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BATMAN (1989)

"What you will have is a very interesting, surprising action stoy, with a bunch of weird characters running around."
Burton in the introduction to the official making of book

Tim Burton’s third feature would be less a movie, more of an event. A new big screen version of the classic DC comic book Batman was first planned following the success of Superman: The Movie (1978), but producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan surprisingly found the studios weren't interested. It would take over ten years to finally reach the screen (conveniently just in time for the 50th anniversary of the creation of the character by Bob Kane and Bill Finger).

Many directors and stars were rumoured for the film over the years, including director Joe Dante, and the Ghostbusters team of Ivan Reitman and Bill Murray. When new producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters came aboard, they virtually shut the original producing team of Uslan and Melniker out of the production (though they retained executive producer credit).

Burton and screenwriter Sam Hamm had actually been developing the film while he was making Beetlejuice, but it wasn't until the first weekend’s box office results for that film were in that Warner Bros. felt safe entrusting the property to Burton. Even with the success of his first two films, however, Burton was a risky choice.

Once greenlit, the film would move rapidly into production, partially to avoid the upcoming writer's strike. The late Warren Skaaren would later rewrite much of the third act. Some of these changes, such as the Joker being made the killer of Bruce's parents, didn't sit well with Hamm.


Batman's first appearance in 1939

The project sparked controversy from the beginning with the casting of Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight, which was actually suggested by Jon Peters. The smart money was on a square-jawed hunk being cast in the role (actors considered for the role early on included Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen and Pierce Brosnan) and Keaton certainly didn't fit that mould in most people's eyes.

Thousands of comic book fans flooded Warner Bros. with letters of protest at the non-muscular funnyman being cast as their imposing hero. One letter to the Los Angeles Times read: "By casting a clown, Warner Bros. and Burton have defecated on the history of Batman".

One can only imagine how much more hysterical the response would have been if the Internet had been in use by the general public back then. If it had, the backlash would have been so huge it might have stopped the film being made.

Burton did his best to ignore the unhappy fans, because he knew he wasn't making the campy Adam West style film that they feared. He recalled reading an early version of the script that had the same light, tongue in cheek tone as Superman and felt it didn't explore the character's psychological makeup.

Burton wanted to examine why a seemingly normal guy would put on a bat suit to fight crime, and Keaton would help him explore that. The fact that Burton resisted the movie being called Batman: The Movie, showed that he was interested in developing the character, rather than creating a product.


Holy 40-year-old virgins, Batman! It's angry comic book geeks!

Burton was well aware of the passionate nature of comic book fans from personal experience. He had attended a comic book convention in 1978 where the makers of the first Superman movie were promoting the film. One irate fan had stood up and screamed, "Superman would never change into his costume on the ledge of a building. I'm going to boycott this movie and tell everyone you're destroying the legend!"

In contrast to the controversy over Keaton, the casting of Jack Nicholson as the Joker met with more fan approval. He was the actor most people had in mind from the start, "almost too perfect" as Burton would later say. Much of the $50 million budget would go towards Nicholson's wages, and the actor would make even more money later on thanks to his percentage deal. With Jack on board, the balance of the film would unsurprisingly shift from Batman to the Joker. Indeed, Nicholson would get top billing on the finished film.

The shooting took place at Pinewood studios in England and was not without problems. It was a six-day a week shoot, mostly at night, that was physically draining for the cast and crew. The original actress playing romantic interest Vicki Vale, Sean Young, had to be replaced at the last minute when she was injured in a horse riding accident (training for a scene that was later cut from the film). Kim Basinger had to fly out to London pretty much the day after she was offered the role.

More alarmingly, the script was still being rewritten as the film was shot (the writer of Brazil, Charles McKeown, reportedly did an uncredited rewrite), meaning that Burton and the cast pretty much had to make the ending up as they went along, which was most apparent when the Joker climbs a cathedral at the end of the film. When Nicholson asked Burton, "Why am I going up the stairs?" Burton recalls telling him, "I don't know Jack, I'll tell you when you get up there". The improvisational attitude was unusual for a film of that scope.

