It was 30 years ago, and a very different time. At my then-age of 22 I felt the carefree hubris of youth. I legally rode a motorcycle without a helmet (because I was an idiot), I was renting a single room from some friends of mine, and I went to the movies a lot more than I do these days. There was no Twitter, no FaceBook, no Instagram, no Snapchat… in fact, there was no internet. Beyond books and hard media (remember record stores?), pop entertainment most commonly came in two ways… television and movies. 1989 was a solid year for movies, too. There were a lot of big sequels; “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (a favorite of mine that year), “Ghostbusters II”, “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” “License to Kill”, “Lethal Weapon 2”, and later that year, “Back to the Future 2.” There were a lot of interesting new movies as well, such as “The Abyss” (a movie I’ve since come to love), but few had quite the lasting commercial impact or hype as 1989’s “Batman.”
“Batman” was hyped in a way I hadn’t seen up to that point. There was Batman cereal (a syrupy-sweet corn cereal), which also came with a Batman plastic coin bank on special boxes (wish I’d held onto that damn thing…I’d eBay the hell out of it today), as well as posters, bed sheets, toys and even a hit song by the late, great Prince called “The Batdance” (not exactly one of his classics). The Bat-logo poster was curious to me, since I wasn’t really a Batman-fanatic in those days (more a Marvel guy). I just remember seeing this gold/black piece of abstract art (with no names, just a date) and thinking it reminding me of a cartoon character’s teeth, for some reason.
The Bat-merchandise stays in my memory, since I was working retail at the time. I remember our little store (like many others) having a giant display set up for “Batman” paraphernalia. It was a humongous deal then, though today it’d pale in comparison to what the average Target does every time a new Jurassic, Marvel or Star Wars movie comes out. Most of this stuff came out a month or more ahead of the film, too. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it at that point, not even for the original Star Wars in 1977, which took a while to generate the kind of merchandising that Batman seemed to have delivered automatically 12 years later. By sheer osmosis, I could feel the pressure to see this movie seeping into my pores. It was set up to be the movie of the summer of 1989…
“Batman” had the kind of buzz I hadn’t seen for a superhero film since I saw those “Superman” teaser posters in 1978 promising me that I would “believe a man could fly.” Adam West’s 1960s Batman TV series was the only filmed Batman I’d ever known at that point. I’d not seen the 1943 serials, nor had most from my generation, since home video archives were still in relative infancy back then. Based on my childhood memories of the campy Adam West TV series, I wasn’t sure just what to expect; would this new Batman film be more “BIFF! SOCK! POW!” or would it be more of a Richard Donner Superman treatment? From what I’d glimpsed in previews, I assumed this new film from Tim Burton (“Beetlejuice”) was aiming for something more than the silliness of the TV show. A lot of the early press in those days used the word “darker.”
Before the film, there was also some (pre–internet) casting criticism of “Mr. Mom”/”Beetlejuice” star Michael Keaton in the lead role of Bruce Wayne/Batman…much of it uniformly fell silent after the movie came out. Having already seen Keaton in “Clean and Sober” a year before, I had little doubt he could tackle this kind of role.
Then came the actual film.
*****30 YEAR OLD SPOILERS!*****
I remember seeing it at a local theater with no idea what to expect. Turns out, it was pretty damn good. A lush, bold Danny Elfman (of Oingo-Boingo/Simpsons’ fame in those days) soundtrack played over a large, labyrinthine sculpture of the new Batman logo (because the bazillion Bat-logo posters everywhere weren’t quite enough). Elfman’s dazzling music elevated the material, almost as much as John Williams’ “Superman” soundtrack helped make the late Christopher Reeve airborne.
The movie tricks viewers with thinking we’re about to witness Batman’s origin story, when a young boy and his parents are lost in a surreal 1940s/1980s-looking Gotham City. The movie’s production design that has the retro-feel of “Blade Runner” but with some of late 1980s Tim Burton’s goth influences as well. The boys’ parents are robbed at gunpoint by a pair of sleazy petty thieves, whose asses are quickly handed to them by a dark man in an all-black costume consisting of a draping cape and a thick, almost vulcanized-rubber suit of body armor. This apparition in black dangles one of the crooks over a rooftop ledge, and orders him to “Tell all your friends about me.” In a panic, the helpless robber screams, “What are you?” The apparition responds in a raspy, menacing voice, “I’m Batman!”
