Retrospective Part 1 of 8: Batman (1989)

This is Part 1 of an 8 part series discussing the production, influence and impact of each modern live-action Batman film. With The Batman (2022) approaching release, it’s the right time to take a look back at how we got here, examining the highs and lows of Batman’s cinematic career.

Every so often, a film comes along which completely changes the cinematic landscape. These aren’t always perfect films, but their influence is so widespread that they are stillfondly remembered. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) is one such film. Nearly every element of modern filmmaking can be traced back to it. It’s hard to imagine now, but films weren’t always produced to be merchandised and marketed just to get bums on seats. Sure, the movie business has always been about ticket sales, but it wasn’t until Batman that a film’s creative aspects were tailored to the business goals. Even so, the fever around Batman made sure that nearly every aspect of it has been seared into the collective memory of pop culture.

Kim Basinger and Michael Keaton as Vicki Vale and Bruce Wayne.

Within filmmaking and film criticism circles, 1989 is affectionately nicknamed ‘The Year of Batman’. At the time, it was one of the biggest hits ever made, but the nickname ran deeper than that. The build up to the film’s release was so omnipresent that it arguably trumps the anticipation that modern superhero films get. Fans were doing everything they could to find out every detail about the production. It got so fanatical that Michael Keaton’s casting as Batman caused an angry uproar. Back in 1989 (long before the internet) countless fans would buy tickets to films they had no interest in seeing, just to watch the Batman trailer. This set the stage for how modern studios would build hype for movies, as the release of a movie’s trailer is now just as big an event as the film itself. People couldn’t get enough of Batman, which is surprising considering the people making it weren’t always on the same page.

Before the film went into production, Warner Brothers wasn’t enthusiastic about making the film. Despite its popularity, the campy 1960’s Adam West TV show had tainted the idea of Batman having any serious blockbuster potential, resulting in all tonally similar pitches being turned down. It wasn’t until the success of the graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke that Warners reconsidered. These were dark stories, so the studio figured this was the way to go. At the time, Tim Burton wasn’t the superstar director he is now, but his eerie and gothic filmmaking sensibilities displayed in Beetlejuice (1988) landed him the job. Even though Burton wasn’t a comic book fan, he took the opportunity to create a film which attempted to highlight the heightened neo-noir reality of Batman’s world as well as the insanity of its characters.

The Batmobile designed by Anton Furst.

In this version, Joker starts out as a mobster named Jack Napier, who gets his white skin when a fight with Batman causes him to fall into a vat of chemicals. Unlike more mysterious iterations of the character, the clown prince of crime is given a clear and defined origin story, which in turn allowed Jack Nicholson to embody nearly the entire lifecycle of the famed super villain. His performance steals the show, as his enjoyably magnetic presence is both creepy and funny. While this definitely resulted in many of the best moments, it had an unfortunate effect on the rest of the film. With a heavy hitter like Nicholson on board, the studio requested that everything be retooled to centre on his performance. This decision not only took vital story attention away from other elements, but set a precedent for this franchise that the villain would always get top billing.

Batman often feels like a supporting character in his own films and this is no exception. However, there was a subtle layer of genius with his depiction here. We are introduced to a darkly intimidating Batman in a wonderfully nightmarish opening sequence, yet we are introduced to his alter ego Bruce Wayne separately. Interestingly, the film doesn’t let the audience know they are one and the same until nearly 30 minutes in. This little ploy created intrigue around the character, as it was endlessly fascinating to see his duality throughout the rest of the narrative. This is an aspect of Batman which hasn’t been bettered by any subsequent film and has cemented Keaton as one of the most iconic Batman actors. Along with Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988), Keaton’s casting arguably inspired other outside the box choices when it came to casting action heroes.

Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne.

Outside of the casting, this is a fine case of how a ‘style over substance’ approach can result in a good film. The design of Gotham City is one for the ages, creating a vibrant world which somehow exists in a film noir inspired 1940s as well as a futuristic hellscape. The various costumes, sets, backgrounds, props and so on are imaginative and memorable, breathing life into a comic book world. This made Burton a household name practically overnight, as it was the perfect playground for him to hone his distinct quirks. These were larger than life characters, who said larger than life things and who lived in a larger than life city. It was such a perfect storm of Burton’s madness that it essentially created Batman’s new public image, despite nothing about the characters or story being anything like the source material.

Burton’s signature makes this Batman more re-watchable than any other, just purely based on how darkly enjoyable it is. This is surprising when you consider the creative direction was changing frequently (and it shows as the actual narrative makes little sense). There is a coherent cause and effect to how one event leads to the next, but character and story motivations aren’t explained in a narrative context. The characters actions are informed by the performances, music choices, set pieces and mood. The main story idea at the heart of the film is that good and evil created each other. Specifically, Batman dropped the Joker into the chemicals and Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. While these points were the main thing keeping the story interesting, it was also a clear indicator that Burton only had interest in accurately depicting Batman’s duality. Consequently, the origin story and all related narrative elements were altered to create the most commercially viable film.

Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson come face to face as Batman and Joker.

Choices like these were the main points of difference between Burton, screenwriter Sam Hamm and various other production heads. Even though the creative goals kept shifting, Batman became a phenomenal success. Due to the constant interference, Burton was unhappy with the final product and wasn’t keen on returning for a sequel. Warners wasn’t ready to let the director go, so they promised Burton greater creative freedom for the second film. This obviously seemed like a good idea at the time, but the studio would deeply regret their decision once Batman returned.

Continued in Retrospective Part 2 of 8: Batman Returns (1992).

Batman Poster.
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Robert Fantozzi

Passionate filmmaker. Proud Italian-South African. Total Nerd.

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