Tim Burton's Batman: the pivotal superhero movie at 25

Feature Ryan Lambie 23 Jun 2014 - 06:11

Tim Burton's Batman was released 25 years ago. Ryan looks back at how it overcame a media backlash to become a defining 80s blockbuster...

There may have been a point, in late 1988, where Tim Burton began to wonder whether he'd bitten off more than he could chew.

Sure, the 30-year-old director had made feature films before - namely Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice - but those films were relatively low-budget. Small-scale. Made outside the glare of public and Hollywood studio scrutiny.

Batman, on the other hand, was being put together with a blinding media spotlight trained on it. Warner Bros had set aside somewhere around $30m to adapt DC Comics' beloved Caped Crusader for the silver screen, and both journalists and fans were following every step of its production with keen interest.

Most worryingly, as production on Batman got underway in October 1988, a vocal proportion of those fans were decidedly unhappy. The widely-reported casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and his caped alter-ego had been greeted with disdain - both by the media and devotees of the comic books.

"The Caped Crusader may turn out to be a wimp," wrote Kathleen Hughes for The Wall Street Journal that autumn. "Best known as a wacky prankster in Burton's 1988 comedy Beetlejuice, Keaton has a receding hairline and a less-than-heroic chin. He stands at an estimated five feet 10 inches tall and weighs in at 160 pounds or so. Michael Keaton is no Sylvester Stallone."

If reports like those were derisive, the fan response was downright damning. "If you saw him in an alley wearing a bat suit," Batman fan Beau Smith said of Keaton, "you would laugh, not run in fear. Batman should be six-two, 235 pounds, your classically handsome guy with an imposing, scary image."

As letters flooded into Warner Bros' offices, demanding that Keaton be replaced, Burton packed up and headed off to Pinewood Studios in the UK - not just because he'd always want to shoot a film on the British isles, but also because he wanted to make Batman far away from the media storm surrounding it.

It was here that the enormity of what Burton had taken on hit home. "This one has been very difficult for me," the young director admitted to Starlog magazine. "We were shooting six days a week. Usually, if you have the weekend, you can regroup a little bit. There was absolutely no time to regroup."

Burton had to contend with 12-hour days of complicated shooting on vast, dimly-lit sets. To keep up with the pace of production, there was a second unit filming scenes at the same time - something the director had never encountered before.

And the leading lady had fallen off a horse.

"Stop the press! Who's that?"

Sean Young, who'd famously co-starred with Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, was originally cast as Vicki Vale, a photographer who falls under millionaire Bruce Wayne's spell while trying to discover the identity of the Batman. But two days before shooting began, Young broke her collarbone in a riding accident, which immediately ruled her out of the film.

"To tell you the truth," Burton said of the incident, "It was so shocking that I had a weird response to the whole thing... I mean, I was very sad and upset, but I just said, "Okay, well, [find another actress]."

Kim Basinger promptly stepped in as Vicki Vale, yet even here there was a whiff of cynicism from the media: a British tabloid newspaper suggested that Basinger had won the part because she was in a relationship with producer Jon Peters. "That was yet more of the salacious gossip we've had to put up with," Burton said of the story. "We sued..."

Burton and his team of filmmakers quickly realised that something had to be done to both feed the intense interest in the Batman movie and also fan suspicions - like the opinion of J Alan Bolick, quoted by The Wall Street Journal:

"Hollywood is just in it for the money, and Warner Bros has been doing a bit of duplicity. I don't think Mr Burton has any intention of making a serious Batman movie."

To this end, producers Jon Peters and Peter Gruber decided to cut together a teaser trailer from the footage shot so far - an attempt to provide audiences with a flavour of what Warner's Batman movie would look like. Although notably lacking Danny Elfman's score, the trailer worked: the response was rapturous.

"It was shown in theatres in January and February," Jon Peters told The Toronto Star, "and it basically changed the whole direction and perception of the movie, because people realised Batman would be a dark adventure and not a farce."

Audiences were finally won over. Batman's extraordinary marketing assault had begun.

