Batman and Tim Burton

“BATMAN” Memories

I remember the first movie novelization I read was for Tim Burton’s 1989 film, “Batman.” It was about a month or so before the movie was due in theaters, and my anticipation — my Batmania, if you will — was at its peak. Too impatient to wait for its release, I powered through the book, spoiling all the plot points. This was years before the Internet would render film novelizations obsolete for spoiler fans such as myself.

Batman and Tim Burton

Although I was fully armed with a working knowledge of the plot, I went to see “Batman” opening weekend and was still blown away. It was like no other film that summer. It wasn’t a sequel, like “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “Ghostbusters 2,” Lethal Weapon 2″ and “Licence to Kill.” The film nonetheless had its own fair share of enormous expectations to live up to. The onus was on Burton to reinvent the character for a modern audience. Gone was the camp value of the unfairly maligned 1960s TV series. Gone was the skin-tight spandex Bat-suit. Gone was Robin. Burton’s vision was of a haunted Caped Crusader, battling the psychotic Joker against a Gotham City by way of the German Expressionistic movement. In a word, the approach was bold. And it works brilliantly.

“Batman” was the biggest hit of 1989 and deservedly so. It took the character in a completely new direction. Unfortunately, the subsequent Bat-films of the ’90s collapsed under the combined weight of the merchandising machine they created as well as an ill-advised tonal shift into anti-comedy. But still, the first film was so exciting, it became a movement. People were having the Bat-symbol shaved into the backs of their mullets. It was a big deal.

I revisited “Batman” last weekend at a revival house screening. While I’m a big fan of Chrisopher Nolan’s two Batman films, and couldn’t be more excited about seeing how he caps off the trilogy, I still count the 1989 version of “Batman” as my favorite big-screen depiction of the Dark Knight Detective thus far. The black rubber Bat-suit, the sporty Batmobile, the soaring Batwing, Danny Elfman’s “Batman March,” Michael Keaton’s take on Bruce Wayne/Batman — the iconography of the film is staggering. Jack Nicholson’s Joker strikes the right balance between comedy and menace. And Kim Basinger deserves her own scream queen tiara as the Batman-obsessed photog, Vicki Vale.

One thing I like in particular about the two Tim Burton Batman films is that everything isn’t given some belabored, reality-based explanation. There’s a comic book internal logic to the film that embraces the fantastic. Why Bruce Wayne dresses up like a six-foot bat to avenge his parents’ murder is unexplained. It’s left up to the audience’s imagination because it’s largely irrelevant. The character isn’t demystified by gobs of backstory. The first film still functions as an origin story, but the audience doesn’t have to wait an hour to see Bruce Wayne don the costume. No, he’s already Batman when we see him during the opening sequence.

“Batman” ushered the Caped Crusader into the ’90s in high style. Tim Burton’s film captured my imagination 22 years ago and again last Friday night. It’s a towering comic book movie, changing the face of films based on funnybooks. Disappointingly, the sequels suffered from diminishing returns. I’d argue that “Batman Returns” is not without its strong points, and “Batman Forever” shouldn’t be chalked up as a total loss; but, I’m a fan of Robin, so there’s that. At the end of the day, “Batman” stands as one of the essential comic book films of the past three decades, one of Tim Burton’s strongest efforts and one of my childhood favorites.

Brad Lohan

Brad Lohan is a writer, cineaste and costumed vigilante who lives in Los Angeles. He is currently procrastinating his next screenplay.

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7 thoughts on ““BATMAN” Memories

  1. I have mixed feelings about these movies while watching them in retrospect. But the experience of the movies coming out and that excitement, The Batmania, was wonderful.

  2. Doug says:

    I watched Batman a few weeks ago. Like the Retroist says, it didn’t seem like there was much there. The old “lots of style, little substance”. The Batman/action scenes were too few and far between. Still, for those of us who were alive and kicking in 89, what a time. I mean, what could be better than a Batman commercial at every commercial break and “Batdance” on every station.

  3. I was 9 when batman came out, I was totally obsessed with it. I saw it in the theater nine times! Yes, nine times! I saved all my movie stubs too. Still love it, still the best Joker/Batman casting ever!

  4. The movie is timeless because very little of it screams 1989. The stylized, pseudo depression era look and feel of the movie really placed it in a world all it’s own. And I think it is the best of Burton’s two Bat outings specifically because Burton was not yet the ‘superstar’ this film made him into and he didn’t have free reign, keeping the film a little less ‘Burtonesque’ then Batman Returns.

  5. Great post, Brad!

    I’m with you on this one and while I’m no Chris Sims when it comes to all things Batman I have a mighty love for Burton’s vision of the Caped Crusader. Even to this day there are two moments in Batman and Batman Returns that give me goosebumps.

    1) The ending of Batman with him standing watch over the city while Elfman’s score triumphantly plays, especially the part with the bells ringing.

    2) When Bruce is sitting in the complete darkness of his library…and the Bat Signal image is cast on the books behind him and he stands up, ready for action.

  6. Doug says:

    Vic, what about when the Batplane flies up against the moon, making the bat signal, then falls back and resumes flight toward the Joker. That is the sweetest shot of all.

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