1989 was a big year for Batman. It was his 50th birthday and it was the year he would appear in a major motion picture for the first time in 23 years.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Batman (and comic book) fan Michael Uslan tried getting Hollywood interested in bringing Batman back to the big screen. After pitching his idea to producer Benjamin Melniker, the two went from one studio to the next, eventually winning over the producing team of Jon Peters and Peter Guber. Still, there was little interest. Until the end of 1978.
With the success of Superman: The Movie, Warner Bros. wanted to do what DC Comics itself had done 40 years prior and follow the film up with a new superhero movie. They brought the property back to Warner Bros. (who owns DC Comics) and began the task of bringing Batman to the big screen again. However, nothing seemed to work. Treatment after treatment was pitched to Warner Bros., which would agree, and then change their minds. Tom Mankiewicz, who’d ghostwritten revisions to Mario Puzo’s script for Superman and Superman II when Richard Donner was on both projects (and given the onscreen credit of Creative Consultant), even wrote a treatment. Getting the right director was difficult and pinning down the tone of the movie, and character, was also difficult.
After his success with the Warner Bros. release of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Tim Burton was asked to direct. Not a comic book fan himself, he was intrigued by the imagery of Batman and the Joker. More treatments were written and things weren’t official until Burton’s next movie, Beetlejuice (1988), was successful. Warner Bros. officially greenlit Batman and the stage was set for one of the biggest film franchises of all time.
I knew none of the above. I was a kid, fer chrissakes! What I did know was that in December of 1988, Entertainment Tonight promised a first look at the new Batman movie and I was intrigued. They showed a part of the trailer and I was blown away. I distinctly remember Batman turning around to face the camera, bloodied, his mask dark rubber, ears tall like they were in the comic books. I’d already heard that Michael Keaton–whom I knew from Mr. Mom, Gung Ho, Johnny Dangerously (I love this movie!), Beetlejuice, and a movie I loved called The Dream Team (I haven’t seen it since about 1990, so forgive me if it’s bad)–would play Batman, and I wondered how that would be. I didn’t understand, at that time, the controversy of the decision other than he was known as a comedic actor and Batman was an action/adventure role. I didn’t really know that Batman was supposed to be dark because, even though I had a bunch of Batman comic books from the early-1980s, I hadn’t really read them. I was too young when they came into the house. I still had them and would go back and reread them, but at this point, that was still months away. Seeing that first glimpse of Keaton as Batman got me excited, but I was still a little confused. To me, Adam West was still Batman. I was 11 years old, give me a break.
Sometime around March the marketing machine really started and Batman tee shirts, posters, lunchboxes…the list goes on…started popping up. I remember walking through JC Penney at the local mall and seeing a bunch of Batman tee shirts, for someone my size! At this time, superhero clothing was still for little kids. I was in sixth grade (my last year of elementary school, back then). Also, I was a “husky” 11-year-old.
Batman was everywhere. One of the first adult novels I ever read on my own was the paperback novelization of the movie, written by Craig Shaw Gardner.
1989 was a big year for movies, and that summer was particularly good. It featured not only Batman, but also Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. I got to see Batman, Indiana Jones, and Freddy Krueger in the movies that summer. The other two I saw on VHS when they came out. Either way, it was a good summer.
We went to see Batman a week or two after its release and there was still lines going around the building. We saw Honey, I Shrunk the Kids instead. Finally, my father took me one Saturday afternoon to see it. By now, I’d read the novelization and had read a behind-the-scenes magazine. The movie still left a big mark on me.
Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Last year, when it was announced that Ben Affleck would play Batman and geeks cried out in a rage, I laughed at them. Maybe they were too young to remember, but I do remember the Michael Keaton fiasco. His Bruce Wayne stands apart from any that had come before or since. He is seemingly a normal guy, looks completely normal. He certainly does not look like someone who dresses like a bat and fights crime at night. Yet, it totally works because of this. As Wayne, he is scattered and scarred, trying to find some sort of normalcy but having trouble. When we meet him at a charity benefit being held at Wayne Manor to help save Gotham’s bicentennial festival, Vicki Vale (played by Kim Basinger) taps him on the shoulder and asks if he knows who Bruce Wayne is. He says no, she thanks him and walks away, and he stands there with a pen he’d been using to sign something with. He realizes he has the pen and doesn’t know what to do with it. He stabs the soil of a huge potted plant with the pen, leaving it there, to be instantaneously retrieved by Alfred (Michael Gough), who also saves a champagne flute. It’s the perfect introduction to a man who continues being the child he was when his parents were murdered in front of him. It’s only after a strange conversation with Vicki Vale and reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) that we see him in his true self, looking at a bank of monitors in the Batcave.
