The truism that all press is good press was tested early, and relentlessly, during the production of Tim Burton’s Batman. In an era before the internet, or even superhero domination of the box office, getting your quirky action movie hyped on the front page and above the fold of The Wall Street Journal should seem like a gift. But with a headline reading “Batman Fans Fear The Joke’s on Them in Hollywood Epic,” no producer was exactly laughing eight months before the launch of the then-third most expensive movie ever made.
Such was the painful birth of Batman into the world. While hardly the original big budgeted superhero movie, it would go on to become one of the most influential. As the first of its kind to forego an origin story at its inception, and to expressly target an adult audience over the demands of strictly being seen as a “family picture,” Batman deserves as much credit as Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie for providing a foundational basis to its genre. Between these diametrically opposed poles, a new type of movie that would come to define 21st century cinema would emerge. Yet there will never be another superhero movie quite like Batman, a fidgety and even transgressive blockbuster that still stands apart (and above most) of its descendants.
Which brings us back to why those fans’ vitriol became front page news in The Journal: Michael Keaton cast as Batman. Folks getting upset at the casting of beloved characters is as old as the movies—and will continue to be—but this intentional departure from square jawed, forthright heroism heralded something new and different, including from the most beloved superhero movies that followed. Burton and his fellow filmmakers weren’t trying to please the fans with fidelity; they were ignoring them in order to craft an eccentric vision so compelling that, like a Bat-signal in the sky, it changed the way folks thought of Batman, his world, and even their own fandom ever after its image was first projected.
Out of the Funny Pages
Three decades after it became the then highest-grossing movie ever, it’s easy to forget what the world was like before Keaton hissed, “I’m Batman.” In the 1980s, Batman comics were in the midst of of a gritty aesthetic shift that would redefine the character. But when Sam Hamm began writing his first draft of Batman, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns had only published two issues for the most enthusiastic of adult comic book readers. For everyone else, the character’s popular image remained the campy crime fighter from Adam West’s Batman 1966 TV series.
It was in this context that Bat-fan Michael Uslan broke into Hollywood. A newly minted lawyer who took more pride in teaching a graduate course on comic books at Indiana University than the law degree he earned, the fledgling producer spent a decade pursuing a Batman movie after getting the rights from DC Comics. Many of those years, however, involved the rejection of his dream adaptation: a dark and serious action movie that returned the character to his pulpy roots. In 2009, Uslan told an audience this writer was in about a United Artists executive who’d said to him that a Batman and Robin movie could never work because Robin and Marian flopped at the box office and “Robin has to be in the title.” (Robin and Marian was an elegiac Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn drama about the middle-age and deaths of Robin Hood and Maid Marian.)
More recently, Uslan told Back Issue for their special Batman 30th anniversary edition about the time a Columbia boss shrugged it was doomed because the Annie (1982) musical flopped. “Oh come on, Michael, they’re both out of the funny pages!”
In earnest, the idea of returning to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s original vision of a dark avenger of the night lacked appeal throughout all of Hollywood, even after Superman: The Movie proved a man could fly in 1978. Well, almost all of it. For it was Peter Guber who took a shine to Uslan’s concept of a dark superhero movie and signed a contract with Uslan’s Batfilm Productions Inc. just three days after hearing a pitch. Guber and Jon Peters’ Guber-Peters Company was then able to negotiate a deal with Warner Bros. because Frank Wells, WB’s then Vice Chairman and man always ahead of the curve, was flabbergasted to learn that DC Comics in New York had signed away the movie rights for a potentially lucrative intellectual property. (Wells would go on to be the much loved COO of the Walt Disney Company during its late ‘80s and early ‘90s renaissance, helping turn it into the behemoth it is today.)
Yet even with Batman safely back home with his corporate parent, WB struggled with what exactly a Batman movie should look like. By the time Hamm came on board as screenwriter in 1986, he said WB had already commissioned and abandoned a 1930s-set noir Batman film and a Batman comedy. However, the one that likely came closest to fruition was Ivan Reitman’s attempt that would presumably take the character off the funny pages… but with Bill Murray as Batman. Reitman had just had major success with Murray on Stripes and was in the midst of the Ghostbusters whirlwind while developing the project.
