Original US release date: June 23, 1989
Production budget: $35,000,000
Worldwide gross: $411,348,924
So much can be said about Tim Burton’s Batman. Though this was not the first time that Batman had ventured to the big screen (he was featured in a theatrical serial in the 1940s and then the Adam West series transitioned to cinemas with Batman: The Movie in 1966), this film redefined the character for the general public. Having been ingrained in casual audiences’ heads as goofy, campy, and silly for over two decades thanks to the aforementioned Adam West-led television series, Tim Burton’s take on Batman gave viewers a darker, more sophisticated, grown-up version of the character and the world around him that persists to this day and has even invaded other properties, for better or for worse. Batman was not only a financial success, but it was the benchmark for all comic book films to come as well as the film that pioneered the summer blockbuster as we know it, today.
Even if nothing can approach the levels of pre-release controversy that we’re all accustomed to seeing with modern day releases, Batman wasn’t without it’s share. Initially, the casting of Michael Keaton was met with confusion from some (“The guy who played Beetlejuice?!”) and total outrage from others. There was even a letter-writing campaign (there was no e-mail, texting, or Twitter back then, kids. Fan entitlement came at the cost of a stamp in those days!) that resulted in approximately 50,000 letters reaching Warner Brothers, asking for Keaton to be replaced. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same, as Keaton stepped up and proved them all wrong. To this day, he remains my favorite Batman. (At the same time, African-American actor Billy Dee Williams was cast to play a pre-Two-Face Harvey Dent and nobody batted an eye, to my recollection. Take that for what you will.)
Besides that, the darker tone garnered plenty of complaints from parents. For many, the Adam West series had been their only exposure to the character and when they didn’t get more of the same (see? Even back then, Americans didn’t want “originality”.), they weren’t sure how to take it. This Batman hurt people. He broke bones. There was bleeding. Cursing. People die. I remember being at the mall with my mom not long before seeing the movie, looking at Batman shirts. A complete stranger started talking to us about it, saying that people were claiming it should have been rated R (it wasn’t that bad, dude, come on). I was terrified that my parents wouldn’t take me to see it, after that, but those fears were fortunately unfounded. (I do remember that we didn’t see it opening weekend. Want to know why? Because Honey, I Shrunk the Kids came out the same day and my sister wanted to see that. And she says our parents always loved me more!)
What so many were unaware of is that a man named Frank Miller had come along and written a book entitled THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (never read it? Buy it here!) that had completely changed the comic book industry and people’s perception of Batman. Now, don’t misunderstand. Batman hadn’t been anything resembling the Adam West version for a very long time, even by that point. But Miller’s book was the nail in the coffin for anyone hoping for a return to those days of innocence and naiveté. Instead, what Burton delivered with his film was heavily inspired by the tone of 1940s Batman with a dash of Miller’s influence (though with nothing lifted straight from Miller’s material).
It shows from the very beginning. Opening with Danny Elfman’s moody and haunting, yet inspiring, theme (also still my favorite movie score. And, while I’m naming things from this movie that are my favorites, this Batmobile is my favorite, too.) while swooping through a three-dimensional stone-sculpted Bat-Symbol from a first person perspective, it’s clear that this isn’t the ’60s, anymore. It’s still hard not to get amped up by those opening credits!
What follows is a thrilling, action/crime drama that easily holds up, 27 years later. Burton wisely tells Batman’s origin in brief flashbacks, knowing that the audience would be much more interested in and entertained by the present-day world and story (a lesson that at least one other recent comic book film could have learned from). And what a world it is! The set designs are just absolutely breathtaking. Gotham City lives up to its name with exquisite gothic architecture that transports the viewer into a world that feels at once familiar and like a grandiose dream. Wayne Manor and the Batcave are far more awe-inspiring than anything I could have imagined on my own and the Batmobile and Batwing just serve as the icing on the cake. Gotham City never looked better – before or since.
The character and wardrobe designs are top-notch as well. The most obvious influence that this film had that continues on to this day is the black costume for Batman. He had never dressed like that in the comics (and still hasn’t. Or, if he has, he hasn’t done it regularly and it somehow escaped my notice.) and while I don’t believe the change was absolutely necessary (dark blues and grays would have still looked great), it worked well. It worked so well, in fact, that more people envision him in all-black than any other way.
The Joker’s design was pitch-perfect. Had Jack Nicholson possessed a smaller frame, he would have looked like a Neal Adams drawing come to life. The surgically-enhanced perpetual smile on his face became an iconic image from the film and solidified him as being the Joker we knew and the Joker we craved.
