Early in the year 1989, the comic book blockbuster didn’t really exist yet. While 1978’s Superman was an extraordinarily successful film that launched the modern comic book movie, its success could be considered relatively modest in the grand scheme of the superhero genre. By the summer of ’89, that was about to change, because a character that most people had written off as campy, comedic, and dubious in the wake of a highly popular 1960s television series was about to be reinvented in a stylish, serious and resonant way.
Superman may have given us the first modern comic book film, but it was 1989’s Batman that evolved the genre into more than just a blockbuster film: as anyone that was around in the summer of ’89 will tell you, the coming of Batman was a cultural event.
In some ways, though, it feels like a bit of a disservice to talk about Tim Burton’s dark and quirky take on a defining comic book superhero by focusing strictly on the business it did, and the amount of people that wore T-shirts with its brilliantly branded logo. As hard as it may be to separate the film from the cultural attitude towards it when it was released, the film itself was extraordinarily important for the whole future of comics-based cinema. Warner Bros. and producers Michael Uslan, Benjamin Melniker, Peter Guber and Jon Peters took a rather extraordinary risk with their massive project by giving it to a very young and relatively inexperienced director: something of a goth hipster named Tim Burton.
In truth, though, Batman was always going to be a risk because of the attitude towards the character after the mass popularity of the Adam West TV show. But beyond the noise of the catchy and repetitive Batman TV theme song, Tim Burton felt something for this man: someone who had willfully isolated himself after a devastating tragedy to do something that no one else can. When the young director made that connection, everything fell into place.
Screenwriter Sam Hamm, a comic book fan, had crafted a screenplay informed by the source material, but in an era where the fidelity to the mythology wasn’t as important as it is today, Burton and writer Warren Skarren took it a step further. Burton’s idea of Bruce Wayne was as a neurotic recluse; an extreme personality who focuses his personal intensity into an appropriately extreme, yet productive place. Visualizing Gotham CIty through the brilliant work of production designer Anton Furst, Burton crafted the locale of the film as a freakish skyline of gothic castles, a place that looks so sinister on the outside that it demands the presence of a hero like Batman to contain the madness that obviously dwells there. Just look at it.
With a story and a location comes the need to populate it, and if Batman at all represents a perfect storm in comic book moviemaking, it was in some of the inspired choices for casting. Many fans and commentators have talked ad nauseum about the people that could’ve been Batman, with names like Alec Baldwin or Kevin Costner being thrown around to don the cape and cowl. When Michael Keaton was instead announced, fans cried foul, believing this would be the 1960s TV show resurgent, but those critics were quickly silenced upon the film’s release by the nuance and brooding intensity that Keaton brought to Batman.
For some, Jack Nicholson was considered perfect casting for the role of the Joker, and with supporting roles filled out well by respected actors like Jack Palance and Billy Dee Williams, Batman had the personalities to match the gothic vibrancy of the world crafted by Burton, Furst, Hamm and Skarren. Production was trying, working six-day weeks for months at Pinewood Studios in England, as cast, crew and studio scrambled to meet the film’s June 1989 release date. Adding to an already superb lineup of talent was composer Danny Elfman, infinitely highlighting and accentuating the already quirky and distinctive film with a score that personifies Batman, and superhero music at large.
The resulting film was a smash success, reshaping the public formulation of Batman from the batusi-dancing stand-up citizen of the 1960s, and replacing him with a modern Dark Knight. Batman is not a perfect film, but considering so many of the different factors that were working against it at the time of its production–and the absolute plethora of sheer talent working at every level of its production–its influence is easily felt because it dared to be a blockbuster with a great deal of aesthetic and thematic substance. It had taken some very important lessons from Richard Donner’s Superman film about presentation and casting, and was infinitely added to and expanded upon by the eccentricities found in Burton’s directing, Furst’s production design, and Keaton’s driven resolve.
Batman laid the groundwork for every single comic book film we enjoy today, from Spider-Man and X-Men on up through the likes of The Dark Knight, The Avengers and beyond. The comic book blockbuster may not exist without the enormous splash made by Batman 25 years ago this month, and it’s largely because of that film’s impact that so many people across the world continue to enjoy comics on film.
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and former retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, The Huffington Post, and Batman-On-Film.com. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.
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