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Burton’s ‘Batman’ turns 30: A look back at a cultural phenomenon

‘Batman’ was a summer blockbuster that shaped the way movies were made and marketed.

We are in an interesting era for Batman, a character who has been around for 80 years. To celebrate this anniversary, DC Comics will be publishing Detective Comics #1000, an oversized issue with many writers and artists telling their own short stories about the Dark Knight. Meanwhile, Tom King is over halfway through his supposed 100-issue run of the main Batman title, whilst we’re expecting a new Batman film to be released in the summer of 2021 with Matt Reeves writing and directing.

2019 is already a big year for the character as it also marks the 30th anniversary of a particular incarnation of Batman. It was a summer blockbuster that shaped the way movies were made and marketed, while leaving an impact to not only the character and the franchise, but helped establish the modern day superhero film genre. With the Bat-symbol publicized everywhere during that summer, it became a cultural phenomenon that was simply titled: Batman.

The story behind how that movie got made is a compelling tale. After buying the film rights, it took ten years for executive producer Michael E. Uslan to get “the definitive, dark, serious version of Batman” on the big screen. It was important to avoid the campy tone of the 60s TV series that made Batman a popular character. Throughout this decade-long odyssey, numerous screenwriters and directors were involved in the development of this movie. None connected with the dark interpretation that Uslan envisioned. When Tim Burton came on and brought his gothic sensibilities, he was determined to stick true to the original idea that Bob Kane and Bill Finger conceived in 1939.

During the 80s, came the Dark Age of Comic Books, with titles such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. These stories presented a dark and psychological deconstruction of superheroes- a style milked throughout the subsequent decade – much to the dismay of writers like Alan Moore. DKR, in particular, with its grim, seedy versions of Gotham and its citizens remains influential to the Batman comics to this day. With this wave of seminal Bat-works during the late 80s, the upcoming movie had to pay homage to those books. They were commercially successful as well as suddenly showing that comics were now treated as a serious medium. So, does Tim Burton achieve these goals in his first Bat-outing? Well, not quite.

Known for his gothic and eccentric horror and fantasy films such as Beetlejuice, Tim Burton seems like an ideal fit to direct a lonely bat-themed vigilante fighting for justice in a city that is ruled by crime and corruption. During its opening minutes, we are plunged into the busy streets of Gotham City, stunningly designed by Anton Furst, who won an Oscar for his production design. Influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Gotham is a blend of Gothic and Art Deco, and although the sets make the film look weirdly small, it did inspire the look of Gotham in the subsequent comics.

But what about Batman himself? He is introduced as a shadowy figure who witnesses a mugging against a married couple and their son, evoking the tragic event that has shaped him into becoming the Dark Knight. Afterwards, he steps in, takes down the two crooks and gives one of them a message to warn other criminals, concluding by simply saying: “I’m Batman.” As cool a moment it may be, if you look closely, it also sets up what is wrong with Burton’s approach towards Batman. Although the director has commented upon how he relates to the hero, Burton doesn’t really give a damn about the character in both his Bat-films, where Bruce Wayne is at times treated as a supporting character.

Controversial as the casting of Michael Keaton was when it was first announced, Keaton does a decent job at playing Bruce Wayne. He  was an awkward oddball of a billionaire, and manages to look menacing, even if the Batsuit doesn’t allow the actor to turn his head. The problem is that Keaton isn’t given much material to make his Batman interesting. The script makes the character a figure of mystery to be solved by photojournalist/love interest Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) and to some extent, Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl). Obviously, this was conceived for those who have no knowledge through the comics that have been around for 50 years at that point, but as a gateway for people being introduced to the world of Batman, it is an odd choice.

What makes it even more bizarre is how a lot of the narrative rests on the shoulders of Basinger, who was cast at the last minute following an accident with original actress Sean Young. Introduced in the comics, the filmmakers were trying to create a Lois Lane-dynamic towards Vicki Vale, who is not only treated as a screaming damsel-in-distress, but began a recurring curse throughout the Batman films: poorly-written romances. As her role is simply defined by her relationships with the hero and the villain, her scenes are where the film is at its worst and laziest.

Speaking of the villain, this is where the film shines, as well as where Tim Burton’s heart truly lies. The casting of Jack Nicholson gave the film credence in the same way that Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman did for Richard Donner’s Superman. Casting Nicholson as the greatest comic book villain ever was a stroke of genius. Inspired by The Killing Joke and his love of monsters, Burton puts all his skills in every scene that Nicholson appears in. The actor has all the big laughs, can be scary at the right places and has moments of improvisation. Clearly, Nicholson had the time of his life playing the Joker. However, it sets up a missed opportunity as the script tries to show that both Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin, hence taking controversial liberties towards the source material. If Burton had put as much attention into the hero as he did with the villain, we would’ve had a great Batman movie in 1989.

(This love of the villains over the heroes is even more apparent when, after directing Edward Scissorhands, Burton returned to Gotham with Batman Returns. Leaning much more into Burton’s sensibilities, the sequel has no relation to the comics as the director puts his own quirky spin on the Penguin and Catwoman. Both take center stage, and Batman is once again not the lead. For a movie that is even darker than its predecessor, it is closer to the 60,s TV series than you may think.)

Batman came out around the same time as Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. It is interesting to see Tim Burton trying to deliver a spectacle that could rival the blockbusters of that time considering the director’s background in stop-motion animation and graphic design. With Burton’s emphasis on set-designnas well as stepping into a big-budgeted studio movie, Batman feels small and despite some iconic imagery, the film has not aged well.

It may sound like I am constantly bashing this movie, but I do understand the love it receives. For a generation of Bat-fans, Michael Keaton is their Batman. However, its greatest contribution is what came afterwards with the creation of the animated series in the early 90s. Capitalizing on the success of Burton’s Batman, Bruce Timm’s animated series was doing some of the best storytelling in all of Batman history, with episodes like Heart of Ice to the cinematic spin-off Mask of the Phantasm. That movie took a lot of elements from both Burton movies and did them so much better in a 76-minute piece of animation that was actually about Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego.

As for 1989’s Batman, it may ultimately be a flawed interpretation of the Dark Knight (one that doesn’t mind the killing), but it had left an impact that would shape not only the character in the next 30 years through various media, but shaped cinema itself for better and worse. In terms of comic book movies, Batman became a  film franchise with its ups and downs, whilst paving the way for adaptations like The Crow gaining cult status. Both the director and the superhero went on to the greater things, but their first time together, there was something special.

And that something, was ‘Batdance’.

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