Batman (1989) – 30th Anniversary

19th May 2019

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 the 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, their excitement equally tinged with fear 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. At the same time, the 1986 version of Howard the Duck bombed at the box office alongside Supergirl (1984), leading many to announce the death of comic book adaptations on screen as the public walked away and ticket revenues fell. However, Warner already had initial concept designs and a schedule for a film version of ‘The Batman‘, which had been due to star William Holden, David Niven, and Peter O’Toole in key roles before Holden and Niven’s death.

Superman IV – The Quest for Peace 1987

The Bat wasn’t to go down without a fight, and while a movie version remained a considerable risk for Warner Brothers, they were more than aware of the potential financial benefits. The studio would approach Ivan Reitman and Joe Dante after the success of Ghostbusters and Gremlins to explore a shelved Mankiewicz script, with little forward movement until a young director named Tim Burton entered the room following his success with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Burton felt the screenplay was too humorous—playing more to the 1960s TV show than the dark knight of DC’s comics. Therefore a new screenplay was commissioned from comic book fan Sam Hamm, and following the commercial success of Burton’s 1988 Beetlejuice, Batman got the green light to go into pre-production.

Batman (1989) Warner Brothers DC Comics

Rumours whirled around Hollywood as to who would play Batman, with names like Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Tom Selleck, and Bill Murray all finding a way into the press. However, no one was expecting Michael Keaton and criticism quickly followed that Keaton was too strange and frail for the role. However, Keaton’s casting was a stroke of pure genius, allowing Burton to bring a darker edge to the character while reinventing Batman for a new generation. Keaton’s Batman was a vigilante billionaire, scarred by the death of his family and determined to bring justice to the streets of Gotham. In Burton’s world, Bruce Wayne was just as important as Batman, and Keaton had the ability to differentiate the man in the costume from the man out of it. Following Keaton’s casting, attention quickly turned to his arch-nemesis, Joker. Several well-known actors were in the frame, including Robin Williams and Brad Dourif, but only one genuinely fit the bill, the legendary Jack Nicholson. But Jack came with conditions, including a record-breaking fee of six million dollars and a slice of box office takings (over 100 million dollars).

Batman (1989) Warner Brothers DC Comics

Shot on the ninety-five-acre lot at Pinewood Studios, Batman had a strict closed-set policy, with Burton and Warner Bros determined to keep its shoot free from any media intrusion. But what was clear from day one was that Burton’s Batman intended to push the boundaries of late 80s filmmaking. In a world before CGI, Gotham would be a physical art deco city that had fallen into a gothic nightmare with lavish scale models and expensive full-sized sets. Meanwhile, the orchestral score would need to reflect Batman’s gothic metropolis while creating a hook similar to John Williams Superman theme. This job was placed into the hands of Danny Elfman, who would bathe his score in darkness while creating a theme that remains associated with the character to this day.

Batman was a physical production, with all the stress and anxiety that it brings, from set design to rushes and re-shoots and growing budgets. The risks associated were enough to make Warner sweat and added pressure on Burton to break box office records. With final edits of the film still being shown in early 1989, the studio would launch a marketing push 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 new Batman logo would become a visual symbol of event cinema – stoking public interest while building anticipation. By the time Batman premiered in the UK on the 11th of August 1989, the public was already screaming for more, and Batman had become far more than a movie; it had become a cultural event.

Batman’s cultural significance in the landscape of moviemaking is equal to that of Jaws, Star Wars and Superman the Movie as it gave birth to a new style of comic book adaptation. However, that didn’t stop Warner Brothers’ concerns that Burton’s darker slant may alienate some viewers, and as a result, Tim Burton’s Batman trilogy would never reach its conclusion following Batman Returns. But for all of the reinterpretations of Batman since 1989, it’s Burton, Keaton and Nicholson who released the Bat from its belfry and changed cinema in the process.

Batman (1989) Warner Brothers DC Comics

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Michael KeatonJack NicholsonKim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Michael Gough, Jerry Hall

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