2019 Film Essays

‘Batman’ at 30: An Iconic Adventure Film That Reinvigorated the Superhero Genre

The internet recently had a collective shitstorm at the announcement of Robert Pattinson as the next Batman. “How could, like, that guy from TWIIIIILIGHT play the most tortured, complicated comicbook hero of all time?” (Nevermind he’s an actor and not the producer and sole mastermind behind the Twilight series). But it’s not the first time (and it certainly won’t be the last, ugh) that fans have flipped out over the casting of the exalted Dark Knight. Back in 1989, people were furious that Michael Keaton, Mr. Mom and Johnny Dangerously himself, was about to don the cape and cowl. Warner Bros. received 50,000 protest letters — today, it’d be trending on Twitter with the hashtag #NoToKeaton. Fans were worried that the movies would follow in the footsteps of the campy 60s TV show, and that Batman would again be seen as nothing more than a joke. The Adam West series, however fun it was (I loved it growing up), had essentially sapped the hero of any mystique he might have had. Perhaps people were right to be suspicious. But Keaton didn’t do the Batusi; Batman took the character and franchise into darker territory, and it went on to be the top-grossing movie of the year, beating out heavyweights like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters 2.

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has become the Batman interpretation, heralded for its gritty realism. But in my book, Batman is the better comicbook movie. It perfectly skirts the line between the goofy camp of the 60s series and the dark depths of the 80s comicbooks that inspired it. If you can get past the Prince songs, it’s a hell of a good time.

The Dawn of a New Superhero Movie

Superhero movies are the biggest thing nowadays (hello, Avengers: Endgame), but back in the late 80s, they were passé. Sure, Superman had done gangbusters in the late 70s and early 80s, but that series fizzled out thanks to some crummy sequels, and there really weren’t any big-name superhero movies being produced anymore. The main reference points for Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk at the time were cheesy TV series, and then there was Howard the Duck. So it was a pretty big gamble to put out a superhero movie at the time, starring the dude from Beetlejuice and directed by Tim Burton, director of… Beetlejuice.

But this was no ordinary superhero movie. The recent popularity of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke had inspired DC to pursue a darker take on the character, and it informed almost every aspect of the film. Gotham City is a gothic city, all dark and twisted. Danny Elfman’s score is memorable but nothing like John Williams’ Superman theme — it’s suspenseful, mysterious. Then you’ve got Jack Nicholson, that creepiest of creeps, classing up and crazying up the whole production. There had never been a superhero movie like it. Batman offered what was (at the time) a dark interpretation of the character, one informed by the comics and that paid respect to its roots, and boy, did it pay off. You couldn’t walk into a department store or a toy store that summer and not see that iconic black and gold poster. My local multiplex still has the cardboard standup in the lobby.

It would be another decade before superhero movies had their second coming (see Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and the Fox X-Men trilogy), but Batman raised the bar on superhero movies and let studio executives know that, damn, these “capeshit” movies can make a pretty penny.

A Comicbook Come to Life

Batman isn’t a gritty take on Ronald Reagan’s America, and it’s not “realistic” by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s got personality. It’s dark but comic, adventurous but horrific.

Take this scene with the Joker: after Jack Napier falls into a vat of toxic green goo (okay, that’s kind of 60s Batman-level logic), he goes to a black-market surgeon to get his face fixed. It’s straight out of a horror movie, with low lighting and a dingy, dank setting, and Nicholson’s laugh is chilling. Burton would double down on the horror/darkness in Batman Returns, but the balance is right here. This is the same Joker who later electrocutes a crime boss using a prank joy buzzer. The film never gets too dark, but neither does it get too close to Adam West-camp. There’s an edge that most people familiar with Batman had never seen before.

Keaton is slightly overshadowed by Nicholson, but he’s great here as well. His Bruce Wayne has a touch of the goofy quality that he’d become known for, but his Batman is on point. He’s brooding but not without a sense of humor. He’s menacing but doesn’t need to hide behind a faux gravelly voice a la Christian Bale. The one thing that’s slightly off about his Batman is how cavalier he is about killing. That’s not Batman’s M.O., but Burton wasn’t really a fan to begin with and it’s not over the top — Keaton isn’t gunning down thugs, going “say hello to my little Batarang!”

Compared to Nolan’s films, Batman really does come off as campy. I mean, Joker’s whole plot is to poison people with beauty products. But it’s not a totally lightweight affair. There are great action scenes — from the showdown at Axis Chemicals to the cathedral rooftop climax — and not a “Bif!” or “Pow!” to be seen. Compared to modern-day MCU movies, the action is quaint, but it’s almost more comicbook-y, pulpy, in that way. And Nicholson really does bring a menacing quality to every scene he’s in; Heath Ledger went full psychopath, but Nicholson’s Joker is almost more sinister in how gleeful he can be.

Batman is a fun mishmash of adventure, humor and horror that doesn’t take itself too seriously but isn’t without some subtlety. When I think of a comicbook movie, I don’t think of gritty realism. What’s fun about that? The 1989 film isn’t without its faults — I love Prince but the songs are a bit cheesy, and Kim Basinger really has a nothing role as Vicki Vale — but it’s got great music, a great hero and villain, inspired set pieces, laughs, action. It’s everything you’d want from a blockbuster, well, at least in 1989.

With all the different kind of superhero movies coming out these days, I think there’s space for a Batman in this mold, albeit with updated effects. DC has learned that going too deep into the Nolan direction results in a fun-free, dour movie (e.g. Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice). Perhaps this new Pattinson film will have some humor, some sense of adventure, reminiscent of the ‘89 blockbuster. Whether that happens or not, Batman is always there if you’re looking for a fun, iconic take on the franchise.

John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.

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