There is a reason I'm a Batman fan. It's not because I'm a life-long comic book reader. That came later. And it's not because I grew up watching reruns of the old ABC television series. Though I certainly did. It's because Tim Burton's “Batman,” released in theaters 25 years ago today, was the first movie that really owned my anticipatory faculties as a child. It was the first film that lit my movie-going fire, a designation saved for “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.” a generation prior and perhaps “Jurassic Park” and Harrison Ford's actioners a generation later.
In the simplest of terms, I wouldn't be a film obsessive if it weren't for “Batman.” I owe it that much.
For me, the film was an event not to be missed. I remember watching the commercials flood prime time television: the howling of a Batwing circling a Gothic cathedral, the cool of an actor I knew from comedy somehow tapped to play a brooding character of purpose, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?,” etc. The Anton Furst-designed logo was everywhere, seared into immortality by any production that happened to film in Times Square in the summer of 1989, decorating untold numbers of hats and T-shirts, that winged image a specter hanging over the march to June 23.
And then, finally, the release.
It would have been unthinkable for a film so marvelously marketed, so massive in its blockbuster appeal, so undeniably industry-encompassing to bring in anything less than the highest opening weekend box office gross of all time. And so, with a $40 million-plus haul, “Batman” obliterated domestic records set by “Ghostbusters 2” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (which themselves bested “Return of the Jedi's” 6-year-old record) one and three weeks prior…by over $10 million.
Today, with a final tally of $411 million ($760 million if adjusted for inflation), the film remains one of the all-time box office champs. And rightly so. “Batman” came to define, for better or worse, the new era of the blockbuster. It also further established the franchise mentality that can be such a disease on the Hollywood infrastructure. Sequels in 1992, 1995 and 1997 made considerable money, but after those productions had faded away, the character had not. Less than a decade later, Christopher Nolan would resurrect the Dark Knight to further box office success and once again establish another era for the form.
It's intriguing, really, when you consider Batman's place in popular culture and how, every step of the way, the character seems to be right there in the mix. And as Warner Bros. currently tries to find a competitive foothold against the Marvel machine, the studio is very aware of what the Caped Crusader means to the bottom line. So there he is in Zack Snyder's upcoming “Man of Steel” sequel, not just as an icon for Ben Affleck to portray, but as a brand to be flashed in the film's title: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
The 1989 film delivered on its high-octane promise, but under the guidance of director Tim Burton, the story played psychological notes in the character only previously realized by writers like Frank Miller, his 1986 tome “The Dark Knight Returns” serving as a considerable artistic influence. I would later learn, when the film would inevitably steer me into the world of comics, that the adaptation was sacrilegious to Batman fans. “Batman doesn't kill!” “The Joker didn't kill Batman's parents!” “GUNS ON THE BATMOBILE!?” But such belly-aching was far from my periphery when, in June of 1989, I made my way with my parents to a small theater in Selma, North Carolina to finally partake in this visual feast. Sue me for being a wide-eyed youngster who wasn't hip enough to hate on it.
Burton's vision was dark, sinister, irresistible to an impressionable young boy like myself. Michael Keaton's anti-superhero was cool, collected, an antidote to cock-sure protagonists like Pete “Maverick” Mitchell or Axel Foley. Jack Nicholson's Joker became the stuff of instant movie legend; he was terrifying, hilarious, deranged, unyielding, defiant. As a 7-year-old, I always wondered why, on the film's poster, this “Nicholson” name came before the name of the guy who played Batman. When I walked out of the theater, I knew the answer. And I knew I wanted to see everything he had ever done. If it was half as entertaining as what I had just seen, then I was in. Of course, as I would discover, Nicholson's romp in “Batman” was just the tip of the iceberg of what he had offered. So I owe that discovery to the film as well.
And by the way, Nicholson's performance was absolutely award-worthy, in my opinion, but the Academy didn't jump at the opportunity. (The group did, however, decide to offer recognition for a similar portrayal one year later when Al Pacino was nominated for his work in “Dick Tracy.”) At the Golden Globes, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association extended a lead actor nod to Nicholson in the comedy/musical category, of all places, while he received a supporting actor bid from the more adventurous British Academy members across the pond.
