“Stop the Press, Who is That?”: Batman at 30

batman Michael Keaton & Jack Nicholson in Batman (Warner Bros.)

A look back at the hype, the controversies & the music of Tim Burton’s take on the Caped Crusader.

Gather round, children, while I tell you of a time when you couldn’t buy movie tickets in advance. Like Philistines, we had to stagger, wild-eyed and hopeful, up to the window of our local theater and buy our tickets the day of, with no luxuries like assigned seating to make it worthwhile. It was a two-part process: first, you hoped you got there in time to get a ticket, second, you hoped you got there in time to not have to sit in the janitor’s closet at the back of the theater.

I thought I had arrived in plenty of time, asking my dad to drop me off almost two hours early at the Towne 4 Theater, our “local” theater in that it was a twenty-minute drive from home. Yet somehow there was already a line extending from the box office, down the block, and around the corner. I hadn’t seen that kind of line since Return of the Jedi, and it was made all the more notable by the fact that every second or third person in line, myself included, wore identical black t-shirts (in 85 degrees June) with a familiar yellow symbol on it. No text, just the symbol, the trademark of the film nerd who was really–if not overly–excited about Tim Burton’s Batman.

The Hype

The first thing you need to understand is how dire the superhero movie situation was in 1989. The most recent release in the genre was 1987’s Superman IV: the Quest for Peace, a production so catastrophically inept that it killed the Superman film franchise for almost two decades. The pickings were pretty slim before that as well, with Flash Gordon, Swamp Thing, Superman III, and Supergirl all failing to make a dent at the box office. Whatever magic Richard Donner had accomplished with the original Superman seemed to be a fluke that couldn’t be repeated.

Taking a chance on Batman as a film property, when the average moviegoer was only familiar with the Adam West TV show, seemed to be a set-up to an Ishtar-level bomb. In development for ten years, it went through nine rewrites (with the final version barely resembling the original) and almost as many directors. Even Ivan Reitman was attached to it at one point and wanted to cast Bill Murray as Batman and Eddie Murphy as Robin, which should give you an idea of how many different iterations of the script existed before Warner Bros. finally settled on one they liked. They went with comic book writer Sam Hamm’s version, which removed Robin and the Penguin, swapped out one love interest for another, and reduced Commissioner Gordon to a newspaper photo. Rumors circulated that the look and feel of the film were going to be a far cry from the lighthearted, patriotic tone of Superman, and audience interest began to stir.

That stir became a grumbling when it was announced that Burton, who up to that point had only directed Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, and probably wasn’t anyone’s first or even tenth thought when it came to the phrase “action movie,” would be directing it. Burton further ruffled fan feathers when he admitted in an interview that he was “never a giant comic book fan.” Because comic book fans were at least as pathologically protective of “their” characters then as they are now (they just didn’t have the internet to make gathering torches and pitchforks easier), this was like a Rambo director saying they were never a giant fan of shooting people. Clearly, it meant that Burton didn’t care about the material, or have any interest in treating Batman, a billionaire who dresses up in a cape and a mask with pointy ears to fight crime, with dignity.

That grumbling became an uproar when Michael Keaton was cast in the lead, based on the strength of exactly one (1) dramatic role, when he played a recovering cocaine addict in Clean and Sober. It had been expected that Mel Gibson would be given the role without even having to audition for it, and while he was certainly in the running, so was, at various times, Kevin Costner, Harrison Ford, Dennis Quaid, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Selleck, and even Willem Dafoe.

Much like the recent announcement that Robert Pattinson had been cast in the lead in a separate, unrelated to the current DCU version of Batman, Keaton’s casting was met with disbelief and anger, and more than 50,000 letters in protest were sent to Warner Bros. No one was really feeling Keaton’s casting, save for producer Jon Peters, who suggested him, and Burton, who worked with him on Beetlejuice. Oh, and me, because I had a huge crush on Keaton, and would have watched him in anything.

Despite the initial misgivings, things began to turn around when Jack Nicholson was cast as the Joker. Nicholson not only demanded top billing but also had it put into his contract that he could take the day off from filming to attend Lakers home games. One might think that, with that sort of contractual clause, he was there mostly to collect a paycheck, but rumor had it that Nicholson was giving his all in the role, playing it as a combination of Cesar Romero and Satan himself.

Warner Bros. parceled out on-set publicity shots like delicious candy, revealing that “Mr. Mom,” in fact, had both the handsome jawline and brooding nature that playing Batman required, that Gotham City looked like a German Expressionism nightmare, and that the whole thing was just weird and wild and about as far from Superman (not that there was anything wrong with Superman) as you could get.

Even without the internet to pore over every little real or made up factoid about the production, the hype was real, as the kids say. I bought virtually every magazine I could find that mentioned it, followed every bit of news on TV about it, and staked out my place in that line at the Towne 4 theater.  

The Movie

I can’t speak for anyone else in the theater that day, except to say that, because it was an early afternoon screening, we all came out afterwards shielding our eyes from the sun, like the slave children set free from the mines in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Whatever you may think about Batman, we can all agree that it’s a very dark movie, dark in tone, and dark as in “dimly lit.”

It’s always midnight o’clock in Gotham City, where the only things bigger than the buildings are the shadows they cast. In this world, bright colors, like the Joker’s violet jacket and green hair, symbolize danger. Darkness is where monsters lurk, but it’s also where heroes can hide until it’s time to make their move.

