I grew up with Batman.
Batman comics taught me to read, as I’ve discussed here many times.
The live-action 1960’s BATMAN TV show was part of my daily routine in childhood, rushing home from school to see the same episodes over and over, year after year.
Every morning before school, I watched the 1960’s half-hour Batman animated series.
The years passed, and as I grew up, so did my expectations.
The comics still provided plenty of entertainment, but I soon realized the live-action TV show was camp, that it made people laugh at Batman. So, sullen in a way only a teenager can be, I resented it and turned my back on it (although in adulthood I came to love it again and realized my youthful resentment was misplaced).
For several years, I wished there were a serious live-action Batman TV show or movie, and after Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and YEAR ONE hit stores and made newspaper headlines, I thought maybe at last there was a chance a “real” Batman movie would get made.
When Michael Keaton was announced as Batman, I had my doubts like everybody else. But I was already a Keaton fan and loved his films – like NIGHT SHIFT and MR. MOM – and despite being an 18 year old fan I wasn’t so immature that I couldn’t see he was a good actor capable of not just humor but also solid emotional drama at times. When CLEAN AND SOBER came out later in 1988, my doubts about Keaton’s ability to handle the drama and tension of a Batman role were further soothed.
I was frankly much more worried about Tim Burton as the director of the film. I’d enjoyed Burton’s films PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and BEETLEJUICE, but the combination of Burton plus Keaton made me worry it would end up more of a comedy or a family-oriented film. The inclusion of Jack Nicholson as the Joker, Though, gave me hope.
What struck me most in the months leading up to the film’s release was the level of popularity Batman achieved in the mainstream culture. I’d always known Batman was great, but few other people around me outside of my family agreed. So, I was happy to see Batman finally getting his due, but also a bit smug and frustrated over having been a fan so long and putting up with most people ignoring or dismissing the comics.
I saw the first teaser trailer, with the Batwing flying among the clouds, in theaters and the big-screen impact was impressive. I have to admit I was especially impressed by Batman firing guns and rockets, which was such a dramatically different portrayal than anything we’d seen in live-action before, it sent the message loud and clear that the old 1960’s camp adaptation was dead. That in and of itself was a victory, and the fact it had a great style and design added to the seriousness and edge, so my anticipation for the film went through the roof.
When BATMAN finally hit theaters on June 23, 1989, I rushed to see it on opening weekend and went back for several more screenings before its run ended. Keaton’s mysterious, understated, almost sinister portrayal, and Nicholson’s equally great performance, were almost hypnotic for me. Seeing Batman come to life on screen like that, while audiences cheered and responded to him the way I’d responded my entire life, made me a very happy Bat-Fan.
However, it’s also true that my elation over the performances of the two main characters and the impressive visual flair, combined with my pleasure over the public’s embrace of Batman, served to mute some complaints I had that over the years grew much more important. The Joker having killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, for example, and Batman’s choice to kill the Joker both shocked me as major departures from the Batman I knew and loved. And I have to admit that every time Kim Basinger screamed or Robert Wuhl delivered another yuk-yuk one-liner, I cringed.
Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson as Batman and The Joker in BATMAN (1989)
After the initial high wore off that summer, I found myself oddly unsatisfied in a particularly odd way. On some level that I wasn’t aware of until later, I’d been expecting a Batman film that would surpass Superman’s first two films in quality and, in my estimation, as a personal favorite. But by the time BATMAN came out on VHS at the end of 1989, I had realized that despite Batman being my favorite character and despite how much my sheer joy at seeing a serious Batman film with a strong lead portrayal and cool costume all led me to love the film upon release, Batman’s first big serious movie had not managed to do the same thing SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE did in bring that character so perfectly to life. Why? Because as much as I can praise elements of BATMAN and as wonderful as Michael Keaton was in the role, it did not deliver a definitive live-action Batman to me.
This is not to undermine the importance of the film nor my enjoyment of it, but rather to explain that despite those things I cannot offer my full reaction to the movie without including the fact of my eventual disappointment that it didn’t live up completely to what I’d hoped for. And part of that, I must admit, is due to my preference for the character and my wish (especially at that time, and then in the subsequent years prior to the most recent trilogy of Batman films) to see Batman portrayed more “realistically” and in an epic story that included his origin.
I can appreciate what was done in BATMAN in the design of the city and the weirder, almost nightmarish adaptation of the character’s world, but I liked the idea of Batman and the weird, nightmarish villains existing in a world that resembled films like THE FRENCH CONNECTION and DIRTY HARRY, or TV shows like “The Streets of San Francisco,” “Starsky and Hutch,” and other crime films/shows of that sort. I was reading Batman comics and watching those films on TV at the same time as a kid, and so I guess my perceptions and anticipation was rooted in a lot of that equating of worlds and cinematic presentation of urban crime and vigilantism.
The point being, all those things for years built up in me as a Batman fan wishing for a movie bringing to life those 1970’s O’Neil and Englehart comics, and the 1980’s Miller comics. And when BATMAN finally hit theaters, my 19 year old self just couldn’t entirely put those dreams aside and embrace a film that was so different from what I’d expected and hoped for. I could still love it and enjoy it, but not without that eventual -- months later -- come-down from the high.
But even then, nothing could erase the clear importance of what had happened that summer. I knew, regardless of any personal wishes for things being different in the film, that BATMAN had changed the way everyone thought about superhero movies. I expected a big wave of great comic book movies to hit theaters, serious adaptations of all the best characters to would further demonstrate to the world why they’d been missing out by not reading comics. Of course, that didn’t actually happen until years later, but in the aftermath of BATMAN’s success on the big screen, there was a flurry of superhero films that got the genre moving and figured out a lot of the wrong ways to go about adapting comics. Without that, we’d never have reached the point we’re at now.
And it all really started that summer in 1989. So I wish BATMAN a very happy 25th birthday, and congratulate everyone involved on a great achievement! - Mark Hughes