Batmania: Revisiting 1989’s Batman

It might be hard today to fully grasp just how big a cultural moment it was when Tim Burton’s Batman opened in theaters thirty years ago this month. You couldn’t go out of the house without seeing someone wearing the Bat symbol t-shirt. Prince’s absurdly awesome video for “Batdance”, complete with Prince in Joker makeup and a bevy of dancing Vicki Vales outfitted in sunglasses and micro-minis, was on constant rotation on MTV. For many of us who were just the right age to lose our minds over seeing Batman on the big screen, it was the greatest summer of our lives, up to that point.

I was a newly minted fourteen-year-old, transitioning from middle school to high school in the fall. I was still collecting comic books—and still have, on and off, ever since. In the ’80s, Batman was my favorite DC character (while my Marvel favorites were the X-Men, Daredevil, and Spider-Man). During my monthly visits to the local comic book shop, Batman and Detective Comics were two of the first I grabbed out of the new comics section. I had been raised on reruns of the 1960s Adam West Batman television series. That and the Super Friends cartoon both sparked much of my interest in the character during the very early 1980s. One year when I was around six or seven, my parents got me a Batman birthday cake. There’s a photo of it somewhere. I dressed as Batman for Halloween for at least five or six years in a row. The Batman and Robin Super Powers toys from the mid-’80s were my jam—I even had the Batmobile from that line and I’m still kicking myself over not having the forethought to hang on to those toys for my kids. Basically, I was all about the Bat back then.

News of the Batman film had been spreading through the comics community for a year or two before the film opened. Editor Denny O’Neil would semi-regularly discuss the progress of the film in his monthly column at the back of each issue of Batman or Detective. Fandom was reaching a fever pitch in anticipation of Burton’s take on Batman. It’s important to remember that by the late ’80s, almost everyone you knew in comics fandom seemed to want nothing to do with the campy ’60s Batman TV series. Writer and artist Frank Miller had drastically revamped the way fans and curious onlookers alike saw Batman, with his two seminal works from the mid to late ’80s: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. These books returned Batman to a darker milieu, more reminiscent of his earliest comic book adventures, but with a more grim, late-twentieth-century Death Wish tone. If you remember anything about New York City in the ’70s and ’80s, you know it could be a scary place to live or even visit. Miller translated his own fears and anxieties about living in New York onto the pages of these stories, turning Gotham into a roiling cauldron of crime and wanton immorality.

It’s important to note Miller was certainly not the first to do this. O’Neil himself, along with artist Neal Adams, had already returned the Batman to the shadows during the 1970s. Yet it took Miller’s enormous crossover success with TDKR and Year One to really wipe out most traces of the fun ’60s Batman and cement the Dark Knight’s stature as the lone vigilante battling a never-ending wave of horrific crime and violence. Today, thirty-odd years since Miller’s take on the character, his traces are still all over almost every Batman story that’s come out since.

While hardcore comic book readers like me knew that the Batman of the comics was no longer the Adam West version—a pun-spewing, law-abiding parent figure who always encouraged Robin to drink his milk and be kind to old ladies—the rest of the non-comics world, including the mainstream media, hadn’t caught up to this yet. So when Burton’s film opened, it was almost a shock to some that, hey, Batman wasn’t smiling! Gone were the “Bif!” and “Pow” fisticuffs; instead we now saw Batman brutally beating down thugs and even shockingly—and against his long-established comics code of no killing—straight-up murdering a few of them! This was not your father’s Batman, clearly.

MORE BATMAN ’89  |  My Summer of Batman

So whose Batman was he? Turns out, he was an amalgam of several Batmen, including a bit of the ’60s style, plus O’Neil’s and Miller’s versions, yet all filtered through the uniquely odd sensibilities of Burton’s. The director didn’t come at the project with the baggage a fan might, so his Batman has come under scrutiny over the years as not being representative enough of what fandom thinks Batman should be. That’s an ongoing war in comics circles, with an endless parade of geeks and nerds derisively crowing about any version of the character that doesn’t meet their approval: “That’s not my Batman.” Clearly, it was almost impossible for Burton to please everyone, but the film worked for plenty of moviegoers and critics, breaking opening weekend box office records.

As a comics nerd who’d love Batman for most of his fourteen years on planet Earth, I went into the film with both extreme anticipation and serious concern that it couldn’t possibly match my expectations. I needn’t have worried. I was blown away, likely by the simple fact that there I sat, watching my favorite superhero up on the big screen, battling the Joker, rescuing his distressed damsel Vicki Vale, and tearing around Gotham in a pretty cool Batmobile. My friends and I dialed our geek levels up to eleven and just raved about the film for days and weeks after. We went back and saw it again. And some of us then went again and again. Of course, we didn’t have much live-action Batman to compare it against except the ’60s TV show. As a young teenager who in recent years had been seriously influenced by Miller’s more mature version of Batman, I loved that the film went dark and didn’t seem to have much to do with the old TV show at all.

