Directed by Tim Burton
Screenplay by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren
Story by Sam Hamm
Release Date: 23rd June 1989
Rating: PG-13 (U.S), 12 (U.K Theatrical), 15 (U.K VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray Release)
How do you solve a problem like making a Batman movie? That was the question that was being asked throughout the 1980s as everyone agreed that a Batman movie would be a cool thing to have in existence, but nobody seemed to know how to go about it.
If one reads the IMDb trivia page for 1989’s Batman, or its Wikipedia page, then one is confronted with a large list of actors and directors who at one point or another had been talked about or orbited the Batman project, eventually making its way to the silver screen in the summer of 1989 to record breaking success.
You couldn’t get away from the movie that summer. I remember being five years old and everywhere you looked that gold plated logo was looking back at you, placed on everything, from toys, to chewing gum, to cereals, to trading cards. You name it, if there was anything they could place that logo on, it was there.
The film in the UK had the added bonus of getting some free promotion of sorts from the ITV network rerunning the 1960s Batman television series, itself getting younger audiences excited for a character and film that was going to be vastly different from the series that was introducing us to the character for the first time on screen, and also making us eager for a film that we’d be too young to watch; the BBFC didn’t quite know what to do with the film feeling that it was too strong for a PG rating and yet fearing that a 15 rating was too extreme.
The UK didn’t have an equivalent to the PG-13 rating and so, the 12 rating was created because of Batman, although it still didn’t allow under 12s to be admitted, meaning that we’d have to wait for the video release later in the year.
The fact that the film had to instigate a new rating said a lot about how different this was going to be to any depiction of the character on screen before.
Coming at the end of 1980s, the film kind of summed up the dark turn the character had taken in popular culture over the proceeding twenty years, away from the camp and humour that was associated with the television series, and towards a darker interpretation that was being explored by writers who were taking a more active interest in the grittier elements of the character.
Emerging as a result of the success of Superman, Batman’s world of Gotham City was one that was initially formed by the danger of organised crime, taking inspiration from the gangland environments of Chicago and prohibition era figures such as Al Capone than the more cosmic adventures that greeted the Man of Steel.
For anyone coming to Tim Burton’s film after years of being used to colourful depictions of the character and his rogues gallery were in for a shock, but the film was very much taking its cue from where the character and comic books had went over that decade.
There was a period when the television series influenced the direction of the comics themselves, but beginning in the 70s under the watchful eye of the late Denny O’ Neil and artist Neal Adams, and progressing during the 80s with writers such as Frank Miller and Alan Moore, the world of Gotham was plunged into a quagmire of darker material and controversial subject matter, and it was works such as Moore’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Year One that would come to inspire many elements of 1989’s first big budget foray into the world of Gotham City.
Opening with the WB shield logo against an ever-darkening sky, Danny Elfman’s definitive theme is a millions miles away from the upbeat cheeriness of Batman 66’s catchy theme music, enveloping the audience and the world in one of foreboding danger. It’s a classic slice of superhero music, but one a hell of a lot more darker and dangerous than John Williams’ Superman theme; if that piece of music hinted at the light over the hill and the promise of a better tomorrow, then Elfman’s Batman march was a dark alleyway personified, where a hero might rise, but violent death was never too far away.
From its opening moments, we’re presented not with Bruce Wayne prepping for action, as would become the norm when Joel Schumacher took over the series, but Anton Furst’s depiction of Gotham, created on Pinewood Studios, with a help of some very impressive matte paintings, and instantly looking like the most dangerous place on earth.
The film presents us with a mother, a father and a son walking the streets, clearly from out of town and getting lost very easily, eventually finding themselves wandering down a darkened alley, confronted by two muggers. It’s a brilliant mirror image to the origins of Batman himself, a little bit of dark playfulness that makes one think that we’re about to see the origins of the titular character, but in fact he’s already formed, waiting on the rooftop shadows waiting to strike at the muggers who attack the father and mug the family.
The film is drenched in dark shadows, steam rising from sewage grates, and an approach that goes beyond the noir of film noir. We’re presented with Batman himself, but also world building that establishes that this is a city under the thumb of a criminal underbelly of well dressed, slick gangsters and where the great hope is Harvey Dent, played by Billy Dee Williams, introduced at a dinner attended by the elite of Gotham City’s where the one missing chair belongs to Bruce Wayne.