Of course, this was all anchored by Jack Nicholson, himself. Heath Ledger continues to get all the press but Nicholson’s Joker was just as strong, even if it was a different approach. Nicholson was portraying the Joker that Bob Kane originally envisioned when the character first appeared in 1940. His sense of humor is sadistic; he’s not actually supposed to be funny (at least, certainly not within the context of which he’s making his jokes or behaving in a jovial manner). Only he and his posse should be finding humor in his antics. I’m speaking within the framework of the film, of course. There’s plenty to laugh at/with from the audience’s perspective. But there’s never any doubt that, if that world was real and we were there, we wouldn’t be laughing. Nicholson comprehends this and lets loose with 100% Joker, 100% of the time, and it’s glorious.
Keaton, too, understands the dichotomy that exists within his own character of Bruce Wayne/Batman. This Bruce Wayne is charismatic but also benevolent. He behaves in a way that doesn’t let on to the fact that he has a darker side. In other incarnations filled by other actors, Wayne often seems like he’s unable to put on the Bruce Wayne face and frankly makes it easy to suspect that he could be Batman. Keaton charms with sincerity as Wayne and no one questions it – unless he allows them to get too close, which explains his hesitance towards forming an attachment to Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale. But he gives in to her and, Vale being a reporter, she immediately knows something is up. All of this works because of Keaton and his ability to subtly change himself when he switches from Wayne to Batman. His Wayne has the outward appearance and behavior of being someone who feels complete and would gain nothing by being a vigilante. Combine that with his physical stature and it’s easy to see how he could go unsuspected as being the Bat. Perfect casting.
Basinger fills Vicki Vale’s shoes with grace, intelligence, and charm. It’s not hard to understand why Bruce would fall for her, despite his misgivings. Nor is it hard to understand why Alfred (Michael Gough, giving us the best on-screen Alfred to date, as well) works so hard to play matchmaker – even making a questionably huge executive decision towards the third act of the film to help push that notion along. Most people probably see Vicki as the token love interest, but Basinger makes her irresistible. Seeing as how Batman’s existence and Gotham City’s safety depends on Bruce Wayne very much resisting her (at least from his perspective), she actually almost serves as another foil, pitting Batman against Bruce Wayne in the most dire of all internal struggles.
All of that adds up to the quintessential Batman experience. And, while Batman was far from the first film I saw in the theater, it was the first one that I remember feeling like a true experience (I had another one, last weekend!). There could be minor tweaks, here and there, but this was pretty much exactly what I wanted when I first sat down to see it in 1989 and it’s what I still want today in 2016. I love the recent cinematic incarnations of Batman. I liked Ben Affleck’s performance. I love the Christopher Nolan films. In fact, I think The Dark Knight Rises is probably my favorite Batman film, overall (due largely to Anne Hathaway and Tom Hardy). But, to me, Tim Burton’s vision is the truest.
Apparently, other people felt the same way at the time. It broke all sorts of records, grossing over $411 million worldwide (I personally don’t believe inflation matters when regarding movie grosses, but, for fun, that would be a hair under $800 million, today) and turning Batman into a phenomenon across the globe. Without this movie, there would have been no “Batman: The Animated Series”. Likely no Christopher Nolan films. No Arkham games. Or, at least, we wouldn’t have gotten those things when we did or in their current forms. Batman is the most popular fictional character in the world because of Tim Burton and Michael Keaton.
Beyond that, the immense success of the film prompted studios to re-evaluate their release strategy. The summer blockbuster started to become a regular occurrence after Batman. That business model remained essentially unchallenged until Titanic arrived in December of 1997 and became the highest grossing film of all-time (which it remains to this day) and opened up the doors for big holiday season releases. And then, in recent years, Marvel Studios began releasing films at all times of the year to great success and the model is currently undergoing another shift. Nonetheless, we still got huge release after huge release (often on top of each other) over the course of this past summer, as we do every year, and that traces back to the success of Batman.
Tim Burton’s Batman wasn’t just one of the defining films of a generation. It was a film that changed the entire industry forever. It affects all film lovers to this day and its significance can and should not be understated or ignored. Batman and his supporting cast are all wonderful characters that are open to many different interpretations. And we’ve seen a lot of them – some great, some . . . not. But for the purest, most authentic live-action version of the character, look no further than Tim Burton’s 1989 classic.
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