There is a reason I am such an embarrassingly devoted Batman fan.
It’s not because I’m a life-long comic book reader. That came later. And it’s not because I grew up watching reruns of the old ABC television series. Though I certainly did. It’s because Tim Burton’s “Batman,” released in theaters 20 years ago today, was the first movie that truly owned my anticipatory faculties as a child. It was the first film that lit my movie-going fire, a designation saved for “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and “E.T.” a generation prior and perhaps “Jurassic Park” and Harrison Ford’s actioners a generation later.
In the simplest of terms, I wouldn’t be a film obsessive if it weren’t for “Batman.” I owe it so much.
For me, the film was an event not to be missed. I remember watching the commercials flood prime time television: the howling of a Batwing circling a Gothic cathedral, the quips of an actor I knew from comedy somehow tapped to play a brooding character of purpose, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?,” etc.
The Anton Furst-designed logo was everywhere, seared into immortality by any production that happened to film in Times Square in the summer of 1989, decorating untold numbers of hats and T-shirts, the winged image an absolute specter hanging over the march to June 23.
And then, finally, the release.
It would have been unthinkable for a film so marvelously marketed, so massive in its apparent scope, so undeniably industry-encompassing to bring in anything less than the highest opening weekend box office gross of all time. And so, with a $40 million-plus haul, “Batman” obliterated records set by “Ghostbusters 2” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (which themselves bested “Return of the Jedi”‘s 6-year-old record) one and three weeks prior…by over $10 million.
Today, with a final tally of $251 million ($452 million if adjusted for inflation), the film remains one of the all-time box office champs. And rightly so. “Batman” came to define, for better or worse, the new era of the blockbuster. Furthermore, it further established the franchise mentality that can be such a disease on the Hollywood infrastructure. Sequels in 1992, 1995 and 1997 made considerable money, but after those productions had faded away, the character had not. Less than a decade later, Christopher Nolan would resurrect the Dark Knight to further box office success that would, once again, establish another era for the form.
It’s intriguing, really, when you consider Batman’s place in popular culture and how, every step of the way, the character seems to be right there in the mix.
The film itself delivered on its high-octane promise, but under the guidance of director Tim Burton, the story tapped depths in the character only previously realized by writer Frank Miller, “The Dark Knight Returns” serving as a considerable artistic influence. I would later learn, when the film would inevitably steer me into the world of comics, that the adaptation was sacrilegious to Batman fans. “Batman doesn’t kill!” “The Joker didn’t kill Batman’s parents!” “GUNS ON THE BATMOBILE!?”
But thankfully, such belly-aching was far from my periphery when, in June of 1989, I made my way with my parents to a small theater in Selma, North Carolina to watch this feast of visuals. Burton’s vision was dark, sinister, irresistible to an impressionable young boy. Michael Keaton’s Caped Crusader was cool, collected, an antidote to cock-sure protagonists like Pete “Maverick” Mitchell or Axel Foley. And Jack Nicholson’s Joker became the stuff of instant movie legend.
He was terrifying, hilarious, deranged, unyielding and defiant. As a 7-year-old, I always wondered why, on the film’s poster, this “Nicholson” name came before the name of the guy who played Batman. “What’s that all about?” When I walked out of the theater, I knew the answer. And I knew I wanted to see everything the man had ever done. If it was half as entertaining as what I had just seen, it would have been well worth it. Of course, as I would discover, Nicholson’s romp in “Batman” was just the tip of the iceberg of what he had offered. So I owe that to the film as well.
Nicholson’s performance was unquestionably award-worthy, though the Academy didn’t jump at the opportunity to hand him a nice tip of the supporting actor hat (though the group did decide to offer recognition for a similar portrayl one year later when it nominated Al Pacino for his work in “Dick Tracy”). The Hollywood Foreign Press Association extended a lead actor nod to Nicholson in the comedy/musical category, of all places, while the actor received a supporting actor bid from the more adventurous BAFTA members.
The only Oscar attention the film received was a nomination and well-deserved win for Anton Furst’s awe-inspiring Gotham City designs. The work stands as all-time-best material to this day, an exciting old-school blend of practical effects and matte paintings, macabre imagery and cartoonish villainy. Furst deserved a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card for his uber-cool Batmobile design, an instant must-have for fantasizing dudes the world over.
Furst sadly took his own life two years later following a struggle to transition into directing and a break-up with actress Beverly D’Angelo. He was 47.
Having the VHS in my hands that Christmas (my copy still has “Christmas 1989” written on it, actually) was also a huge deal. The film’s home video strategy shortened the window from screen to home considerably for the industry. And the spools on that thing were definitely worn out by the time I upgraded to DVD 10 years later.
I shouldn’t let the film’s music go without mention. Danny Elfman’s original score remains, to my mind (and refreshingly, the mind of those I respect when it comes to this stuff), one of the greatest film scores of all time. The ominous four-note string theme plays so deliciously over the film’s creative opening credits sequence, while the work throughout is at once foreboding and playful. The use of Prince’s original songs, meanwhile, was perhaps an easy target when the film would eventually, inevitably, feel dated in some sense, but I stand by tracks like “Party Man,” “Trust” and yes, even “Scandalous” as filthy, trashy fun.
What else can I say? The film means a lot to me, and not in the geek-out manner I’m sure many would have thought. “Batman” had a profound impact. It was the Cecil B. De Mille experience of my childhood. To me, that’s the kind of thing you cherish if you consider yourself a film-lover.
For further reading, Elisabeth Rappe has written up a retrospective at Cinematical. She has a slightly different perspective, noting that she only has vague recollections of the film’s pre-release period. Though she apparently fails to understand what the point of the production and costume design was — Burton wanted the year 2000 designed as if by someone in the year 1940. The site has also dedicated this week’s installment of “Our Favorite Summers” to the summer of 1989, while Chuck Curry pens a love letter over at Entertainment Today and Beyond. Graeme Mcmillan, meanwhile, over at io9, points to a slew of occassion-marking posts from the weekend. I particularly like this bit concerning the Batmania merchandising spree.
I also highly recommend Art of the Title’s look at Richard Morrison’s aforementioned opening title sequence. As usual, the crew over there does a great job of tapping into an element of film that isn’t often properly considered and/or analyzed.
Here is what Morrison had to say about the sequence:
“The Batman 1989 environment was not that homogenized. In fact, there weren’t many people on the same platform and we were all very individual.
I did not know Tim before so I had to pitch for the project. We just had to make sure what we were about. I sat with him for a few minutes, and then just walked around the set of Gotham city. And that was it, really. I clearly remember I sat back in the car and all of a sudden I knew it.
I knew it had to be something about the classic batman comic logo. I thought, what if we think of that in a 360 degree move, how about if it’s in landscape, how about I make it something you can move around so you don’t quite know what it is. So that was the idea and then I just invented the world around it. Nobody did anything like it before so that’s why it probably retained its timeless feel.”
And, of course, the sequence itself:
As today got closer and closer, I couldn’t shake the idea of “Batman” being a two-decade-old piece of movie history. But I must admit, I now feel as if the memories recounted in this piece are of a lifetime ago. The film is special for me, but my sensibilities as a movie-watcher have clearly shifted. I might not even like it if it were released today. But I prefer it’s place as a formative piece of entertainment, one that I never tire of revisiting and today, 20 years later, I count as an old friend.
Now, where is that Blu-ray disc…