His acting as Batman is somewhat stilted and emotionless, but this makes sense for someone trying to conceal his identity. The costume itself provided lots of limitations. In trying to achieve accuracy between the comic books and the movie, the costume designers chose to make the mask and cowl go right down to the cape. Unfortunately, the latex foam rubber used to make the mask meant that Keaton couldn’t turn his head without ripping the cowl from the neck. Also, with the thickness of the mask near his eyes and around his head, he had trouble seeing and hearing. Taking all this into consideration, Keaton did a helluva job. Even without it, his tone was correct for the movie overall.
Jack Nicholson obviously needs to be mentioned, though I almost ask myself Why bother? Everyone knows he did an excellent job as the Joker. Yes, he may have hammed it up some, but the character hams it up. He had the energy that Cesar Romero brought to the role (mustache and all) in 1966-1968, but was sinister and deadly. And as much as I’m a Robin Williams fan and truly think he would’ve been great in the role, Jack Nicholson as the Joker seemed like destiny. Not only that, but he brought a certain amount of respect to the movie.
The production design is pretty amazing. The idea of making a wholly original city that looks like a nightmare come to life is inspired. Taking the idea that Gotham City is a tortured, sickly, corrupt city and then making it look that way in an outward manifestation was bold. Anton Furst’s designs are nightmarish and effective. Compared to the studio backlots used in the serials as well as the 1966 TV series, or the Los Angeles skyline and surrounding country roads, and unlike Superman: The Movie (and Superman II), which used New York City as its Metropolis, this film had Gotham City as its own thing, unlike any other city. It was a place you’d barely want to walk in the afternoon, never mind after dark.
The Batmobile. How do you top the 1960’s iconic Batmobile? Well, here you go. It’s sleek, sinister, and not at all kitschy. It’s a more realistic Batmobile, to be sure. Where the 1966 Batmobile (as well as most of the comic book versions before and after) were gaudy and seemed to almost be an advertisement to the city of Gotham that Batman had arrived, this Batmobile is scary.
Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler (and surrogate father) is amazing. Understated, elegant, and fatherly, he is the heart of the movie. In the scene where Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale have their first date in Wayne Manor and end up eating with him, he turns a clichéd scene into something real. Throughout the movie, he is truly the one Bruce Wayne listens to. You get the idea that while he goes along with Wayne’s idea to dress up like a bat to kick some criminal ass, he doesn’t completely agree with it. As such, one of the movie’s most controversial scenes makes sense. More on this later.
The introduction to District Attorney Harvey Dent is a great thing, and the fact that they cast a black man, Billy Dee Williams, to the part is even better. It meant that there was the idea that a sequel could be made and that one could see Dent’s transformation into Two-Face. Because of knowing for this movie, it would make the tragedy of his story that much stronger. Williams turns in a solid performance, too, though he’s not given the screen time he should be.
Danny Elfman’s score is top-notch. The opening titles music alone (a slow reveal of the bat symbol) is as good as John Williams’s Superman theme (or his Star Wars or Indiana Jones themes, for that matter). Where Williams’s Superman theme was bold and hopeful, heroic, Elfman’s Batman theme is heroic, sure, but also dark and mysterious. The rest of his music is every bit as quirky as director Tim Burton is, and bold as the hero Batman is.
Tim Burton’s direction is brilliant at times. His quirky storytelling ability that led him to direct Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice (which was originally going to be directed by Wes Craven, with a darker, meaner script) and made them instant classics doesn’t seem right for Batman, yet he does a great job with the piece. The movie could move a little faster, and the dialogue could be better, but overall Burton’s vision of the characters–and of the nightmare that was Gotham City–made the movie unique and made it a movie unlike many other superhero movies, before or since. It’s set in a time unto itself. It could be the 1940s, except the TVs are all in color, and Vicki Vale’s wardrobe and car are definitely 1980s (so is Bruce Wayne’s wardrobe). I wonder if this is his way of saying that Vicki Vale is more progressive and ahead of the curve than those around her, or if it means that Gotham is behind the times. After all, she’s a visitor. Batman’s gear could be from the future. Burton’s vision is complete and the world he provides for us is complete.
Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale is all right most of the time, and terrible at others. Of course, how she got the part has become part of the legend of this movie, but I’ll repeat it for those who may not know (which is a Good Thing, it means you have a life!). Originally, Sean Young had been hired to play the part of Vicki Vale, photojournalist. Part of Bruce and Vicki’s date was supposed to have them horseback riding on the Wayne Manor grounds. About a week before shooting, Young was getting acquainted with the horse she was supposed to ride and she fell off, breaking her arm. The producers decided to recast the part since it was so physical. The list of actresses available in such short notice, with the talent they were looking for, was short. Basinger was on the list and she could drop everything and move to England for three-to-four months, so she was hired. Again, she’s not terrible, but maybe a little more time, a better script, something would’ve helped. In scenes with Robert Wuhl’s Alexander Knox, she goes from friendly to sharp instantly. Her delivery of some of the lines is almost as though she’s practicing them. I also think the script and/or directing has her screaming too damn much. She just came back from a war, according to the story, and now she’s screaming the classic scream queen scream in every other scene? Once or twice? Yes. But….
