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BATMAN '89: A Retrospective
Author: Paul J. Wares
Sunday, June 27, 2004

In December 1988 I turned 13. Pretty momentous occasion actually, I was the first child of my parents to enter into his teens and they were understandably nervous to see if their first son was about to turn into an obnoxious moody brat, I however was completely oblivious to the adventure of puberty that was waiting.

At this stage I was also completely unaware of another momentous occasion that was on the horizon.

Unknown to me 85 miles away in Pinewood Studios just outside London, a largely British crew were busy at work on what would be a pop culture phenomenon.

I became aware of it in early 1989. I was thumbing through a glossy tabloid supplement that came with the Sunday newspaper 'The News of the World' when I caught my first glimpse. 'Exclusive Spy Photos of BATMAN' rang the headline. Upon seeing these blurry photos I could feel my jaw getting slacker. The main photos had been taken by a photographer hiding in the rafters of the Pinewood soundstage that was home to the interior belfry set and were of Batman fighting with the Joker's back-flipping Goon. The hype had begun and after seeing these photos, I was hungry for more.

These pictures charted an 11 out of 10 on my internal cool-o-meter. I had been an avid Batman fan in my early childhood, some of my first memories were that of reading a Batman comic book, or watching the TV show, or as I'm sure we all did, tying a towel around my neck and pretending I was the B-Man.

I'd harboured dreams of becoming a comic-book artist from a young age, but that was before the summer of 1989 changed the course of my life.

I came from a relatively poor family and grew up on a farm, so luxuries such as trips to the cinema and even VCRs were alien to me. I had therefore yet to discover a love of movies. Unlike others my age I missed out on the entire Star Wars experience because my parents simply couldn't afford, not only the cinema tickets, but also the subsequent desire for the related merchandise that would inevitably come about after seeing it.

However, in 1989 I got my first paper-round and with it my own income. I was a young man of independent means, just in time to spend all my money on the plethora of merchandise that was on the way.

After those initial spy photos, it seemed like an age before any new news came about, until the fateful day when I first saw the now infamous trailer. It was a weekday afternoon, just after school a children's news programme had aired it. I'd gotten in just in time to see it. I was utterly spellbound, at this point we didn't own a VCR, so I couldn't tape it. It didn't matter anyway, every frame was burnt into my memory.

I was now obsessed with the film, I sought out info wherever I could find it, which by now was plentiful. Bat-mania had hit and you couldn't turn your head without seeing a bat-insignia. I can honestly say that I haven't seen a movie since that has either equalled or surpassed the level of hype that surrounded the film. It really was something to behold. Finally the day came when I would see the film. It opened in the UK in early August, but I had to wait almost two weeks until I would get my opportunity to view it. I saw the movie on a Saturday afternoon in a fleapit of a cinema. The seats creaked, the projector rattled, but as Danny Elfman's now classic theme boomed through the archaic sound system and the first shadow-drenched frames filled the screen, it was if I was hearing and seeing for the first time.

I had an epiphany much like all those kids that saw Star Wars and wanted to become filmmakers, I too now knew that my future lay in the moving image rather than the static image of the comic-book page. The world that had been created by Tim Burton and Co. had such an impact on me.

The film was a marvel and still is to this day. Sure it has its problems, the pace of the middle portion of the film is very slow and the weighting of the characters screen-time is all in Nicholson's favour. Batman isn't on screen anywhere near enough and the Joker is onscreen far too much.

Nicholson however, gives an electric performance that transcends his physical differences between this movie's Joker and the comic-book character on which it is based. Nicholson is as nefarious and psychotic as he is funny in this role and in my opinion is the best comic-book villain performance that has so far been committed to film.

Kim Basinger's performance is frankly annoying and I wonder how Sean Young whom Basinger replaced, would have fared in the role. Her chemistry with Keaton is severely lacking and her constant screaming does her no favours either.

All other supporting characters are solid in their roles most notably Michael Gough's near perfect Alfred and Pat Hingle's tough but gentle Commissioner Gordon. Unfortunately the latter character became increasingly embarrassing with each subsequent film, resembling the 60s TV character Chief O'Hara, rather than the incorruptible cop we know from the comics.