It’s quite a while before we meet Keaton outside of the costume, at another charity function where nobody seems to know who he is, something he himself even jokes about. It’s a common complaint that the earlier films aren’t really about Batman, but here one could argue it’s kind of the point, and Keaton’s presence does become more avert as the film goes on, as his origin tale is revealed and The Joker takes a greater hand in making his presence known to the city.
Nolan and Snyder would very much embrace the trope of Bruce Wayne acting the role of playboy, itself very much a fabric of the comics, but one of Batman’s most interesting creative choices was to make Bruce Wayne a mysterious Jay Gatsby figure that everyone knows off and are eager to attend his parties, but have no idea who he really is, a joke Bruce Wayne himself makes when Vicki Vale asks ‘which of these guys is Bruce Wayne?’. ‘Well I’m not sure’, comes the reply.
Duality is a dominant theme here, and it applies to The Joker also, who pretty much gets a version of the origin tale, starting life off as a well known gangster hood, playing with fire by having an affair with the girlfriend of his boss, Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), before being dropped into a vat of chemicals that leaves his skin died white and hair turned green, but not before a ricocheting bullet leaves his cheek bones severed, thus creating a permanent grin.
A version of that story was told in Moore’s The Killing Joke, albeit with The Joker as an unwitting participant in the crime that leads to him developing that physical appearance, but here Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren’s screenplay makes it so that both Wayne and Napier inadvertently create themselves, and it’s here that we come to the most controversial deviations from the source material.
Joe Chill was always the one that killed Batman’s parents, and in some versions of the story he plays a role again when Bruce Wayne is older, and sometimes he doesn’t. With 1989’s Batman, the decision was made to make Jack Napier the responsible party, giving the film a ‘this time it’s personal’ dimension that rubbed some people up the wrong way, but which works pretty well.
There is a dimension to the film that makes it so that both characters are responsible for the other; Napier kills Bruce’s parents, thus Bruce becomes Batman and who is then responsible for Napier becoming The Joker, the film playing out like a dark, twisted narrative about fate and destiny amongst the gothic art deco skyscrapers and buildings of Tim Burton and Anton Furst’s imaginations.
Comic book cinema may be one of the most popular genres around right now, showing very little of the fatigue that many say is just around the corner, but deviate from the source material and you’re in big trouble; The Mandarin twist in Iron Man 3 is a recent big example of that. To make The Joker the one responsible for killing Thomas and Martha Wayne seemed like a deviation that bordered on heresy, and which many still hold it up as a major issue with the film, but the truth is the film handles it well.
Alfred allowing Vicki Vale into the Batcave is maybe the one thing that can be rightly criticised (and Batman Returns does make reference to it in a very funny fashion), but the change of one of the key elements of the mythology for this particular adaptation actually works.
We might make fun of how often Thomas and Martha Wayne are killed in pop culture (many, many pearls have been destroyed in order to the keep the Batman character a viable one on our movie screens), but it was still something of a rarity to see the origin tale in live action back in 1989, and this being the world of Burton and this depiction of Gotham, it comes as one of the most genuinely nightmarish depictions of their murders ever put to screen.
If Nolan depicted it as a sudden, shocking moment, then Burton plays it like some dark nightmarish fairy tale origin story, backed by haunting Danny Elfman music, filmed in a dreamlike manner with tormented camera angles and looming shadows enveloping young Bruce and his parents as they walk home from the Monarch Theatre, with the visage of Hugo Blick (who would go on to become an accomplished writer of television thrillers) and that Nicholson-esque grin asking the famous line ‘Have you ever danced with the devil by the male moonlight?’ coming across as genuinely frightening, and has arguably more impact than Batman Begins, the television series Gotham and Dawn of Justice combined.
Snyder went for a stylised slow-motion approach, but nothing has ever quite matched the ferocity of the violence here, Martha Wayne’s pearls dropping in haunting fashion as her screams reverberate into the night. We might make fun of the pearls now, but in 1989 the image of a child watching his parents being murdered in such a way seemed a shock given that we’d previously watched a version of this character fight a rubber shark and run around a pier with a giant bomb extolling the virtues of how difficult it was to get rid of the damn thing.
The film does have its share of some fairly shocking moments, in one case literally since it involves The Joker using a hand buzzer to shock a guy to death and then melt the skin of his face, which, watching it as a five year old was pretty shocking (no pun intended).
Nicholson dominates the film, and it can be seen how much he’s chewing the scenery in a moment like that when he starts singing and dancing in the middle of it. So much has been written about the deal he got that netted him a huge pay day for this film, and even a share of the profits for Batman Returns, but the truth is he’s fantastic throughout.