I’m not a fan of Alexander Knox. Robert Wuhl is a gifted comedian. His HBO specials Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl and its follow-up are brilliant, but I can’t stand Alexander Knox. I couldn’t when I was 11/12, I can’t now. He’s supposed to provide comic relief, which I’m fine with, and he’s supposed to be the audience’s point-of-view, but I find him taking away too much screen time that I would’ve loved to have seen go to Bruce Wayne, Batman, or even Vicki Vale.
The writing and pacing are a little off. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with the 1988 Writers Guild strike, which affected many movies and TV shows that year (it’s mentioned in my essay on A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master). The dialogue in places is spot-on and perfect (the Joker’s dialogue, Alfred’s dialogue), other times it’s pretty bad (most of Vicki Vale’s lines, many of Bruce Wayne’s). As far as pacing, there are some cool action pieces throughout the movie, but there are times when it’s dull and boring. I also have to wonder if getting Jack Nicholson actually hurt the movie. He was billed before Michael Keaton, who played the title role! His fee and demands are stuff of legend, as is his earning on the back end (which is quite common now), but I wonder if having spent so much on Nicholson made the movie more about the Joker. Of course, one plot point that gets fans angered is Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave, something that co-screenwriter (and writer of the original story) Sam Hamm says he had nothing to do with, pinning it all on co-screenwriter, the late Warren Skaaren. While many have been very upset with this it does fall within the realm of possibility for this movie’s Alfred. There are certainly enough hints from Alfred that he wishes Bruce would lead a more normal life, and that Vicki might be a way to that life. So I’m not mentioning that as a bad part of this movie. Because the real thing, I think, is–
Batman kills everyone. In the comic books, the one thing that separates Batman’s style of vigilantism from that of, say, Charles Bronson’s Death Wish character is that Batman will not kill. Batman will break every law in the book if it means getting the culprit, except for killing. In the stories when he’s had to kill, it often leads to follow-up stories where he’s dealing with the killing. In 1989’s Batman, though, Batman is like Rambo. Off the top of my head, Batman kills: Jack Napier (accidentally, though Jack actually survives both the fall into and the submergence in a vat of green chemicals, Batman doesn’t know that until the Joker appears); Joker’s thugs when the Batmobile drops bombs in Axis Chemicals in an attempt to kill the Joker; in Gotham Cathedral, at the end, one of the Joker’s goons leaps from a high place and falls through the floor (while Batman didn’t kill him, he didn’t try to help him, either, which I think comic book Batman would have); and another of the Joker’s goons gets dropped down the length of the cathedral when Batman swings up, grabs him with his calves, and drops him to his death; and, of course, there’s the Joker, who Batman uses the Batbolo (?!) to tie to a gargoyle as the Joker’s helicopter is trying to lift him away. Killing the Joker was a huge mistake because it meant that he couldn’t appear in any sequels. Of course, I’m sure that movie magic would’ve brought him back, as so often happens in comic books, but it would’ve been weak.
When the box office receipts cleared the air, Batman did several things: It revitalized interest in Batman in a mass way that hadn’t been there (except when news got out that Robin would be killed off in the comic books in 1988); it started a huge movie franchise for Warner Bros., who’d sold the film rights to Superman after Superman III; it gave DC Comics a popular film franchise character to capitalize on, something that hadn’t happened since around Superman III (because 1988’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was a turkey in every way); and it gave Tim Burton a shot at the big leagues. Up until this movie, Burton was the quirky director of quirky films that turned in a profit. After this movie, he was Tim Burton, the director of Batman. It allowed him to make what could arguably be called his most important movie, Edward Scissorhands.
The even bigger side effect, I think, is that the success of Batman brought a generation of kids to comic books that might have neglected them beforehand. Sure, the mid-to-late-1980s are filled with important comic books that showed the artform as something more than just throwaway entertainment. Names like Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman became household names for people who read a lot. If you were a reader, chances are you saw articles about Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and The Sandman and may have been interested in them. But the huge success of the movie Batman brought kids like me into comic book shops for the first time to not only buy the various (and plentiful) Batman comics that existed, but got them interested in other titles. It even made comic books seem like a possible career path. I think that without Batman, I might not be writing this. Batman got me to look at comics again, to read them again, to go to the local comic book shop every Saturday, to want to draw and write them. This eventually got me into the local Waldenbooks, which eventually led me to buy The Shining by Stephen King, which made me want to ditch the art thing and just write.
With Batman, Warner Bros. had a new hit that could become a franchise. So of course, it wasn’t long before they approached Tim Burton about a sequel. And fresh off the success of Edward Scissorhands, he said yes.