Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’ — 20 years later

Posted by · 11:49 am · June 23rd, 2009

BatmanThere 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.

Batman opening titles sequence

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…

→ 25 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

25 responses so far

  • 1 6-23-2009 at 12:18 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    The movie is great. And I just rewatched Batman Returns this week and I think it’s fantastic. Comic book film as opera.

  • 2 6-23-2009 at 12:19 pm

    P-Dawg said...

    Great homage to a great film. I remember seeing it with my parents and walking out of the theatre in total, childish elation. I’d be lying if I denied that the same feeling still exists every time I’ve watched it since then. Anyone who dislikes this movie must be using Brand X.

  • 3 6-23-2009 at 12:51 pm

    Fernando said...

    I totally know what you mean.
    BATMAN is the first memory I have.
    Being in the movie theater and walking out of it at night with my parents walking through the back alley, I was 4 and it was scary as hell!

  • 4 6-23-2009 at 12:53 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    Im pretty sure that movie is responsible for Taco Bell making the switch from Cinnamon Chips to Cinnamon Twists.

  • 5 6-23-2009 at 12:54 pm

    JC said...

    I own both of the Tim Burton films, but must concede that I wish they placed a little more emphasis on characterization, as opposed to just art direction and score.

    I like Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne simply because I like Keaton as a performer/personality, but as Batman, I never found him completely convincing, particularly as a physical presence, and I also thought he looked a bit goofy in the costume on a number of occasions.

    Nicholson was a good, traditional take on The Joker, but the performance was so derivative of his earlier work that it doesn’t stand out as particularly exceptional, or edgy, to me, in retrospect. There are a few scenes in the film where Joker loses his cool, and as played by Nicholson, he just comes off as sort of lame and ineffectual. So, yeah, I definitely prefer Ledger’s and Hamill’s takes on the character, for different reasons.

    Basinger…….is just about a complete washout, relegated to the scream queen role for far too much of the film’s running time.

    And the downside to the stylized sets it that the chase sequences have all the intensity of a golf cart race, where they couldn’t drive too fast for fear of running out of soundstage (this was an even bigger problem with the sequel, where the “full-scale” sets were practically miniature).

    Batman Returns is a more fully-realized “Tim Burton” film, with all the positives (and negatives) that implies. I can sort of live with an undead Catwoman (I suppose?), but DeVito spent so much of the film yelling his lines without a trace of nuance, that I could take or leave most of his work in it. And much of the time, it seemed like Burton wasn’t really directing Keaton at all, and in a number of scenes, he seemed like he just wandered in out of craft services (befuddled, detached from everything going on around him). Nonetheless, I like the circus atmosphere, and Keaton and Pfeiffer have good chemistry, even if virtually every single development in the film makes…no sense…whatsoever; there are plot contrivances in most action/fantasy films, but pretty much every supporting character in this film is required to be completely clueless in order for the story to progress.

    Anyways, in general, I enjoyed the two films as fluffy entertainment, but I never found them genuinely compelling as drama, save for a few scattered scenes (I quite like the costume ball dance with Keaton and Pfeiffer in the second one), because I rarely responded to the cartoon creations as actual people…because they weren’t.

  • 6 6-23-2009 at 1:23 pm

    Gareth said...

    This site needs an enema!

  • 7 6-23-2009 at 1:23 pm

    entertainmenttoday.. said...

    Chad-Thats a great way to put it-Comic book film as Opera. I never heard of it referred that way.
    Actually the cathedral scene toward the end were the Joker is dancing with Vicki Vale was written into the script during production when Nicholson went to see Phantom of the Opera with Jon Peters. After walking out of the play Jack wanted a operetic scene like that included in the movie so it was written into the film.
    Batman was a film that went into production without a finished script and some of it was made up as production went along. There’s no doubt that the film is flawed especially in story telling but there’s alot of greatness to it, at least in my opinion. Personally The museum sequence in one of my all-time favorite movie moments. Batman crashing through the skylight and Jack’s Joker saying “Were does he get all those wonderful toys” Thats great stuff.
    Actually Jack’s next line that was cut out of the film was “Just don’t stand there go and ask him”-which he says to his goons.
    Personally I wish they left that in if it was actually filmed, which Im sure it was.