It took me a little while to decide exactly how I felt about Batman. I never thought I’d use the word “creepy” to describe a superhero movie, but it must be said: Batman is creepy. The Joker taking cartoon and comic book imagery and turning it into something ugly and threatening is creepy. The Joker’s victims dying with contorted grins on their faces is creepy.

Second to the Penguin in Batman Returns, which leans even harder into gothic hellscape imagery, the Joker himself is the most grotesque villain in all of the Batman movies so far, and yes, that includes Heath Ledger, do not argue with me or write to my editor about this. Whereas Ledger’s Joker was a lone wolf, and Jared Leto’s a corny, “how do you do, fellow kids” direct appeal to younger viewers, Nicholson’s Joker was joyously, enthusiastically evil, the kind of guy who will show up to a party, shit in the punch bowl, and then force someone to drink it.

In the era of internet trolls, he comes off as even creepier. Like trolling, the scariest part about the Joker is that are no reasons, no motivations behind his behavior. He just likes fucking shit up, taking things he feels entitled to, hurting people, and he enjoys the reactions to it. He doesn’t need a reason. It’s fun.

It’s always midnight o’clock in Gotham City, where the only things bigger than the buildings are the shadows they cast.

Batman is not a movie I find myself revisiting often. It’s a well-made, but not particularly fun movie, and its legacy exceeds its quality. The seeds of dozens of dark fantasy, adventure, and comic book movies were planted here, particularly as seen in Alex Proyas’ The Crow and Dark City. In the Great Bat-Off Challenge, Burton’s movies probably rank a hair behind Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and several leagues ahead of Joel Schumacher’s movies (I haven’t seen anything from the Snyderverse and so in the interest of fairness remove them from the running). It isn’t even really fair to compare them to each other, because their approaches are both unique, and signatures of their directors: Burton, weird and nightmarish; Nolan, noirish and humorless; Schumacher, loud and garish.

It remains, however, one of the times in my life where I wholeheartedly bought into the excitement of a silly superhero movie, buying opening day (possibly even first screening, if memory serves) tickets, which is something I haven’t done in years, and just about every piece of merchandise I could find at my local shopping mall. I even bought a replica of that iconic yellow Bat symbol on a black t-shirt a few years ago, having worn the original one down to a dust rag. It was a reminder of the time before fandom became a toxic pit of entitlement, sexism, racism, and hatred when we’re all willing to stand in the hot sun for hours to see a dude in a cape drive around in a cool car fighting bad guys. Even if you weren’t happy about Keaton being cast, you grudgingly went along with it (or you just didn’t see it). It was just a movie. It wasn’t that serious.

The Music

I say it’s not that serious, and yet I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Batman’s music. Although it was unusual at the time for films to release both an orchestral score and a separate soundtrack of songs, Warner Bros. not only did just that, but both albums became smash hits. Danny Elfman, in only his third time composing a score (and never before for a film with such an extravagant budget), created an instantly legendary track with the main theme, to the point where it was used in Batman: the Animated Series and the LEGO Batman video games, and even today it’s what you hear when you’re waiting for the Batman ride at Six Flags.

The whole score was the background noise, alternating with various Christmas music compilations, for when I worked at a Musicland store the following fall, and I never got tired of it (as opposed to hearing “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” five times in three hours). It was the perfect marriage of audio to visual: like Batman itself, the score was dark, dramatic, mysterious, and oddly lovely at times, years before Elfman would just loop some children saying “la la la” over a few minutes of spooky music and call it a day.

Prince’s soundtrack is a whole other animal. Originally intended to be a collaboration with Michael Jackson, the album consists almost entirely of brand new songs that sound as if they were written while Prince was only half-watching some early Batman footage. Though the songs are credited to different characters from the film, they’re pure early to mid 80s B-side Prince, particularly “Vicki Waiting” and “Scandalous,” to date the only song inspired by a superhero movie that implores the listener to “skip all the foreplay, mama, and just get down here on the floor.” If not for the fact that the album is liberally sprinkled with soundbites from the movie, you’d have no idea that it had anything to do with Batman, or Bruce Wayne, or Vicki Vale, or comic books at all.

Unless you’re a Prince completist, you might be disappointed if you’re listening to the soundtrack for the first time, but I implore you: wait. Wait until the very end, when you get to “Batdance,” an over six-minute long, mostly instrumental (except for more soundbites and Prince purring “Ooh yeah, I wanna bust that body”) track that somehow became an MTV hit.

To read the lyrics (which, again, are mostly soundbites strung together without any context) is like reading the writings of a crazy person. This is emphasized by the song itself, which sounds like three different songs mashed together, including the juicy “Vicki Vale” breakdown in the middle, which ranks (for me at least) as a top five Prince moment. It also includes samples from other songs on the same soundtrack, which is about the most perfectly Prince thing imaginable.

A sonic kaleidoscope of funk and rock, it’s the only song on the soundtrack that feels like the movie for which it was written. It’s different, it’s chaotic, it’s weird, and it’s certainly more interesting than most other songs written for superhero movies, such as the dreary, overly serious butt rock of “Hero,” the end credits track in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Like Batman itself, whatever you think of the finished product, you can’t ignore how much it shook things up, and what a grand drink of water it was in a dry pop culture landscape.

Batman Trailer:

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