BATMAN '89: A Look Back At The Film That Changed The Game
As Tim Burton's Batman gets ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary, writer Nick Green takes a look back at the controversy of his decision to sign Michael Keaton in the title role and the phenomenal impact the film had on the public and the genre in this article excerpt.
by Nick Green
It’s early 1989. I’m a fifteen year old secondary school kid in high top trainers. My room is plastered with movie posters. I listen incessantly to Appetite for Destruction and Live After Death. I have no girlfriend, but I do have a full head of hair, a Commodore Amiga and great friends to play D&D and talk comics and films with. It’s all good.
Meanwhile, over at the legendary Pinewood Studios in London, the new big budget Batman is deep into production, and the press are falling over themselves to get shots and info on the hugely anticipated and intensely secret film. I’m flicking through my latest issue of Commodore User when something truly beautiful catches my eye.
There’s a photo of the new Batmobile: black as night, cool wings, mean, sleek, afterburner blazing. It looks like Satan’s hot rod. The title reads ‘What The Hell Is That?’
Alrighty, here’s a little history lesson for you younger readers out there - back in the 80’s there was no Internet; no online, 24/7, second world of information; nada. Film fans were completely dependent upon the press: the daily paper, entertainment magazines, the news. We learned things according to their timescales, having to devour whatever scraps the intrepid paparazzi could forage and chuck to us. If you were lucky, perhaps in the latest issue of Starlog you’d get a behind the scenes article, over which you’d pore and drool in anticipation of what the finished film would be like.
And that precious few pages of text, never changing, would have to tide you over for months, until that wonderful moment when the trailer came out.
It’s June 1989; a Thursday I think. I’m about to go to bed and I set my VCR to record my favourite show: Cinemattractions. Buried in the wee small hours by ITV (the third of Britain’s four channels) it showed trailers for upcoming and current movies in the USA. Steve March and his puffy hair and slick sweaters is a hero to me. I can’t wait to see what he has for me this week.
The next morning, like a fisherman checking his net, I hit play and discover I’ve caught a monster.
The Batman trailer has finally landed!
I stare at the TV unblinking as the Batwing screams over Gotham City and the rousing score kicks in...
Batmobile looking all kinds of frigging flaming, roaring awesome.
Batman in sculpted body armour, totally black, save the yellow of his belt and insignia. I approve.
“Winged Freak terrorises. Wait til they get a load of me. Hahahahahahahaaaa!!”
Ho. Ly. Shit.
Between that and the documentary Batman: The Making of a Hero, I nearly wear out the tape.
Why was I so dementedly excited? Well, believe it or not, there was a time when Batman was, ahem, not cool. Yep, there was no ongoing Dark Knight saga and the only merchandise was from the comics or the campy 60’s show. Outside of their native medium, superheroes were (with the exception of the first three Superman films) the preserve of low rent features and TV shows, considered only for kids. So make no mistake, a big budget Batman film was a huge deal and an even bigger gamble for any studio, more so even than most characters because, although in the comics he’d returned to his dark roots at the tail end of the 60’s, the mainstream still associated him with the BAFF!, POW! antics of Adam West and co.
Would people go for it or immediately write it off as silly?
The genesis of the Batman movie began in 1979.
The man who dedicated himself to the daunting task of dispelling the cartoony stink and bringing us a dark, true-to-his-roots Batman was comics expert and former DC Comics and United Artists exec Michael Uslan. Having obtained the rights, he began to shop the project around Hollywood. But for all his enthusiasm and effort, he couldn’t interest a single studio. Taking a wild shot, his partner Ben Melniker suggested young maverick producer Peter Guber.
Guber was thrilled. He embraced the project and instantly jumped on board. He soon sold it to Universal, who toyed with it for a while before eventually dropping it. Guber then pitched it to Warner Bros. and Warner, who owned DC and were keen to keep the character under their banner, snapped it up.
Victory, however, was still a long ways off.
As Guber commented, the road to the screen was “...a marathon; it was not a sprint.” What followed was almost a decade of rewrite after rewrite, change of tone, content, potential stars and directors. Batman went through more hands than a bar of soap in a coal mine bathroom.
But, you know, sometimes all the false starts and crawling toward reality works out for the best.
Times changed. The 80’s were a pop decade. Comics had risen in popularity and characters, including Batman, had gotten harder-edged. Movies had become increasingly spectacular, explosions bigger, effects more and more impressive. MTV had given emerging directors three minute spots to show what they could do and cinematography was evolving at a startling rate.
Enter ex-Disney animator Tim Burton, who had just scored a huge hit with Beetlejuice. Warner Bros. felt his dark, quirky vision was a perfect match for Batman. His age was some concern though; he was only thirty and the studio executives were unsure he could handle a project of such giant scale (the largest ever made in Britain at the time). Fortunately, Tim had a big dog in his corner: Jack Nicholson. Cast perfectly as The Joker, Nicholson had tremendous faith in his director and threw a shroud of protection around him, lending his unwavering support and warding off the studio’s intrusive suits.
Smiling Jack loved the part. He even bought commemorative jackets for the entire crew. His casting, as with Marlon Brando in Superman, raised the respectability of the film and drew widespread attention. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he’d be phenomenal.
His nemesis, however, was another matter.
Tim Burton’s choice for the dual role of Batman/Bruce Wayne was Michael Keaton. Now, if you think the ongoing furore over Ben Affleck is something, you clearly weren’t around in ‘88. When word got out about Keaton’s casting, people were shocked. Many were genuinely outraged. Even Michael Uslan thought it was a joke.
Keaton had received acclaim for his performance in the addiction drama Clean and Sober, but he was really known as a comedy actor. His most recent outing was as the manic ghoul Beetlejuice. In addition, he wasn’t a big guy by any means. But Burton stuck to his guns. He asserted that Michael had a little bit of “crazy” in his eyes. And his faith was ultimately proved right. Many now consider Keaton the best actor to ever don the cape and cowl.
I agree with Burton’s casting criteria. You want a guy who looks like he could suddenly snap and beat you to within an inch of your life. It’s also the reason I think Affleck won't hit the mark in the upcoming Batman/Superman film. He’s a decent actor; I just don’t find him intimidating.
Then again, maybe he’ll surprise us all and pull a Keaton.
Summer 1989. It’s bloody hot. The pavement scorches my bare feet.
Things are hot at the box office too. There’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Star Trek V, Lethal Weapon 2, The Abyss. All big films. But one towers titanically over them all...
The marketing of Batman was extremely aggressive and prolific, but it was amplified exponentially by a tidal wave of genuine anticipation. Once word got out that a big, dark Batman movie was coming, excitement started to build all over the world. And it wasn’t just the geeks who got behind it; it was like everyone had been waiting for The Dark Knight to rise up and cast off the cartoony image he’d been saddled with for the last twenty years. Considering these were the pre-Internet days, such a consolidated movement was quite remarkable.
Warner Bros. was extremely fortunate in that they were dealing with an established and much-loved pop-culture icon. Not only that, but he had a cool symbol, a symbol you could hang a marketing campaign and sell a shitload of merchandise on. There was no need for an elaborate poster or a catchy tagline; all they needed was a sweet gold and black bat insignia and, bingo, job done.
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