Thirty years later, though, my take has changed. That’s because over the last decade or two, I’ve come full circle in my Batman fandom. I now consider some mixture of the ’60s TV show, the ’70s and ’80s pre-Crisis comics—from creators like O’Neil, Adams, Steven Englehart, Marshall Rogers, Gerry Conway, Doug Moench, Don Newton, and Gene Colan—and the recent throwback animated series Batman: The Brave and The Bold to be my preferred versions of the character. Adam West Batman satisfies the kid in me, the one who wants Batman to look and act less threatening and more heroic. The Bronze Age comics appeal to me still because they provide a darker version of the character, yet never topple headlong nihilism like some of the post-Miller influenced Batman stories have. And the Brave and the Bold cartoon has become my benchmark for Batman adaptations—the writers and animators of that series just get the character’s appeal. As voiced by Diedrich Bader, Batman is fun but stern, an action hero and a sensitive friend. The show doesn’t shy away from the four-colored fun and games that comics always represented in their purest form, but instead wholeheartedly embraces all of it.

So while Burton’s Batman might not be my preferred interpretation, there’s no denying the film still works on several levels. First and foremost, it’s a stunning visual achievement. Even if I tend to prefer Gotham to look a bit more like the 1970s–1990s New York City, Burton, his artistic directors, and set designers created a memorably Gothic Gotham that still looks magnificent today. Other aspects of the film don’t work quite as well for me, including one of the major players. In 1989 I liked Jack Nicholson fine as the Joker, but every time I revisit his performance I like it less. He has some fantastic moments, certainly, but at other times the scenery chewing simply grates on me. Meanwhile, Robert Wuhl’s supporting turn as the dogged and skeptical reporter Alexander Nash annoyed me as a kid but now I find it delightful. His scenes with Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale are light and breezy, reminding me of classic screwball comedies of old.

While I like Batman and appreciate its historical significance, Batman Returns remains my favorite of Burton’s two Bat films. With the sequel, Burton seemed to throw caution to the wind and delivered what still stands as the strangest and most darkly humorous mainstream superhero film to date. I also rank it as my personal favorite superhero film of all time. It’s a darkly humorous horror-action-comedy and an honest-to-goodness masterpiece. That’s because Burton let his goth freak flag fly fully with that one, and while that may have prevented the film from selling more merchandise to kids, it makes for an endlessly enjoyable viewing experience. It’s a true phantasmagoria of twisted pleasures, a black comedy featuring a truly epic performance from the film’s true star, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman.

That’s common with Bat films: Batman himself is often the least interesting main character. In Batman, Micheal Keaton does a fine job in the role and for my money ranks right up there with Adam West as the best ever Batman. Even so, its Jack Nicholson’s Joker who gets all the juicy lines and scenes, which is par for the course for Batman across various media—he’s often served as the straight man to his colorful rogues like Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, and so many more.

Watching Batman as a rising high school freshman, I fell hard for Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, the talented, sophisticated, leggy photojournalist. What’s not to love?  My friends and I certainly would’ve jumped at the chance to be her boyfriend. Basinger’s onscreen introduction is legendary: we first see only her long legs, before she finally she puts down the newspaper that had been obscuring her lovely face. Boom. Game over for adolescent me. I was so taken with her beauty then, but in the years since, and as my film education has evolved and refined, I’ve really come to love Basinger’s wounded vulnerability in the role—which has been a hallmark of most of her best work. She’s too much the victim in the film, though, always needing to be saved by Batman. That’s typical of female roles at that time and its a testament to Basinger’s appeal as an actress that she manages to rise above it.

Keaton makes a great Bruce Wayne and Batman. When he was cast, comic book readers immediately declared him too short and too funny to be Batman. Over the course of his two Batman films, he more than proved these haters wrong. His Bruce is contemplative and thoughtful, even a little absent-minded, while also being frustratingly enigmatic. You see hints of the dark side of his personality—the one that makes dressing up as a Bat at night possible—with every arched eyebrow Keaton delivers, and in the scene where Bruce shouts at the Joker, “Let’s get nuts!” It’s a breathtaking moment, featuring the patented Keaton slow burn leading into a quick burst of excitement. He’s been one of my favorite actors since childhood, so I was thrilled at his casting, and all these years later people seem to finally realize how well he handled the dual Batman/Bruce Wayne roles.

I was the right age to partake in the excitement surrounding Batman in 1989. Just a few years after the film’s release, I would make a couple failed attempts at putting away childish things like reading comic books or being gleefully excited about a superhero movie. The pressure to conform as a teenager is strong, and it took me well into my twenties before I finally realized in order to be true to myself I must wear my passions for things like comics and superheroes right out in the open. This coincided with the rise of geek culture on the Internet, making it infinitely easier to be proud of being a geek than it was in the pre-Internet age of the late ’80s and early ’90s. We comic book geeks were everywhere back then, but we tended to lurk underground, often for our own self-preservation. We rarely talked with anyone about these interests, and instead tended to enjoy them in isolation.

Batman helped change all of this by ushering in the modern age of superhero cinema. Three sequels followed throughout the ’90s, leading to the first X-Men film in 2000, which elevated the genre to the next level. Then came the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the rest is history—superheroes are ubiquitous now. Which lends a certain aura of nostalgic charm to the summer of 1989. When Batman opened and everyone started wearing Bat symbols on their chests, it served as a validation of everything we’d already been into. Not that we needed validation. Or, maybe we did. It did register like a victory of sorts, one that helped us feel a little less alone in our enthusiasm for things like the Caped Crusader. This means Batman was and remains a watershed moment in the rise of geek culture over the last three decades.

Alas, I never did become Kim Basinger’s boyfriend. You can’t win ’em all. Every true geek knows that.

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