What this abandoned movie would’ve looked like can still be found in the screenplays that predate and evolved under the Reitman era. Prior to Reitman, a pre-Gremlins Joe Dante signed on to direct Batman, and WB tapped Tom Mankiewicz to write the screenplay. Despite what the credits to Superman: The Movie say about Mario Puzo’s contributions, Mankiewicz was the script doctor largely responsible for the dialogue and scenes given to Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando. A member of one of Hollywood’s most storied families, Mankiewicz also wrote the scripts for several James Bond movies, including Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun, as well as made Superman II coherent. Hired to write multiple drafts of Batman between 1981 and ’83, Mankiewicz adapted heavily from Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ late ‘70s Detective Comics run where Batman dealt with dirty politicians and murdered love interests.
In fact, long before Tim Burton famously had the Joker kill Bruce Wayne’s parents, Mankiewicz’s drafts essentially did the same by beginning with street thug Joe Chill murdering Thomas and Martha Wayne at the Joker’s behest—who is in turn a gangster working for corrupt politician Rupert Thorne. Yet what’s most striking about this early vision for Batman is how much it looks like Superman: The Movie by way of a Roger Moore era 007 film. While Christopher Nolan would also borrow from Richard Donner’s template for Batman Begins, Mankiewicz much more clearly mimics that Superman script with bizarre twists. The film would’ve begun with Bruce Wayne as a child who, after seeing his parents gunned down in the second scene, immediately begins to train his body and mind to be a superhero (he already at the age of 10 has built a hologram before his folks got shot). The film would also spend as much or more time developing Bruce’s apparently Herculean lothario prowess as it did his martial arts abilities.
All of which leads to a love triangle between Bruce, the doomed Silver St. Cloud, and her boss and the man responsible for the death of Bruce’s parents, Rupert Thorne. The Joker plays a major role too, but at the end of the day it actually bears greater similarity to many of the most popular superhero movies of today: a pretty standard origin story that imitates Richard Donner with an underwhelming set of villains. Oh, and it had Robin making a shoehorned late entry like some kind of easter egg.
The creative forces that would make Batman something quite a bit more alien had yet to arrive on the project.
Just a Nut in a Suit
Perhaps the most unsung hero in Batman’s genesis is a Warner Bros. executive named Bonni Lee. A vice president in WB’s feature division during the 1980s, Lee seemed to have a remarkable eye for talent. After all, she brought Burton to Warners and eventually to the Dark Knight.
When Lee first recommended the eccentric, and barely over 25, filmmaker to Paul Reubens, Burton didn’t have a feature to his name. Actually he’d gone to school for animation, being part of the same legendary CalArts class as Brad Bird (Incredibles, Ratatouille), John Lasseter (Toy Story, Pixar itself), and Chris Buck (Frozen), and a member of a generation would revitalize Walt Disney Animation Studios. Burton, however, failed to ever quite fit in at Disney where he directed two short films, “Vincent” and “Frankenweenie,” the latter of which was in live-action. His bosses agreed they were both brilliant and also agreed that Burton should be fired because there was no way Disney could ever market his movies. The day he turned in “Frankenweenie” would be his last day at Disney until The Nightmare Before Christmas started coming together a decade later. In the interim, Bonni Lee saw “Vincent” at a festival and loved it so much that she shared it with Reubens, who was producing his starring vehicle, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. He agreed to meet Burton.
The success of that 1985 movie, Burton’s directorial debut, gave way to Beetlejuice and Batman, the latter of which was fully greenlit after Beetlejuice was a hit that proved WB had their own wunderkind. He was 28.
Burton had never been a comic book guy when he agreed to direct Batman. Growing up as a somewhat melancholy and disaffected artist, he preferred creating his own characters to reading about the costumed adventurers. Nevertheless, as he has said countless times, the iconography of Batman inspired his imagination more than any other superhero, particularly with how Bob Kane first drew him after receiving notes from Bill Finger: as a masked wraith of almost supernatural quality. The opening scene of Batman, where Keaton’s loosely termed superhero descends out of the shadows on two junkie muggers hiding on a rooftop and then attacks them like a revenant, is more vampiric than anything the Gothic influenced director has ever done… and he made a vampire movie in 2012.