"Wait till they get a load of me"

It's fitting that a film made in a media spotlight should itself be partly about public image and the media. The core of Batman is, of course, the violent waltz between the Caped Crusader and his nemesis The Joker, here extravagantly played by Jack Nicholson. But surrounding that core is another story about journalists trying to find out Batman's true identity. At the same time, the Joker wages a kind of deadly publicity campaign in a narcissistic attempt to upstage the masked vigilante - a campaign that involves a poison called Smilex and the use of TV and newspapers.

"Watch it, Batman," the villain says as he reads a newspaper headline about the Dark Knight, "Wait till they get a load of me..."

Although far from an avid comic book reader, Burton was fascinated by the imagery and psychology of Batman and the Joker - one a brooding, wounded soul whose scars are internal, the other a cackling, exuberant maniac whose scars are plain for all to see.

"Batman and the Joker, the two of them together, they are the perfect complements," Burton told Starlog. "They are perfect as images."

Burton's version of Batman and the Joker are not only perfect as images, but also fully aware, in the world the director creates, of the impact their images have on others. "Tell all your friends about me," Batman whispers to a terrified hoodlum on a Gotham city rooftop. Bruce Wayne is shrewd enough to know that he has to maintain the outward appearance as a millionaire playboy in everyday life, and only occasionally allows that mask to slip ("You want to get nuts? C'mon! Let's get nuts!"). But when he's dressed as Batman, he's similarly aware that his war on crime is as psychological as it is physical - in order for one person to have any impact on the mob-controlled streets of Gotham, he needs a mythical edge, and turns to newspaper reporters like Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) to provide it.

In 2014, these are the kinds of ideas we're used to seeing in our movie incarnations of the Dark Knight. But in 1989, this detailed exploration of Batman's psychological makeup was new - the 60s Batman TV series had played around with the symbolism of the Caped Crusader, but not the inner turmoil that would lead a man to wear a mask and beat up criminals.

Late-80s audiences, some of them primed by the tone of such comic book stories as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, were ready for a weightier, murkier reading of Batman. And despite initial fears that the triumvirate of Burton, Keaton and Nicholson was all wrong for the material ("How can you have Jack Nicholson playing a villain and not have him be funny?" was one abiding question), this unlikely teaming turned out to be hugely successful.

"Think about the future"

The Batman teaser trailer, screened in 1989, summarised Burton's grand plan in the space of just 90 seconds. The film was clearly different from the high camp of the Adam West television series. Stripped of both music and narrative context, the trailer offered up a procession of powerful images: the Batmobile, all swooping curves and roaring engines. The Bat suit, backlit and powerful-looking. The oppressive darkness of Gotham City, with its smoke and iron girders. The noirish, oppressive 1930s atmosphere. And finally Jack Nicholson's Joker, his fixed grin failing to meet his dead, scheming eyes.

Behind the scenes, Burton may have been struggling with the sheer weight of production - in post-release interviews, he freely admitted that large chunks of the script were improvised on the fly - but he'd surrounded himself with seasoned filmmakers who contributed hugely to the look and sound of the finished film.

From a visual standpoint, production designer Anton Furst was key. His desire to build large, practical sets chimed with Burton's own, and together, the pair created a claustrophobic, menacing Gotham city on Shepperton's sound stages. Furst's bold, extraordinary sets came at a cost: $5.5m was set aside to construct them, and as the overall budget on Batman swelled from $30m to an estimated $48m, the buildings kept going up: the 38-foot cathedral, which serves as the meeting place for Batman and the Joker's final confrontation, cost $100,000 on its own.

The impact of Batman's production design - not to mention Bob Ringwood's costume design and Roger Pratt's cinematography - shouldn't be underestimated: Burton's self-consciously operatic story succeeds because it takes place in a fully-realised, oppressive world.

"All the sets are an extension of an opera staging," Burton later told Cinefantastique, "and I think Anton has been very successful with my brief of timelessness."

"Where did he get those wonderful toys?"

Even in a season which also saw the release of such high-profile sequels as Ghostbusters II and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, 1989 was inarguably the summer of Batman. Its logos and merchandise were everywhere. Advertisements on television blared out Danny Elfman's now finished, unforgettable score. Batman became not just another film at the pictures, but something that simply couldn't be missed.