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The only Oscar attention “Batman” received was a nomination and well-deserved win for Anton Furst's awe-inspiring Gotham City designs. That work stands as some of the best of the form to this day, an exciting old-school blend of practical effects and matte paintings, macabre imagery and cartoonish villainy. And Furst deserved cool kid cred in perpetuity for his uber-slick Batmobile design, an instant must-have for fantasizing dudes the world over. He sadly took his own life two years later following a struggle to transition into directing and a break-up with actress Beverly D'Angelo. He was 47.
And I shouldn't let the film's music go without mention. Danny Elfman's original score remains, to my mind (and refreshingly, the mind of those I respect when it comes to this stuff), one of the greatest film scores of all time. The ominous string theme – whether consciously borrowed or unconsciously referenced or what – plays so deliciously over the film's creative opening credits sequence, while the work throughout is at once foreboding and playful. The use of Prince's original songs, meanwhile, became an easy target when the film eventually, inevitably, began to feel dated, but I stand by tracks like “Party Man,” “Trust” and yes, even “Scandalous” as filthy, trashy fun. That's one of the most bizarre pairings in the history of cinema, and I won't even say it works, but I won't say I don't like it.
Having the VHS in my hands that holiday season (my copy still has “Christmas 1989” written on it) was also a huge deal. The home video strategy shortened the window from screen to household considerably for the industry, just another way the film changed the Hollywood status quo. And the spools on that thing were definitely worn out by the time I upgraded to DVD 10 years later. (Remember, you can't watch a Warner Bros. movie without a Warner Bros. ball cap.)
I imagine the net will be flooded today with remembrances and such (and probably a fair share of cynical backlash at same). I welcome all of it, because the funny thing about “Batman” is how many different shades of reactions there truly are to that film. I'm sort of fascinated by it, and not even really defensive about it. This one was just a moment for me and there we are.
I would, however, recommend a slightly older piece which was published on the occasion of the film's 20th anniversary back in 2009: Art of the Title”s look at Richard Morrison”s aforementioned opening title sequence. As usual, the crew over there did a great job of tapping into an element of film that isn”t often properly considered and/or analyzed. Here is what Morrison had to say at that time:
“The Batman 1989 environment was not that homogenized. In fact, there weren”t many people on the same platform and we were all very individual. I did not know Tim before so I had to pitch for the project. We just had to make sure what we were about. I sat with him for a few minutes, and then just walked around the set of Gotham city. And that was it, really. I clearly remember I sat back in the car and all of a sudden I knew it. I knew it had to be something about the classic batman comic logo. I thought, what if we think of that in a 360 degree move, how about if it”s in landscape, how about I make it something you can move around so you don”t quite know what it is. So that was the idea and then I just invented the world around it. Nobody did anything like it before so that”s why it probably retained its timeless feel.”
Additionally, as you may well know, the character is celebrating his own separate anniversary this year: it was 75 years ago that Bill Finger's creation (OK, Bob Kane gave him a name) first showed up in the pages of “Detective Comics” #27. As with Superman last year, Warner Bros. has been toasting the diamond occasion with style. There is a new Batman-centric tour at the Burbank film studios and you can expect some special events at next month's San Diego Comic-Con. Recently HeroFix/CBR counted down the top 75 Batman covers of all time. Here is what the top 10 looked like. And I imagine a special edition of Burton's film will be on the way, too.
Anyway, what else can I say? “Batman” simply means a lot to me, and not in the geek-out/nostalgia manner some might expect. (Not that the war on nostalgia in some quarters isn't weird and suffocating.) The film had a profound impact. It was the Cecil B. DeMille experience of my childhood. To me, that's the kind of thing you cherish if you consider yourself a film-lover.
Naturally, though, I feel as if the memories recounted in this piece are of a lifetime ago. My sensibilities as a movie-watcher have obviously shifted. I might not even like “Batman” if it were released today. But I prefer its place as a formative piece of entertainment, one that I never tire of revisiting and that today, 25 years later, I count as an old friend.
Now, where is that Blu-ray disc…
*This piece originally ran in part at InContention.com in 2009.