He stands guarded in the darkness. Shadows cover him like a blanket as he stares off into the horizon. In the distance a light shines, beckoning him. Somewhere out there in his city, there is corruption. There is pain. There is suffering. His cloak unfurls into the wind and he dives into the mist. He is Batman.
This is the elemental image of the caped crusader that has haunted pop culture for over 70 years. And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably noticed his cinematic impact with the past decade's iconic The Dark Knight Trilogy, directed by Christopher Nolan.
However, just as Nolan has surely left an impression on the landscape of the character for audiences who watch Ben Affleck and Zack Snyder with a wary eye, there was once an entirely different cinematic language related to the Dark Knight that contributed to our image of the Caped Crusader forevermore. It was the first Batman movie that made people look up and realize that there was more to the character than an old TV show. Tim Burton's original Batman movie reinvented the character for a generation of filmgoers who still tend to think of that picture's swelling score and haunting skyline when they dream about the world's most popular superhero. And as that movie turns 25 years old this week, it is time to look back and savor its impact on pop culture, and the character himself, one more time.
In 1989, everyone knew about Batman. He was that colorful fellow played by Adam West who hung out with a young man in green short-shorts and made puns while KA-POWing evildoers. He was a fun fantasy for children and introverts worthy of a chuckle or a groan. That all changed with Tim Burton’s summer blockbuster Batman. While the character had already undergone a literary metamorphosis in comics and graphic novels penned by the likes of Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Denny O’Neil, he was still little more than a campy throwback to the 1960s for the mainstream. This was such an accepted truth that when Burton cast 1980s funnyman Michael Keaton in the role of Bruce Wayne, fans of the darker iteration nearly hunted Burton and Warner Bros. executives down with torches and pitchforks.
That attitude shifted upon the movie’s release. From the film’s opening seconds, it was boldly different. From the earliest salvo of urban suffering fired upon the frame, there is something clearly rotten in the city of Gotham. The weird anachronistic post-noir wasteland is falling to pieces. Built as an Art Deco hellscape, the architecture of the city is literally closing in on itself as it blots out the sun in a setting that would make citizens of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis cringe.
Even worse, the city is ruled entirely by a malevolent crimelord, Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). The police force is completely owned by the gangsters and the new district attorney is ineffectual. Fortunately, the decadent society may have a savior. On the streets, gossip spreads about a giant bat killing thugs. At first, only a few journalists, including photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), believe the rumors. But when mafioso sociopath Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is dropped by the wraith into a vat of chemicals during a police raid, the truth comes out. Slowly, Vicki unravels the mystery of Batman and realizes that he and her lover, millionaire Bruce Wayne (Keaton), are one and the same. But Batman has bigger problems to worry about during this time since Napier has come back from his chemical bath deformed into an insane mass murderer: The Joker. When Joker takes over all of Gotham’s criminal element to terrorize the local denizens and romance Vicki, only Batman can save the day.
It wasn’t Adam West’s Batman. Everything about the approach seemed radical at the time. Instead of wearing gray spandex, Batman wore black rubber armor that seemed startlingly violent. Gotham felt more like a nihilistic satire of American culture in the 1980s than a goofy urban utopia. The Joker killed people and in certain scenes, Nicholson was downright mean. There wasn’t even a Robin!
This bleak take was the culmination of years of effort. For over a decade, Executive Producer Michael E. Uslan had attempted to do a gritty Batman picture. Screenwriters came and went, but it wasn’t until comic fan Sam Hamm took a crack at the script, and the young auteur Burton got his hands on the material, did it finally take shape. It was embraced with open arms with a wave of “Batmania” that swept the country in 1989, but it is just as interesting now.
Like what would come to define most of Burton’s films, Batman is a modern day fairy tale. It may be of the Grimm-variety but it is Burton telling, in the most straightforward way of his career, the story of good and evil. Gotham humorously reflects what the director thought of 1980s society. It is a self-obsessed, vain culture that ignores the decay of those on the margins. That makes the Joker’s initial main scheme, killing Gothamites by poisoning beauty products, something the villain and filmmaker could both giggle over. However, unlike Christopher Nolan, social allegories are not very important to Burton and this subtext is window-dressing. What drives the film is the relationship between two damaged, co-dependent personalities: Batman and Joker.
The casting of Keaton is still, 20 years later, a tremendous choice. While a great actor, Keaton does not have the general appearance of a superhero. This was even stranger during a time when big screen heroes looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Yet, the decision was a brilliant one. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne looks like everyone else, but he is psychologically screwed up enough to wear an ominous mask to elicit fear.
Why is he that unhinged? We know his parents died in front of him but beyond that, Burton doesn’t bother explaining. He saw madness and is a little mad himself. But in a fantastic world where everyone else is corrupt or scared, this is the closest visage of “good” we could ever see. Burton never got this close to pure righteousness again in his career.
By contrast, we know everything about the Joker. He is a mobster of the James Cagney School who still enjoys finer things like art and music. His supervillainy is only made possible by the meddling of a caped crusading do-gooder. After his transformation, he does become a kind of terrorist, but he isn’t trying to espouse a paradoxical anti-ideology ideology. He kills people because he loves killing. And he does it with a smile. To him the whole world is a punch line. In the wake of Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning performance, this may seem quaint to some. Yet, there is something satisfying about a clown called The Joker truly enjoying being a goof, albeit a homicidal one.
Some parts of the movie do not age as well. Despite overt allusions to other fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast, Joker’s sudden love for Vicki Vale seems more lazily convenient to the plot than clever. Also, the figureheads of this nebulous dreamscape seem to appear only to be thwarted by both Batman and Joker. And while Danny Elfman’s gothic score is stunningly unforgettable, the less said about the Prince songs that pop up in the movie the better.
The biggest hurdle the movie has faced in recent years is how little regard it shows for the comics. Only in his earliest 1930s comic book incarnation did Batman kill. In fact, for most of the character’s existence, his strict non-killing policy was crucial to his personality. However, in this movie, Batman kills without hesitation countless times. Alfred, the superhero’s trusted confidant for decades in the comics, openly betrays Bruce’s trust in the film by letting Vicki into the Batcave. Probably the most problematic change for fans is the twist that it was the Joker, as a young Jack Napier, who killed Bruce’s parents and thereby inadvertently created Batman.
Hence, another reason why this is more Burton’s fairy tale than a comic book adaptation. While the duality of Batman and Joker’s relationship is brilliantly explored in Nolan’s The Dark Knight, it has never been more symbiotic than in this film. In the comics and more recent movies, Batman’s order needs Joker’s chaos. But for Burton, it is good and evil co-existing because they literally make and remake each other out of necessity.
Napier created the only singular force that would one day stop him like a bratty child wanting to be punished. Batman created an adversary to justify his extreme existence. It is a causality dilemma, like the chicken and the egg, wrapped up in comic book drag. It’s so elegantly realized, this writer still wishes the filmmakers knew better than to kill the Joker at the end. Even so, the Batman mythology of the comics allowed Burton to explore what interested him about the character in a broader sense. If Batman was originally created to be a symbol for good, the director created a world where such an unsubtle figure could not only exist, but also seem commonplace.
Batman still works today because it is not an action flick of its time. Instead, it soars as a timeless tale of the age-old battle redecorated with pop culture icons. Characters in the film dress not only as people from the 1980s, but also from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Almost all the cars are at least ten years old in the movie. It exists in a murky Never Never Land where Batman and Joker can do battle for eternity in our imaginations. Even now, they battle there and it’s still bloody entertaining.