Digital Polyphony

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Liquid Nostalgia #12

Batman (1989): A Look Back  

 

Dark. Gothic. Serious. As epic as its Danny Elfman score. Tim Burton's presentation of an icon of its time; a film that arguably legitimized the idea of a Superhero film, or at least give us a drastic new take on it. Before, it was often light, campy fun romps that were, at the very least, entertaining. To many, Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie set the gold standard of what a comic book film should be a bout. It had emotion, it had drama, it had special effects and was just a fantastic, fun movie. 

Burton's take, though, showed a darker side of it all with an image of Batman that really wasn't apparent to the public at the time outside of comics.I was already a moderate Batman fan, even at that age. I watched the 1960s Batman reruns on television constantly and even had a few comics, although I wouldn't really get into them for a good three or four years. Tim Burton's Batman was an event. 

You see, I was born at the tail end of the Star Wars craziness, although I would feel those ripples in the coming years as the home video market grew and introduced me to Skywalker and company.  I was also born well after the first "legitimate" Superhero movie with Richard Donner's take, although I was aware of the awful sequels. I came at a time when Ghostbusters was huge, Ninja Turtles were just taking  off and Indiana Jones was a household name. All those were huge, but I have to say that everything about Batman was just a massive event. Batmania was insane an, I have to say, this was probably my very first exposure to this thing called "hype." 

Now I knew of popular things, that's for sure. The NES and Transformers were popular but those were gradual. Nobody waited in line for those things, dressed up to wait in those lines and were (and this is the big thing) liked by kids and adults alike. Batman was the first time that I experience a "nation-wide phenomenon" covered by all the media outlets and got everyone quoting the one-liners that would become a part of pop-culture history.

Alas, I actually didn't see Batman that summer thanks to this little somewhat new rating called "PG-13" which sat right outside my reach of social acceptance and right into my parents' un-assured eyes. Sure, I can watch heads explode and faces melt in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Batman was deemed too "dark and violent" for me to handle. Yet, that's why everybody loved it. It was a superhero movie that really hadn't been done like that, and done well, before.

Rather, I had to wait a bit for this wonderful new technology called "VHS" to become the standard and about six months later, I finally was able to watch Batman. I watched it again, and again, and again at a friend's house. I guess the PG-13 Rating isn't applicable to my parents condemnation when it came to the home video market.


 

 A Brief History of Batman '89

 

 

-On the backlog at Warner Brothers for years, the studio looked to successful director Tim Burton, who had given them two hits, as a potential director to kick start the new Batman franchise. A script by Tom Mankiewicz (Superman) had been written years before yet sat in wait and was eventually thrown out entirely by Burton for not taking Batman seriously.

-After various treatments and ideas in the pot, Burton then approached Sam Hamm to write the screenplay. Hamm's script set the foundation, however Warner Brothers was not entirely happy with the product and felt it too dark. Nonetheless, they moved forward with a greenlight.

-When the public discovered Burton was to direct, the controversy already started. He (and Keaton) were known for comedies, not people to consider as Batman enthusiasts. In response, Batman creator Bob Kane was hired on as creative consultant. 

-In what was, and still is, commonplace in terms of comic book movie casting, many protests came from the casting decisions made. Burton's decision to cast Michael Keaton, who he previously worked with on Beetlejuice, came as a response from Keaton's performance in that film and producers feeling he could pull it off, although many were expecting the likes of Mel Gibson or Tom Selleck. There was also an outcry from those wanting Adam West to return. Keaton took the job seriously, studying the writings of Frank Miller for inspiration (suggested by Tim Burton, who was also a fan of The Dark Night Returns and the Killing Joke)

-The Joker casting was met with equal controversy, with Jack Nicholson having already made a deal to portray the Joker even when "official" casting had yet to take place. It's noted that Robin Williams had his heart set on the role. Nicholson had a large list of demands, notably getting top billing, a massive salary for the time and a specific shooting schedule. Strangely, Nicholson would be nominated for a Golden Globe...for Best Actor...in a musical or comedy.

-The film was shot at Pinewood Studios in england, taking up nearly all of its 99 acre backlot and utilizing 16 Sound Stages. Shooting had numerous difficulties, including reels of film stolen, media outlets scurrying for any information and photos they could get and the budget escalating. 

