25 Years Later: How Burton's 'Batman' Redefined The Dark Knight
by Dan Marcus
June 23, 2014
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Tim Burton's Batman. Let's take a look back all the way to the summer of 1989 when the superhero genre saw a resurgence and the Dark Knight was reborn again for a new generation of moviegoers. Batman came out on June 23rd, 1989 - a month after I was born. As such, Burton's Batman was my cinematic introduction to the character. His take on Batman is special to me mostly because of his approach to the character. Michael Keaton doesn't look like a typical superhero, he looks like an average guy. The great appeal of Burton's take on the character is that anyone can be Batman.
He wasn't endowed with any superhuman abilities. He wasn't infallible. He could make mistakes. You could project yourself into that character and in my opinion that is a big reason why the movie still holds up today - and why Batman is such an iconic character that has been prevalent for 75 years already.
In the time before Tim Burton's classic, Batman as a character was not taken very seriously among general audiences. Batman reached a height of fame with a TV show in the 60's and a movie version starring Adam West and Burt Ward. The comics of the time featured a more light-hearted approach, and so that version of Batman was the model. After Batman: The Movie in 1966, the campy stories of the 60s were abandoned in favor of a darker approach in the 70s. It was around this time that producer Michael Uslan bought the Batman film rights, and alongside partner Benjamin Melniker, sought to bring a dark and serious Batman to the big screen. Uslan wanted to redefine Batman and wash away people's perceptions of him as a hokey kind of character. Several directors were approached to helm this new incarnation including Joe Dante and Ivan Reitman (who wanted to cast Bill Murray as Batman) but ultimately the job went to Tim Burton.
Tim Burton was very fond of The Dark Knight Returns, a popular Batman graphic novel written by Frank Miller (who would later write and co-direct the Sin City movie) that helped redefine Batman as a brooding vigilante and wanted to make a Batman movie in that vein. He eventually cast Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman because he didn't have the square jaw and muscles of the comic book Bruce Wayne, which caused huge controversy at the time. There was even an article in the Wall Street Journal that covered the uproar at Keaton's casting with people wanting him removed from the part. Jack Nicholson was cast as The Joker, which received much less criticism and was embraced by people given how perfect it seemed this was.
1989's Batman was a huge risk in Hollywood at the time for multiple reasons. For one, hiring Tim Burton was a considerable gamble given how generally unexperienced he was. He had only done two prior features at the time – Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice – however there was just no preparing Burton for a movie like Batman. Warner Bros was in the need of a hit movie and took a chance. Nowadays, this is fairly common-place and happens often in Hollywood. It set the precedence for independent and up-and-coming directors to be given the chance of a lifetime to make a superhero film or big-budget blockbuster.
Look at Bryan Singer with X-Men, Sam Raimi with Spider-Man and even Christopher Nolan when WB hired him decades later to reboot Batman. Lucasfilm is even doing a very similar thing right now by offering the new trilogy and spin-offs to up-and-coming directors like Josh Trank, Gareth Edwards and Rian Johnson. Back the late 80s, it was relatively rare for a novice director like Tim Burton to be handed the reins of a huge blockbuster movie. However, Burton proved that genuine talent can sometimes achieve great success.
Batman was a mammoth success at the time and a culture zeitgeist (at the end of its 1989 run, it earned $251 million in the US). Batman was everywhere that summer – the iconic black and gold Batman emblem appeared on t-shirts, wristbands and all kinds of paraphernalia and merchandise in every kid's home. It launched the career of Tim Burton and solidified the careers of so many people that were involved. It can also be said to have rejuvenated the comic book genre at the time. It helped show that superhero movies can be taken seriously and more particularly that Batman can be taken seriously as a character.
Richard Donner might have been the first to help add legitimacy to the superhero genre with Superman: The Movie, but Burton helped prove that superhero films can be wildly successful with general audiences. Decades later, and superhero movies are still hugely successful with general moviegoers, even Batman still is. One could also argue that while Christopher Nolan rebooted DC's Batman character for today's modern audience, he might not have been able to achieve that without the road map set forth decades earlier with Tim Burton's original and successful vision of the character.
Burton's Batman might not be considered the best Batman movie made, but it's an immeasurably fun piece of pop culture entertainment that is loved by many. As popular as Hans Zimmer's Batman theme is among fans, Danny Elfman produced a Batman motif that is incredibly memorable and is seen by some as the definitive Batman theme. Production designer Anton Furst created a Gotham City that felt like New York on steroids – a dark and gothic fantasia that felt truly unique at the time. Along with his Gotham City, Furst's Batmobile is also commonly considered a favorite among fans. Bob Ringwood, who created the seminal Batsuit that was featured in the movie, would establish an aesthetic element that would survive multiple Batman films including eventually Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. Suffice it to say, Burton's original Batman left an indelible impact not only on superhero movies but on the Batman franchise as a whole.
For those wishing for more of Burton's Batman, check out the film's original trailer embedded directly above (via YouTube). Since 2014 is the 75th anniversary of the DC Comics character Batman, make sure to check out The Batman Exhibit in Los Angeles that opens on June 26th on the Warner Bros lot. You can check out many of the film's costumes and props – including a chance to get up, close and personal with the film's Batmobile itself! Are you a fan of Tim Burton's Batman? How does it hold up nowadays?