2020/10/12

Batman 1989

Batman Joker Vicki Vale Popcorn
The ultimate popcorn movie

Back in the 80s, an action movie by a young director with only two films under his belt was shot at a venerable British studio with a motley cast of Oscar winners and veterans of 60s schlock from Hammer/American International. Dismissed as B movie camp by the press, and even members of the production, it nonetheless became a cultural phenomenon that launched a top-earning franchise and set new rules that govern Hollywood to this day.

At this point, you may be thinking of a certain space opera. But that was in the 70s, and in another genre, and besides, the Mouse is dead.

The fact of the matter is, superhero movies now dominate the SFF meta-genre, and that dominance began with Batman 1989.

In our age of media-induced amnesia, Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy has largely eclipsed Tim Burton's--and thankfully, Joel Schumacher's--Batman films. But that's a mostly artificial delineation. The Burtonverse and Nolanverse are really one franchise operating in the same continuum.

You doubt? Batman Begins started as a Batman: Year One production initially pitched by "Bat Nipples" Joe himself that was built around deleted storyboards from Burton's first Batman. Account for the fact that every Bat-film in the past thirty years has been based on some combination of three graphic novels: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Killing Joke--the latter of which Tim Burton, not Christopher Nolan, carried with him on set.

Here's how much of a debt the Nolan films owe to Batman 89: The key Batman Begins character of Henri Ducard was created by Batman screenwriter Sam Hamm for the first Burton movie, and Hamm wrote Ducard into the DC Comics continuity when he was cut from the film.

Henri Ducard
A Detective Comics panel pretty much lifted from the Batman 89 storyboards

Sorry, Zoomers, not even your beloved Joker escaped the pull of the Burtonverse. The 2019 movie's major subplot of Thomas Wayne running for office was another conceit of Batman 89 relegated to the cutting room floor.

Joker - Thomas Wayne

The generational dimension of the Bat-phenomenon as we know it often goes unexamined--or examined from the wrong angle. But since parting the Boomer-cast veil over generational awareness my forte, I'll pull back the curtain for you now.

First, Batman 89 is the ultimate High 80s movie. It defines the Corporate IP Explosion Phase and represents a genre coming into its own. And being a product of the late 80s, Batman sharpened the IP's edges and shoveled on the grit. Mind you, that was back when edge and grit were still novel. Reminder: Michael Keaton started the tradition of Batman speaking in a lower, gravellier register than Bruce Wayne.

It's not just the movie's edginess and grim grittiness that make Burton's first bat-flick the definitive Gen X Batman film. Consider the interactions between Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale. Their dialogue is fraught with the kind of pop psych jargon that Xers got to hear their divorcing parents parrot after each week's therapy session. In one key departure from Nolan's vision, Burton's version of Bruce Wayne is not an idealist, but a jaded cynic. Hence Bale is the Millennial Batman, and Keaton is the Batman for Generation X.

So much for the movie's background. The question on most readers' minds right now is, "How does it hold up?"

And the answer, against all odds, is quite well despite itself.

Informing author clients of the rules of storytelling is a big part of my editing job. Good art is, contra postmodern posers, objective. A work of art is made for a purpose, just like a toaster or a tool shed. The purpose of a genre movie is to make an emotional connection with an audience that evokes fun.

Hagia Sophia

This is the Hagia Sophia--a patriarchal cathedral designed not by a trained architect, but by a mathematician. It has survived the ravages of time, conquest, and earthquakes. It should not work, yet it manifestly does. This fact does not disprove the existence of standards or rules, merely that a standard can sometimes be attained by alternate rule sets.

Or, in extremely rare cases, by accident.

Astute readers will recall the earlier mention of Batman 89 rewriting the Hollywood rule book. For decades, those rules had revolved around the Hollywood Formula--a plot structure discovered by mistake during the production of Casablanca.

Tim Burton's Batman feeds that structure through a shredder and tapes it back together, in the wrong order and with some other scraps thrown in.

The Penguin
A visual hint? But that's another movie.

Nevertheless, Batman 1989 is still way more fun than it has any right to be. The movie is pulpy as hell compared to its successors. Nicholson's Joker--a rendition of the character yet to be equaled on film; sorry, Millennials--is gleefully evil for evil's sake with no attempt to excuse his atrocities. He is also, of interest to those versed in such matters--a stone cold alpha.