-The design of Gotham was handled by Anton Furst who wanted to create a bleak, gothic city that was "an exercise in ugliness." Furst blended various era architectural styles, notably from the 1940s and 50s, with a large coat of blacks and grays. Batman creator Bob Kane went on record, noting it is exactly as he always envisioned. Kane also applauded the design of the Batmobile and the design of Batman's suit. Furst would win the Academy Award for his efforts.

-Longtime Burton collaborator, Danny Elfman, was signed on to the do the score for the film. Again, like with Keaton, Burton gave Elfman a copy of The Dark Knight Returns for inspiration. The result was one of the most iconic film scores in history.

-Prince was commissioned to add his own music to the film as well, although producers Jon Peters and Peter Gruber wanted him to do the score entirely.  Burton adamantly disliked this idea, however Prince song were still used in the final film. Results were, shall we say, mixed.

-The marketing machine began early for Batman, even when it was still in post production, with teaser trailers, posters and comic book tie-ins from writer Sam Hamm appeared. As the release approached, a nationwide phenomenon now called "Batmania" began. Massive merchandising with costumes, toys, memorabilia and even an early publication of the film as a novel appeared (which became a bestseller, still weeks before the film's release and much to Burton's dismay). Batman would be a pop-culture phenomenon for the next few years (thanks to a budding home video market).

-Opening June 23, 1989, Batman grossed 43.6 million its first weekend. It would gross a worldwide 411.35 million and become the most successful DC comic film until 2008 with another Batman installment, The Dark Knight. It was the first film to ever pass 100 million in only 10 days and it sits as the 42nd largest grossing movie of all time. Despite it's legacy and cultural impact, however, reviews were (and still are) mixed.


 Top 10 "I'm Batman" Moments

There are many "hero" moments in these types of films, they are superheros afterall. Batman, though, is unique in that he has an entire "mystique" to him. To reinforce this mystique, he has many "Bat moments" that remind everyone, even himself sometime, that he is, in fact, the goddamn Batman. Below are ten "I'm Batman" moments.


 10:"I'm Batman"

 

 

 

What's great about this scene isn't the infamous one-liner, but the buildup. We get a sense of the "Batman mystique" in just a brief conversation between two hoodlums. Then we gradually see Batman enter, and the shocking fear that their nightmares are true running across the criminals' faces. What makes Batman such a unique hero is his ominous presence even when he's not on screen. Whispers in alleys, criminals looking over their shoulders (or to the rooftops) and finally feeling legitimate fear when he actually shows up. If anything, this introduction scene embodies everything that Batman is about and is one of the great opening scenes in movie history.


9: Blind Corner Punch

 

 

Batman knows how to anticipate, and if there's any scene that personifies the whole "one step ahead" mentality of him, it's this brief "oh, I didn't see you there" punch. Batman will systematically remind everyone that he is Batman by disposing of them, Rambo-style, one by one, only without the giant hunting knife and exploding arrowheads.


8: I Know Kung Fu

 

 

Batman also knows how to fight, and fight well. In this scene, really the only scene where we clearly see his ability, he not only fights, but he fights and we see sparks ignite in a flurry of hand and foot combat. Also note that Batman is fighting swords with his bare hands and awesome sparks shoot out. 


7: Shields/Stop

 

 

 

Sometimes Batman likes to show off but pretend he's not showing off. What better way than to call your car with its fancy Knight-Rider-esque technology emerge from its cocoon and drive straight at you. Why stand to the side where, logically, you would enter when you can stand dead center in front of your car as it stops two inches from your legs. It goes to show that women are impressed by suicidal tendencies, although he was probably planning to show off the moment he met her.


6: I'm Going to Steal Your Toys

 

 

Simply put, Batman wants to be the only kid at the playground, the playground here being Gotham City and Batman the big kid in the neighborhood. If you try and take away his popularity, he'll take away your favorite things (hopefully not your life). You can not have fun, as The Joker learns when Batman reveals his better toy-The Batwing. He also, in a bit of "look at me I'm Batman" takes a brief moment to rocket above the clouds and stop to silhouette his new toy against the damn moon before going into a free fall. Sure, it's completely impractical and nobody below those thick clouds will see it and probably aren't in the right perspective to see them in the first place...but it's totally Bat-Awesome. He's more saying "I'm Batman" to himself than anyone else here.


5: Patience Meet Virtue

 

 

Batman is a hero who, despite not having a single power, barely has to move to completely destroy you. This moment has Batman just standing there, waiting, and then BAM. Similar to number 9, Batman just knows when and how to attack...especially the "when" part. He think ahead, knows your moves before you even do them. All the forward flips and cartwheels in the world will not phase him to move out of the way. Batman is the brick wall and you just ran smack-into it (or fell through a floor).


