BATMAN AT 25
25 years ago this week, a film by a director who’s only previous films were the comedies Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, starring an actor who’s previous comedy roles had left expectant fans outraged that he might be the leading man, left its mark on US cinemas…in the shape of a bat-like logo against a gold background. It was a massive American ($40 million taken in the US opening weekend alone) and worldwide smash, and made an undeniably huge cultural impact across national borders and across all types of media. It is still more profitable, in terms of budget vs global takings, than all of the films anchored around the same character that have followed since. We are still living with the repercussions of the film today. Happy birthday, 1989 film incarnation of Batman.
As I write this, Tim Burton’s take on The Dark Knight is already two iterations out of date. In 2005 British director Christopher Nolan (then of Memento and Insomnia fame) rebooted Batman as a dark, gritty avenger in a real-world setting which Warner Bros. (since the 1960s the corporate owners of Batman’s publisher DC Comics) were keen to emphasise would remove the stain of where the Burton era had headed when Joel Schumacher took the directing reigns for Batman Forever (1995) and the critically mauled Batman and Robin (1997) which followed on from Burton’s first film and its 1992 follow up Batman Returns. Now director Zack Snyder is rebooting Batman again for the unwieldy-sounding Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice coming in 2016, with Ben Affleck taking up the mantle of the Bat.
Gathered here below are some of my thoughts on where Batman, and Hollywood (which remains the prime engine for comic book superhero films of which Batman is but one) stand now 25 years after actor Michael Keaton, decked out in the now-iconic muscular armoured Bat-suit, first declared to a snivelling thug who he was dangling over a ledge: “I want you to tell all your friends about me….I’m Batman”.
HE WASN’T THE FIRST, HE WON’T BE THE LAST
Tim Burton’s Batman did not mark the first appearance of a superhero on film, nor was this even the first time a superhero franchise, with sequels and tie-in media products, had been seen. Superman, another DC Comics character, had already featured in a string of big-budget movies, starting with Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978. But Batman turned out to be a beast on a different scale.
The sheer amount of money the film made in a short space of time, the impact the well honed Warner marketing machine had in shifting ancillary products like tie-in novels, tees, the Prince soundtrack, and a VHS released on a shortened release window, made it clear that corporate ‘synergy’ strategies could reap dividends. By ‘synergy’ I mean it was not longer just enough to release the film with a few posters and advertisements, it was about the branding, about saturation wide release, about tying it all together into one recognisable shape - in this case, a bat symbol against a gold logo. And then promoting the hell out of it all. Make the film an event. Today, the Burton-era Bat symbol probably remains one of the most easily recognisable brand images on the planet despite other Batman media products using different imagery. Batman didn't necessarily originate this kind of strategy (Jaws for one thing is just one earlier film often held up as the start of blockbuster cinema given its high impact release strategy), but it made it obvious that it worked.
Today Hollywood Studios and marketing agents arguably are still stuck in Batman mode: seeking those huge returns in the first weekend of release, deploying saturation marketing techniques like cluster bombs, and releasing dizzying amounts of tie in products like prequel stories, young adult spin offs, toys and video games. The internet has simply made this blitz even more dense. Batman’s spiralling budget, which went up from $30 million to $48 million thanks in part to the huge scale required for production designer Anton Furst’s baroque set designs, also pointed the way towards the eye-watering costs faced by studios who might have wanted to get into superhero game.
Before Batman, there had been the Superman films and others, but this did not kick off a noticeable wave of superhero movies. After Batman, they never really went away. Even when Batman ‘died off’ after Batman and Robin in 1997, it was only a few years later that Bryan Singer’s X-Men stormed the box office, and a new franchise, one of many, was born. Ironically, X-Men as film franchise is still going today, avoiding the ‘reboot’ strategy that tends to ensure these film series keep going with new casts and directors aimed at winning new audiences (and to neatly avoid any rights reverting to creators or other studios). Other comic-book properties were soon being strip mined for source material.
It has also been argued that Batman further popularised against-type casting in such action-heavy films and the recruiting of ‘serious’ acting talent in fare that might have been regarded as beneath them. Jack Nicholson was by far the most critically-acclaimed and well-known cast member on the payroll for Batman, with a commensurate salary his reward for playing The Joker.
HE’S GOT THE LOOK
Burton’s Batman still in many ways defines the aesthetic of Batman as a character and brand, or at least plays a lingering role in it. As Professor Will Brooker has pointed out in his academic studies Batman Unmasked and Hunting the Dark Knight, Batman is and has always been a character open to a variety of interpretations and meanings since he appeared in print in 1939 even if the most dominant form of media - film - has not really reflected this. Often in discussions about Batman the dominant interpretation is usually put forward that he is a ‘dark and gritty’ figure and has been since the early comics where he first appeared. Certainly this is the image that Warners and DC were desiring to sell when Batman was in production; Warners knew there was a market for fans of a more serious, troubled interpretation of the Batman character given the success of adult graphic novels in the 1980s such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (which Burton claimed he had read and been partly influenced by). A trailer specifically cut by the producers of Burton’s film was specifically made in response to complaints from hardcore fans (which made it into the pages of the Wall Street Journal) worried that Michael Keaton was not a heavyweight enough actor to bring a gritty vision of Batman to life.