Keaton's Batman, for his part, ruthlessly combats evil in a manner that hearkens back to his main pulp inspiration--the Shadow. No effete halfway pacifism for this Batman. Burton portrays his Caped Crusader remorselessly executing criminal scum--even telling the Joker to his mangled face that he will kill him.

But it's not all 80s grit. Burton softens his Batman's hard edges via classic swashbuckling escapades with heroine Vicki Vale. No third wave feminist "I don't need no man!" tomboyishness for her. Vale is a true damsel in distress whose faith in her Dark Knight is repeatedly rewarded.

Surprisingly, Batman 89 owes less to the crime pulps for its plot structure than to another manly genre--spaghetti Westerns.

Bear with me, and I'll demonstrate.

First, Batman's overall structure strongly mirrors the plot of A Fistful of Dollars. Stop me if you've heard this one: A town wracked by infighting between rival gangs and corrupt/incompetent officials is rocked by the appearance of a lone wolf hero. In a direct nod to the Sergio Leone opus, Bruce Wayne dodges death by bullet by hiding a metal plate under his clothes.There are other similarities, but you get the point.

The movies debt to Westerns in general is even present in its iconic soundtrack. Danny Elfman has cited composer Bernard Herrmann as the main inspiration for his score. Herrmann composed the scores for such classic Westerns as Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Have Gun, Will Travel.

Another discarded storyboard sequence repurposed for a later installment (voiced here by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill) even has Batman pursuing the Joker on horseback.


That's not to say Batman's plot structure is perfect--or even particularly coherent. Rewrites by multiple screenwriters including Hamm, Tom Mankiewicz, Tim Burton's buddy Warren Skarren, and Burton himself, continued well into filming. The psych-out prologue with the family we at first assume to be the Waynes getting mugged, and the tacked-on flashback that needlessly ties the Joker into Batman's origin, are glaring offenders.

For all its plotting demerits, Batman remains a first-rate thrill ride. Which is odd, because the pacing slows almost to a halt at multiple points. Burton makes up for the slack by filling those scenes with character. As a result, Batman  generates the kind of gravity found in the better pre-formula films. It's an effect you get from Golden Age movies you're initially inclined to click past but end up getting sucked into. 

The dinner sequence where we eavesdrop on Bruce and Vicki's first date is a perfect example. Much of why that scene works can be credited to Michael Keaton's comedic chops. Regular readers will know that comedy is the hardest genre to get right because pulling off a good joke requires proficiency in highly technical skills, especially dialogue timing. The critics who decried Burton's casting of Keaton forgot that a skilled comedian can do drama in his sleep.

That casting choice has had major consequences for the movie industry as a whole, though. Burton's self-indulgent desire to take a guy with an average build and turn him into a hero through costuming helped bury the kind of 80s action movie that author JD Cowan delights in reviewing

It was the beginning of a new era. The visuals took over. The special effects became more important than the single person. I wish I had thought of Velcro muscles myself. I didn't have to go to the gym all those years, all those hours wedded to the iron game, as we call it.

-Sylvester Stallone

The smash success of Batman achieved a paradigm shift in action cinema which, for better or worse, kicked off the blockbuster cape flick craze that still reigns today. If you haven't watched it in a while, I recommend dusting off your special edition DVD--or VHS--and sitting back with a big bowl of popcorn to take the ride again.

Because Batman 89 may have started cape movies down the Pop Cult path, but it doesn't insult its audience.

Don't Give Money to People Who Hate You - Brian Niemeier

35 comments:

  1. That would make Kevin Conroy the Gen Y Batman. (If you're asking "Who?" then my point has been proven)

    By the way, another one for the pile: Batman & Robin, the movie that killed the genre until X-Men released (which deliberately did everything it did as a response to that movie) came out in . . . 1997.

    As far as action movies go, it was definitely Batman '89 that changed the game. There is a hard shift away from larger than life and buoyant protagonists in the early '90s. Even hits like Action Jackson or The Perfect Weapon were buried without sequels, damaging careers, because they weren't in the Batman mold.

    The robbing of bigger protagonists shifted blockbusters from heroes to "events". It was by 1996 where Independence Day took the box office by storm followed by countless clumsy and shoddily constructed "epics" to fill out the rest of the decade. Those have more or less been replaced with Transformers movies and cape flicks now.

    Funny to think that so much of this sprang out of one Tim Burton movie from 1989.

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    1. The franchise took a hard turn back into Boomer-friendly camp under Schumacher. Gen Y never got a Batman movie as a result. They did get the excellent animated series as a consolation prize.