Robin (who, rather bizarrely, Eddie Murphy was once in the running to play) had made an appearance in the early script, but he was removed by the time shooting began. Burton later admitted that, like a lot of people, he never cared for the character.

To try and placate the fans, a trailer was hastily cut together from rough footage. There was incredible demand to see the short teaser. The dark look and imposing Batsuit went some way to reassuring fans that this wouldn’t be another mocking interpretation of the character like the 1960's TV series. The iconic poster was also a hot item, even though some people saw it as a mouth rather than the Bat logo. Many of the posters were stolen from bus stations.

Burton's take on the Dark Knight finally came to the screen with a level of anticipation and hype that was totally unprecedented at the time. Everyone knew the film was coming, and expectations were though the roof. Theater owners were worried the film was too dark, but the people camping outside a movie theater in Westwood in L.A. several days before the release were an early indicator that the film would be a cultural phenomenon.

As the film opens, The Warner Bros. logo appears and then the background fades to a cloudy night sky. It was the first time one of Burton's films would alter the opening logo, albeit subtly.

The tradition would be carried on in all his subsequent films except The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sleepy Hollow. The ominous main titles navigate what appears to be a series of tunnels, as Elfman's theme builds in intensity. Finally the camera pulls back to reveal we have actually been traveling around the Bat logo, carved in stone. Once again the main titles draw the audience into Burton's world from the very first frame.
The film sets out its intentions right from the beginning, with a view of Gotham City as if "hell had erupted through the pavement". The opening scene nicely builds the mystery, as a family (desperately trying not to act like the tourists they are) fall afoul of muggers after stupidly wandering down a dark alley at night. This scene foreshadows what we later learn about Bruce Wayne's parents.
A gargoyle high above comes to life at the sound of the wife screaming. This gargoyle watching over Gotham is, of course, the Batman. The shot of Batman lowering himself down behind the muggers seems to be influenced by a similar shot in Alien (1979) of the titular monster lowering itself down behind Harry Dean Stanton. Keaton's iconic delivery of "I'm Batman" in this scene has been often imitated, but never bettered.

Following some rather slow scenes setting up all the characters in Gotham, we finally come to the action scene where Batman stalks several hoods at Axis Chemicals. Jack Napier falls into toxic waste, but of course that's not the end of his story.

There's a shot where Batman stands under the Axis sign, which could be subtly mocking the rather fascist aspect of vigilantism.

The muddled plot then follows Bruce Wayne as he romances Vicki Vale (the sight of him hanging upside down after he sleeps with Vicki is a memorable image), tries to keep his secret identity under wraps (which is treated as a mystery even though every viewer already knows he's Batman) and faces a new menace in the Joker.
The Joker's first scene, following a botched plastic surgery operation, is a classic that has often been parodied. The scene where be blows away Boss Grissom also mixes menace and humour well. The Joker is symbiotically linked to Batman in more ways than one. The two characters’ battle for the hearts and minds of Gotham is contrasted with the city's upcoming 200th anniversary celebrations.
Vicki investigating Bruce makes for some good scenes, though you'd think the fact that a millionaire socialite had both his parents murdered when he was a child would be common knowledge. While there's usually enough going on to hold the viewer's interest (including a memorable scene where the Joker joybuzzes a rival to death and chats to the corpse), the plot unravels more and more.
There's a memorable action/rescue scene at the halfway mark. When Batman tells Vicki to get in the car after rescuing her, she rather humorously asks, "Which one?" There's no mistaking this Batmobile for any old jalopy. One of the best scenes of the film follows, where Batman takes Vicki to the Batcave. The scene is virtually dialogue free and relies on the stunning “Descent Into Mystery” cue for its impact.
Later, Bruce Wayne goes crazy on the Joker when he meets him in Vicki's apartment. When Bruce and the Joker first see Vicki's apartment they both comment that it has "lots of space". Bruce gets shot (luckily he was wearing one of those bulletproof meal trays), then both characters leave without explanation. The fact that this scene was originally supposed to be followed by a horse chase, doesn't excuse the way it just ends flatly.
However, the most criticised scene comes later where Alfred lets Vicki wander into the Batcave. On the plus side, there's a great moment after Vicki has learned his identity where Bruce tells her he has to go to work and his voice slowly lowers as he gets into his Batman persona. This is followed by some iconic graphic novel shots where Batman suits up before the final confrontation.