Many might argue over who is the better Joker, and we are now in a time when there are as many live action depictions of the character as there have been Batmen (Nicholson, Ledger, Cameron Monaghan on Gotham (although never actually named The Joker on screen), Jared Leto and Joaquin Phoenix), but Nicholson’s performance managed to have a spark of Caesar Romero-style clownishness with a touch of genuine psychosis, while the dyed hair, severed cheek bones and bleached skin made him feel as much of a Burton character as it did one with a basis in comic books.
The film being made in its time, an era without internet and when fans who took against the casting of Keaton did so through a letter writing campaign as opposed to Twitter hashtags, meant that the film’s more looser interpretation of various aspects of the mythology was something that wasn’t as vocally opposed in 1989, compared to now when writers, directors and filmmakers on the big or the smaller screen who dare to deviate from the source find themselves at the mercy of fan controversies, who cry heresy when they deviate just a little bit.
Honestly, the looser, more carefree approach to things (this is a Batman who doesn’t worry about killing bad guys, wracking up a body count unapologetically and without any semblance of deconstruction in the manner of Snyder’s approach in Dawn of Justice) gives the film a unique flavour. It’s recognisably Gotham, and it feels of one with the comic books, but the differences from the source makes one realise that it’s being produced by a team of filmmakers who aren’t as worried about that wealth of fidelity.
This being the 80’s, having a Batman who uses his Batwing to shoot scores of The Joker’s goons, and a Batmobile dropping a bomb in Axis Chemicals thus killing many more, is the one element that makes the film feel as if it’s part of an era where the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were racking up body counts that verged on triple-digits. It does feel wrong admittedly, and Nolan’s trilogy would become famous for a ‘no killing’ rule that would become a fundamental part of is exploration of the character, but watching scores of bad guys be taken out with a Batwing and Batmobile armed to the teeth with machine guns and bombs is not only a reminder of a time when filmmakers didn’t mind deviating from key aspects of a character like this, but that the film was being produced in an era when high body counts were a main factor of action cinema.
Subsequent films would take even more liberties with the origins of The Penguin (who very much becomes a tragic Burton creation right up there with Edward Scissorhands), and yet there is something unmistakably Batman about 1989’s film. The Elfman score, with the orchestra conducted by Shirley Walker who would reuse Elfman’s themes, as well as compose several brilliant cues of her own, for Batman: The Animated Series, its interpretation of Gotham, depiction of Wayne Manor, the Batcave and Batmobile, as well as the manner it combines the art deco gothic stylings of Gotham itself with the weirdly surreal such as the balloons The Joker uses to gas the city come the climax of the film, give it a genuine Batman aura.
In fact, it the film has anything in common with Nolan, it’s that both Nolan and Burton started of with works that felt more aesthetically like the comic books themselves before charting their own creative directions with the sequel, the difference being that Nolan got to finish his trilogy and the divisive reaction to Burton’s follow-up facilitated a reactionary change to something more lighter and PG-friendly.
Yet, like Superman: The Movie, it’s impact cannot be diminished or dismissed. Elfman would go on to score many other future superhero movies in a similar style, while stylistically the movie would be a massive influence on the greatest depiction of Batman put to screen, with The Animated Series taking its cue from the movie, something somewhat mandated by Warner Bros. but which worked to the series’ advantage, delivering some of the best on-screen Batman stories of the 90s.
It comes across as an odder, stranger film compared to the current era of comic book cinema, not least in such moments as when the Joker destroys a museum while he and his goons dance to Prince, but then those little tonal deviations and strange, borderline nightmarish moments, give it a charge that many other comic book movies would shy away from. Batman is an iconic character, but think it about it too much and you realise just how strange many of the elements of his part of the DC Universe are, and you come to realization that Burton tapped into that in a way that very few have done since.
Some of the Joker’s antics feel straight out of a Caesar Romero-guest starring episode of the original television series, such as hacking television broadcasts and poisoning the cosmetic supply of Gotham (which feels very 80s as well), but given that it causes his hapless victims to laugh manically and then die with massive grins on their faces is a perverse form of body horror that you would never see in any PG-13 rated comic book movie today.
That strange, unsettling nightmarish nature still makes for a genuinely original comic book film.
Batman is available to stream on HBO Max and DC Universe in the U.S and on NOW TV and Sky Cinema in the U.K.