Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Long Shadow of 1989's Batman

I've had Batman on the brain a lot recently. My daughters enjoyed seeing reruns of the old sixties series with Adam West, so we bought the new DVD versions, which look fantastic. Now when we get in the car my daughters ask me to "be Robin, and mommy be Batman." I then must tell them things like "holy moly Batgirls, we've got to get to school!" I am a little bummed that they never let me let loose my Adam West impersonation.

My wife also recently picked me up a copy of Glen Weldon's The Caped Crusade, which tells the story of Batman through the years while adding some compelling interpretations. In the midst of my Batmania I decided to rewatch the 1989 version of Batman directed by Tim Burton starring Michael Keaton. I was motivated both by the book, and the apparent disappointment in the new Batman v Superman flick. Burton's version of Batman had really grabbed my 13 year old self when it came out, and it sparked a huge interest on my part in Batman comics and in books about the history of the Batman.

Rewatching the 1989 film and reading about it has made me realize that it is one of the most influential films of the last thirty years. In the first place, it was a superhero movie that made a huge amount of money, convincing Hollywood that the supes were valuable properties. While some legendarily shoddy product that came in the wake of Batman (the 90s Captain America, the never-released Fantastic Four), it nevertheless set the template for the new century of blockbusters. It was a film that also revolutionized home video, in that it was one of the rare movies at the time to have a low price, intended to be sold for home consumption, rather than to be bought by video stores. To get Jack Nicholson to star, the studio offered him an unprecedented amount of money, as would soon become the practice in Hollywood blockbusters. The marketing campaign for the film was also stunningly modern, using minimalist posters with just the bat symbol and date of release (June 23, 1989, I can still remember it). That campaign came with an overwhelming number of toys, tie ins, and publicity, enough to make George Lucas blush.

Crucially, it was also the first Hollywood film to explicitly address the desires of the nerd/fan community. I've been looking at old reviews and articles about the original Star Wars films recently, and have been taken aback at just how openly contemptuous many critics and commentators and even participants like Hamill are of the notion that these films are anything more than "kids stuff." (And this from some who actually like Star Wars.) By '89 the maligned nerds had proven their monetary value, and the producers of Batman were worried. Tim Burton himself had admitted little interest in or knowledge of Batman. Picking Michael Keaton, a smallish guy known for comedies, to be Batman caused a massive outcry among Batman fans frightened of a return to the campy Adam West Batman. Warner Brothers responded by cutting a trailer pitched straight at the fans and by hiring co-creator of the character Bob Kane to shill for the film. The trailer, Kane, and absence of Robin all pointed to a "dark gritty" Batman a million miles from the lovable clown who danced the Batusi.

The film itself did have plenty of literal darkness (it's almost all at night), as long as a fair amount of the metaphorical variety. However, it also broke from the conventions of the comics in a big way. It gave the Joker an origin story, and also made him the killer of Bruce Wayne's parents. It also had Batman reveal his secret identity to Vicki Vale. Wayne and the Joker confront each other in a scene that I like, but that Weldon and others think grinds the movie to a halt.  While there's plenty of violence and angst, Nicholson played the Joker in the over the top manner he had become accustomed to by the late 80s, tripping over into Batman '66 territory in the scene where he playfully defaces paintings in the art museum while a Prince song blasts from a massive boombox.

Weldon observes that the 1989 film was an action film that had Batman in it, rather than a Batman film. I won't go quite that far, but it's obvious that it was the first of many successful Hollywood attempts to bring in the legions of comic book fans while offering enough familiar tropes to attract casual move goers. That formula does not appear to be going away any time soon, and for that we can credit or blame the 1989 Batman.

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