The Joker calls Batman out on TV and wins over Gotham with the promise of a big pile of money.

Batman blows up Axis Chemicals in a spectacular setpiece, though one could ask why he even needs to go anywhere if he has a remote controlled Batmobile to do his dirty work.

The attack of the Batwing sequence that follows is impressive, especially the iconic image of the Batwing swooping up in front of the moon to make the perfect silhouette of the bat symbol. However, many were confused how the Joker manages to bring it down with one shot from a gun. Once again Burton used a cheesy joke that didn't sit well with some blockbuster audiences.

The big showdown is spectacular and satisfying on the level of a gothic opera, but makes little sense. It's never explained why the Joker takes Vicki up to the top of an impossibly tall cathedral. There's also a standard fight scene with hired goons at the end, presumably thrown in because the Joker is a weak physical opponent for Batman. The film finds a way for Batman to kill the Joker without being directly responsible.

Batman and Vicki fall to their seeming death but of course the Batrope saves the day again (though the sudden stops looks like it would have given them hernias at the very least). The Joker's body looks remarkably intact for someone who fell hundreds of feet. It might have been better to add some mystery and have his body disappear before the police arrive.

The film ends on a high note, with Batman giving the city its first Bat signal and standing up Vicki so he can once more watch over Gotham City from above.

The controversial casting choice of Michael Keaton turned out to be one of the movie's greatest strengths. Keaton apparently wasn't interested in the role at first, but was eventually won over and created the character from the outside in (the opposite of method acting). He managed to successfully capture Batman's darkness and duality better than any other actor before or since. Keaton plays both sides of the character, the menacing vigilante and confused playboy with ease.

The fact that the film is weighted more towards the villain meant that Keaton's performance was criminally underrated.

However, the Batman's big entrances are all the more impressive for being used sparingly. He appears and disappears as suddenly as the creature of the night he is, dropping through the skylight in an image that became popular in other superhero movies.

The moral ambiguity of the character is also played up. It's unclear in their first meeting if Batman intentionally drops Jack or just loses his grip. There are also several moments where he almost seems to recognise Jack as the spectre from his childhood, but these are nicely underplayed. Despite the claims of some comic book fans, we also get to see his detective side at work when he unravels the Joker's poison scheme.

While Batman is portrayed fairly close to his dark routes, Bruce Wayne is more of an absent-minded character than the one found in the comics or previous screen versions. He misses an important city meeting at the beginning because of his nocturnal activities (there's a telling shot of his name plaque in front of an empty chair) and when he first meets Vicki Vale he tells her he's "not sure" which of these guys is Bruce Wayne.

There's also something of a little boy about him in the way he first avoids Vicki rather than have to confront her and then later tries and fails to confess his secret to her (mouthing, "I'm Batman" silently when she is out of the room).

Contrasted with Keaton's wonderfully subtle performance, Jack Nicholson is never less than entertaining as The Joker, but he does lose some of his menace by capering around so much. He's also slightly too old for the role, and doesn't bring out the pathos of the character that much compared to the way the Joker was portrayed in, for example, Alan Moore's “The Killing Joke”. Part of the problem is that, even before he gets dunked in toxic goo, Jack Napier is already a self-obsessed psychopath, so not much changes afterwards apart from his skin tone and added rigor mortis grin.

