Updated: Dec 15, 2020
In a nutshell: Billionaire Bruce Wayne spends his nights fighting crime disguised as the masked vigilante, Batman. As he tackles Gotham City’s crime and corruption, a new threat emerges in the form of psychotic criminal, The Joker.
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We are currently living in the “Superhero” Age of Cinema. This year alone (2017) features eight comic-book blockbusters released in as many months with the same amount due next year. Whilst their source inspiration has been around since the 1930s, the comic-book film genre never really took hold until the late ’90s, early noughties, with Blade (1998), X-Men (2000) and Spider-man (2002). The advance in CGI to fully realise these larger than life characters was one of the main reasons but for the studios, there’s the benefit of instant brand recognition, cross audience appeal and most importantly, merchandising opportunities.
Key elements of what makes a successful superhero/comic-book film can be traced back to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). The film took its sweet time getting to the big screen, especially being over ten years after DC Comics stablemate Superman (1978) which gave birth to the genre. However as the studios discovered, you can’t paint Batman with the same brush as Superman, the characters and tone are very different (a reason why they frequently cross paths).
The biggest challenge was how to re-establish Batman as he was originally written; a dark, brooding vigilante. Especially when he was best remembered very differently – a 1960’s icon, the bright, camp and batshit crazy, Batman TV series with the legendary Adam West. The television series only ran for three years but ran on regular repeat rotation around the world meaning it would remain in the public consciousness for decades.
Despite going through the hands of various established directors like Richard Donner, Joe Dante and Ivan Reitman, studio Warner Brothers took a big risk and eventually handed the keys to the Batcave to a young and emerging director, Tim Burton. Burton’s background was one of comedy (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice) but he had a keen eye for stylised visuals with a dark gothic quality – he would go on to be a key influence on Goth culture, effectively becoming “King of the Goths”, if you will.
Burton’s hiring was the first of many risks the film took, the look of the character was changed, the origin story was ditched and the casting of Michael Keaton as the lead had comic book nerds screaming in disbelief. The director of Pee Wee and the star of Mr Mom?! Fans assumed the film would be just as camp as Adam West and company – as such, over 50,000 fans petitioned to have Keaton removed, which in a pre-internet era, is a lot of dedicated fan-boys!
With such unknown qualities, Warners needed to find a name that brought respectability to the production, much like Superman casting Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando opposite an unknown Christopher Reeve. Jack Nicholson’s casting was top of the studio’s wish list for The Joker and they were willing to pay good money to get him – Nicholson’s pay packet is still legendary today.
Unfortunately, the spot-on casting of The Joker wasn’t enough to quell the wave of negativity. So Warners decided to release a teaser trailer made from a rough assembly of footage, to put these fears to rest. Thankfully people went nuts for the trailer (this time, in a good way) queuing at cinemas just to see it. It changed the whole concept of what a trailer could be. The Batman hype machine had begun and would dominate the summer of 1989, with the Bat symbol plastered across billboards, cereal boxes, t-shirts and even neckties, paving the way for every blockbuster film since. As producer Michael Uslan put it simply.“The wheel had been reinvented”
With such development troubles and the marketing hype in overdrive, could the film live up to expectations? Fortunately for everyone involved, it was one of the most successful films of the year (just behind Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade) and the highest-grossing DC film until The Dark Knight (2008).
“I want you to tell all your friends about me….”
There’s a lot of reasons why the film works, from great casting, fantastic production design and a snappy script to gets straight into the action. The opening fools you into thinking you’re watching the Bruce Wayne origin story, with the mugging/attack of parents and their young son. However, then Batman glides onto the rooftops like an Angel of Death to scare the bejesus out of the two criminals. Within minutes, any images of Adam West’s dayglo Batman are safely banished.
From there, we get a brief introduction to all the main characters; reporters Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) on the case of Gotham’s six-foot bat. The struggle between the Mayor’s office, featuring District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee. Williams) and Commissioner Gordon (a bumbling Pat Hingle) and the city’s gangsters Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) and Jack Napier (Nicholson). These points are reinforced whilst at the charity ball held by the mysterious (or just plain weird) billionaire, Bruce Wayne.
