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

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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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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