director Tim Burton
It had been a long time since I had seen Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Kim Bassinger. It was the touchstone of the modern superhero movie, reinventing the characters and ultimately the genre, setting forth a style that would be adopted and readopted until it was finally eclipsed. It is still pretty safe to say that this is the movie that started a pop cultural shift that has almost utterly subsumed the summer movie period 25 years in its aftermath.
25 years. It’s true. I still remember standing in line for Batman the day it opened in June 1989. I was quite a Tim Burton fan at that point and this seemed to promise something new and interesting. And in a fair amount of ways, it succeeded. I was also a Batman the TV show fan from childhood and was thrilled to get to see those old programs again. I wasn’t a Batman comic book fan, per se, but I had read The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns, two books that suggested the darker sensibilities that would come.
It’s funny now, with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, Burton’s Batman seems lighter by contrast. The big difference is that Burton and company had more of a sense of humor throughout, and interestingly, also had a little more of a nod to the Adam West camp television show from the 1960’s. By Nolan’s time, no iota of that remains. Of course, that has a lot more to do with what director Joel Schumacher did with this series of Batman movies than what Burton did.
The kids and I have wound up watching quite a few Tim Burton movies: Beetlejuice (1988), Ed Wood (1994), Mars Attacks! (1996) and more, most of which they’ve enjoyed. We’ve also watched a few of the superhero movies of the present, like Iron Man 3 (2013), The Avengers (2012), X-Men: First Class (2011), and others. The superhero movie is more than alive and well. It’s probably never been better from a shareholder perspective.
But we never watched a few things, like Nolan’s Batman movies or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. These came too early for the kids ages. And I’m a little conflicted about how interesting I think they are to share with them. That said, I thought that it is interesting to see some of the superhero movies that they’ve missed, for context, or in some cases because they warrant it enough.
Case in point: Burton’s Batman.
Interestingly, Clara was bored by it, but Felix liked it and was interested to see Burton’s Batman Returns (1992), which I sort of thought we might see initially. Now, I’m not as sure. It’s still a possibility. (We still haven’t gone back for the Star Wars episodes I-III.)
This 1989 Batman was quite the thing in its day. And I would suggest that it mostly holds up today. Keaton was always an unlikely Batman, but he proved himself quite compelling in his two goes of it. And Nicholson might not be the most ideal Joker, but he’s probably the best thing in the movie. He gets all the best lines and is the darkest, funniest thing throughout. And the set and costume designs, these came to utterly define the new dark superhero movie, these weird mash-ups of Art Deco, Gothic, what have you, ridiculously over the top, rather insanely unrealistic but quite marvelous as well.
Some of the effects are better than others. This was 1989 and everything hadn’t gone digital yet. The digital effects of armoring the Batmobile look kind of cheap. The leaping/soaring Batman is kind of slow and obviously wired on a track. And really, as great as Keaton is, this was back at a time when everyone on TV and movies didn’t spend their lives at the gym and never took off their shirt to reveal a sculpted torso. In Keaton’s case, there is little question that it’s the suit that has six-pack abs.
The film is actually quite funny. And not all of this is purely in Nicholson’s camp, though as I mentioned, he gets all the best lines and gags. There is the humor about the television news people when it turns out that make-up and hair products may be poisoned, so they appear looking ruffled and spotty. The Joker makes any number of not just visual gags but physical, cartoonish ones. The humor and style are a significant difference between today’s superhero movies, which are nowhere as outwardly humorous.
In the 25 years since its release, there have been other significant turning points in the genre. The first X-Men movie X-Men (2000), Raimi’s Spider-Man series (pure digital action), Nolan’s Batman films (probably the “artistic” high mark of the genre), and most recently Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie (really, Marvel’s multi-film build up of the Avengers franchise is something more massive than any one film). Game changers come along every so often and it’s not even such an obvious pivot that moves things forward in a different direction.
But Tim Burton’s Batman did have that massive effect, reinventing a genre that was barely a genre but which would come to massively take over Hollywood pop culture in time. The film itself is good, not really great (I always thought I preferred the sequel, not sure anymore). I state my opinion of it just to help separate what I think of the film from what I’m tyring to say about the impact that it had at the time and cumulatively.
The present day situation has a lot more to do with the state of Hollywood, the way films are marketed, special effects technology, and box office receipts. Hollywood’s always been more about what have you done for me lately than really showing a track going back a quarter of a century. And it’s probably a bit reductive to give Batman (1989) too much credit. The action-movie, the “summer blockbuster”, the “popcorn films” reaped input from many other genres and successful films. But this film was the turning point for superhero movies.