The makeup on the Joker is impressive, though some found the fake cheek muscles somewhat distracting. Burton cleverly delays the full reveal of the Joker until quite late into the film, keeping him in shadow for most of his first two scenes. Of course the trailers and other advertising ruined this surprise. When The Joker later appears wearing pancake makeup (to try and appear "normal") it's actually even more unsettling.

Many of Nicholson's funniest lines have the feel of improv (even those that were scripted) such as when Bruce starts telling the Joker about a guy he knows who was "a mean kid, bad seed, hurt people" and Jack replies, "I like him already." His random line where he asks Bruce if he’s ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight has been often quoted. There's also a fun scene where he imitates Jack Palance's distinctive delivery, calling Bob his "number one guy".

The film plays up the relationship between hero and villain (described by many as two sides of the same coin) even more so than the comic.

Indeed, a major change to the existing continuity has the Joker as the mugger who kills Bruce's parents (a younger actor plays Jack in this scene and does a pretty good imitation Nicholson grin).

This allows Batman at the end to say to the Joker, "I made you, you made me first". While this works well for the movie, since the climax resolves the conflict between hero and villain, it was another element that angered some comic book purists. In the comic it was a petty thief called Joe Chill that killed Bruce's parents (although, it can be inferred that Chill was Jack's accomplice glimpsed in the mugging).

The rest of cast is a mixed bag. Kim Basinger, who is only required to look pretty and scream, is very annoying. While there's not much any actress could have done with such a damsel in distress role, Basinger fails to demonstrate why Bruce would connect with Vicki on anything more than a physical level. It's hard not to see her presence in the film purely as a box office decision - she even got a box around her name on the poster!
There is something of a love triangle between her and the hero and villain but this isn't really developed. The other significant female character in the film, the gangster's moll Alicia, fares little better. The makeup on Alicia after the Joker gives her a "makeover" isn't as scary as the buildup suggests. Either the PG-13 rating played a part or Jerry Hall just didn't want to look too ugly.
The late Jack Palance is better as Boss Carl Grissom. His presence is so overpowering he actually manages to make Jack Napier seem like a kid at points. Robert Wuhl is likeable in the role of comic relief reporter, Alex Knox, who has some amusing innuendo-laced dialogue with Vicki Vale. Of course the irony of his character is that he's searching for Batman and finds Bruce Wayne an annoying distraction.
Genre favourite Tracey Walter makes a welcome appearance as the Joker's right hand man, Bob (who the Joker nevertheless casually blows away when things go wrong) and William Hootkins (who had small roles in both Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark) is suitably creepy as corrupt cop, Lt. Eckhardt. There's another Star Wars connection in the presence of Billy Dee Williams as D.A. Harvey Dent (destined to later become the comic villain Two-Face).

The Mayor was reportedly based on real New York Mayor Ed Koch and is played by the very similar looking actor Lee Wallace.

However, the best performance among the supporting cast comes from the wonderful Michael Gough, as Alfred. The Hammer Horror movie veteran would go on to appear in a number of other Burton films. He apparently based his performance on a real "batman" - a military butler he knew.

Burton was somewhat out of his depth on his first major film, so it's remarkable he managed to hold it together as well as he did. The more experienced cast and crew were very supportive of the young filmmaker, and Jon Peters reportedly took a paternal role with Burton, even coaxing him back onto set after particularly traumatic incidents.

On the first day of shooting, after Jack Palance missed his cue, he reportedly shouted at the terrified director, "Who are you to tell me what to do? I've done over a hundred movies!". Most of the rest of the cast were impressed with the young director, though Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon) amusingly commented that Tim isn't one of us Earth people.

Burton has said in interviews that he's not technically proficient enough to cover the flaws if he's not totally committed to a movie, and Batman may be the most glaring example of that. Many of his other films have narrative problems (Burton has admitted he doesn't care about narrative logic) but Batman is probably the film that suffers most in that area, because of the conflict between the more personal film Burton wanted to make and the studio blockbuster that was required of him.
The big setpieces in Batman are serviceable, but lack the tension and thrills an experienced action director would have brought to them.