4: Wonderful Toys

 

 

Tying in with Number 6, Batman has to have the best toys on the block. If little Jack gets a new bike, Batman gets a newer one (after he steals Jack's). Nothing says "I'm Batman" more than showing off new things, luckily this isn't a Bat credit card. It's also just an iconic scene in the classic sense of the knight in shining armor rescuing the damsel in distress. It harkens back to the old serials and TV show which is a so cheesy yet strangely fitting in an otherwise grim world.


3: It's the car...chicks dig the car.

 

 

I don't know about you, but the best movie Batmobile is hands-down the original from 1989 (the best overall is from the TV show, you can't top that one). In this scene, we see a few things. The Batmobile is the centerpiece, but there's also this strange aura around it as it travels through the dark woods. Where's it going? What are his plans? Why is he heading straight for that cliff? Then, suddenly, we're in a tunnel, and we realize we're going to the Batcave. We're right in the seat with Vicky Vale, experiencing what she's going through at the same time, and are just as awed by it all.


 2: I'm Always Batman....

 

 

Despite having to have a "public" persona, the fact is Bruce Wayne is Batman 100% of the time even when he's not. You don't suddenly turn off those abilities and the way you view things. In these two scenes, we see how he thinks as Batman but in Bruce Wayne's body. He's still planning, anticipating, even changing to appear utterly psychotic only to throw off the villains and live to fight another day. We also see that even when he's not wearing body armor, he's so used to not reacting to gunfire that it still doesn't phase him in public. I love this little cues to the man behind the mask and Keaton nails it as we see Bruce Wayne screaming "I'm Batman" without even uttering a word.


1: Excuse Me...

 

 

It's at this moment that Batman stopped being Batman. You can see Bruce Wayne behind that cowl for the first time, not the dark myth hiding in the shadows. It's also at this moment where we finally understand him, his flaws, and his views and realize that Batman is still a man, flawed and full of issues, and we actually feel an odd connection to him as a result. It's that same moment that we had at the end of Superman: The Movie where Superman, despite all his ability, realizes he isn't perfect. Those small, human emotions and connections are what set the good heroes from the great and memorable ones, and this one "I'm Batman...but also a man" moment is the single best in the entire film.


Supplemental - Top 10 Joker Lines

 Batman... Batman... Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in, where a man dressed up as a *bat* gets all of my press? I'm not going to put down a bunch of Batman moments without a little nod to his greatest villain. Let's look at the the top 10 Joker lines, the best one-liners in the entire film and quotable to this day.

 

10:  Haven't you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

9: Hello, Vinny. It's your Uncle Bingo. Time to pay the check!

8: Jack? Jack is dead, my friend. You can call me... Joker. And as you can see, I'm a lot happier.

7:  I have given a name to my pain, and it is Batman.

6: Where does he get those wonderful toys?

5: Never rub another man's rhubarb.

4: Gotham City. Always brings a smile to my face.

3: My face on the one dollar bill.

 2: Remember... you... are my number one... guy!

1: Wait'll they get a load of me.

 


Batman 1989 had its share of controversy, even to this day. The violence, the recklessness of Batman even. But I still think the artistry, the mood and tone and the performances are quintessentially everything about Batman and whatever faults Burton and company might have put into the film, it's far too iconic of a movie to have them detract from it.

As a result of Batman, I became a Batman fan. It wasn't the comic, or even the fantastic animated series that came after. it was this one film that introduced me, refined me, taught me and made me, much the same as the whole theme of "who made who" that is prevalent in the film. It was only a matter of time before I was enjoying action figures, the comics and my ten-year old imagination.

While I enjoy the newer take on Batman with Chris Nolan and Christian Bale, and they are wonderfully entertaining, I still have a strong fondness to Burton's take (which also influenced the TV series that I was also a fan of). I think the visual aspect of Batman is incredibly important and the dark gothic overtones, solid casting and style are what really set the 1989 take apart from the rest - even if the story isn't the best. As much as I'd like to call it "influential" it really wasn't outside of its rather adult approach and dark style. During the 1980s and even the 1990s, superhero movies were pretty lackluster including the later Batman films. I suppose that's why the originality of the approach really makes Burton's Batman stick out and the Batmania still very much alive and well today thanks to it. 


 

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