Tim Burton’s BATMAN released in the summer of 1989 to overwhelming box office success and saw Bat-Mania sweep the world. Almost creating the trend of covering the opening weekend box office overnight the film made over $40 million in its debut weekend ($5 million more than its budget) which shattered all previous records. Starring Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader, Jack Nicholson as The Joker, and Kim Basinger as Bruce Wayne/Batman’s love interest, Vicki Vale, the film became an instant hit among fans. With the 30th anniversary just passing I thought it would be a perfect time to look at the impact of this classic that reinvented what comic book movies could be.
Tim Burton leapt at the opportunity to direct BATMAN, being drawn to the mystique and psychological elements of the character. The first challenge ahead of him was to immediately establish this film as being fundamentally different in tone from the most recent on-screen incarnation of Batman as seen on the hit ’66 TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. This is something that producer Michael Uslan was also very adamant about, having gone to extreme lengths to get the production of a dark and serious Batman film up and running in the first place. It turns out the Burton was the perfect man for the job. Even from the opening credits, it’s apparent how starkly different this experience would be from the campy “Bam! Zap! And Pow!” tone of the TV series.
I was lucky enough to recently experience this movie on the big screen for the first time. I’m too young to have ever had the chance to see it in theaters upon its original release, but thanks to the special 30th-anniversary screenings I had a chance to see it and it was one I couldn’t pass up. I maintain that it was the experience of a lifetime and it’s so easy to see exactly why this movie took audiences around the world by storm. Everything from the art direction, the actor’s performances, the score, the sound design, the action, and the drama blend together perfectly to create a wholly unique package unlike anything else that still stands out to this day. I can only imagine how it felt to walk out of the theater seeing this in 1989.
The first thing that hits you while watching this film is Danny Elfman’s iconic grand orchestral score. It hits new highs and dramatic lows while building a rapid pace into its pulse that gets your heart rate flying during action sequences. It’s what many hear in their heads when they think of Batman music and there’s a good reason for it. Throughout the film Elfman treats the score as another character, driving some scenes forward and accentuating every emotion on screen, and in the audience, perfectly.
Perhaps the most striking element of this film is the art direction, which the film won an Academy Award for. Burton’s Gotham is the most visually striking rendition of the Caped Crusader’s stomping grounds that we’ve seen. It’s grand, gothic, mysterious, chaotic, and dirty. In the director’s commentary for the film Burton says they were going for “If New York’s city planning committee didn’t have a plan” and that description is certainly apt. Buildings stretch through the limits of the sky with bridges and arches crisscrossing and connecting them. Steam and smoke are ever present on set and it looks as though it always just finished raining. It has an almost timeless quality to it, where it blends elements of 1930’s architecture with more modern hints, there’s of course cars from the era the film was made but they don’t date it by any means. It’s not futuristic but it’s not exactly a period piece either. Gotham feels like a living character and it’s a sight to behold.
The art direction extends beyond just that of Gotham City itself. The Batsuit, Batmobile, Batcave, Batwing, and every set is teeming with detail. The Batsuit holds up phenomenally for the technical restrictions of the time. The silhouette of Batman looming in the shadows is always visually striking, and the wingspan he shows off when swooping down is a fantastic design element. The suit is purely black, aside from the yellow around the Bat symbol and the yellow belt which add the perfect amount of contrast and draw your eyes there every time they’re on screen. His cowl has rather tall ears that help add to the mystique of the man who’s wearing a permanent scowl thanks to the mold of his cowl.
The Batmobile, Batcave, and Batwing (Or Batplane, depending on who you ask) also add to the mystery and bravado of the character. Everything feels like it’s a single part of a connected whole. The Batmobile is the perfect blend of sleek and menacing. With its extra-long front and protruding engine piece, all the way to its back wings. The Batcave is dark and dangerous and feel like you’re almost inside the head of Batman himself, experiencing his most private moments with him. The lighting in the cave brilliantly accentuates Keaton’s eyes while in the cowl, which is essential given that’s where most of his performance in costume must shine through. The Batwing is a visual extension of the Batmobile taken to the skies of Gotham. It obviously takes design cues from a bat in flight but also resembles the bat symbol we see in the film, yet slightly more circular.
