It’s inevitable. I have to talk about it. Everyone else is.
Tim Burton’s version of Batman was released 25 years ago today. I was 15. I was the ideal demographic of the summer blockbuster. 1989 was also the summer that gave us Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, GHOSTBUSTERS 2, and Back to the Future 3. It also gave us Turner & Hooch and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, but… never mind. Batman was the one I looked forward to the most. Batman was the blockbuster I saw three times that summer… at least one of those times happened while on vacation in Hawaii. At the time, my exposure the Batman had been Adam West and “Superfriends.” If not for the hype surrounding Dark Knight Returns and Death in the Family (the story that killed the second Robin), I may not have been prepared for the dark, cynical psycho-drama with explosives that set the tone for a generation of comic book movies.
So how did this film impact my life from 15 to 40? What do I remember? And what have we forgotten.
Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader – Keaton’s career in the 80s had been a successful string of comedies, including Mr. Mom and Burton’s Beetlejuice. Even more forgettable films like Gung Ho and Nightshift helped establish Keaton as a comic everyman, which is far removed from the traditional image of the action hero. The existing image of Adam West and the campy 60s TV series set the expectation for a tongue-in-cheek, wink to the camera Batman. This set that comicbook batfans on a campaign of outrage. Even before the wide use of the internet, anti-Keaton-rage was comparable to the venom provoked by “Bat-fleck” in 2013.
Keaton delivered. His brooding, human approach to Bruce Wayne paired with the “strong-silent” Batman showed the world that this actor had range. His career in the 90s would include darker, more dramatic roles intermingled with his familiar comedies. We haven’t seen as much of him lately, but we’ll soon see him in Birdman, where he plays an underemployed actor whose career never recovered from the late 80s comic book franchise he starred in.
Jack Nicholson as The Joker – Heath Ledger would win a posthumous Oscar for this character nearly 20 years later. In the summer of 89, though, there was trophy talk for Jack’s performance as the clown prince of crime. Most of that buzz came from teenagers, but many can agree that Nicholson is good, even when he’s going larger-than-life. This version of The Joker brought the character from an absurd bank robber to a physically and mentally damaged serial killer. The actor’s eyebrows have made him a classic villain, while the prostatic smile has left preeminent wrinkles in his aging face. The image of clowns had already been long tarnished by the likes of IT and Ronald MacDonald. If there was anything harmlessly comedic about The Joker, it was destroyed by dark and twisted high jinx. The laughter is included in the nightmare.
Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale – Remember Kim Basinger? You probably remember her winning and Oscar for LA Confidential. You probably remember when she was married to Alec Baldwin. I remember Basinger as one of those actresses I crushed on as a teen. Her and Michelle Pfeifer… and Uma Thurman… Funny how they all ended up in Batman movies. Anyway…
Vicki Vale is one of those easily forgotten characters. She doesn’t wear a form fitting thematic costume. She neither fights nor commits crime. She does, however, have the fleeting affection of Bruce Wayne. We’ll occasionally see her in the comics. The problem with her there is the writers and editors can never decide what to do with her. Does she know Bruce’s secret? Does she not? Is she hot on his trail? Is she intimately close to him? Does he even exist?
It’s not surprising that we don’t see her in the sequels considering her presence would unnecessarily complicate Batman’s relationship with Catwoman or (yawn) every other blonde woman in Gotham. Like the comic book version of the character, Vale comes off as a less aggressive version of Lois Lane. Had this version of Batman ever crossed over with Superman, would there be a redundancy in spunky, thinly written newswomen?
Alfred was awesome, but not a big name- Michael Gough played Alfred in all four Batman films from this era. He was the only element to really connect the entire series. Sure, Pat Hingle played Commissioner Gordon all four times, but that character seemed to become progressively dumber and more useless with each film. Gough was pitch perfect in the entire franchise, even in the lesser Joel Schumacher films. He made the character a memorable fan favorite. I believe this is why Warner Bros. went for the big guns when casting his successors, tapping Michael Cain for Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and Jeremy Irons for the new Justice League centric films.
Lando was almost Two-Face – Remember Billy Dee Williams in this flick? Remember who he played? District Attorney Harvey Dent. Burton only made two Batman films and was naturally steered to utilize the three most recognizable villains (The Joker, Catwoman, and Penguin). I believe that had he made a third film, he would have likely included Harvey Dent becoming Two-Face, with Billy Dee Williams in the role. Imagine Lando’s indelible smirk half mutilated, half his charm replaced with bitter crazy. For better or worse, Burton was released from any obligation he had to a third film after WB’s disappointment in 1992's Batman Returns. Two-Face did appear in the franchise, but Williams was replaced with Tommy Lee Jones opposite Val Kilmer’s Batman in Schumacher's Batman Forever in 1995.
Danny Elfman could have been the new John Williams – The best element in a lot of Tim Burton’s movies is the musical score. For many of Burton’s films, this music is provided by Oingo Boingo front man Danny Elfman. The theme from 1989’s Batman is one of the most enduring comic book film scores, second only to John Williams’ Superman theme. There have been many films based on comic books in the past 25 years. Danny Elfman was the go-to guy for many of them, most notably Sam Raimi’s Sipder-man in 2002. While many composers will come and go in this genre, the familiar tunes by Elfman will be forever associated with Batman.
This was the franchise that introduced me to the internet- In 2014, it’s not uncommon to talk films on the internet. In the 1990’s, however, the internet was a new toy. The first time I attempted to build a web site, it was devoted to an analysis of the four Batman films from 1989 to 1997. This was my first attempt and using search engines, gathering information from other pages, finding gifs and jpgs. It was also my first experience with trolls. The internet really hasn’t changed… it just got faster and shinier.
This was the first franchise that made me dislike studio executives – Batman started a trend that is still alive a quarter century later. A lot of people still look at the first installment with nostalgic fondness. And these same people are unrelenting in their hatred of the final chapter, Batman & Robin. The latter is a classic example of studio interference. If you look at the list of “writers” and “producers” credited with the fourth film, it’s clear that too many cooks spoiled that particular stew. George Clooney still apologizes for Batman & Robin. I’ve never heard Keaton apologize for Batman.
As I write this on Batman’s silver anniversary, I’m rewatching the film in question. If this film were released today, it would appear dated and melodramatic… but not as much as some of its successors. Like 1978’s Superman, it still holds up as an entertaining movie. Also like it’s brightly colored counterpart, the dark and murky outing is a product of its era.