Eleven years after the adaptation of Superman proved that a comic book adaptation could be a blockbuster, Batman did something else: it proved that something dark, daring and exotic could be a hit, too. Because beneath all the Hollywood sparkle, and the quintessentially 80s bling of the golden Bat symbol which appeared on everything from lunchboxes to t-shirts that summer, Batman was and remains an unusual, wayward summer film.

In the context of a $48m action adventure, Burton had made a film about outsiders - a "duel of the freaks" as the director described it - who were fighting themselves as much as each other. Burton's subversive humour is everywhere: a famous model, Jerry Hall, is left hideously scarred and masked. An art gallery is demolished to the strains of Prince's pop sound track, yet the Joker forbids the destruction of a grotesquely beautiful painting by Francis Bacon. Jack Nicholson's Joker has his own line in surreal humour ("Never rub another man's rhubarb!") but he's violent and plain evil, even when compared to the character's antics in the comic books.

Batman didn't invent the 12A or PG-13 movie, but it did prove that a summer film could explore dark, intense themes if the framework was right, and that it could enjoy a record-breaking opening weekend in the process - all told, Batman made more than $400m in theatres alone.

Even after the hysteria of Batmania faded, Burton's Batman cast a long shadow over the movie industry. The look and sound of Batman would inform the three direct sequels which followed, as well as the successful animated series. Echoes of Anton Furst's production design can still be seen in Christopher Nolan's reboot, Batman Begins.

Batman had a wider impact, too, paving the way for Bryan Singer's X-Men film, which introduced its own group of outsider superheroes to the screen in 2000. And Batman's event-movie status, with its bold casting and individual approach to adapting comic book material, is something Marvel has taken on with its own movies.

Most importantly, perhaps, Batman showed that both a movie and its leading actor could overcome the weight of negative opinion, and prove their detractors wrong. Against all odds, Tim Burton's Batman, became the defining superhero film of the 1980s.  

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Great read-up before starting the work-day. Love this film, the casting of Keaton in particular. Perhaps he's not the best Batman, but he's a brilliant, quirky Wayne.

Keaton's my favourite on-screen Batman. Would love a film with him now as a battered down broken old Bats

I enjoyed it, but like most Burton films the weakness of plot was my main beef.

I think he's the best Batman, the best Bruce Wayne, and the best looking Batsuit to date. Keaton's Wayne was a genuinely eccentric, screwed up, and unpredictable person with that underlying hint of real danger lurking beneath the surface.

None of that is to take anything away from Chris Nolan's mesmerizing trilogy, which remains the greatest comic-book movie saga to date (by quite some distance), but it WAS a saga, Burton's duology was a great standalone movie plus an additional (and equally great) sequel.

Personally I'd say the brilliance in casting Keaton is that he doesn't look like he would be Batman in his portrayal as the millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. There was a certain subtlety in the way he portrayed Bruce's behaviour in private that didn't take away from successfully showing that 'underlying hint of real danger lurking beneath the surface' you explain. While I love Nolan's trilogy, I can't help but feel that Bale's Bruce Wayne makes it too obvious he's hiding something in comparison, and that Keaton's Batman is genuinely menacing when compared to resorting to Bale's infamous Bat-voice.

It was genre-defining in many ways (and for that deserves to be applauded) but I feel it has not aged particularly well and is an odd viewing experience today.

"Batman didn't invent the 12A or PG-13 movie"

No, but it was, however, the first film to get a 12 Cert in the UK...

Initially this was a cinema-only rating which caused me no end of pain - I was 11 when the film came out and my dad took me to see it, however when the film was released on VHS my mum wouldn't let me buy a copy as it was now a 15 Cert :)

And to think the film that kicked off the popularity of comic book movies went against the norm and didnt do a origin story, jumping right into the Bat-mythology without the need to see what he had for tea when he was 7. Hollywood take note, we can handle superheroes now, just jump in with the action ...ta!

Much as I love the Nolan Batman trilogy, I absolutely adore the 1989 Batman film. It really was tbe summer Batman, the film and it's logo were everywhere.