Then there are the sets. As I already mentioned the overall design of Gotham is stunning, but the level of detail on each individual set is worth noting too. Everything fits into this world of Gotham so effortlessly, from the disgusting and gargantuan Axis Chemicals set to the homey yet trashed lair of the Joker. Wayne Manor is decadent, though the darkness of the Batcave lumbers beneath it. Vicki’s apartment is bright and clean which creates a beautiful contrast with that of Batman’s normal surroundings. The museum Joker and his goons trash has a blend of brick, steel, concrete, and more to help add to this familiar yet not what we know setting. The church where the final confrontation takes place is strikingly simple but all the better for it. And everything that needs to be is enormous in scale which builds the mythic nature of the world these characters are living in.
It was bold of Burton to cast such big-name actors in a comic book film at the time, but it paid off in spades. Michael Keaton became an icon as Batman and remains many fans favorite to don the cape and cowl. After seeing many typical “square-jawed superhero” actors audition for the part, Burton landing on Keaton as the perfect choice. He reasoned that there had to be a need for Bruce Wayne to dress up as a bat, and Keaton looked like the kind of guy that would need to create this image of himself to frighten criminals, and he also had that crazy look in his eye that made you believe he would do it. Keaton gives a nuanced performance as Bruce Wayne, playing an almost shy, sometimes absent-minded millionaire, who you can tell has a dark side. He also gives an excellent performance as Batman, wearing the costume effectively, speaking in a low and gravely tone and only saying just what’s needed. He carries himself with mystery, power, and portrays so much emotion in his eyes under that cowl.
The same (perhaps even more) fan love can be attributed to Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime. Burton describes casting Nicholson as “The perfect choice. There was no one else. It was almost a worry that he was too perfect.” And it shows in his performance. Nicholson steals the screen in every scene he’s in, even before his gruesome transformation into the Joker. Which, speaking of, the scene of him removing his bandages and laughing maniacally as he walks up the stairs and out of frame is one of the most haunting scenes in cinema. His laugh is bone-chilling, and his crazy, goofy, and menacing mannerisms all fit the character so well and it never gets old watching him work his magic as the Joker.
Kim Basinger also gives a standout performance as reporter/photographer Vicki Vale. She’s got an interest in the Batman and becomes a love interest for Bruce Wayne and plays the part wonderfully. Her chemistry with Keaton is palpable and her fright of the Joker when in the same scene with him is harrowing. She completes the trio of the main cast excellently. The rest of the supporting cast also give great performances, with Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, Michael Gough as Alfred, Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, Jack Palance as Carl Grisson, Robert Wuhl as Alexander Knox, and Tracey Walter as Bob the goon (Joker’s right-hand man).
The special effects and action still hold up well, too. Though there are obvious physical restrictions of the Batsuit, the action feels visceral and exciting. There’s also two wild vehicle set pieces, one featuring a chase scene with the Batmobile which is still exhilarating to watch, and another featuring the Batwing zooming through and above the Gotham skyline. The emphasis on practical, real effects (which was in part due to the technological limitations of the time, but also was Burton’s preferred method of filming) help keep the film from feeling dated and ground it even more. Everything looks real because, for the most part, it is. The cinematography is top-notch throughout, producing some of the most iconic Batman shots in cinema. The sound design is superb and was something that stood out to me a lot upon viewing in theaters, it sounded even better and more immersive than some modern films do.
While the plot isn’t the most complicated, it doesn’t need to be. It explores the psychology and conflict between Batman and Joker and gives each character the proper time to breathe in their roles. The pacing is some of the best I’ve ever seen, with not a moment wasted and every scene taking up the amount of time that it should. The film is two hours long and it’s a tight two hours, with not a dull moment in its runtime.
I can’t heap enough praise onto BATMAN. It took Batman back to his gothic, noir, and dark roots and presented something fresh for the times. It changed audience’s perception of Batman at the time, inspired one of the best things to exist in the Batman mythos (I’m looking at you, Batman: The Animated Series), and exceeded all expectations. It’s the result of a distinct vision that’s brought to life with the talent of everyone involved in its production. It’s the perfect package of what it was trying to be. BATMAN proved that not only could serious superhero films be done well, but that they could be done exceptionally.