This all sets up the origin of the villain, rather than the hero, who is fully formed but still a myth in Gotham. We quickly get to the first main action sequence at Axis Chemicals where a betrayed Napier and his goons are escaping the inept police, only to be picked off by one by one by Batman. Napier’s ego gets the better of him, and he ends up falling (or is he dropped? Discuss.) into a vat of chemicals to become the Clown Prince of Crime.
The film has a great sense of pace, despite juggling various subplots of romance, mystery, and terrorism amongst some well-choreographed action where Batman gets to show off his wonderful toys, including a heavily armed but incredibly inaccurate Bat-plane, (aka The Batwing).
In true Burton fashion, the surreal climax is suitably gothic and over the top, with a battered Bat taking out goons (in the tallest cathedral you’ve ever seen) before the Joker can make his escape to…somewhere. It’s not exactly clear what Joker would do if his plan to kill most of Gotham succeeded – but let’s remember that he’s psychotic, so he may not have thought this through.
One weakness is the film is guilty of being the Jack/Joker show, with Nicholson gleefully devouring every scene he’s in – even when he’s the only character in a scene. That said, it’s a real shame he gets killed off, as he’s a such an important villain to Batman and part of the fun is their duality and seeing their ongoing encounters.
The Joker has never been a subtle character, he’s crazy, twisted, unpredictable but most of all, he needs to be funny and Nicholson delivers on all points. Whilst the film was deemed “dark” at the time, with hindsight The Joker is in danger of approaching Cesar Romero (the Joker in the 60’s show) levels of camp. On balance, you could argue such theatricality adds more heft to Keaton’s brooding near-silent take on Batman/Bruce Wayne.
Despite being far from anyone’s first choice, Keaton turns in a strong and nuanced performance as a man struggling with his past. Gone is the swaggering playboy that we’re familiar with. Keaton’s Wayne is a reclusive, aloof and introverted billionaire that people struggle to recognise. One of the reasons Burton wanted Keaton was his expressive eyes and intensity and it works, once he’s in the suit, it feels like a totally different character. His take on Bruce Wayne may stray from the character (sleeping like a bat, “You wanna get nuts?!”) but it’s a role he would better define in the sequel, Batman Returns.
Danny Elfman delivers an iconic soundtrack that is only bettered than John Williams legendary work on Superman. Elfman’s operatic themes add extra credibility to this serious take on The Dark Knight would go on to influence the terrific Animated Series of the early nineties and sorely missed in the Schumacher sequels.
In classic 1980’s blockbuster fashion, the film also features a plethora of pop courtesy of Prince. The two big scenes of the Joker trashing the art gallery or the city parade climax that feature Prince songs are a lot of fun but feel like music videos which really date the film (along with Keaton’s choice of turtleneck sweaters).
“Gentlemen! Let’s broaden our minds!”
Burton infuses the gothic sensibilities with a mix of 1950’s kitsch and eighties consumerism, a style he would go on to refine in his next film (arguably his best) Edward Scissorhands (1990) as well as many others throughout his career.
In the years since it’s release, many people now see the definitive take on Batman as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan does get a much better feel for Batman and the characters that surround him and I agree that The Dark Knight is a better film – however, Burton’s Batman is a lot more fun. What makes Batman so appealing is his flexibility, he can be camp, gothic or realistic, all have their strengths but the less said about the Joel Schumacher sequels, the better!
Ultimately, this film is a key chapter in Batman’s history and a defining film for Tim Burton who over the years following would deliver some of his best work, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns (1992) and Ed Wood (1994).
The film proved to the genre that you could be flexible with the source material as some things just don’t work on-screen. Along with Star Wars, it also changed the perception of what a blockbuster could be, how it could be merchandised, which changed the industry forever. Now, who’s up for a delicious bowl of Batman cereal?
Coulda Woulda Shoulda – Robin Williams was studio’s back up choice for The Joker, apparently he was used as bait to secure Nicholson. Many actors were considered for Batman, including Alec Baldwin, Pierce Brosnan and believe it or not, Bill Murray (when Ivan Reitman was attached as director)
MVP: All the bold choices lie with visonary director Tim Burton.
Alternate Title: Goth-man v Nicholson: Dawn of the Franchise