I'm afraid I was one those appalled at Michael Keatons casting, but he was superb, and is for me the definitive Batman. And then there was the awesome and never bettered Batmobile too !.

Still my favorite Batman.

I like it because it struck a good balance and didn't try to be "realistic" like Nolan.

Didn't like it at the cinema. Don't like it now. Although Keatons Bruce Wayne is very good - cerebral and disturbed, he lacks the physicality. Princes soundtrack is also hard to listen to - rushed and disjointed.

"(it) didn't try to be "realistic" like Nolan".

Probably because it was made 16 yrs before Nolan's 'realistic' version was released. Would have been near impossible to make it like Nolan's.

Unless you have a flux capacitor.

Disagree. It was made "stylistically". Realism would have been achievable. Nolan has played the contrast game.

I really really really wish people would stop comparing the 1989 Batman and the 2005 Batman.

They are 16 yrs apart, made in 2 totally different decades.

There is no way you can say one is better than the other as they are both great in their own ways.

You are allowed to like both.

You can't dislike Burton's for not being 'realistic' enough and you can't dislike Nolan's for being too realistic.

Both films are a product of their time.

25 years on, I wonder if Kim still loves purple? I also highly recommend playing Prince's 'Bat Dance' at house parties!

Great article. But of course the villain doesn't say "Watch it, Batman."
He reads the headline out loud: "Winged freak... Terrorises?"

Today's PedantWatch was brought to you by Smilex: I get a grin - again, and again.

I do wish people like you would stop telling people what opinions they can and cannot have!

"He stole my balloons!! Why didn't somebody tell me he had one of those....things?!"

Absolutely love this film, one of my favourites growing up.

Bravo, Tim Burton, bravo.

Yea, was hoping he may have been cast in the new Batman films.. oh well

This film had by far and away the best version of Gotham on film. I'm personally a big fan of this Batmobile too.
Got to say though this was my favourite comic book film for a very, very long time and it just reinforces how spoiled comic book geeks are for films these days that it probably wouldn't get anywhere near my top 5 anymore. Still brilliant though.

And anyway, both are inferior to the 1966 version with Adam West.

The best Bat-Man is LEGO MOVIE Bat-Man by a country mile!

I remember 1989 well. I went to see a few films in the cinema that year, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Star Trek V, and Back to the Future Part 2. Indy 3 I saw around 22 Sept (for a mate's 12th Birthday). Despite having come out in the UK at the end of June the film was still playing strong. In the room next to us, was Batman. The first UK 12 cert.
I remember collecting the bubble gum cards (something a novelty in the UK). I remember a friend at the time being obsessed with Batman (whereas I was obsessed with Last Crusade).
Ghostbusters 2, despite being released on 16 June in the U.S. (1 week ahead of Batman) wasn't released in the UK until 1 Dec (I remember it trailered at the start of BTTF in Nov).
A nice trip down memory lane.

Sorry.

Please accept my apology.

Not only did I love this film as a kid (and adult) I also enjoyed the Commodore 64 version of Batman...

*sigh* Crap i'm old!

Same here. I was 9, and couldn't go and see it, but of course all the toys and so on were oppressively marketed to kids. So I had my official Matchbox Batmobile, but couldn't go and see the film.

God, yes, there were so many films out that year which defined my school life.

The Batmobile is clearly the best-looking, yet most impractical of all.

It's too bad that Michael Keaton bailed out after the second movie, but Val Kilmer did all right. Of course, we must not speak of what followed that installment.

I know. It is VERY impractical. But to be fair so is a great big cape in the majority of situations ;)

Sometimes, origin stories can be useful.

I don't think Nolan's films are "realistic". I always find it odd when they're described as realistic as you can't really have a realistic Batman because the idea of a real life Batman is ludicrous. Plus those films have some crazy nonsense in them: the water vaporisation thing in Begins, the mobile phone radar thing in the 2nd and to be honest not much of the third holds up to close scrutiny if you're looking at "realism". The Burton and Nolan films are just different styles.

I agree. Sometimes they can. And sometimes they are unnecessary as everyone already knows (or it's just dull). At the end of the day it depends how good a story they tell. We've never had a James Bond origin story (what was his childhhod like? Why did he join the secret service?) but his films do OK.

