It’s easy to look down at 1989’s “Batman” today.
- Those archaic effects!
- The rubbery Bat cowl!
- The lack of real-world gravitas in Gotham City!
Yet director Tim Burton got so much right with his superhero film that those quibbles don’t matter. And, while we wouldn’t get our first modern hero for another 19 years – 2008’s “Iron Man” – it’s clear Burton’s vision set the stage for the MCU magic to follow and, of course, March’s “The Batman.”
No one expected, or wanted, Burton to mimic the Day-Glo wonders of 1966’s “Batman: The Movie” starring Adam West. That film, part of TV’s “Batman” series, was the last time our hero graced the big screen.
That effort, and its relentless reruns, cast a shadow over superhero films in general. It’s kid’s stuff.
The original “Superman” (1978) helped deflate that image, but its subsequent sequels grew cornier, less credible. Other super-like stories, including the forgettable “Supergirl” (1984) and “Howard the Duck” (1986), reinforced the genre’s weaknesses. The delightfully silly “Swamp Thing” (1982) shared some DNA with West and co.’s TV antics.
So Burton had his hands full in restoring the superhero genre with an actor deemed ill equipped for the gig. Or so many said of Michael Keaton, the wiseacre star of “Mr. Mom” and “Night Shift” signed to play Bruce Wayne.
Had that casting call been made during our social media age, Warner Bros. would likely pull the plug rather than let Keaton don the iconic cowl.
Instead, Keaton did just fine, and “Batman” became 1989’s biggest hit ($251 million domestic box office).
The movie sparked three sequels, two new Batmen (Val Kilmer and George Clooney) and a film mirroring the franchise’s campy roots. Clooney spends every other interview apologizing for his “Batman and Robin” travesty.
It’s the first “Batman,” though, that showcased what could be accomplished with a big screen superhero.
It starts with Danny Elfman’s score, both thrilling and instantly credible. Iconic movies demand equally iconic scores – think “Star Wars,” “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” all from John Williams, of course.
The secret sauce involves more than stirring music, though.
The film wisely keeps both hero and villain from us for as long as possible. When Keaton tells a thug, “I’m Batman,” it’s our first full glimpse of him. It’s still during a dark night, and we’d have to wait to see more of him.
As for Jack Nicholson’s Joker, that reveal also packs a punch.
Burton loves darkness, both cinematically speaking and the emotional sort. He dabbled in both here, making Joker similar to his ’60s roots and someone to be feared.
Sure, Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor plotted to kill millions in “Superman,” but he rarely did the dirty work himself. Nicholson’s Joker fries one mobster to death early in the film without a scrap of remorse. He later brags about murdering his girlfriend, played by Jerry Hall.
Superhero films can be bleak, Burton taught us. Future MCU directors were clearly taking notes.
The film’s action beats remain solid, if unspectacular. Burton’s team didn’t have the CGI tool kit, so he went practical with the super battles. That proved effective during some fights but shows its limitations during the Batmobile sequences.
That car isn’t traveling as fast as a hero’s vehicle should.
Our hero isn’t the Boy Scout type a la Christopher Reeve’s Man of Steel. He clashes with his loyal chum, Alfred (Michael Gough) and sends very mixed signals to his new flame, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger, who screeches way too much here).
Keaton’s Wayne tries to tell her his secret identity at one point, gently telling her to “shut up” so he can say what needs to be said.
It’s something Clark Kent would never utter to Lois Lane, and it shows Burton’s Batman as both flawed and conflicted. He’s damaged goods.
Once again, future superheroes would be similarly complex, whether its an angst-filled Spider-man or the warring Avengers from “Captain America: Civil War.”
“Batman” doesn’t delve into politics or broader cultural issues. That’s something the MCU slowly, and shrewdly, introduced over time (before going woke). The story still broadened what a superhero film could be, from its bleak shadings to bridging the gap between reality and the comic book page.
Both Batman and the Joker show that visual compromise, and subsequent Bat films would push us further into a normalized version of super figures. Just compare the new Riddler to the old:
It was inevitable that Hollywood would embrace superheroes. The built in audience, the need for recognizable figures … the CGI magic that can make anything possible on screen. It’s all catnip to film studios.
We can look back to 1989 as the year showing us the genre’s full, creative potential.