One can tell those aren't the parts Burton had his heart in. A stuntman was used for most of the fights, so we very rarely get any close-ups of Keaton to draw the audience in. There is some humour in the fights, such as Batman casually stepping out from behind a wall to knock a goon out with one punch, or when he beckons to Bob to fight him, and the head goon drops his knife and runs.
Despite the technical flaws, the film has a strong vision and Burton's directorial choices in the sets, costumes and camera angles would influence many later superhero movie directors. There are also some good "jump" moments (such as the Joker's boxing glove smashing a TV screen) that strangely work better then similar moments in Burton's later horror film, Sleepy Hollow.

The cinematography by Roger Pratt is impressive, with lots of Dutch angles used. The noir style of the film almost makes one wish certain scenes had been shot in black and white, such as the flashback to the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents.

The sets by Anton Furst are stunning, as they should be considering the $5 million plus spent on them. They depict, in his words, a New York City with no zoning laws. The talented production designer, who had also transformed London's docklands into Vietnam for Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987), tragically committed suicide just a few years later. The color scheme of the lighting and sets favours browns and blacks over the blues that are Burton's signature style, giving it a different look from his other films.

Wayne Manor was a mix of real locations in England and sets. The set dressing, such as the armour room, is very indicative of Bruce Wayne's personality. The sets are also used to show the alienation of the characters, such as when Bruce and Vicki eat dinner separated by an immensely long table. Furst also designed the Batmobile, which is as stylish and phallic as anyone could wish for.

Batman's suit was successfully updated for a new age, replacing the blue and gray tights the character is known for with a black, moulded rubber muscle suit that transforms Bruce Wayne from an unprepossessing businessman to a terrifying creature of the night. The other costumes have a very 1930’s gangster movie feel.

The editing is frankly all over the place. There weren't many scenes cut out, though one part that was seen in publicity materials but not in the film is where Batman saves a little girl from the Joker's goons and she asks him if it's Halloween.

Most of the visual effects are quite well done, but there are some effects that are rather cheesy. The model work is very obvious, especially when puppet figures start flying up and down ropes. The late Derek Meddings worked on the classic puppet TV series Thunderbirds, and it shows in his cheap yet cheerful models.

The first appearance of Batman is clearly an animated drawing, as is the shot of the Joker falling to his death. Burton himself has even admitted he tried to use many of the same low-tech effects he used on Pee-Wee and Beetlejuice. However, on a big budget movie these previously charming effects just come across as rather tacky.

Danny Elfman's much-imitated score helped raise the film above the level of most comic book movies. Some thought Elfman was too inexperienced to score a big action film, but he rose to the challenge admirably. The main theme is one of the great heroic themes in cinema, and Elfman shows his more playful side with the rest of the score, including the use of the song "Beautiful Dreamer". The only problem is that the sound effects somewhat drown out the score in parts.

Prince's songs, on the other hand, are a pointless intrusion. The only one that is even slightly effective in the film is "Partyman", used when the Joker trashes the art in the museum. The album was a big hit, but it was definitely not the talented musician's finest hour.

Batman had a lot of baggage from his 50-year history in various mediums, so much of the psychology of the character was already there. Burton has admitted he was not a comic book fan (aside from “The Killing Joke”, which was the first comic book he could actually read with no problem) and most of his Batman knowledge came from the Adam West show. The film is almost like an amalgamation of all the major depictions of Batman, distilled into a two-hour movie. Even the campiness of the TV show is paid homage to with the various gadgets and the Joker's capering. There also seems to be an obsession with TV screens in the film.

Bruce watches the occupants of his manor on secret cameras, and the Joker almost constantly seems to be either watching or appearing on TV. Batman is a film of the media age and very conscious of it. This is best demonstrated in the darkly comic scene where, following the news that the Joker has tainted hundreds of cosmetic products, the two newscasters appear on air sans makeup and looking awful.
The film has an interesting view of art. The Joker considers himself a "fully-functioning homicidal artist" who creates art by destroying people and objects. The scene were he defaces the art in the Flugelheim Museum is quite subversive (the only one the Joker leaves alone is "Figure with Meat", a Francis Bacon piece which he clearly relates to).