This! I'm glad somebody else said it. I was about to write pretty much the same thing.

Jesus! How do you remember the dates? I stuggle with what I had for lunch!.....and I have only just finished it!

Sylvester Stallone as Batman
*shudder*

"Watch it, Batman," the villain says as he reads a newspaper headline about the Dark Knight

Does he say "watch it, Batman"?

"Winged freak. Terrorizes. Wait till they get a load of me. Ha ha ha ha ha "

It's a bit of a long bow to say Batman kicked off the popularity of comic book movies. Superman was the first big budget movie ten years before it and the end of this series nearly killed the comic movie dead. X-Men is still the true kick off point for the current run. There were large elements of the origin in Batman too, even if they made the Joker his parents murderer. At least with Bat V Supes we will get a fully realised Batman from the outset, but don't be surprised if he explains his origin to someone in that movie.

First rule of adapting a well-known story for film is to not assume your audience knows the story. Fans will make you back your budget. The real money is in non-fans who will need to have things explained or they will savage the film to anyone who asks as "stupid, I didn't understand it." This is a bigger problem if that person is a respected film critic. While this probably doesn't apply to Batman so much thanks to Burton and Nolan it's still a good rule to follow.

I own a lot of original cinema quads for these films, as well as some old film magazines. (Such a hoarder for memorablia).
Although for the U.S. dates there's imdb.

I agree with a lot of what you say. But I'm not saying you have to assume your audience knows the story. Just that the story you tell does not have to be the very beginning of that character. Raiders of the Lost Ark is not an origin story. But it's great, everyone loves Indy and understands what he's all about and it made money.
Origin movies are not automatically good or bad; but the films themselves can be good or bad. Origin movies can be great, they can be crap or dull, but I don't think they are always essential

Sometimes one scene in a film will do what some properties spend most of a movie doing.

Huh? Batman Begins was a great movie! I'm so glad they quit whilst they were ahead in 1995 and decided to just leave it with Batman Forever.

Have fond memories of watching this one as I was stationed in RAF Germany at the time, and they flew a copy out for our Tornado Squadron to watch.

I was on IX SQN, and our crest was a "BAT" , motto "Per noctem volamus" happy times for both film and work.

Also we got the 'bat-pack' out of this as well - Win for all Amiga users!

oh,,,,and Batman The Animated Series

I agree to a point, but sometimes the origin can be fun - Raimi's Spider-Man had a great origin story, complete with Macho Man cameo and some great one-liners. Similarly Iron Man was just superb and seemed to come completely out of left field.

Bob...gun...BANG!

"Love that Joker!"

"I suppose you’re only familiar with the new Batman movies... And I didn’t need molded plastic to improve my physique. Pure. West. And why doesn’t Batman dance anymore? Remember the Batusi?"

I've always thought the first half of the 1966 Batman movie is the greatest first half of a movie ever. It's brilliantly insane with some amazingly crazy lines you just won't see in a film these days. The second half is a bit dull but that first bit is just fantastic.

"Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!"

I think he meant Batman and Robin which followed Val Kilmer's turn as Batman in Batman Forever.

I loved that cameo!

Yeah, I even tried to lie to get in. Didn't happen, I almost think it's the reason I am as geeky as I am now!

We don't talk about B&R in respectful society, it is talked about in hushed tones in the dungeons of empty comic book stores.

it's not impractical...sure it can't turn corners without a winch but...uh...it was soooo cool!

It was an origin story...just the origin story of The Joker, not Batman.

Michael Keaton is a good actor but i could not take him seriously as Batman.The guy was WAY too short and wimpy for the role.Also as Bruce Wayne he seemed rather awkward and uncomfortable with women.It didnt help that the film was really all about the Joker.In fact all the Burton/Schumacher movies were all about the villains, it wasnt until Nolan came along that a true BATMAN movie was made.

I was 12, but looked older so I actually went to my first 15 rated films the same summer: LICENCE TO KILL (with my parents) and LETHAL WEAPON 2 (with friends).

God dammit Life In The Fat Lane. You've doomed us all!!