“I thought it was really the right thing [to do],” Burton said in the 2005 documentary Shadow of the Bat as to why he was ready to jump from quirky comedies to mega-budgeted superhero movies. “Of just taking it a bit more seriously, exploring the psychology of it. It felt like new territory for that kind of movie at the time.”
It also required an entire rethinking of what a superhero movie can be, one which was miles away from what we’ve seen before or since. Owing a great deal to German Expressionism and film noir, Burton returned to the artistic stylings of the 1930s that helped inspire Bob Kane’s Batman. Almost by accident, Burton brought Batman back to how he was originally imagined, as opposed to Adam West’s “POW, BAM!” imagery.
“The idea that interested us most was to go back to the original Bob Kane notion, and we thought that was the version that would give us the most entry into the story we wanted to tell,” Hamm said in Shadow of the Bat. “To kind of go dark and misterioso meant we could also say we are going back to the roots of the character. We’re kind of paring away all the detours the character has taken over the years and trying to zero in on what this original concept was.”
Hamm himself came aboard the project as the unapologetic Batman fan… also at the guidance of Bonni Lee. Noticing one of Tom Mankiewicz’s Batman scripts in her office, Hamm spent months begging Lee and anyone at WB who would listen to get a crack at adapting the Dark Knight, and it was Lee who facilitated his first meeting with Burton.
In a more recent Back Issue interview, Hamm recalled Burton saying, “The weird thing about Bruce Wayne is he’s this incredibly rich guy, but all he wants to do is put on a suit and beat up petty crooks. Why is that?” Hamm’s answer was, “That’s the picture. That’s the mystery.”
Consequently, Batman became a story about a myth, a legend, a ghoul that everyone in Gotham City is talking about. This, for the record, is how the character was introduced in Detective Comics #27, but it is also an excuse to add the type of creative flourishes that no producer would dare allow a modern director to contemplate with these characters. Prior to 1989’s movie, Gotham City was just a slightly sleazier variation of New York City or Chicago. It was Burton and Hamm’s flights of creative fancy that turned it into a Gothic hellscape in which the spires of crooked skyscrapers blotted out the sun while entangling atop each other, as if each needing a hug of support in this sink hole of a town.
It was “as if hell erupted through the sidewalks and kept on growing,” Hamm wrote of Gotham in the first paragraph of his script, and Burton realized that vision by way of a sprawling urban decay reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in which the Art Deco city of tomorrow became a dystopian fate for humanity. Some of these impulses ironically brought Burton closer to the comics than even fans might be used to—his idea of a permanently grinning Joker is a lift from Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928), which was also the movie that inspired Bill Finger to create the Joker—and others took him further from the source. For instance, Burton and Hamm both detested the idea of Robin being in the movie, only shoehorning him into one of Hamm’s drafts to placate producers in an action sequence so pricy it was the first thing to get cut.
“I think almost everybody across the board was just happy about no Robin,” Burton laughed years later. “I can’t recall one person who’s going, ‘We gotta have Robin in this.’”
But these ideas were still so vivid that they influenced comicdom and fandom with things they didn’t know they wanted. After Batman, Gotham quickly took on an Art Deco hellishness in Batman: The Animated Series, and ever since that has been the preferred vision of the city.
The narrative also broke the convention that existed before and after by electing to tell Batman’s story from an external point-of-view. While much more sophisticated in Hamm’s earlier drafts, the plan was always to have Batman be, in Hamm’s words, “just a nut in a suit” whose secrets were unearthed for the audience by Vicki Vale, his take on Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. As Vicki discovers why the twitchy Bruce Wayne twitches away from cameras, so too does the audience understand what his proverbial “Rosebud” is: two dead parents in an alley the city forgot about.
Even the way the criminals are depicted is a departure from modern gangster fare that was popular in the comics and earlier drafts, and closer to classic noir. The scene in which Jack Nicholson’s Jack Napier looks at a mirror for the first time after his plastic surgery is lifted directly from Dark Passage (1947), the least of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s noirs.
Still, by existing during a period where studios ignored passionate adult fans instead of trying to placate them, a truly unique stylist as well as a fan of a different era of comics were hired to reinvent superheroes in a non-formulaic way. Few tried to replicate that approach afterward, and few likely will in the future.