Finally the tour de force that is Michael Keaton. Much has been said about the supposed miscasting of Keaton as Batman. Yes his physical shortcomings don't make him perfect casting, but frankly I've never had a problem with Keaton. I have long considered this film to be Tim Burton's Batman, BASED on the DC Comics character and under that rationale Keaton's casting was a very smart move.

Keaton made me believe he was Batman. He made me believe his parents were murdered when he was a kid, he made me believe he used his fortune to gather the resources he needed, he made me believe he was driven enough to train himself in body in mind to combat crime and he made me believe he was crazy enough to dress up as a Bat and take on the criminal element night after night in his quest for justice.

When an actor is good enough to do that, I couldn't give a damn about the size of his jaw or whether or not he is wearing a wig, or whether he was tall enough or young enough for the role. He made me believe he was Batman, something no other actor has done before or has done since. I felt for Keaton, every pained, sombre expression he had tugged at my heart, knowing the trauma his character had experienced. I related to Keaton because he was average height and build and because he looked like the everyman.

I've never understood the argument that his Bruce Wayne wasn't a socialite or wasn't charming. This is a character that is in such social standing that has a place card at the head table at Harvey Dent's introductory dinner as District Attorney. A man who is so well known that when Vicki Vale says; "Bruce Wayne's benefit, he'll be there right?" Allie Knox knows exactly whom she's talking about and doesn't bat an eyelid.

This is a Bruce Wayne that charms a smart sexy woman into his bed on their first date and then subsequently dismisses her attentions because they interfere with his plan. If that isn't the Bruce Wayne from the comics I don't know what is. Part of the problem is that most people don't recognise these points because they are not the main focus of the film, the Joker is.

The whole look of the film is awesome. The glorious production design by the late Anton Furst gives Burton the perfect background in which to tell his macabre story. However, as with many Tim Burton films, the director appears more concerned with the visuals than any other aspect of the film, which unfortunately causes the movie to be somewhat light on plot and characterisation.

Even with its flaws, BATMAN 1989 is a classic film, one that we owe a great debt to. It proved to a greater audience that Batman was more than just Adam West in tights, spouting awful puns against a camp sixties backdrop. It showed the world that comic books could not only be translated successfully to film, but that they could have a deep psychological depth, something that the first Superman movie didn't show us.

Without BATMAN 1989, I sincerely doubt we would have ever have seen X-Men or Spider-man on the big screen. Or the ultimate Batman film that Batman Begins is promising to be.

I personally owe it a great debt of gratitude. The movie is more to me than just a film it was an event, an event that I can honestly say, changed the course of my life. Without this film, I never would have taken an interest in movies. I never would have studied filmmaking or started scriptwriting and created my own characters and made my own films. I never would have gone on to teach filmmaking at a further education college.

At the time of writing this, I am about to be laid off my job as a lecturer, but instead of feeling down about it a new Bat-film on the horizon is helping to keep my chin up and I now feel it is an opportunity to get back into the filmmaking that I love so dearly.

One of my first filmmaking projects will be a Batman fan film. I have had this planned for a number of years, but never had the time to commit to it. Well now I have. The film will be called 'Batman: Prologue' and will be a prequel to the events of 'Batman 1989'. It is a thank you and an homage to a film that changed the course of my life. You can find more details at

With BATMAN BEGINS promising to be the most faithful movie translation of the Batman comic books that could or should be made, we must never forget the contribution that BATMAN '89 made to the genre. I fear that with all the excitement the new Batman movie is garnering, it's contribution will soon be forgotten and that the debt of gratitude that we owe it will diminish also. And while Christian Bale will likely steal Keaton's crown as the best Batman on film, the old king will be hard to beat and fondly remembered.

Thank you BATMAN '89. You will always remain dear to my heart and long may you rule as one of the best comic book films of all time. Here's hoping the release of a special edition DVD isn't too far away.

Longtime BOF'er Paul J. Wares is the UK editor of BATMAN ON FILM.

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