The vocal nature of the fan base (which the internet arguably has magnified, the web-based takedown of Batman and Robin was an early high point for geek site Ain’t it Cool News), and the success of the Burton films, are just a few explanations as to why the notion that Batman has always been and can only be a gritty avenger is often accepted at face value as the true image of the character, based on his comic book roots. The campy Adam West 1960s Batman TV show is often held up as the ‘bad’ example by fans and critics who wish to show how not to ‘do’ Batman, and Joel Schumacher’s films too were widely slated using the same language. But Brooker swiftly demolishes this narrow interpretation, showing through his own research how diverse Batman has been across his publishing history. In fact Batman was only really gritty in the early comics for a year or so in the comics (he actually killed his foes) before a more lighthearted and sci-fi tone could be seen emerging.
Yet the Batman as a grim troubled heterosexual figure dishing out rough justice continues to dominate as the preferred image of Warner/DC, and, to be honest, the fans. Nolan’s Batman was marketed as a hetero, realistic, macho avenger. Snyder seems in no danger of changing that based on his statements (he quoted from The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel at the San Diego ComiCon announcement of the film being greenlit) and the production images released so far. Neither Nolan nor Schumacher really pushed the look of Batman far from Burton’s take, which saw the character armoured up in sophisticated suit as opposed to spandex. Snyder ironically might be the first to veer away, given the widely stated reaction to promotional images of Affleck in costume that his Bat-suit was a nod more towards Frank Miller’s comic-book take.
NOW IT’S DARK
Burton’s desire to show Batman as a brooding, possibly unstable loner arguably has fed into the wider trend in recent decades for our film superheroes to have become less clean-cut, darker and more complex. The recent reboot of the Superman franchise - Man of Steel -featured a more troubled, downbeat and 'realistic' Superman on display, far removed from the more bright and certain Christopher Reeve incarnation from the 1970s. Naturally there are more influences here than just Burton’s movie - these other superhero characters have their own publishing histories at the hands of a range of creative teams and have developed their own fan bases, but its hard not to feel Batman is lurking in the background.
The success of Batman also probably made it more likely, as Sam Adams has argued in Indiewire, that if Hollywood was finally going to pay attention to comics books as source material, they were almost always going to go for the superheroes and leave the more ‘serious’ stuff behind. Adams writes:
“The problem, as I've written before, isn't that there are too many comic-book movies, but that they feel too much the same: the X-Men franchise is not "300," but they're much closer to each other than either is to, say, Charles Burns' "Black Hole." One of the great advantages of comics is that you can draw anything you want: A giant spaceship costs no more than a room full of people talking. But while comics can go in any direction, Hollywood remains stubbornly only interested in one.”
THE WEB ON BATMAN AT 25:
‘I feel Batman 1989 was always a queasy compromise between Burton's expression and Warners' control. It never worked for me.’
Ryan Lambie, Den Of Geek:
‘Even after the hysteria of Batmania faded, Burton's Batman cast a long shadow over the movie industry. The look and sound of Batman would inform the three direct sequels which followed, as well as the successful animated series. Echoes of Anton Furst's production design can still be seen in Christopher Nolan's reboot, Batman Begins. Batman had a wider impact, too, paving the way for Bryan Singer's X-Men film, which introduced its own group of outsider superheroes to the screen in 2000. And Batman's event-movie status, with its bold casting and individual approach to adapting comic book material, is something Marvel has taken on with its own movies.’
Scott Mendelson, Forbes:
‘Some of what we love, and much of what we protest, in today’s Hollywood can be chalked up to the success of Tim Burton’s "Batman." "Batman" was the first modern Hollywood blockbuster, in all ways great and horrible.’
Anghus Houvaras, Flickering Myth:
‘Every subsequent superhero film has borrowed from "Batman." "Batman" impacted the way movies are made as well as the way movies are marketed and distributed. It redefined the culture of comic book adaptations and big budget summer movies. We live in a time where comic book films are commonplace and a staple of the cinematic calendar. Every single one owes a debt to “Batman."'
Jason Bailey, Flavorwire:
‘ "Batman’s" ubiquitous marketing and deafening hype had made it more than a mere movie — it was an event, something that was less about your desire than your obligation, as a movie-going American, to participate. There’s a movie there, one with virtues …and flaws …But the movie didn’t matter; what mattered was how it was packaged. And, sadly, that’s the lesson that seems to have stuck, a quarter-century later.’
Graeme McMillan, Wired:
‘The superhero movies of today were born of Burton’s desire to make superheroes gritty and “realistic,” and Warners’ desire to make Batman as mainstream and profitable as possible. Compare the self-conscious camp of Christopher Reeves’Superman movies to the self-conscious sincerity of "Man of Steel," and ask yourself whether we could’ve gotten there without Burton’s adherence to the idea that Batman be taken seriously.’
Batman (1989): The Figures (taken from Box Office Mojo)
Domestic Total Gross: $251,188,924
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Release Date: June 23, 1989
Genre: Action / Adventure
Runtime: 2 hrs. 6 min.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Production Budget: $35 million
Total Lifetime Grosses