Much like the year we're in now, 1989 was a celebratory year for Batman fans: it marked the 50th anniversary of The Dark Knight! But unlike 2014, millions around the world weren't salivating for the latest animated film, animated short, major comic crossover, or blockbuster video game installment from Warner Bros./DC Comics. No, 1989 was more of simmer that became a boil as the June 23rd release of Director Tim Burton's BATMAN
approached, and a Bat-mania like none ever seen began spreading like wildfire.
Many fans today likely find it hard to imagine a life before Michael Keaton's black-clad avenger descended upon movie audiences for the first time. Given The Dark Knight's now 75 years and ever-growing fanaticism, a whole new generation has grown into adulthood enjoying Batman's adventures in all media formats - a generation of many who have powerful, foundational memories of seeing The Caped Crusader as a dark phantom of the silver screen in Burton's groundbreaking vision of Gotham City.
Prior to Burton's masterpiece, comic book fans had been enjoying the Dark Knight's return to his original grim tone since the 1970s; with creators like Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams, Jim Aparo, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and more giving the character a bold creative departure away from the camp of the '50s and '60s. This "Batman renaissance", if you will, reached its peak in 1986, when Frank Miller's epic THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS took the entire publishing world by storm with its grim and gritty depiction of a Gotham gone to hell, and an aging crime fighter willing to walk into the heart of that inferno to redeem his city. Needless to say, there were many who dreamed of a film like 1989'sBATMAN for a great deal of time before it finally arrived.
Michael Uslan, the Godfather of the modern comic book movie!
One such individual was Michael Uslan; who, upon seeing Richard Donner's SUPERMAN in 1978, became determined to see an earnest take on The Caped Crusader make it to the Silver Sceen. During what became a decade long, often tumultuous journey of Executive Producers Uslan and Benjamin Melniker, and later Producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters to get this movie the green light at a studio (any studio), the magic of perseverance - and several drafts of script - finally yielded an interest from Warner Bros., as well as Burton - a young filmmaker with only two full-length features (PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE, BEETLEJUICE) to his name. Burton brought along Screenwriter Sam Hamm and the wheels finally began turning - BATMAN was getting made!
Once Jack Nicholson was announced as arch-nemesis The Joker, news of the film's production took Hollywood by storm. Eager fans jumped at any bit of information to surface about the pending feature: from the massive (pre-internet) outrage over the casting of typically comedic actor Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman; to frenzy surrounding the December, 1988 trailer that gave audiences their first taste of things to come. This hype increased tenfold in the months leading into that summer of '89, with retailers showcasing (and selling out of) a nearly obscene amount of merchandise featuring likenesses of the film's stars as well as comic art. One could go just about anywhere in public and encounter the Bat-Symbol at every turn!
Keaton and Nicholson as Batman and The Joker in BATMAN
Oh, but was it ever worth the wait! The first modern Batman film to reach completion yielded uncanny praise from fans and critics alike. The artistic vision of Burton and Production Designer Anton Furst succeeded in taking its audience away from their world, and bringing them to one simultaneously fantastic and familiar. The film's depiction of Gotham City as a dark, nightmarish version of New York created an environment where Batman could not only exist - he made sense.
The film's stars - refusing to be upstaged by the grand, lavish sets constructed for them - each owned their characters with ease. Keaton, whom many fans still revere as the definitive cinematic Batman, gave a solemn portrayal of a wounded but driven man, doing the only thing with his life that made sense to him. Nicholson, already well known for his intensity in films like ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and THE SHINING, gave himself entirely to The Joker - "the world's first fully-functioning homicidal artist" - a mad man living in his own world, with brilliantly demented charisma enough to lead the mob into his twisted game.
A late addition to the cast, Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale provided not only a steamy chemistry with Keaton, but the perspective of an outsider to this clash of comic titans. Rounded out by a supporting cast that included Michael Gough (Alfred Pennyworth), Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon), Billy Dee Williams (Harvey Dent), and Robert Wuhl (Alexander Knox); each cast member delivered personality and earnestness in spades.
The final garnish to this already breathtaking project would be Danny Elfman's powerful, haunting score. Arguably the most enduring part of the film, Elfman's "Batman March" has been synonymous with the character for decades since (even used recently in the LEGO BATMAN video game). Graceful subtleties highlight the film's more quiet, contemplative scenes, while use of eerie sounds and notes give the audience just the right sense of unease when appropriate; finally giving way to booming heroic notes to drive home Burton's most majestic shots (seriously, try listening to "Descent into Mystery" or "Finale" and not getting goosebumps).
To call Tim Burton's BATMAN a film seems like an understatement. Sure, plenty of folks have enjoyed it in the 25 years since its release; but to those who experienced it firsthand, it was nothing short of an event. All these years later, the film still garners adoring praise, and the legacy of the superhero film - and especially Batman On Film - was forever changed. - Bobby Barrett