The only photographs of Vicki's he likes are the ones featuring dead war victims. As bright and cheerful as he looks, the Joker can only truly be happy as an artist when there's misery and death around.

The artist who hands Knox a drawing of the "manbat" has the signature of Bob Kane. Originally Kane was supposed to have a cameo in this role, but there were scheduling conflicts.

Adam West was also offered a cameo role in the film but reportedly declined, since he thought he should have been offered the role of Batman.

There are a number of obvious goofs in the film, especially in the museum sequence where a painting is defaced by a goon and then appears unmarked in the very next shot! While not technically a goof, it's amusing that Batman almost lets Vicki walk off the edge to her death before he turns the lights on in his Batcave.

Burton's first big film is remarkable in that, despite all the problems during production and creative differences, the end result was not only an interesting film but also a successful one. Clearly influenced by graphic novels such as “The Killing Joke” and Frank Miller’s seminal “The Dark Knight Returns” (which made a dark depiction of the character viable), the film brings the power and gothic mystery back to the Caped Crusader. It eschews the origin story approach of most previous superhero movies to make the story more of a mystery, which works in its favour.

In many ways, despites some comic fan's protests, Burton's film is closer to Bob Kane's original vision of the character, a lone crime fighter who has no problems with killing his prey. This makes the claims of comic book fans that “Batman shouldn’t kill” a particularly hollow criticism. Kane himself said he preferred the darker vision of his character.

The film has many flaws and hasn't aged as well as some blockbusters, but it's still an interesting counterpoint to Superman: The Movie. Despite all the hype and studio interference, Burton managed to create one of the most influential Hollywood movies of the last few decades (even more so than Superman). While it could be argued that it was the least "Burtonesque" movie the director has made (as Bruce Wayne says in the film, "Some of it is very much me. Some of it isn't"), its success gave Burton the clout to get more personal projects made. Without it, his career might have been very different.

1989 was the summer of the Bat - some people in America even shaved the Bat logo into their hair. The film set records at the time with its opening weekend box office of $40 million and its total gross of over $250 million in the U.S. and $411 million worldwide. It was the highest grossing film in Warner Bros.’ history, until The Matrix and Harry Potter franchises came along, and remains the most successful of the five (and counting) Batman films the studio has produced. It created a new model for superhero adaptations (and the resulting merchandising blitz) that is still seen today with movies such as Spider-Man (2002).

The film was unable to please everyone, though. Critics seemed to either love it or hate it, while those only familiar with the TV series were shocked by how dark and violent the film was. Conversely, some comic book fans thought the film wasn't dark enough!

Even before its record-breaking success, there was talk of a sequel. Robin Williams was pitched as The Riddler and both Danny DeVito or Dustin Hoffman were rumoured for The Penguin. For his part, Burton initially said that he didn't want anything to do with a sequel, clearly burnt out from the difficult production.

Despite being one of the highest grossing films in history, Warner Bros. would later claim that Batman didn't make a profit. Indeed, the studio was so greedy they even pulled the film from theaters while it was still making money so they could release it on video before Christmas. Aside from Jack Nicholson, who had a large cut of the box office gross (and merchandising and sequel earnings, whether he was involved with them or not) most of the creative personnel, including Burton, did not profit from the film's massive success. It was an example of Hollywood's creative accounting at its finest.

In later years, some would downplay the success of the film, claiming it was all a result of hype, and comic books geeks (fickle bunch that they are) would increasingly claim it was a poor Batman film, even though its take on the character was just as valid as any other writer who has reinterpreted the character over the years. As for Burton, he would next turn to a smaller, far more personal film.

PREVIOUS CHAPTER: BEETLEJUICE

NEXT CHAPTER: EDWARD SCISSORHANDS

   

 

 

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