Exactly the same for me, I remember going to the movies having memorised a fake D.O.B. to make me old enough to watch it :)

Man, sounds like it was easy to get into mature films back then. Before I trained myself in the ways of The Beard I didn't have a hoot in hell of getting in without a form of ID :P

Batmobile, needs to navigate quickly through tight city streets, has a turning circle of half a mile.

Batman was the first movie I recall to have such a huge hype machine behind it. If you could put the bat logo on it, then it was merchandise. Prince's Batdance being a really obvious cash-in single. Nowadays it's par for the course but before Batman I don't think a film had been so vigourously hyped. Sure, many huge movies were hyped but not quite as much as this one.

True. What kind of Batman wouldn't have Shark Repellant in his utility belt. Absolutely hilarious, and a lot of fun.

I always remember Lethal Weapon 2 being an 18 cert in 1989. It was only recently when re-released on BluRay that both the first 2 Lethal Weapons were reduced to a 15 cert. Lethal Weapon 3 was a 15 cert at the cinema. I loved that trailer for it too with the bomb in the building.
I was always tall for my age, so never had any prob getting into 15 or 18 cert films before I was old enough. Unfortunately, my mates of the same age were short for their age and often looked shifty.

Warner Bros missed a trick on not making a new Batman with Michael Keaton as the old grizzled veteran passiing on his skills.
"Don't make them like they used too.....Hey Batsy!"

"Gonna need a moment alone Boys"

"He's been using brand Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx"

"Ooooop......Ooooop...."

Although Nicholson's Joker was awesome, I never felt he presented any real threat in the film. This was more down to script than performance but I just wished he was more dangerous and threatening instead of being used like a dodgy old uncle. I love the film by the way.

Never rub another man's rhubarb

Don't be sorry....people can have whatever opinions they want but it does not make them valid. Besides, Meh you are asking James to quit doing what you have just done by asking him not to share his opinion....woah I just hirt my brain....

"You are not sending me to the cooler."

We're like Beauty and the Beast...of course if anyone else calls you Beast I'll rip their lungs out.

and the mystery can keep an audience interested. Look at the Game of Thrones....loads of mysteries still yet to be revealed and still the fans watch and the new people watch.

Gentlemen! Let's broaden our minds. Lawrence?

This movie has a look and an atmosphere that no other Batman film has managed to capture since. The story is all over the place (you understand why when you watch the documentary on the DVD) but in terms set design, music and just the overall feel of the movie, it's possibly the closest to the original source material of any in the series.

Great article, I agree that you can't think of Batman without in some way of thinking of the atmosphere and look of this movie. It's wonderful that against all odds, this superhero film became a huge success, despite being so fiercely individual and personal and interesting. Great movie, svn if it has shown its age.

I understand how 'Batman' changed the way modern blockbusters are made and marketed and I appreciate it for that but I find the actual film to be quite well 'meh' and don't think it has dated that well at all. I've found most of the people who write glowingly and lovingly about it saw it in theatres when it first came out and I can't help but feel that there is a sense of 'nostalgia goggles' about it. From that point I think it would be really interesting to see an article from the perspective of someone who wasn't around when the film was made and how they view.
For me personally I saw this around 2002-2003 and I found it to be very disappointing as a whole. Part of the reason might've been that I grew up with The Batman Animated Series and the live-action film felt more like a cartoon than the actual cartoon show. And yes I do understand that my feelings for Batman:TAS might be viewed from the same 'nostalgia goggles' but I've gone back and seen almost all the Batman films that got a theatrical release after the Nolan trilogy and I found myself liking Batman Returns much more than Batman. And for me the definitive Batman Movie is The Mask of the Phantasm and I think that animated film has aged way better than Burton's Batman. Heck, I'll go out on a limb and claim that Mask of The Phantasm will continue to age better than the Nolan films.

I'd agree with you on those points. The Animated Series was informed by Burton's movie, however. I guess it took Burton's vision and refined it.

Batman and Batman Returns were awesome. But what makes them the best is its legacy which gave us the best Batman ever, Kevin Conroy...

A Macho Man cameo in anything is worth the price of entry alone...'oooh yeah!' (RIP Randy)

Hardy har har, matey!

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