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Remembering Burton's Batman 20 years later

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Tuesday, June 23, 2009

June 23, 1989: the day that Tim Burton's Batman opened in theaters.

Before there was an internet and back when the idea of 24/7 news reporting still seemed strange, the hype that preceded the opening of Batman was like nothing that's come before or since. And that's taking into reflection the immense hype that led up to The Phantom Menace ten years ago which itself was a one of a kind event but still not on the same level as the critical mass that Batman '89 had achieved. Have you forgotten the buzzcuts of the Bat-symbol that people were getting shaved into the back of their hair? Do you remember when you could walk into a theater and see a sea of teens wearing Batman t-shirts? Back in December 1988 people bought a ticket to see the Batman trailer playing in front of Tequila Sunrise and then left after it was shown. Batman posters were consistently stolen from bus shelters (how the thieves sold them in the days before eBay still remains a mystery to this day.) DC Comics recorded its best year ever for the sale of Batman comic books that year and the movie's soundtrack (with it's 9 songs written and performed by Prince) became number one hits. And this was before there was a World Wide Web and the rise of sites that report the latest movie news scant moments after it breaks. Burton's Batman was one of those ultra-rare pop culture phenomenas when the hype for a movie and its merchandise both became white hot at the same time. The kids that love Twilight have nothing on what went down in the summer of '89.

But what's really the legacy of Tim Burton's Batman movie? A year after The Dark Knight captures the first Oscar for a comic book-based movie and becomes the second-highest grossing film of all time and superhero movies have become an established genre of their own for Hollywood, did Burton's Batman seismically alter the film landscape like Star Wars or Jaws did? Not really -- but it still left marks in the snow that often get overlooked when we look over our shoulder at what the big films were at the theaters these past 20 years.

Certainly it catapulted Tim Burton's filmmaking career into a higher orbit. In the 20 years since June '89 Burton's made and released 10 films (and is knee-deep in the production of his eleventh, Alice in Wonderland). He's known for having a darker streak to his storytelling but not to the point where he's considered an outsider to the masses or the moguls that run the studio system. But if you think about it the Burton that exists today makes safer pictures than the Burton in the past. A year before Batman came out there was a huge uproar amongst the geek community when they learned Burton had cast Michael Keaton to play Bruce Wayne, a guy that the majority of people knew as either the funny guy from Night Shift, the funny guy from Mr. Mom or the funny guy from Beetlejuice. To comic book geeks who had just been blown away by the publication of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, casting Keaton as Batman was like asking a Catholic to remarry in a church or Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride: inconceivable. But when the movie came out all was forgiven by the fanboys; Keaton worked and fans worried that they would get a modern day Adam West acting job were rewarded with a more serious dark knight. But still, Burton's crazy decision to cast Keaton is easily forgotten about now and shouldn't be because, at the time, it really was revolutionary -- even if today Michael Keaton has been downgraded to starring in crap like White Noise.

And then there was the casting of Jack Nicholson as The Joker. A lot was written about Nicholson's deal that gave him a nice slice of the merchandising and box office. It's been estimated that old Jack made about $60 million from playing the crown price of crime and he certainly was worth every penny that Warner Bros. had to pay. Casting Nicholson in Batman made everyone who wasn't a fanboy sit up and take notice. It captured headlines back when there wasn't anything called viral marketing and got the safe, office and housewife crowd talking about a comic book movie in production. It made older people who only knew Nicholson from his work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Terms of Endearment want to buy a ticket to see what he would do with a comic book villain. Has there been a casting move for the villain's role in a movie since that's immediately grabbed the imagination of the audience before they've even seen the trailer?

But while Sam Hamm's script and Burton's vision of a dark Gotham City got most of what should be right there were still creative slip-ups. Burton may have spent a lot of time dwelling on how dark and goth his movie and hero should be but when it came to understand what makes The Bat tick he only got part of it right. A scene showing the death of young Bruce Wayne's parents (by the hand of a pre-disfigured Joker/Jack Napier, no less) showed people the origin of the hero but when it came time for the adult Wayne to fight crime he didn't seem to have any problems killing the bad guys, either with a bomb dropped from the safety of his Batmobile or by chucking them to their deaths. How can Batman, whose parents were taken by violence, become a cold-blooded killer? Thankfully Christopher Nolan understood this vitally important aspect to the character and corrected the oversight in his superior Batman Begins film. And when it came to giving us Batman's ultimate nemesis in The Dark Knight, Nolan and his writers wisely presented Heath Ledger's Joker as an enigma, a killer that came out of the shadows and had no origin to show his reasons for being a psychopath. And then there was Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave...but at least they got a fun moment out of that for 1991 (and weaker) sequel, Batman Returns.

On its opening day Batman earned $13,161,643 dollars, not including the $2 million and change from Thursday night advance screenings (which were among the very first early showings of a major movie.) By the time its first weekend was over Batman had made $42.7 million and was a confirmed hit. It went on to gross $251 million dollars domestic and another $160 million from international markets, easily becoming 1989's top grossing film. Burton went on to make Edward Scissorhands in 1990 and then followed it up with Batman Returns the year after before settling back into a producer role for 1995's Batman Forever. The franchise's darkest hour to date was the abyssmal Batman and Robin in 1997 of which the less said about its plastic molded nipple suits the better. And now, incredibly, the franchise is stronger than ever both creatively and commercially after Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008).

So what's Batman's legacy? Without it would we have had that first X-Men movie in 2000 or Spider-Man in 2002? I think so. Marvel's streak of superhero movies in the past decade rely more on the ability to create digital effects for their storytelling and thus have more of a family tree with Jurassic Park or Terminator 2. The success of Batman really brought us heroes that don't need CG to show us their mutant powers, like Dolph Lundgren's Punisher or Wesley Snipes' Blade. Batman's box office thunder certainly didn't do a damn thing to convince the Warner Bros. execs to make a new Superman movie in the '90s (but try they did and even with Tim Burton at one creatively low point) or pull the trigger on making other superhero movies from their roster of DC heroes. No, what I think Batman showed best was the highest zenith for a movie's pre-release hype. For marketing suits Burton's Batman is likely their Citizen Kane; for the rest of us, it's a movie now standing in the middle of the spectrum for the best and worst of that franchise. But back in the summer of 1989 it was more of an event than a movie. Maybe that's the best way to remember it.

kah
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Posts: 862
Posted: 11 years 7 weeks ago

:applause:

"Do me harder Jakester, you big stud!"
Daltons chin dimple
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Posted: 11 years 7 weeks ago

20 years!!!!! I remember finishing my newspaper round early the day this came out and sneaking off to Sittingbourne cinema to see it. Happy days.

....says "Kill Bond, NOW!"
Constantine
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Posted: 11 years 6 weeks ago

Excellent analysis and walk down memory lane. Forgot about the Prince soundtrack. And "Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride" -- well played, sir.

Already plotting revenge...
The Swollen Goi...
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Posted: 11 years 6 weeks ago

Shouldn't there be a writeups (writesup?) on K-9, Ghostbusters II, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Major League, Pumpkinhead, Puppetmaster, Pet Sematary, Star Trek V, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?

Baelzar
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Posted: 11 years 5 weeks ago

Tim Burton: All style, no substance.

"INDEED!"