Right off, the movie tells you this is not going to be Adam West in tights with the ‘biff’ ‘sock’ and the ‘pow’… this was “Dirty Harry” by way of “Blade Runner” than the campy William Dozier series. That opening scene is one of the most memorable and effective in the entire film, as it sets the tone in a distinct and dramatic way.
We are introduced to the rogues’ gallery of bad guys. First, we meet on-the-take police lieutenant Eckhardt (William Hootkins, of “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”). Through Eckhardt’s sleazy connections, we meet ambitious, volatile mobster Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson, who pretty much owns the latter half of the movie). Napier threatens the corrupt cop by reminding him of his place in the scheme of things. Napier is clearly gunning his way to the top of the gang led by boss Carl Grissom (played by a typically over-the-top Jack Palance). The powerful Grissom’s moll (Mick Jagger’s ex, Jeri Hall) is cheating on him with Napier. But Grissom is no dummy, and knows all about the affair. He assigns Jack on a dangerous mission of sabotage at AXIS chemicals (one of his front companies), but in reality it’s a setup to have the ambitious, cheating Napier killed by Eckhardt’s men, as Eckhardt is on Grissom’s payroll.
Later on, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is introduced to us via audience avatars Vicki Vale (former model Kim Basinger), a noted photojournalist, and her reporter partner, the obnoxious Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl). The two attend a gala benefit at Wayne manor, where they also meet Wayne’s butler/surrogate father Alfred (Michael Gough). At the party we’re also introduced to harried police commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) and district attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams). The characters are set up, one-by-one, in a linear fashion. You don’t need to have read fifty Batman comic books to know who any of these people are, as this film (again, like 1978’s Superman) is designed with both the newbie and old Bat-fan alike.
The heist at AXIS Chemicals ends badly. Jack and his gang realize they’ve been ratted out. The cops, led by the corrupt Eckhardt have their orders, “Shoot to kill.” Bruce Wayne, overhearing a tip at his gala, arrives at AXIS in full Batman mode. Batman manages to elude both the cops and the mobsters in trying to stop top mob lieutenant Jack Napier, who is grazed in the face by a ricocheting bullet from his own pistol as he tries to kill Batman. Bleeding and hanging onto a railing overlooking a vat of green toxic sludge, Jack clings for dear life. Batman offers a hand to bring him up, but loses his grip and Napier falls into the vat….creating the bleached out freak known as “The Joker” (named after Jack’s favorite playing card in his ‘lucky deck’). The scene at the chem plant serves a twofold purpose; to introduce the disbelieving cops to Batman, and to create the Joker. It accomplishes both with aplomb. Elfman’s music in this scene, once again, really classes up the joint, too. Bit of trivia: The scene is shot at the defunct Acton Lane Power Station in London, much of which also served as the colony interiors on LV-426 in “ALIENS” three years earlier.
The Joker emerges, after a botched back-alley surgery leaves him with a frozen grin on his face. He takes over the Grissom gang, and begins a new campaign of reckless, brazen crime that his more conservative former boss would’ve never allowed. The Joker is the spirit of anarchy, much as his later incarnation (played by the late Heath Ledger) would fully embody in “The Dark Knight”, 19 years later. He also has his eye on the beautiful Vicki Vale…
With the hero Batman and the newly minted Joker now onboard in a frenetic first act, the movie begins to get a little bit weighed down in the middle act. Vicki Vale seems to stalk her mysterious new beau Bruce Wayne with a tenacity that would call for a restraining order these days. Knox is the goofy guy who acts as chief mansplainer to Vale and little else. Soon the Joker’s plan for Gotham is revealed, and it’s a plot that would be repeated ad nauseam in later superhero movies…the ‘freak’ wants to make everybody just like himself. In this case, the Joker begins to poison Gotham’s cosmetic products to leave dead users with a frozen grin on their faces, after uncontrollable fits of laughter. The Joker is less about making money and more about screwing with, and killing everybody. Batman cracks the case, realizing just which combinations of cosmetics cause the deadly disfigurement. He sends the information on the chemical combinations to the press, via Vicki Vale, who doesn’t yet realize Batman is actually Bruce Wayne.
Batman/Bruce does research on Jack Napier in the “Bat Cave”, coming to the conclusion (via a helpful, nightmarish flashback) that Jack Napier is the same hoodlum who gunned down his parents in a movie theater alley when he was a boy, traumatizing him into eventually becoming the caped crusader against crime.
