The summer of 1989 was truly the summer of the bat. The gold-plated Batman logo was everywhere that summer, placed on to everything that could be used to merchandise what would be a major blockbuster: toys, trading cards, sticker albums, alarm clocks, even breakfast cereal. If there was a way to put that famous logo on to something, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber would put it there.
A potential Batman film had been put in motion by executive producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan – who have been credited as such on every movie to feature the character ever since – with development beginning in the early 80s, not long after the massive success of Superman: The Movie and its sequel. In fact, Tom Mankiewicz, creative consultant on those movies, had put together an early draft that followed a similar narrative trajectory to that of the first Superman film.
Many big names were linked to the title role before the eventual casting of Michael Keaton; a decision that was not without controversy, with Warner Bros. being inundated with letters demanding his removal, while the choice of Tim Burton – who was coming of directing Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice – also seemed left field.
The one piece of casting that was approved by everyone was that of Jack Nicholson as The Joker. Like Marlon Brando in Superman, it would not be the actor playing the title character that would get top billing, although Nicholson would appear in Batman considerably more than Brando did in Superman: The Movie, pocketing a similarly high paycheck for his performance.
The film opens with a family consisting of a father, mother and young boy, who are mugged in an alley in a scene that cannot help but play out as if we’re going to see the origin story of a young Bruce Wayne. Instead, screenwriter Sam Hamm and director Burton thought it would be better to open with Batman already established – a figure whose appearance prompts reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) to investigate, while the Gotham Police Department try to deny his existence – with the origin tale of the character being revealed later in the film, with a controversial deviation from the comics.
Instead, the film almost opts to be an origin tale for The Joker. Taking some inspiration from Alan Moore and Dave Bolland’s controversial The Killing Joke, the film establishes Jack Napier as a gangster hood who, during a raid gone wrong at Axis Chemicals and having been set up by his boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), falls into a vat of chemicals that dies his hair green and skin pale white.
It feels very Tim Burton: an idea that takes inspiration from certain aspects of The Red Hood storyline from the comics. The rivalry and antagonism that plays out between Napier and Bruce Wayne does so in an incredibly dark, and gothic art-deco Gotham City, designed by the great Anton Furst and built on the backlot of Pinewood Studios. It’s backed by a superb score from Danny Elfman, his main theme being one of the most definitive and iconic for a comic book hero, and delivered by an orchestra conducted by Shirley Walker, who would go on to re-use Elfman’s theme and deliver some of her own iconic work in Batman: The Animated Series.
The film feels like a product of its late 80’s release (the use of the Prince songs) and yet ahead of its time in a way that one can see the influence on the likes of Raimi’s work on Spider-Man and even on the MCU’s Iron Man. There is a surreal nightmarish streak to the film that feels so different from anything that had ever been done with a comic book character before or since, with some scenes featuring a genuine horror touch that remind one more of a Hammer Dracula (which is paid further tribute to with the casting of Michael Gough as Alfred) or even The Phantom of the Opera than Superman: The Movie.
Best of all there’s Michael Keaton. Yes, Jack Nicholson got the massive payday and literally runs away with the film, but it’s Keaton who becomes the brooding heart and soul of the film. A more Jay Gatsby-style Bruce Wayne where it seems as if nobody knows who he is and yet still attends his mansion parties, Keaton brings a quirky, sometimes psychotic charm that other Bruce Waynes have ignored.
From the haunted look on his face as he recalls his parent’s murder (no other Batman adaptation has played the murder of Thomas and Martha as nightmarishly here, and the deviation, as controversial as it is, works superbly for this film) to the wonderful moment where he tries to tell Vicki Vale he’s Batman and goes on a quiet rant about normalcy that doesn’t quite work for Vicki, through to his psychotic “do you wanna get nuts” moment – all of it is superb.
It adds to the film’s wonderful atmosphere and while Nolan’s trilogy was much more muscular in action and scale, and played a major part in cementing the current trend for comic book cinema, the nightmarish world of Burton and Anton Furst’s Gotham, physically altered Joker, Elfman’s brilliantly angrily gothic themes, and Keaton’s offbeat Bruce Wayne means that that 1989’s Batman, after thirty years, still feels unique, different, and darkly original.