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.
Twenty-seven years after Batman first appeared on the comic book page and seventeen years after he last appeared on the silver screen, 20th Century Fox released Batman to theaters. Of course, this wasn’t a new Batman on film, but rather a spin-off movie of the popular television series, the first season of which had aired between January and June of 1966. The loud colors, tongue-in-cheek humor, and satire made teenagers and young adults dig the show, while the same colors, action, and cool gadgets made younger viewers rediscover Batman.
The popularity of the TV series, which only lasted three seasons between January 1966 and June 1968, kept it in reruns and was my first live-action Batman in the late-1970s/early-1980s. The show aired nearly every day and like The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves, in this time before cable television had taken a grasp on the world, it was common for these holdover shows to air a lot. To me, Adam West’s Batman and Burt Ward’s Robin were Batman and Robin for a great many years. When my father brought home Batman comic books, I couldn’t understand why Batman’s ears were so long and I couldn’t see his eyes. So I drew the eyes in. I remember playing with my Mego Pocket Superheroes Batman and Robin and mimicking the horns that played every time Batman or Robin punched someone in their brawls.
Batman: The Movie seemed to air on Sundays. Not every Sunday, but once or twice a year, usually on channel 56, out of Boston. It was cause célèbre. It had four of the best Batman villains, the Batmobile, Batboat, Batcycle, and Batcopter, and an exploding shark! And don’t even get me started on the bomb!
And I sometimes wonder why I didn’t have more friends when I was a little kid.
The cast is pretty good. Adam West and Burt Ward look like Batman and Robin and Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Granted, West may have been able to work out a little for the role, but overall, his jaw is pretty Batmanish and he looks physically able to do some stuff. Burt Ward looked young enough to be, if not a boy, definitely a teenager. They also seem to really enjoy being these heroes. They relish the dialogue and silliness of it, but never give in to it. They play it absolutely straight.
Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, Lee Meriwether, and Frank Gorshin play the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, and the Riddler in a delightfully frantic way. They seem to understand what the show was about and seem to enjoy their roles, chewing up the scenery as they go. Romero as the Joker, even though he wouldn’t shave his mustache, is perfect. He represents the Joker’s lighter days from the 1950s and into the 1960s, when the Comics Code Authority were at their height. Meredith as the Penguin is phenomenal. He is the leader of the group of villains and is somehow simultaneously mean and hilarious. As the Penguin, there’s a gleam in his eye and you both fear and love him. Lee Meriwether stands in for Julie Newmar, who had prior obligations and couldn’t reprise her television role for the movie. Meriwether is excellent as Catwoman. She slinks across the screen, playing verbal ping-pong with Adam West. The Catwoman is pretending to be a Russian reporter and Bruce Wayne definitely has a thing for her. It’s great.
I actually want to single out Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. He’s the best of the villains in this movie, though he’s not given as much to do as The Penguin or Catwoman. He’s off-the-wall one moment and then very dark, even scary, the next, only to return to his hyperactive ways. Of all the villains, Gorshin makes the Riddler seem the scariest. His face can go from dead serious one moment, to insane laughter and glee. Perfection.
In terms of capturing what the TV show was about, the movie succeeds quite well. Shot at the very end of the first season, and released during the summer between the first and second seasons, it is an epic story that could easily have been several episodes, but uses the big screen to open things up. There are shots of Wayne Manor that one doesn’t see in the series, for instance. Also, the movie introduces three new vehicles in this Batman’s world: the Batcycle (with sidecar), the Batcopter, and the Batboat. Shots of the Batcopter flying over 1966 L.A. are priceless.
The small political statement that’s woven into all the silliness is also pretty cool. The writer, Lorenzo Semple, Jr., who was the head writer of the series, interjects some politics into the movie. The villains decide to kidnap the United World Orginization’s Security Council (a play on the United Nation’s Security Council), whose members spend all their time bickering and not getting much done. They argue so much, they never see the colorful villains in the room with them (see the above group shot of the villains) or realize they’ve been dehydrated into multi-colored dust and then rehydrated back to themselves, almost. There’s also a jab at then-president Lyndon Johnson, as well as the government selling old military vehicles.