Vicki Vale then intrudes on Wayne’s brooding self-revelation, in a scene which angered some longtime Batman fans. Personally, I wasn’t yet as invested in Batman at the time to get terribly upset over her learning of Wayne’s dual identity. In fact, I rather liked Batman’s ‘coming out’ scene with Vale, even if it doesn’t absolutely need to exist. It’s one of the rare times we see a bit of the conflict within Keaton’s Wayne. Keaton is excellent as Batman, but a mite less convincing as the tormented Bruce Wayne.
In the movie’s big finale, the Joker takes centerstage at Gotham’s 200th anniversary parade, throwing money into the crowd as giant, comically-sinister overhead balloons begin releasing the deadly “Smile-X” gas. It’s a genuinely creepy moment, as the crowd begins to die off from the gas, clutching wads of the Joker’s cash as they fall to their deaths…with frozen grimaces on their faces. The tainted beauty products, as well as the Joker’s deadly cash giveaway, are as close as this very commercial piece of filmmaking gets to making anti-commercial statements.
Batman arrives at the parade in his “Bat-Plane”, a fixed wing aircraft in the shape of…you guessed it, the Bat-logo, which he uses to collect the deadly balloons and take them suborbital. There are some wonderful miniature effects (courtesy of “Superman” Oscar-winner Derek Meddings) as the returning Bat-plane attempts to strafe the Joker, who brings down the craft with a single, thunderous shot from his comically outsized pistol. The Bat-plane crashes at the steps of Gotham Cathedral, a place that looks more like something from a tour of old Europe than a large American metropolis, but this being a Tim Burton film? It somehow fits right in.
Batman awakens to find that the Joker has taken Vicki Vale hostage. Joker has forced Vicki up hundreds of crumbling, ancient steps onto the rooftop of the gothic locale. The rooftop is the setting for the final showdown (“mano a mano“). The Joker taunts the stoic Batman by telling him, “You idiot! You made me!” To which Batman replies, “You killed my parents…you made me first.”
After their fisticuffs, a helicopter comes to rescue the Joker (who has incredible resources for a villain who doesn’t seem to care about money), but Batman shoots a cable around his ankle, anchoring him to the crumbling cathedral. Eventually, the Joker is weighed down, plummeting to his death on the street below. In a radical departure from the comics, Batman flat-out kills the Joker. Even in graphic novelist Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” (1988), Batman didn’t kill the Joker, and this was after the Joker had shot, paralyzed and raped Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, Barbara.
With the Joker dead, the city realizes Batman is not their enemy, and Commissioner Gordon holds a press conference to demonstrate the “bat-signal”… a large police light with a Bat-logo, designed to call Batman whenever needed.
The story is, like 1978’s “Superman: The Movie”, ultimately a confrontation between one hero and one villain. Simple and effective. I miss this approach. Many of today’s superhero movies are far more crowded, and arguably a bit too complicated for their own good at times…
Aside from some pacing issues with the middle act, my biggest nit would be that Jack Nicholson’s Joker all-too-easily steals the movie away from the titular character. He almost reduces Michael Keaton’s Batman to a costar in his own movie. Nicholson is is full post-“Shining” mode throughout the movie, using his eyes and expressive face to full effect (even under a ton of facial prosthetics and makeup). His Joker is very effective, make no mistake. Keaton plays Batman just the opposite… making his hero stoic, reserved, and minimalist. Even Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, a millionaire playboy, comes off more as a nice, but absent-minded yuppie. While this approach works well for the movie, it does have the side-effect of making the Joker the far more interesting of the two characters.
Another gripe is that Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale is a bit of a throwback to the shrieking, lost-shoe femme fatales of film noirs. But she is supposed to be a TIME magazine photojournalist who covered a civil war in a brutal (albeit fictional) Central American country. Why does she have to scream at everything? She wouldn’t have lasted ten seconds in a civil war zone. And why couldn’t she cover the Batman story on her own? The character of Knox feels like he’s around just to mansplain everything to her (or interfere with her sex life). In fact, getting rid of Knox altogether might’ve been a smart move in eliminating some of the flab from Sam Hamm and the late Warren Skaaren’s screenplay.
There’s also a nice ‘cameo’ by Batman creator Bob Kane, at least a Bob Kane illustration. Kane was to have a cameo as the same-named newspaper cartoonist who works with reporter Knox (Robert Wuhl), but he became ill before shooting began. An actor wound up playing Bob Kane, but a mocking Batman illustration (used to tease Knox regarding his search for ‘the Batman’) is signed by the real Bob Kane. Knox takes the illustration, muttering to himself, “What a d!ck…” Clearly a jocular jab at the creator of the Batman comics (which hit their 50th anniversary around the time of the movie’s release).