Producer Peter Guber best described in 2005 how the film evolved after Burton came aboard.
“What he baked into the process was the most important element in a film. He built risk into it. He said, ‘I’m going to take this to another place where there is not a lot of certainty. I’m going to give you variety.’ And that scares people. It scares studios and financiers, and it did up the food chain until the very end. But that… very risk component helped get it made and helped make it what it is.”
The More It Scares Them
Likely the biggest risk Batman ever took though was the casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne. While news that Jack Nicholson would play the Joker was met with the kind of industry intrigue and fanfare of Marlon Brando elevating the status of Superman: The Movie, the casting of Burton’s Beetlejuice had the opposite reaction.
“At first I thought it was a joke,” Uslan said in Shadow of the Bat. While still a producer on the project, he was also a self-described fanboy who had flashes of Adam West dancing before his eyes. “‘Yeah, Mr. Mom as Batman.’” It became front page news around the world, and on more than just The Wall Street Journal. Variety and the trades snickered, and The New York Times ran a probing article examining the new phenomenon of fans whining about a movie before it’s out. Letters arrived at Warners by the thousands to complain.
“There was no internet, no computers back then,” Uslan told Back Issue. “This came over conventional press. I thought they were going to surround Warner Bros. with torches and pitchforks. That’s really what it came down to.”
Burton and his studio of course considered other actors. WB was hot for some of the more traditional leading men of the day, including Harrison Ford, Tom Selleck, Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, and especially Mel Gibson. Burton, for his part, had circled back to considering Bill Murray for the role before deciding to go with his Beetlejuice leading man. Something that in retrospect seems ingenious.
While Keaton was primarily known for comedies at the time, including as a yucking demon in one of Burton’s, he had what Burton aptly described as “crazy eyes.” When Keaton’s fidgety take on Bruce Wayne suddenly grows still, his gaze hollows out, and there is something otherworldly and unhinged about him. Everyone recalls where his Bruce has a momentary flash of madness in front of the Joker, and Keaton goes as big as Nicholson when he says, “You want to get nuts? C’mon let’s get nuts!” But more impressive is the way his Bruce can look at a monitor and slowly transform from introvert to an apparition whose visible, psychic wounds have made him fearless… and maybe a little fearful to be around.
As Uslan often recounts, Burton assuaged his fears by sending him a rough cut of Clean and Sober, a then-as-yet unreleased drama Keaton starred in. Burton also said, “I don’t exactly know how to put a serious actor into a Batman costume without getting inadvertent laughs from the audience… [but I do] know with Michael Keaton, we could create a portrayal of this driven and consumed Bruce Wayne and audiences would go, ‘Yeah, yeah, he could do that.’”
Keaton’s brooding Batman is now a fan favorite, of course. It is not unusual that fans come to love the things they most deride, but what is unusual is how much of a departure Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is from the comics. He is not the playboy nor is he all that heroic. His Batman is a creature of compulsion; he needs to go out at night and beat up criminals with his bare hands. He doesn’t save the victims of muggers, their pain gives him permission to release his own. There is no grand plan here about “saving Gotham.”
Hamm himself has described the conflict of the film as Bruce fearing he is “going sane” by being attracted to a happy life with Vicki Vale. It is an extreme adaptation of the character that pays off with one of the more richly realized protagonists in a superhero movie—all without an origin story beyond a flashback to his parents’ death and relatively little dialogue. (Keaton asked for multiple lines to be cut in both of his Batman movies to increase the character’s mystique.)
By contrast, Joker’s role only grew after Jack Nicholson was cast in one of his signature roles. As probably the flashiest performances in a superhero movie to this day, it was the part everyone thought Nicholson was born to play. Uslan claims he wanted Nicholson in the role ever since seeing a publicity photo of the actor in The Shining in 1980 and taking it home to color with whiteout and red and green markers.
Yet no one thought Nicholson would do the film, even after Guber and Burton went to his home and tried to convince him to join the project. In fact, Nicholson vacillated long enough on the price point that WB signed Tim Curry to a handsome pay or play deal. After hearing this, Nicholson quickly agreed to a price point that still included backend residuals on Batman and its sequels, and Curry was paid not to play the Joker. That probably hurt less though than it did for Robin Williams, who was also used as leverage against Nicholson and wasn’t reimbursed for it.
