 1978’s Superman: The Movie dramatic weight.
Yet Burton threatened to undercut that credibility by casting Michael Keaton in the lead role of Batman/Bruce Wayne. Keaton was known primarily as a comedic actor, famous for goofing around on screen in Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice. He didn’t have the square jaw and massive physique of a superhero. Imagine if the internet had been around when this casting choice was made. The uproar over Ben Affleck playing Batman would’ve seemed tame in comparison.
But after working with Keaton on Beetlejuice, Burton was convinced that his actor could go where this interpretation of Batman needed to go. A man who dressed up as a bat, spending his nights hunting and fighting criminals, must have had something wrong with him. Someone whose parents were killed in front of him as a child, who was raised by his butler with a vast fortune at his disposal had to be at least a little bit odd.
That’s exactly who Keaton’s Bruce Wayne was. Maybe some of the eccentricities were an act, but not by much. The guy was a little bit nuts, not entirely different from the homicidal maniac with clown-white skin and a grin scarred into his face. How could anyone like that have a normal relationship with someone like beautiful photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), even if she was attracted to him because he seemed damaged?
One of the more curious aspects of this movie’s story is that Wayne’s butler, Alfred, pushes him to pursue a relationship with Vale. What are you thinking, Alfred? Batman has some bad guy ass to kick! Of course, a movie like this needs a love story to attract a wider audience. Yet it was also a great character moment. This was a father figure and friend who’s seen his charge live this secret life of crimefighting for however many years and sees a chance for a normal existence. Alfred is trying to save Bruce Wayne, lest Batman take over.
The idea of a flawed and damaged superhero seemed revolutionary. Previously, on-screen superheroes had to be morally resolute, like Superman. Maybe the desire for a normal life caused him to call his choices into question, but ultimately, he was a hero because it was the right thing to do, because he was inherently good.
There is some of that to Batman, naturally. As he explains to Vale late in the movie, he does this because “no one else can.” But ultimately, Batman is seeking revenge on the criminals who shattered his life, working to make sure that no one else has to go through something like that.
A daring choice Burton and writer Sam Hamm take with this Batman is linking his origin directly to the Joker. That’s not how it happened in the comic books, making this a controversial decision. Nowadays, filmmakers would likely be more devoted to the original comic book storylines to avoid pissing off fans. But it made sense for this story, especially since there was no guarantee that another Batman movie would be made after this one.
Making the Joker (or Jack Napier) the man who killed Batman’s parents helps justify some of the hero’s choices late in the story. Toward the film’s climax, Batman actually tries to kill the Joker by bombing his hideout, firing missiles toward him and even aiming machine guns directly at him with malicious intent. That’s some pretty dark shit, man. This isn’t a hero trying to do the right thing. But hey — on some level, we can understand it. The Joker killed Batman’s parents!
Does Burton’s Batman hold up 25 years later? I think it does for the most part, because of its darker tone and sensibilities.
Danny Elfman’s score gave the character a memorable theme that’s been associated with Batman (and copied by many other movies and TV shows) ever since. That’s something definitely lacking from today’s superhero movies. Go ahead and hum Iron Man’s theme for me. How about Spider-Man’s? The film also has such a distinct look, thanks largely to Anton Furst’s designs of an oppresively over-industrialized Gotham City. This looked like no other place on Earth, and intentionally so.
Additionally, this wasn’t an origin story that shows how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, a trope that’s become tiresome with these stories. The character is already established and jumps right into the action. We don’t have to wait for half the movie to see the hero in full costume.
But there are also some elements that make the movie feel dated. If this movie were being made today, would it have what amounts to two musical numbers during the film to accommodate the soundtrack by Prince? Surely not, even if it’s still funny to see Nicholson dancing around like the clown he is. (Burton couldn’t scrub all of the camp out of a Batman movie, after all.) But the scenes help identify the film as a product of its time, when a superhero movie was still a tough sell. At least some people could enjoy a music video in the middle of this one.
Until the story’s climactic showdown, Batman doesn’t seem like the most dynamic on-screen superhero either. As cool as the costume looked with its sculpted muscles (sensible body armor!) and long-eared cowl that looked like it was taken straight from the comic books, it had some practical limitations —most notably that Keaton couldn’t turn his head. (In the movie’s defense, costume designers didn’t solve this problem until 2008’s The Dark Knight.)
Early on, Burton portrays Batman more like a character from a horror movie, slinking in and out of the shadows. And that fits with the character who uses fear as a weapon. He floats down on cable lines, rather than leaping into the picture and pouncing on his prey. He waves his cape around dramatically for maximum bat-wing effect. It all looks so cool, but seems a little plodding in comparison to today’s more kinetic action.
Batman ultimately remains resonant to this day because of the impact it had on pop culture. Batman’s black-and-gold emblem was seen everywhere, from buses to billboards to t-shirts. (Movie posters were stolen from subway stations and bus stops.) The logo was on license plates, pins, keychains, jackets and hats. Suddenly, it was cool to wear a Batman or Joker t-shirt in public and not be derisively labeled as a nerd.
As popular as Spider-Man and Captain America are, people didn’t come together in a mutual fandom for those characters as they did for Batman. Only the Star Wars films caused the same ripples throughout the culture.
To be fair, it’s probably impossible to capture the same feeling that we experienced on June 23, 1989 when Batman hit theaters. We had no idea what we were going to see or if it was going to be any good. How would it feel to see a comic book superhero given a serious, darker treatment on screen? Would Keaton be believable as the hero? What would the costume and all of Batman’s gadgets look like come to life?
Those were among the many questions going through my mind when I took a bus to a theater in downtown Ann Arbor to see the very first showing of Batman. For a kid who grew up reading comic books, so many of them featuring the Caped Crusader, this was affirmation. The movie being really good led to relief and pure joy.
Superhero movies became more of the establishment after the success of 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man. Now, there are probably too many of them and they’re beginning to all feel similar. (Though Christopher Nolan’s Batman films stand apart from current blockbusters. Hopefully, Zack Snyder can create something memorable with his version of the character.) Maybe there really can be too much of a good thing.
But something had to open that door for those other films and characters to walk through. A pioneering movie had to show that comic book characters could be treated with respect on screen, taken seriously by audiences and attract top filmmaking and acting talent. Tim Burton’s Batman was that film, and pop culture hasn’t been the same ever since.