  • 8 6-23-2009 at 1:27 pm

    Scott Mendelson said...

    I started out writing a similar piece yesterday, but ended up getting hung up on the longterm effects of the movie’s success. I worship the film, it made me into a film geek and a walking Batman encyclopedia. But most of the aftershocks of the film were not positive ones.

    For those who care –

  • 9 6-23-2009 at 1:33 pm

    JC said...

    “After walking out of the play Jack wanted a operetic scene like that included in the movie so it was written into the film.”

    Yes! I’ve always wondered about that scene, in that I rather enjoy it in and of itself (save for Basinger’s incessant screaming), but it felt sort of like the writers were making it up during filming. Joker tells his goons to meet him on the top of an immense tower with a helicopter and a dangling rope ladder. Um, yeah. It might’ve been more believable had Joker actually gone off the (psychological) deep end prior to that, but he seemed rather calm and collected as he dragged Vicky Vale up the stairs…never really got to the point of completely unhinged insanity, which would allow for such an absurd scenario.

    Anyways, enjoyed the vibe of the scene, though the “Hit a guy with glasses” and chattering teeth gags haven’t aged well. Actually, the sequel, cinematically, doesn’t seem nearly as dated as the first one, though it’s really a toss-up as to which one is actually better.

  • 10 6-23-2009 at 2:04 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I love Batman ’89.

  • 11 6-23-2009 at 4:31 pm

    Joel said...

    I’m seriously not trying to start up any huge arguments, but…

    I almost hated Burton’s “Batman.” Pretty much the most overrated superhero movie ever made. Burton was not the right director for what was, essentially, darker material than what his vision needs to be successful. And Nicholson was just completely awful.

    As for the second Burton outing: Take the first sentence of the previous sentence, replace the titles, and take out “almost.” “Returns” was unnecessarily bad, even if I loved DeVito.

    “Batman Forever” was the only movie pre-Nolan that worked, in my opinion. Might have been campy, but it was darker and more involving than Burton’s outings.

    And we don’t talk about “Batman and Robin.” Ugh.

    Nolan rules.

  • 12 6-23-2009 at 4:42 pm

    JC said...


    I sort of avoided bringing up Nolan for the most part, because I don’t have much interest in getting in a Burton vs. Nolan flame war. I’ll only state that, like you, I prefer Nolan’s approach, in creating a world of characters I could truly invest in as people.

    Now, beyond that (and, don’t worry, I am in no way defensive about Burton’s films), I’d appreciate it if you’d elaborate on the following comments:

    1) “And Nicholson was just completely awful.”

    2) ” (Batman Forever) might have been campy, but it was darker and more involving than Burton’s outings.” (Specifically, in what way was it “darker”?)


  • 13 6-23-2009 at 4:53 pm

    Alec said...

    I love Batman ’89. It’s a classic film with compelling characters, great scenes, great lines and one of the best climaxes in movie history. Burton and Co. deliberately gave this movie a timeless feel and they pulled it off. You’re really not sure what year or time it is because you have your gangster outfits ans still more modern designs for Bruce and Vicki and others. I read an article from the costume designer of the film and really love and appreciate what they achieved. Superb performances by the two leads, Keaton and Nicholson, there is so much complexity and still believeability to their performances and that’s why it lives on today.

    I enjoyed reminiscing with my bat-fans online about the 20th Anniversary of this film today and look forward to many years to come.

    Wonderful article Mr. Tapley, there are millions like you that still love this film and that’s not gonna change!

  • 14 6-23-2009 at 5:24 pm

    Mark Kratina said...

    Very well-written retrospective, Kris. I am one of those Batman fans who discovered your site as a result of TDK, so I am on board with everything you wrote. I think B89 has probably not aged well- it seems incredibly slow at times now – but it was still the film event of my childhood (I was 11 at the time) and it introduced me to Batman.

