Comic Book Brain

Batman 1989

Bat-Mania 1989

The Burton Batman of 1989 was a phenomenon. The top-earning film of 1989, it played for a long 175 days in theaters and made $411 million worldwide at a time when tickets averaged a little less than $4 per person. (1)

The subsequent VHS release of Batman piled on an additional $150 million in sales, and to meet demand was sold through every possible avenue, creating new channels for the burgeoning home video market.(2)

Burton's Influence

Burton's success is still felt today in the superhero genre, because his packaging of Batman for a wide audience set in motion the ability to take superhero films seriously in a way that didn't require any apologies (an approach which later got derailed by Batman Forever and especially Batman and Robin from Joel Shumacher, which made a reasonable amount of gross but left a bad taste with the fanbase the earlier films had created.)

The (then) hefty production budget of $35 million for Batman (and an estimated $15 million spent on advertising promotion) was quickly made up by the drawing power of finally seeing a darkened Batman that hearkened back to the original roots of the character (though, not all the way back, which would have had Batman hurling crooks off rooftops and occasionally pulling a revolver to stop dead a criminal. On the other hand, this Batman is heavily militarized and reflects 1980s action films that emphasized hardware.)

The approach producer Peter Guber and Jon Peter took of not only signing Tim Burton to direct, but to get Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger in the cast, both particularly popular in 1989, helped. Doing so followed the model presented by the success of the Christopher Reeves Superman of 1979, which itself was modeled on the Batman 1966 TV show which drew on popular celebrities to help fill out the appeal of the actual main character and story.

The Batman movie trailer stirred up interest in the film and by the time it opened, it sailed through a $40 million dollar first week gross, which was record setting at the time.

Burton's Batman

Burton used many aspects of the original Bob Kane Batman creation, coupled with the Frank Miller re-invention from 1986's Dark Knight Returns 4-issue prestige series from DC Comics. One thing writers Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren left out was any hint of the campy Adam West TV Series from 1966. The dignity of the character is closely maintained throughout Burton's onscreen tale, and the methodology of having crooks mock the hero only to be promptly stomped has been repeated in many superhero films since as a quick way to establish the power bone fides of a fantastically-attired character.

Not that there isn't humor in Keaton/Burton's version. The Jack Nicholson Joker uses camp as a weapon when he's not performing maniac bloodletting on the cast of extras.

There is a goofy edginess to the way Michael Keaton plays Bruce Wayne/Batman, as if Keaton is maneuvering around the hazard of Wayne looking silly by instead making him seem like an absent-minded professor who has an appetite for violence just barely concealed.

Burton and production designer Anton Furst slip in small sight gags (for example a bat in a bird cage) but then Burton will use the cover of the sight gag to include one of the scripts statements of alienation felt by Batman, "Bat's are great survivors." It's more than just a defence of Batman's strangeness, but a kind of explanation in Burton's telling.

Orphan Blues

The orphaned child Bruce Wayne, who is only glimpsed in the film story, but is talked about in several key scenes with sympathy by reporters Knox and Vale, highlights Burton's strategy of cloaking the main character with a back-story that points to the psychological underpinnings of a guy in a batsuit.

But Burton never goes all out, like the utilitarian approach of later Batman Begins director Chris Nolan, who tries to explain everything logically. In Burton's Batman film, logic doesn't go very far, because "It's not a normal world" as Batman states to Vale. The fascination of the bat-machinery of the quirky adult Bruce Wayne on a secret mission to fight crime is balanced by Burton wanting the audiences to think about how and why it got so weird in Gotham, at Wayne Manor, and especially in the Bat-Cave, all emblems of Bruce Wayne's personality.

Keaton's characterization comes as closely to hinting directly that Wayne/Batman is crazy as has been allowed so far in the various Batman movies that have followed in Burton's wake. Burton and his writers make no bones that there is something obsessive and askew in Wayne's mental state, regardless of how much we are supposed to like Wayne (or identify with him) because the bloody rampage of Nicholson's Joker makes the matter moot, there's just nobody else who can stop him. In this way, Burton gets to have his cake and eat it, too, since the film contains both the heroic presentation of Batman as superhero, and a small critique of the hero as abnormal.

Probably the funniest sight gag is at the end, with Batman gazing out at the bat-symbol. It's a hilarious parody of Superman and the American flag wafting in the breeze (basically a symbol of victory for truth, justice and the American Way). Again Burton gets to have the fun, but to reinforce the film's characterization of Batman at the same time. If we remember that Wayne identifies with bats because they're survivors, then at the end we see Batman with a symbol of that strange motto, but it all only makes sense if we remember Batman is really the tragic orphan Bruce Wayne.

Batman 1989

Directed by Tim Burton

Written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren (also Bob Kane Credited)


Michael Keaton as Batman / Bruce Wayne

Jack Nicholson as Joker / Jack Napier

Kim Basinger as Photo Reporter Vicki Vale

Robert Wuhl as Reporter Alexander Knox

Pat Hingle as Commissioner James Gordon

Billy Dee Williams as Attorney Harvey Dent

Michael Gough as Butler Alfred Pennyworth

Jack Palance as gangster boss Carl Grissom

Production design by Anton Furst

[1] In terms of inflation, Batman would make an equivalent amount of $800+ million in 2014 dollars. This does not take into account the increased size of the worldwide market now, which would surely expand Batman's earning power based on the same conditions of interest found in 1989.

[2] Source: Empire Magazine 2002

Batman Returns - the 1992 sequel

20/20 Time Out Magazine, UK Batman 1989

Cover Batman 1989 20 20 magazine

Original Page Aug 2014

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