Batman (1989)

I’m beyond happy that social media did not exist for Tim Burton’s Batman. Could you imagine how upset — more than letters columns, fans in comic book stores angry about the film and the 50,000 protest letters sent to Warner Brothers — they would be about Batman being played by comedic actor Michael Keaton? The guy who made Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure making Batman? Didn’t we come so far from the Adam West Batman which people still hated and had not reevaluated in 1989?

Producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan had purchased the film rights of Batman from DC Comics in 1979 and Uslan continued pushing the dark detective side of the character when every studio wanted camp.

This was almost made a decade earlier, as Tom Mankiewicz completed based on the comics by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, who was hired to do the concept art. It never happened — at one point, William Holden was going to play James Gordon, David Niven almost was Alfred Pennyworth and Peter O’Toole would have been the Penguin –despite Joe Dante and Ivan Reitman — who wanted Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy as the Dynamic Duo — getting involved.

At this point, Batman in the comics had become a grim and gritty force of crime-fighting vengeance. The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: The Killing Joke became critical successes and despite an Englehart script that got closer, it was Sam Hamm who would take the story and make it work.

It took another Burton success with Beetlejuice to get this movie greenlit. Yes, comics were not big business in 1989. Bob Kane, who always had his name listed as Batman’s creator despite Bill FInger probably doing all the work with none of the savvy to get the credit, endorsed the film in the face of disbelieving comic book fans.

With Keaton on board, the role of the Joker had plenty of potential actors attached, such as Tim Curry, Brad Dourif, Ray Liotta, James Woods, Robin Williams, David Bowie and John Lithgow. Burton wanted John Glover, which I would have loved. But the studio always wanted Jack Nicholson.

Comic book fans were happy with this casting. As for Nicholson, he reduced his $10 million fee to $6 million for a cut of the film’s earnings and merchandise, which ended up making him around $90 million dollars.

The third star of the film would be Gotham City itself, a place designed by Anton Furst, who Burton had wanted to work with since he saw The Company of Wolves. He would later say, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so naturally in tune with a director. Conceptually, spiritually, visually, or artistically. There was never any problem because we never fought over anything. Texture, attitude and feelings are what Burton is a master at.”

The city was based on Brazil and Blade Runner, as well as the idea that Gotham was — in the words of Furst — “what New York City might have become without a planning commission. A city run by crime, with a riot of architectural styles. An essay in ugliness. As if hell erupted through the pavement and kept on going.”

Before Batman‘s release in June of 1989, a whole new wave of Batmania took over with $750 million worth of merchandise sold. I can’t even explain to people not alive for that summer what it was like or the lines of people waiting to see this movie. It was incredible, levels of fandom not seen since Star Wars.

For once, in the face of so much hype, a movie delivered.

Gothan is on the edge of chaos, as always. Boss Grissom (a perfect Jack Palance) openly challenges the authority of the police and government. His associate Jack Napier (Nicholson) is making time with his best girl Alicia Hunt (Jerry Hall). And reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) are investigating a human bat that has started destroying criminals.

Napier and Batman face off at Ace Chemicals and the mobster crashes into toxic chemicals, transforming body and soul into the Joker. He takes over the mobs of the city and declares war on Gotham and Batman, who of course is Bruce Wayne (Keaton) and who has fallen for Vale.

Sure, it’s simple in retrospect, but that’s because it’s become part of the fabric of our fandom. Even today I marvel at the fact that Prince did this soundtrack, that Nicholson got his buddy Tracy Walter into the role of Bob the Goon — who had his own action figure and we figured was a major new bad guy only to unceremoniously be killed off by his own boss — and that character actors like Michael Gough and Pat Hingle could so easily become who so many of us envision Alfred and Commissioner Gordon.

Batman changed culture. It’s why superhero movies were finally taken seriously, even if it took Marvel to finally cement that. It launched Batman the Animated Series, perhaps the greatest comic book adaption of all time, a show better than its source material. And according to Scott Mendelson, it led to an increased importance of opening weekend box office receipts, less time between movies playing in theaters and being released for home viewing which killed second-run theaters, big time merchandising tie-ins and PG-13 being the best possible rating for box office.

As for Melniker and Uslan, all their hard work really added up to nothing. Their 1992 case against Warner Brothers claimed they were “the victims of a sinister campaign of fraud and coercion that has cheated them out of continuing involvement in the production of Batman and its sequels. We were denied proper credits, and deprived of any financial rewards for our indispensable creative contribution to the success of Batman.” The films made $2 billion but the settlement offered by Warner Brothers to the production team was minuscule.

Batman is a film that holds up for me. It was released at a magical time, my final summer at home before college, seeing my love of comic books shared on a big screen surrounded by my brother and best friend. I can still imagine it as if it were yesterday, my brother endless repeating the Joker lines we’d seen in endless trailers and commercials until the lights went down. “Wait until they get a load of me.”

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