The satire and parody of 1950s Batman comic books as well as the movie serials is pretty good, as well as the way comic books had to be watered down after Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent nearly destroyed the American comic book industry. Having Batman and Robin be deputies of the law, saying things like they are pro-police, and even having the police take their hats off to them as they fly by in the Batcopter, is all amusing.
I couldn’t possibly mention this movie, or the TV series, without giving some love to the Batmobile. For a generation, this was the real Batmobile. Last year I went to the Rhode Island Comic Con and saw the Tim Burton Batmobile, it was cool. But not as cool as seeing this Batmobile would’ve been. From its exterior to its interior, this car is a beauty. Love it.
For a big screen foray of an adventure series, it still feels an awful lot like the TV show. Perhaps the budget they were given for the movie wasn’t as large as it could’ve been. Maybe I’m writing this from the viewpoint of having seen Superman and General Zod destroy a huge amount of Metropolis. Whatever the reason, it’s not as big as it could be.
Some of the jokes fall flat. After recently watching the IFC marathon of the series, the movie feels watered-down. The jokes aren’t as sharp. The shark? It’s ridiculous, and I guess that’s what they were going for, but doesn’t feel very pop art funny.
The real darkness of not just the movie, but of the entire run of Batman, was its lasting impact. In the early 1960s, in response to the popularity of new comic book heroes like The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and, generally, all of the new Marvel characters at that time, DC decided to try to breathe new life into their comics. By recreating the 1940s character The Flash as a hip, young man with no ties to the original, DC spawned the Silver Age. One of the things they decided to do was to bring Batman back to his more serious roots, while changing the costume up and making him seem cooler to the kids of the time. Carmine Infantino is the artist credited with giving Batman the yellow oval.
Just as the new Batman was debuting in comic books, ABC aired Batman and the decision was made to make the comic book more like the TV series. By the early-1970s, with the show dead by a few years, editor Julius Schwatrz wanted to bring a more serious tone to DC overall, making it even more like Marvel. He experimented with Green Lantern and Green Arrow, two heroes that were not selling very well. When they succeeded, he moved the creative team from that book to Batman. The team, writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, brought Batman into the 1970s by updating him and his cast. Robin was now off at college, appearing when needed. Bruce Wayne left the huge Wayne Manor and moved into a penthouse apartment at the top of Wayne Foundation, which was run by Lucius Fox. The Joker became a killer again.
Here’s the thing, though, unless you actively read the comics–and there weren’t many who did–nobody knew of these changes. Mention comic books, and it’s Biff! Pow! Whammo! Sound effects that hardly ever made their way into the actual comic books before the TV series, never mind after! Batman and Robin were planted deeply in the mind of the general audience as Adam West and Burt Ward, sliding down Batpoles, using Bat-Shark Repellent, and serving public service announcements within dialogue. The damage done to the comic book industry as a result of the constant reruns of Batman almost killed it many times over. And even as Richard Donner’s 1978 masterpiece Superman: The Movie made people aware that comic books could be brought into modern times and be relevant, one can’t help but wonder if the relationship between Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and his sidekicks Otis (Ned Beatty) and Miss Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine) would’ve been different without the Batman TV show still so planted in the minds of viewers. And even now, in 2014, when comic books and comic book characters have become huge business, there are still articles and news stories that insist on using silly sound effects as a lead-in or in the title.
Serious comic book fans like to bash the Batman TV series and 1966 movie (the entire Adam West/Burt Ward series/movie has come to be referred to as either Batman 1966 or Batman ’66) for its silly take on the characters but the series and the movie are fun to watch. If you were born in the 1970s, you saw the show and movie on TV all the time and Adam West was your Batman. Hell, when I was younger, I dismissed the series as silly and insulting. Of course, this happened right around 1989, the year I turned 12, and that’s a tough age anyway.
For better or worse, Adam West left his mark on the character of Batman, a mark that wouldn’t be removed until 21 years after the cancellation of his TV series.