    Before B89, the only exposure I had to Batman was in the Superfriends cartoons. He was always smiling and laughing, joking with Robin, etc. I had no idea of what Batman’s backstory was because no one had ever presented it before. I was just blown away by the Batman story after B89 and- I have to give myself a little credit here- even at the age of 11 I simply “got” Batman. That is a credit to the filmmakers because I was probably not the most independent thinker at age 11. I don’t think it had ever dawned on me that Batman was a bit of a rogue compared to the other “super” heroes due to his being a human. Like Nolan would say 16 years later for BB, Batman is someone who “makes himself extraordinary through force of will.”

    Happy Anniversary Batman- here’s to another 20 healthy years on the big screen as well as hoping your best moments are yet to come.

  • 15 6-23-2009 at 7:36 pm

    Mike said...

    Still the best Batman movie, and quite possibly the best superhero film.
    Nicholson is iconic in it.

  • 16 6-23-2009 at 9:25 pm

    Matthew said...

    Hated it. I couldn’t stand Nicholson’s performance, hated everything about it. Enjoyed Batman Returns, shockingly enough. But seriously, the movie is absolutely terrible.

  • 17 6-24-2009 at 12:12 am

    Brian said...

    Remember when Elfman gave a shit and composed music like THAT?

  • 18 6-24-2009 at 9:59 am

    Silencio said...

    I was the same age when I saw it. It was powerful. I think Batman is to your formative experience what Amadeus was to mine. I feel the love completely.

  • 19 6-24-2009 at 9:59 am

    Joel said...


    About Nicholson’s awfulness, I’ve always been criticized and called a heretic by my friends for this: Nicholson reminded me too much of Nicholson and less like The Joker. With that kind of a role, one must NEVER EVER EVER EVER EVER remind the audience of oneself. It takes, as Heath Ledger proved last year, an actor that can completely disappear into the role. Nicholson, for me, never felt evil enough, only a really wacked-out version of himself. He always reminded me of Nicholson and never a murdering psychopath with Ronald MacDonald’s makeup artist.

    Maybe “darker” wasn’t the term. I personally didn’t find Burton’s films very dark. They were more (unintentionally) comical than anything, actually. I thought “Batman Forever” was more respectful to the vision that was necessary. Wasn’t perfect. I gave it *** and thought it underrated. By comparison, I gave “Batman” **, “Batman Returns” *1/2, and “Batman and Robin” 1/2*. I’ve given Nolan’s films both four stars. I don’t think anyone’s kidding themselves by thinking that Burton did it better Nolan. He did it first, yes, but that means nothing in the long run.

  • 20 6-24-2009 at 11:21 am

    nfalls75 said...

    The Dark Knight Returns was released when I was 11 yrs old. A friend of mine turned me on to it. Before I read that masterpiece, I thought comics were dopey fluff made for an age group that I was exiting. Upon reading it, my eyes were open to an aesthetic sensibility that would influence my taste well into adulthood. I was hooked. A year later, the Batman film was announced. Originally, Bill Murray was attached to the project. I immediately dismissed the project as a rehashing of the TV show. I thought that there was no way they were going to depict Batman the way I had grown to love him. The dark, brooding, complex character that had nothing to do with pop culture’s image of him. Then, Entertainment Tonight revealed the first trailer. I couldn’t believe it. They actually got it right! The next 8 months would be filled with Bat-obssesion. I scoured over every bit of pre-internet news that I could get my hands on. My anticipation for this flick would even supersede the excitement over a new adventure from my beloved Indiana Jones. When the movie came out, I begged my mom to take me to the midnight showing. Considering that it was summer, she was cool enough to oblige. My reaction? It’s hard to say. I think my teenage mind was so fixated on this one event, that I convinced myself that it was good. That I wasn’t disappointed. Which was something my adult mind would do 10 yrs later with The Phantom Menace. I don’t know, I just don’t find Batman ’89 very entertaining. The tone is correct. It’s a beautiful film to look at, but a boring film to watch. Everything seems way too convenient. From the Joker killing Bruce Wayne’s parents, to all of the shenanigans on the rooftop at the end. It just seems like a bunch of manufactured tension. This style over substance trend would plague the Batman series, and much of Tim Burton’s work as well. Luckily, Christopher Nolan would take over the reigns of my favorite comicbook hero. When Batman Begins came out, I was a jaded Batfan. Too many lame attempts had left me weary. But, this time I said ‘They actually got it right!” after seeing the movie for a change.

