Unless you were an avid comic book reader during the last half of the 20th Century, many young people grew up with an image of Batman born from a 1960s TV show. And while it’s important to stress that the TV show had entertaining plus points. It also offered a simplistic vision of Batman that played to a camp, and humorous design. Therefore the news, that Batman was to make his big-screen debut filled fans of the comic books with hope, joy and apprehension in equal measure – excitement equally tinged with fear at the character the world would be offered.
The Death of Superman
By 1988 comic book heroes on the big screen were in serious trouble. After all, Superman had hit the buffers with the low budget The Quest for Peace, bringing the legendary Christophers Reeve’s interpretation of the character to an unfortunate and disappointing end. Meanwhile, the 1986 version of Howard the Duck had bombed at the box office alongside the 1984 Supergirl.
In fact, during this time, Warner had already developed the concept and schedule for a film version of ‘The Batman’, announcing production in late 1998. However, the cast, featuring William Holden, David Niven, and Peter O’Toole, would never complete the project due to Holden and Niven’s death. Therefore, The Batman was shelved as Warner debated where to go next.
Cinema audiences were seeking new and creative forms of escapism, away from the traditional comic book adaption. Here Back to the Future, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones brought new forms of fantasy and escapism. Consequently, the continuation of the Superhero film journey that began in the 1970s now felt old, with little to no studio backing for big-budget epics of the past such as Superman the Movie.
Enter the Bat
The development of a Batman film remained a considerable risk for Warner Brothers. Its earlier attempts at a movie falling at the final hurdle. However, if done right, Warner Brothers were more than aware of the financial possibilities present. Therefore the studio continued to seek someone to take the Bat on, even approaching Ivan Reitman and Joe Dante after the success of Ghostbusters and Gremlins. However, despite numerous rewrites of the shelved Mankiewicz script, Batman sat dormant until a young director named Tim Burton entered the room, following his success with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
Batman was quickly placed into the hands of Burton, with the original script reformed and scrutinised like never before. Here Burton immediately decided that the problems lay in a screenplay that was too humorous—playing to the 1960s TV show rather than the newly emerging graphic novels. This decision would lead to a new script from comic book fan Sam Hamm. However, it would not be until the commercial success of Burton’s 1988 Beetlejuice that Batman would finally receive the green light.
The casting of Batman came as a surprise to the broader media, following rumours of Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Tom Selleck and Bill Murray. Instead, Michael Keaton (fresh from Beetlejuice) was quickly announced. Criticism immediately followed that Keaton was too strange and too frail for the role. However, Keaton’s casting was a stroke of pure genius, bringing a darker edge to the character while enabling the reinvention of Batman on screen.
With Keaton, Batman would be a vigilante figure, damaged by the death of his family while surrounded by wealth and privilege. Batman needed an actor who could portray the hero and his alter-ego believably—playing with the light and dark of Bruce Wayne and Batman in equal measure. Therefore the choice of Keaton as a character actor who could embody a range of guises fit the bill perfectly.
With the Batman announced, the focus turned to his arch-villain, ‘The Joker’. Here several well-known actors were in the frame, including Robin Williams and Brad Dourif. However, Jack Nicolson had been the desired choice of Batman’s creator Bob Kane since the early 80s. And after much encouragement, alongside a record-breaking fee of 6 million dollars. Plus a slice of box office takings (totally over 100 million dollars in all). Nicholson was announced as ‘The Joker’, which only further cemented the film as a potential blockbuster.
Shot on the 95 ache backlot at Pinewood Studios, alongside Knebworth House in Hertfordshire, Batman had a strict closed set policy. Here both Burton and Warner endeavoured to ensure the production was free from media intrusion, a move that allowed for the creative process while also protecting pre-film marketing. And from day one, it was clear that Batman intended to push the boundaries of the possible in its production.
In a world before CGI, Gotham had to be built in scale models. While equally lavish sets were constructed to match the vision of its model makers. Gotham was to be a gothic masterpiece, integrating light 1930s art deco with the darkness of a fallen city – bringing Bob Kane’s original vision of Gotham brought to life on screen for the first time. While costume design would reflect the cityscape, mixing light and dark alongside vibrant colour and deep blacks.
Meanwhile, the orchestral score needed a gothic slant. While equally capturing an intensity and hook similar to that of the John Williams Superman theme. This unenviable job was placed into the hands of a rising star in film composition Danny Elfman.
Batman was a physical production, with all the stress and anxiety that brings. From large scale set design, rushes and re-shoots to potential overblown budgets. The latter was enough to make Warner quiver with fear following Superman the Movie. All these factors added pressure on Burton to deliver a result that broke box office records. While also 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 Burton’s iconic black and gold Batman logo on everything from posters to mugs and toys. The Batman logo would become a visual symbol of a movie event, unlike anything before it – stoking public interest while building anticipation.
By the time Batman premiered in the U.K on the 11th of August 1989, the public was already screaming for more. Their appetite stoked through TV slots, merchandise and a Prince album complementing Danny Elfman’s score. This appetite would see Batman take $411,348,924 worldwide. It’s marketing matched by a film that honoured the comic books while reinventing a beloved character for a modern audience.
Luckily for the public, the studio and Burton, Batman soared, offering us a film that changed the rules of comic book adaption on screen. While also bringing comic characters and themes back from the brink of movie obscurity, consequently laying the foundations for a raft of comic adaptations in later years.
Batman was not just a great film but a cultural shift in the landscape of comics on screen. It took the ingenuity, passion and excellence of Richard Donner’s Superman the Movie into darker realms. Burton understood the Batman audience, and despite its darkness leading to the first use of a 12 certificate in the U.K, Batman would inspire a whole generation of future filmmakers.
But aside from its artistry, Batman also created a new style of blockbuster filmmaking. Here the marketing expertise of Star Wars was layered with pre-release opportunities for increased revenue. The simple yet effective use of the Batman logo combined multiple marketing strategies into one defined approach. As a result, Batman would help create the modern marketing template for films today.
Long Live the Bat
Batman’s cultural significance is equal to that of Jaws, Star Wars and Superman the Movie. In creating a new template for the comic book on screen. A template that would go on to give birth to a range of darker comic book adaptations. And even though Warner Brothers eventually grew nervous of Burton’s darker slant, ditching the promise of what could have been a Tim Burton Batman trilogy. Both Batman and Batman Returns led to other studios picking up the adult comic book adaptation mantle. With the subsequent The Crow, Blade and Watchmen in the debt of Burton’s 1989 film.
Batman has been reinterpreted many times since the visionary release of Burton’s 1989 movie. Some, achieving acclaim while others fell into obscurity. But all of the adaptations since 1989, no matter of their success or failure, owe a considerable debt to Burton, Keaton and Nicholson.
Director: Tim Burton