Ah, 1989. It was a simpler time. Your faithful correspondent was 14 years old—amply pimpled, brazenly bemulleted, and already a devoted movie geek. The best thing that happened to me that year was that Lethal Weapon 2 came out. This was back when one could devote himself unequivocally to the hero worship of Mel Gibson. Like I said, it was a simpler time. Lethal Weapon 2 was a big hit that summer, as was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade which gave us the perfect ending to the career of the good Dr. Jones. (Again, I repeat, simpler time.) But these two monster hits were not the big news that year because 1989 was the year of Batman.
Looking back, it’s easy to see now that Tim Burton’s Batman wasn’t simply the biggest hit of that year (grossing 411 million at the worldwide box office against a budget of 35 million, which, adjusted for inflation, might well make Batman the most successful comic book movie in history); it was also the most influential. While Richard Donner’s Superman had legitimized the comic book movie as potential blockbuster material back in 1978, that franchise had been mismanaged by producers who didn’t appreciate the delicate combination of grandeur and humor Donner had brought to the material. By 1989, when producers Peter Gruber and Jon Peters brought the Dark Knight to the screen, the comic book movie was still a gamble.
In the world of comic books and graphic novels, of course, Batman himself had long since recovered from the doldrums of the Comics Code Authority—which effectively neutered the character in the 50s—and the Adam West campfest of the 60s which turned him into a hip joke. By 1989, Frank Miller had already given us his masterpieces The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. As Michael Eury and Michael Kronenberg nicely document in their book The Batcave Companion, however, the reclamation of Batman had already been underway for years through the work of writers and artists like Neal Adams, Steve Englehart, Carmine Infantino, Dennis O’Neil, Len Wien, Bernie Wrightson, and more—all under the watchful eye of DC mastermind Julius Schwartz . This revitalized Batman seemed like the perfect figure to headline a new take on the comic book movie.
Gruber and Peters made a number of daring creative choices early on. They tapped Tim Burton, still an up-and-comer, to direct the film. In many ways, Burton was a bizarre choice. He wasn’t an action director (he was best known, at the that point, for having directed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice) and he wasn’t a comic book fan. Then the creative team tapped Michael Keaton to play Batman. The screams of outraged fanboys doubtless still echo in Keaton’s ears. Mr. Mom was no one’s first choice to play the Dark Knight. (Personally, I wanted, you know, Mel Gibson…)
But other things clicked into place. The team hired the brilliant production designer Anton Furst to create a Gotham City that looked like a self-contained world—a gothic vision of steel and stone that felt like an industrial Oz created by Edward Gorey. They hired Danny Elfman to pen a score that was ponderous and joyous in equal measure. And they got Jack Nicholson to play the Joker.
Nicholson was an inspired choice to play Joker because he brought all his accumulated cinematic history to bear on the character—all the darkness and fun and comedy and drama. In that respect, he followed Gene Hackman’s lead from Superman. If you could never forget that you were watching Nicholson do his take on Caesar Romero do his take on the Joker, it didn’t really matter because you knew it could turn serious at any moment. His presence legitimized the whole endeavor, and he had fun with the role. Nicholson turned Batman into a party.
Looking back, though, Nicholson’s over-the-top bad guy is less interesting than Keaton’s quirky take on the caped crusader. Despite all the fears that the Keaton of Mr. Mom was going to show up, what we got was something closer to the Keaton of Clean and Sober. Always an intelligent actor, Keaton decided to play Bruce Wayne rather than Wayne’s nighttime garb. His Wayne is a man haunted by the past. He’s not a great detective or a martial arts expert—he’s closer to what the criminals in the film see him as, a boogeyman who preys on criminals. Just watch him attack the petty crooks in the opening scene. Stiff in his heavy armor, he’s more like a lumbering Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers than a ninja. Obviously, people compare Keaton’s take on the character to Christian Bale’s, but while Bale’s portrayal is famous for its intensity, make no mistake—Keaton is actually playing the darker character. His Bruce Wayne has problems.
Tim Burton’s Batman is very much a movie by Tim Burton. (And 1992’s Batman Returns is even more so.) It’s art designed to within an inch of it’s life, and it’s wholly unconcerned with creating a sense of reality. You can understand the difference between the Burton Batman and the Nolan Batman purely in terms of Gotham City. Nolan shot his movies in Chicago and Pittsburg, giving Gotham the look an feel of a real city. Burton has zero interest in that. He wants to create a world as artificial as Wonderland.
Interestingly, Burton’s Batman suffered a similar fate to Donner’s Superman. After Burton and Keaton left the series, the franchise devolved into campiness as painful as it was pointless. (Indeed, the most confounding element of 1997’s execrable Batman And Robin is that it has no intended audience. It’s loathed by comic book geeks, and it’s ignored by lovers of camp. It’s just a long boring commercial for crappy toys.) The superhero movie was reborn with Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man, which began the comic book colonization of our movie screens. Marvel has led the way, of course, but Nolan’s Batman films have kept DC comics alive on screen. 2016 will bring us Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice with Ben Affleck’s Batman squaring off against Henry Cavill’s Superman. Twenty-five years into the cinematic resurgence of the Dark Knight, he’s still going strong. At least some of the that is due to the dark and weird world of Burton’s Batman.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.