It may be difficult to imagine now, in 2016, a year in the golden age of superhero movies where one giant superhero film preceded another by only a month,, but there was a time when a single superhero film dominated everything. And I mean everything.
BATMAN, the 1989 film directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jack Nicholson as The Joker, was a cultural phenomenon in every sense of the word. The long gestating film had started production the previous year and if you thought the backlash the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman created was something, you have no idea when the casting of Keaton, primarily known for his comedies, caused. I can’t remember my own impressions for Keaton, but I remember quite vividly my thoughts on Joker. My choice, if you were going by the comic book look and feel, was Peter O’Toole. Sure, he was older, but he had The Grin. But when Nicholson was cast, I was like “Of course!”
Pictures in Starlog the spring of 1989 gave us the first glimpse of the all-black Batsuit and Keaton in it. I was sold! Then photos of Nicholson’s Joker emerged and I was so excited! I was and am an easy mark in that respect. A lifelong comic book fan, it was so cool to see Batman in real life.
Let me pause here a moment to comment on the 1966 Batman. At the time, I was 20 and had come of age just as comics realized they could be darker and grittier. I was almost the perfect age to read The Dark Knight Returns and Year One and The Killing Joke. So, in 1989, I was distancing myself from TV’s Batman, the way I was first introduced to the character. Gone in my mind was the funny Batman. Here was the grim Batman, the way he was in the 1940s comics and the 1970s comics. Ironically, 27 years later, I’m ready for grimdark Batman to go away or, at least, make a way for more than one version.
Back in those pre-YouTube days, the only way you could see a trailer was to go to a movie and buy a ticket. I’m not sure how but I learned that the Batman trailer was attached to “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Boom! I couldn’t get to the theater fast enough. There it was, with no music and what seemed like unmixed sound, was Batman, alive, moving, beating up bad guys and driving a kick-ass Batmobile with fire out the back! And Joker. Heavens, how awesome he looked. And I loved the line Robert Wuhl’s reporter asked: “Is there a six-foot bat in Gotham City?” And Batman crashing through the skylight? The only question in the spring was how many days until 23 June?
I can’t remember for sure if I went to the midnight showing or day one showing. I worked at a movie theater the summer of 1989—a great summer of movies*—so I’m pretty confident that I saw it at midnight with the throngs of other folks. Like just about everyone, I lost it. This was the movie we had been waiting our entire lives for! The Danny Elfman score. The opening scene when the mugger asks what are you and Keaton says “I’m Batman” (still my absolutely favorite part). The gadgets. Keaton doing a wonderful job. Nicholson chewing scenery. The fight in the alley with the sword guy. The Batmobile doing…anything. The menace of Joker. The reveal that Joker/Jack Napier killed Bruce’s parents. Prince’s music. The Batplane. The quotes (“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” “Never rub another man’s hubarb” “I didn’t ask.” “You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts.” “My life is…complicated.”) The final confrontation. The final scene with the Bat-signal. It was utterly awesome.
BATMAN got everyone. The hard-core comics fans flocked to see the movie multiple times. The casual viewer enjoyed it. Your grandpa enjoyed it. Everyone, it seemed, had seen the movie at least once, and chatted about it. Was it the last great common movie everyone saw? I’m not sure, but it was certainly a milestone.
Oh, and the merchandise! Good grief! Batman stuff was everywhere. And, yeah, I bought my fair share. Why the heck not? Up until then, the amount of Batman/superhero stuff available to purchase was meager at best. Nowhere near what it’s like today.
I can’t remember how many times I saw the film. Enough for me to memorize huge chunks of the movie.
The irony now, for many of us who dissed the 1966 Batman in 1989, is that the 1989 Batman, when compared to the Christian Bale films and Batman v Superman, looks more campy than we ever saw at the time. But that’s only in comparison to what came afterwards. Sure, the immediate next film, 1992’s Batman Returns, went very dark, only to be brightened by 1995’s Batman Forever and, ahem, 1997’s Batman and Robin. When you compare those four films, Batman is the second darkest. But it’s still funny when you look at it now.
But not in 1989. In that year, we comic book readers thought our time had finally arrived. We had our dark Batman. What was next? Another Superman? What about those Marvel characters? And when’s the Justice League gonna land in our laps?
Well, we’re still waiting for the League, but we have a date now. We still had to wait another decade until 2000’s X-Men to kick off this current Golden Age of Superhero Movies. This current run of films has produced some truly great movies (Dark Knight; Spider-Man 2; Batman Begins; all three Captain America movies; Avengers; Ant-Man) but it all had to start somewhere. Technically, the run started in 1978 with SUPERMAN THE MOVIE (Boy, am I so happy they didn’t put “The Movie” at the end of “Batman”), but the run of superhero movies started with BATMAN.
I’m so glad I was alive at the time to enjoy it.
What were some of your thoughts about the movie?
*The other movies of Summer 1989: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; When Harry Met Sally; Star Trek V; License to Kill; Ghostbusters 2; Dead Poet’s Society; Karate Kid II (forget the movie; love “Glory of Love”); Lethal Weapon 2; Parenthood; The Abyss