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 1960s TV show. And while its 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 finally 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 could be offered.
The Death of Superman
By 1988 comic book heroes on the big screen were in serious trouble. With Superman having 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’s 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 1983, based on a script by Tom Mankiewicz. However the cast, which included William Holden, David Niven and Peter O’Toole would never see the project completed. As both Holden and Niven died during planning. And with the failure of Superman creating a dilemma at the heart of the genre. All plans were shelved, as Warner debated where to go next.
Cinema audiences were seeking new and creative forms of escapism. More often than not, away from the traditional comic book adaption. With Back to the Future, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones bringing them new forms fantasy and escapism. Consequently 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 of the past such as Superman the Movie.
Enter the Bat
The development of a Batman film remained a huge risk for Warner Brothers. Its earlier attempts at a film falling at the final hurdle. However, if done right, Warner Brothers were more than aware of the financial possibilities present in the character. And therefore 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 Mankiewicz script, Batman sat dormant. Until a young director named Tim Burton entered discussions, following his success with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Which happened to coincide with the huge success of DC Comics The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: The Killing Joke.
Batman was therefore placed into the hands of Burton alongside the numerous script rewrites. With Burton immediately deciding that the problems lay in a screenplay that was too humorous. Playing to the 1960s TV show rather than the newly emerging graphic novels. A decision that led in 1986 to the screenplay being placed in the hands of comic book fan Sam Hamm. Who duly rewrote the story while liaising with Burton and Warner. However, it would not be until the commercial success of Burton’s 1988’s Beetlejuice that Batman would receive the green light.
The casting of Batman came as a surprise to the wider media. After rumours of Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Tom Selleck and Bill Murray playing the lead role had circulated. Therefore when Michael Keaton (fresh from Beetlejuice) was announced, a shock wave hit the production. With criticism immediately following that Keaton was too strange, and to wimpy for the role.
However, Keaton’s casting was a stroke of pure genius. Not only bringing a darker edge to the character, but also enabling the reinvention of Batman on screen. As a vigilante figure, damaged by the death of his family. While surrounded by wealth and privilege. In a city full of corruption and crime. Batman needed an actor who could 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. Just as Christopher Reeve had mastered, in the divide between Clark Kent and Superman. Therefore the choice of Keaton as a character actor who could embody a range of guises fit the bill perfectly.
With the Batman announced, focus turned to his arch villain ‘The Joker’. With several well know actors in the frame, including Robin Williams and Brad Dourif. However, Jack Nicolson had been the desired choice of Batmans 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’. A move that only further cemented the film as a potential blockbuster.
Filmed on the 95 ache backlot at Pinewood Studios, alongside Knebworth House in Hertfordshire. Batman had a strict closed set policy. With both Burton and Warner endeavouring 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 production. In a similar to vein to that of Superman the Movie in 1979. Creating an atmosphere that was high pressurised for the cast, studio and director.
In a world before CGI, Gotham had to be built in scale models. With equally lavish sets matching the vision of the model makers. Gotham was to be a gothic masterpiece of city architecture. Integrating both the light of 1930s art deco design with the darkness of a fallen city. Equally bringing Bob Kane’s original vision of Gotham brought to life on screen for the first time. While costume design also needed to reflect the city scape, 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. An unenviable job that was placed 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. Something Warner was more than aware of after the 1979 Superman the Movie. All these factors adding pressure on Burton to deliver an end 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 interpretation of the Batman logo on everything from posters to mugs and toys. With the Batman logo becoming a visual symbol of a movie event unlike anything before it. Not only stoking public interest and building anticipation. But also rewriting and reinventing the marketing of film.
By the time Batman premiered in the U.K on the 11th August 1989. The public were already screaming for more. Their appetite stoked through TV slots, merchandise and a Prince album complementing Danny Elfman’s score. An appetite that eventually saw 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, studio and Burton, Batman soared. Offering a film that re-drew the rules of comic book adaptions on screen. While also bringing comic characters and themes back from the brink of movie obscurity. And consequently 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 ingenuity, passion and excellence of Richard Donner’s Superman the Movie. While allowing for a darker and more nuanced hero. Burton understood the Batman audience, and despite its darkness leading to the first use of a 12 certificate in U.K. This was a film that would equally inspire many young people to read and explore the Batman character in comics.
But aside from its artistry, 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. The simple yet effective use of the Batman logo, demonstrating the power of a single symbol. Just as Superman had done in 1979. While combining multiple marketing strategies into one defined approach. As a result creating the modern marketing template for films today.
Long Live the Bat
Batman’s cultural signifigance 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 mantle of the adult comic book adaptation. With the subsequent 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 of versions since 1989, 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 and who Batman should be on silver screen.
Director: Tim Burton