Be that as it may, Nicholson always seemed to thrill at the idea of playing the Clown Prince of Crime, which was beefed up and rewritten for his own distinct brand of scenery-chewing. During the Shadow of the Bat doc, Nicholson said, “My early experience told me from working for an audience full of children, the more you scare them, the more they like it… because that was my response to the Joker. I mean, after all, this is a hateful occurrence, this man, if you looked at it literally.”
Nicholson, in turn, was loved so much in the role that makeup artist Nick Dudman took a relatively old-fashioned approach to designing the Joker’s nasty permanent grin in the film: he let the actor dictate the appearance instead of the character.
“I mustn’t dilute Jack Nicholson at all,” Dudman said. “And that was really the hard part of the brief. He did have the final say.” The result though is one of the great onscreen movie villains who is also a showcase for one of the great movie stars of the late 20th century.
It is not nearly as immersive or terrifying as Heath Ledger’s arguably even more iconic terrorist-turned-Joker in The Dark Knight, but Nicholson’s is honestly the closest we’ve come to the comic book Mistah J: a narcissistic psychopath out for a laugh and self-aggrandizement. It is also the second half of Nicholson’s one-two punch between Batman and The Shining that defined his big screen persona as a psychopath who is thrilling to watch unload one axe swing or murderous joy-buzzer at a time. With shades of James Cagney in White Heat, Nicholson’s Savile Row-wearing hood-cum-maniac was frightening enough to disturb some parents in 1989 and cause Cesar Romero, the Joker of the Adam West TV series, to publicly cringe in repulsion. He told the Associated Press as much when it came out, calling the movie “dreary” and lamenting Nicholson “was just so violent.”
The final lead’s casting turned out to be the most last-minute. While Sean Young (Blade Runner, Stripes) was originally hired to play as Vicki Vale, the actress was forced to exit one week before cameras rolled after sustaining a horseback riding injury (for a scene that would soon be deleted). As a result, Kim Basinger was cast and flown to the film’s London sets at Pinewood Studios all in the same day.
Best known at the time for The Natural (or 9 1/2 Weeks in some less prestigious circles), it was a life-changing experience for Basinger. In 2005, she compared her first day on set to being Alice walking through the Looking Glass. “I remember the first day I walked on the set, and I said, ‘This is not a movie, this is an experience, this is a phenomenon.” She wasn’t wrong.
The Devil in the Pale Moonlight
The impact Batman continues to leave on popular culture transcends its production or even 126-minute running time. It spawned the modern studio hype machine, building off the already sizable model pioneered by Jaws and Star Wars. It became the highest-grossing movie ever at that time and was the center of a hurricane publicists enthusiastically dubbed “Batmania.”
Paving the way for other zeitgeist-shattering smashes like Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and just about every superhero box office juggernaut that came next, the cacophony of Batman’s success is so loud that what is often lost is how good the movie is in spite of its commercial trappings. Behind all the Bat logos and dubious Prince songs producers insisted to carve out sections of the movie for, and even Nicholson’s boisterous performance, there is hidden a novel approach to superhero storytelling that still feels fresh.
Heightened by Burton’s fairytale-like imagination during its heyday, Batman is an operatic and unusual blockbuster about damaged people who do not become less damaged simply because their misery finds company. Bruce, Jack, and even Vicki are all oddballs who have an almost allergic reaction to culturally accepted normalcy. The Joker redecorates everything orderly and respectable in his own garish image, and Batman is not that different considering he stamps his sigil on every object in his Batcave and can only rest easily if he’s sleeping upside down like a rodent. (Lucky for him, as Vicki says earlier in the movie, she has a thing for bats.) When Batman says the Joker is psychotic, Vicki helpfully reminds him, “Some people would say the same thing about you.” The hero’s response is a deflection: “What people?” Hardly a denial.
