Unless you were an avid comic book reader, many of of my generation grew up with the Batman of the 1960’s TV series. While the TV show had entertaining plus points, it offered a vision of a camp, humorous character that often felt over simplified. The news that Batman was to finally make his big screen debut in 1989 therefore, filled fans of the comic books with hope, joy and apprehension at the character the world would be offered.
By 1988 comic book heroes on the big screen were in serious trouble. Superman had hit the buffers with the low budget ‘The Quest for Peace’. Bringing the legendary Christophers Reeve interpretation of the character to an unfortunate and disappointing end. While the 1986 version of Howard the Duck bombed at the box office alongside the 1984’s Supergirl.
Audiences were seeking new and creative forms of escapism, often away from the traditional comic book adaption with Back to the Future, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones bringing fantasy, adventure and family entertainment in creative new concepts. The continuation of the Superhero film journey begun in the 1970’s now felt old, with little to no studio backing for big budget epic’s like 1978’s Superman the Movie.
As My Plastic Surgeon Always Says; If you Gotta Go, Go With a SmileThe Joker
Batman was therefore a huge risk for Warner Brothers, its mission to reinvent the character dovetailed with a need to reignite the comic book hero on the big screen. However, if done right, Warner Brothers were more than aware of the financial possibilities present in the character. With the later marketing of the film, marking a new point in film/merchandise cross over, not seen since Star Wars.
Batman was placed into the hands of a rising star and visionary director (Tim Burton) who had proved his ability to create commercial success with 1988’s Beetlejuice. However, this choice was also a huge risk, Burton was visionary but also fresh to blockbuster production. The success or failure of the film and its reinterpretation of the character sitting firmly in his creative choices.
The casting of Batman came as a surprise to the wider media, placing Michael Keaton (fresh from Beetlejuice) into a role, that everyone perceived in different way. Criticism immediately followed (as it has with every actor given the role), ranging from Keaton being too strange, to his physical stature and voice. However, his casting was a stroke of genius, in bringing a darker edge to the character, reinventing Batman on screen. A vigilante figure, damaged by the death of his family, surrounded by wealth and a need to change a city full of corruption and crime. Just as Christopher Reeve had mastered in Superman, the new on screen Batman needed an actor who could portray the hero and his alter-ego in a believable way. Playing with the light and dark of Bruce Wayne and Batman in equal measure. Keaton was therefore, an inspired choice, as a character actor who could slip between both mediums with ease.
Tell Me Something, My Friend, Have You Ever Danced With the Devil in the Pale Moonlight?The Joker
The announcement of Jack Nicholson as the Joker, cemented the film as a potential blockbuster. Nicholson had heard about the production of Batman while on the set of the Witches of Eastwick, the producer Jon Peters being keen to persuade Nicholson to sign up. Peters persuasion worked, with Nicholson famously demanding a figure of 6 million dollars alongside a slice of box office takings (over 100 million dollars in all) to play the role. A role that only had 585 words of dialogue in the script, but some of the most memorable content. With Nicholson joined by Kim Basinger, Michael Gough, Jack Palance and Pat Hingle, Batman soon became a monster of excitement, media interest and merchandise potential.
Filmed on the 95 ache backlot at Pinewood Studios, alongside Knebworth House in Hertfordshire, Batman had a strict closed set policy. Burton and Warner endeavouring to keep the production free from media intrusion, protecting the final unveiling, and allowing the studio to do its work in pre-film marketing. This was a film that aimed to push the boundaries of production, and it certainly wasn’t all plain sailing for the cast, director or studio.
I’m not going to kill you. I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me.
What are you?
In a world before CGI, Gotham had to be built in scale models and lavish sets that portrayed the dark vision of the director. Gotham was to be a gothic masterpiece of city architecture, taking the light of art deco and transforming it into a sinister impression of a fallen city. Bob Kanes original vision of Gotham brought to life on screen for the first time. Costume design also needed to reflect the city scape, mixing light and dark alongside vibrant colour and deep blacks.
The orchestral score needed a gothic slant while also capturing some the intensity and hook of John Williams famous Superman theme. An unenviable job placed into the hands of a rising star of film composition Danny Elfman.
This was a physical production, with all the stress and anxiety of large scale set design, rushes, re-shoots and potential overblown budgets. Something Warner was more than aware of from 1979’s Superman the Movie. All these factors adding pressure on Burton to deliver an end result that broke box office records while providing the studio with a potential series of films.
With final edits of the film still being delivered in early 1989, studio marketing entered territory not seen since Return of the Jedi. Using Burtons iconic black and gold interpretation of the Batman logo on everything from posters to mugs and toys. The Batman logo becoming a visual symbol of movie event unlike anything before it, stoking public interest and building anticipation of a completely new comic book vision on screen.
By the time Batman premiered in the U.K on the 11th August 1989, during a summer that would mark the beginning of the modern July and August blockbuster run. The public appetite for the film had been truly stoked. With pre-release toys, tv spots and a pop soundtrack from the legendary Prince, adding the cream on the top of the already hotly anticipated release. Warner Brothers making a clear gamble that even if Batman failed with the critics, it would still recoup its costs from the fevered merchandise sales and early box office takings.
Jack? Jack is dead, my friend. You can call me…Joker. And as you can see, I’m a lot happier.The Joker
Luckily for the public, studio and Burton, Batman soared, offering a film that re-drew the rules of comic book adaptions on screen. Bringing comic characters and themes back from the brink of movie obscurity, while laying the foundations for a raft of comic adaptions in later years. Batman was not just a great film, but a cultural shift in the landscape of comics on screen. Taking the learning, ingenuity and passion from Donner’s epic Superman the Movie, while allowing the hero to be darker and more nuanced in delivery. The style and texture of the film embracing the darkness of the lead character and manic psychopathy of Nicholson’s Joker perfectly, while balancing the need for adult and pre-teen attention. Batman knew its core audience and despite its darkness leading to the first use of a 12 certificate rating in U.K. cinemas. This was a film that would go on to inspire many children to read and explore the Batman character in comics.
Batman also created a new style of blockbuster filmmaking, taking the marketing expertise of Star Wars and layering it with pre-release opportunities for increased takings. Its simple use of the Batman logo, demonstrating the power of a single symbol, just as Superman had done in 1979. This was a film that combined multiple marketing strategies into one defined approach, leading to the modern marketing choices of nearly every blockbuster film today.
Batmans cultural signifigance is equal to that of Jaws, Star Wars and Superman the Movie, creating a new template of comic books on screen that still feels fresh, different and distinctive. Without Batman and its even darker sequel Batman Returns, the later run of more adult comic book adaptions may never have occurred. And even though Warner Brothers grew nervous of Burtons darker slant, famously ditching what could have been a Tim Burton trilogy. Batman and Batman Returns led other studios to pick up the mantle of more adult comic book adaptions, with films ranging from The Crow, Blade and Watchmen all owing a debt of gratitude to Burton’s 1989 film.
Batman has been reinterpreted many times since the visionary release of Burton’s 1989 movie, with some versions flying and others falling into obscurity. But all versions since, no matter of their success or failure owe a huge debt to Burton, Keaton and Nicholson, whose characters and style still impact on the public image of what Batman should be on screen.