  • 21 6-24-2009 at 11:31 am

    JC said...

    Well, thanks for the response, Joel.

    I actually watched a bit of Forever on some TV station the other day, and I do think it, perhaps, pays a bit more respect to Batman’s origin, at the very least. That said (and rest assured, I consider both Burton’s and Schumacher’s takes to be quite “campy” in their own ways), to me, Forever mostly played like a Looney Tunes version of the material (not surprising, given that it was produced by Warners), from the two very over-the-top villains, the steadly stream of silly puns (even in its “romantic” elements), and the neon set design. However, the best Looney Tunes cartoons had a sharper wit, and didn’t necessarily bombard the viewer with their sound design. So, while I do believe Forever has some redeeming qualities (you could definitely argue that the scene where Batman emerges from the fire is quite iconic), aside from the Psych 101 of the Chase/Bruce scenes, it definitely feels more geared towards kids, and thus, to me, a bit “lighter”. Whereas Returns was so focused on sex (and depravity) as a major theme that it couldn’t help but be a bit more adult-oriented. And there’s more of a crossover in tone and style between Forever and B&R than some would let on, the difference being that the latter threw in 60% more bad puns, and very little emphasis on any semblance of “drama”.

    For me, I suppose it’s more like:

    Batman *** (B)
    Batman Returns *** (B)
    Batman Forever **1/2 (B-)
    Batman And Robin * (D – I can’t go with an F because it’s probably in the so-bad-it’s-almost-good-category)
    Batman Begins *** (B+)
    The Dark Knight **** (A)

  • 22 7-20-2010 at 5:02 pm

    Adrianne Linhares said...

    That’s an amazing way to put it! Batman ’89 is a classic by now, and a huge influence to all the other ones which came along
    I’m a student of Tim Burton’s work – Master’s in Cinema – and each and everyday I get to discover more and more depth in it. I do love Dark Night – but Batman ‘ 89 and its sequel are incomparable!
    I love the way you write – I’ll probably quote you =)!

  • 23 3-30-2012 at 7:49 pm

    Derek said...

    Is there a reason why Tim Burton isn’t doing a sequel to Batman Returns??? Have Michael Keaton’s Batman come back and pass the torch to Dick Grayson’s Nightwing. I think that would be a great concept!

  • 24 3-30-2012 at 7:52 pm

    Derek said...

    I’d (personally) love to do that!

  • 25 4-01-2012 at 8:52 am

    Adrianne Linhares said...

    I’ve read lots about what happened, about Tim’s perception on what the whole Batman filming involved. Considering it was a blockbuster and naturally it is a mainstream approach, the way it was released was way too mainstream and lots of fingers interfering, according to Burton. Too many cooks spoil the broth, so to speak. He actually produced Batman Forever, actually, but asked out of the whole “franchise”(his words) after this one. Then, Superman would be his next project. He was invited by warner to film it but again, there were irreconciable differences between tim and the studio/producers. Years later Superman ended up being made, by Bryan Singer. Apparently TB was quite shocked after the 4th Batman. I don’t know what his views are on the Nolan films. I like Nolan, and I liked his Batman movies too, but I still go for an authoral film, which I think is the case ( with all possible weaknesses, strangeness and craziness) of TB’s Batmans. I really love Batman Returns! I think these filmes ( Nolan’s and Tim Burton’s ) are for different audiences, I think they aim at different targets. AH! Your idea is great by the way, and older Michael keaton passing his torch on to Dick Grayson… why not????