These themes would be more expertly and richly explored in Burton’s Batman Returns, but they’re present enough to underpin a chilling sense of despair when Michael Gough’s Alfred Pennyworth remarks to Bruce Wayne, “I have no wish to spend my few remaining years grieving over the loss of old friends or their sons.” Bruce again has no answer, because there is nothing happy to say about his life, which is peeled back in onion layers by a narrative that reveals a sick man who, like us, has no desire to see himself cured.
This also gives just enough of a character foundation to build out why Batman is so fun. On one level, it is Burton further refining his satire of yuppies in Beetlejuice to a more fanged one poking at the materialism and greed of the Reagan Years. The Joker’s early victims are supermodels and anyone who dabbles in perfumes and cologne—turning the vanity of his age into a tasteless punchline. By the end of the film though, he is a famous murderer, gangster, and terrorist, but he also promises to toss out $20 million in cash to anyone who turns up downtown at midnight. For his efforts, hundreds of thousands of Gothamites/Americans show up ready to die for the money. And so they do, laughing.
Burton would develop these satirical sensibilities with greater sophistication in his next three films—Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, and Ed Wood—but they’re present here, as is an unfiltered Gothic and Expressionist revelry. Guber said there was a desire to rein in these flourishes—one that WB must’ve lost the battle on during the making of Returns—but the grandiose sweep with which this Gotham City unfurls its splendor is uncompromised.
The two biggest creative assets to this are Anton Furst and Danny Elfman. The former was the tragic but brilliant production designer and the other an untested composer, and both have as much to do with defining Batman’s identity as the director. Furst is the one who built about five blocks of urban nightmare behind Pinewood Studios for the picture. A tortured man who would go on to commit suicide, he also saw visions of a beautifully ruined metropolis as the endpoint of unbridled capitalism and corruption run amok. Executive producer Benjamin Melniker even told Michael Uslan that Furst’s Gotham sets surpassed what he saw on William Wyler’s Ben-Hur in 1958.
It won the man an Oscar and is chiefly responsible for our image of Batman’s world to this day. It also inspired Elfman’s score which embraced the curdled grandeur of crumbling Art Deco. When he was hired as Burton’s continued musical collaborator, there was some doubt, not least of all from producer Jon Peters who wanted something Wagnerian. Yet when Elfman began playing “The Batman March” during a tense workshop, it changed the entire direction of the picture.
Together the music, set-design, and overarching vision mesh into a film that beyond several Prince songs remains timeless 30 years on. It’s an anachronistic Neverland of squalor where 1970s clunkers clash with ‘40s fedoras and ‘80s gowns; where technology is out of the past, and the music rises like an aria.
The end of the film, which features Basinger’s Vicki dwarfed and alone on an empty street—but not lonely—illustrates the visual and aural decadence of the piece that has the comfort of a storybook. Above her, the Bat-Signal shines bright and “The Batman March” murmurs on a hopeful flute. She then sees Alfred who makes excuses for Bruce Wayne’s absence, but it’s moot. She knows where he is and is okay with her place in the dark as Furst’s sets, Elfman’s triumphant crescendo (complete with church bells), and Burton’s bombast mingle into a mythic image of a living gargoyle gazing into the night. Keaton’s Batman is always gazing.
This harmony is what elevates Batman over its variety of problems, such as Vicki being reduced in rewrites to a damsel in distress (she originally figured out who Batman was on her own but in the finished film is escorted into the Batcave by Alfred so she can be told). Or there is also the fact that the Joker kills Bruce Wayne’s parents, which while not necessarily a ruinous change still feels shoehorned in to add drama to an already implicit dual synchronicity between Batman’s order and Mistah J’s mayhem.
Yet even these questionable changes still underline why Batman’s aesthetics and stylist ambitions will never be matched: There was less of a concern about changes to comic book lore than there were in developing a blockbuster unlike anything before it. The tradeoff is that such freewheeling indifference by the studio could lead to a creative dead end and cynical black hole—like the Batman movies they produced after Burton was escorted away, including Batman & Robin, a picture that also didn’t value fans or anything else other than selling toy advertisement real estate.
It’s perhaps a good thing that they don’t make them like they used to anymore. And yet, it’s so nice they did when they turned out like this, with Batman surveying his rotting domain, casting a shadow in his own image across Gotham City. He is the proverbial devil dancing in his own pale moonlight.