The 1990s saw three more Batman movies, as well as the superlative Bruce Timm-proudced “Batman: The Animated Series” (1992-1995), which is undeniably one of the best incarnations of Batman (in any format) ever produced. It also reignited the career of “Star Wars” star Mark Hamill (“The Joker”) as a voice-acting legend. Hamill is currently voicing killer-doll “Chucky” in a reboot of 1988’s “Child’s Play.” Fans of Hamill’s should also take a listen to his role as burnt-out soldier ‘Todd Wainio’ in the full-cast, audio-drama adaptation of Max Brooks’ epic novel, “World War Z” (which has just about nothing to do with the by-the-numbers movie adaptation).
The live-action movies of the 1990s had varying degrees of success. Tim Burton would helm the first sequel, 1992’s “Batman Returns”; a movie that never quite worked for me, as it felt like a meandering mess with no central story and far too many characters. It was the first of the ‘three-ring circus’ superhero movies…the ones with too many villains that were portraits of indulgence rather than coherent stories.
“Batman Returns” was followed by two worse entries directed by Joel Schumacher (1990’s “Flatliners”) that became even more camp and silly than the 1960s Adam West TV series; “Batman Forever” (1995) and “Batman and Robin” (1997) were two gaudy, neon-colored vaudeville acts that did their damndest to undo just about everything the 1989 film achieved with its more serious tone and epic feel. About the only things the Schumacher films have in common with the Burton movies are returning cast members Pat Hingle (Commissioner Jim Gordon) and Michael Gough (Alfred).
The best thing about “Batman and Robin” for me was meeting my (future) wife the night I saw the film.
The 21st century would see an all-new Batman cinematic trilogy with the Christopher Nolan crime-drama “Dark Knight Trilogy”, which is more of a gritty, Michael Mann-style crime saga (which just happens to feature a caped crusader) rather than 1989’s more surreal and fantastical universe. The trilogy consisted of “Batman Begins” (2005), “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012).
Of the three, “The Dark Knight” is the easy favorite, with the tragically late Heath Ledger very much earning his posthumous Oscar for his version of “The Joker.” Christian Bale is quite possibly the best incarnation of playboy Bruce Wayne I’ve yet seen, even if his Batman sometimes sounds like he’s fighting an acute case of laryngitis as well as super-villains. “The Dark Knight” is my favorite cinematic adaptation of “Batman” to date.
The less said about “Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice” (2016) and “The Justice League” (2017) the better, though I will go out on a limb and say that I actually liked Ben Affleck’s version of both Batman and Bruce Wayne very much, even if the actual movies for both were abysmal. Affleck played the burned out playboy and the menacing hero with equal measures of intensity. It was also nice to see the ‘world’s greatest detective’ do some real detective work as well. He also had interesting chemistry with “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot. Not to impugn the casting of Christian Bale, but I sometimes wonder how Affleck would’ve fared in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. “Twilight” star Robert Pattinson is now assuming the role for the next film.
There are also, of course, a plethora of DC-inspired TV series. I tried watching “Gotham” but couldn’t get beyond the pilot, though I understand the Dark Knight finally made an appearance in the prequel series at the end of the latest season.
That ’summer of Batman’ eventually begat the modern superhero movie craze, which eventually got rival Marvel Comics to go all-in with feature films. 2008 saw the Marvel cinematic universe officially launch with “The Incredible Hulk” and “Iron Man”; it was also the same year that saw the aforementioned Oscar-winning “Dark Knight” from DC and Warner Bros. So far, this has been a very good millennium to be a fan of cinematic comic book adaptations.
I won’t even go into what I see at conventions…
…okay, maybe just a little.
Today, we see both DC and Marvel enjoying varying degrees of cinematic, TV and even streaming successes (currently on Netflix, and eventually Disney+). In multiplexes, “Avengers: Endgame” is smashing box office records left and right. We are in a golden age of superhero media (in spite of my own occasional burnout with some of these films). The success of 1989’s “Batman” was the prototype for the varieties of hype/merchandising machinery that now regularly accompany the releasing of nearly all superhero movies and TV/streaming shows. What was once a freakish level of hype in 1989 is now commonplace.
Back in that summer of 1989, my 22 year old self naively assumed the hype surrounding “Batman” was the end-all of movie merchandising and hype. Little did I realize, it was only the beginning. 1989’s “Batman” was the birth of the modern superhero movie phenomenon, achieving both the ignition and thrust that the earlier Superman movies (despite at least two terrific entries) failed to sustain.