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.
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.