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    2. I was working at a movie theater when Batman & Robin and X-Men came out. The markedly disparate responses to both movies is etched in my memory.

      It's telling that X-Men lasted for 2 films after Cultural Ground Zero before falling hard into the gray goo.

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    3. Tim Burton is a cautionary tale in what happens when a sensitive artist type hits the big time right out of school. He came along just when the yuppies were in the market for a new sideshow act.

      The success of his early oddball films set him up for tragedy. His cape tent pole flick becoming a blockbuster compounded the problem. Even that paled in comparison to the massive disservice done him when Edward Scissorhands became a hit.

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    4. He owes his best movies to his early screenwriters and cinematographers, in my opinion.
      Once Michael McDowell was dead he never had another Beetlejuice in him. And without the visuals of Henry Selick or Stephan Czapsky, he would have run out of gas about a decade earlier.

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    6. Like Lucas, Burton is at his worst when there's no one around to rein in his self-indulgent impulses. He's the type of artist who tries to make everything autobiographical. He pretty much made it overt with Edward Scissorhands. It's success reinforced his bad habits and set him up to be crushed when Big Fish, his most personal movie ever, flopped. Burton never recovered from that.

      It's got to be a sore spot that the movie everyone calls Burton's best is one he only produced.

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    7. Well, that explains why everything he's made since Big Fish is so concocted, overly formulaic, and empty.

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    8. Yeah, he gave up and said, "You want vapid Disneyesque dreck? I'll give you vapid Disneyeseque dreck."

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  2. @JD Cowan, so we have then
    Boomer Batman: Adam West
    Gen Jones Batman: Olan Soule (Superfriends)
    Gen X Batman: Michael Keaton
    Gen Y Batman: Kevin Conroy
    Millennial Batman: Christian Bale

    Who will take the role of Zoomer Batman?

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    1. Sparkles the Limey Vampire, I think.

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    2. I'd hope for Diedrich Bader, but TB&TB ended too long ago by now.

      It would be perfect since that show was a throwback to the Golden Age of comics.

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    3. Ask the Zoomers, and they'll roundly tell you they've rejected Batman altogether. They have fully embraced the Joaquin Phoenix Joker.

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    4. Why have they embraced the newest Joker? I haven't seen it so how it speaks to them eludes me.

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    5. Because Batman is an agent of order, and they find nothing in the status quo worth preserving.

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    6. I suppose then it is no great loss to them that Zack Snyder killed Superman

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    7. These are kids who don't care that Hitler perpetrated the Final Solution, so you tell me.

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    8. No one has written a great superman story in years. Modern minds can't apply a character like that to the present day. No matter how well meaning!
      I just came off a run of DC animated movies and I'm cocked of this. The only memorable Superman stories I've read written in my lifetime involve the man dying tragically, because it's easier to mourn the passing of something like Superman than it is to imagine having him around.

      (Don't even get me started on Lois Lane.)

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    9. I know there was a lot of hype surrounding the Joker in 1989, but it's been so long since I've seen the 89 Batman that I can't say whether his 'breakout' status was built into the film or was manufactured by the press.

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    10. Nicholson earned his accolades. It's Ledger whose performance was buoyed by the hype machine. His Joker doesn't hold up as well now that the novelty's worn off.

      That said, Ledger did deserve the Oscar. It's just that Nicholson deserved one all the more. Anton Furst said back in 89 that Jack got robbed, and he was absolutely right.

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  3. What made Burton's Batman unique was what came before it. The 60's Batman with its Boomer irony and camp was about as far from what Burton did as you can get. Burton took the character seriously and as a result brought us the darker character we see today. You can't underestimate the reaction that kind of change gets.

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    1. Most of the early negative reaction to Burton's production came from the press jumping to the conclusion that he would rehash the goofy camp of West's Batman. Michael Keaton's casting in the lead added fuel to the fire.

      One public service rendered by Batman 89 was revealing a lot of entertainment industry reporters as hacks.

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    2. Batman has that effect on people, but the press has always hated anything that might give off a whiff of "Camp" because they are serious people watching serious things.

      When the first Daniel Craig movie came out, some wonk went on about the scene where a bartender asks him if he wants his martini shaken or stirred and he replies "What's the fucking difference?" Don't you understand how its a repudiation on terrible Bond movies and a sign the character has finally grown up and been made relevant?

      Fast forward to today and it's pretty clear that Brosnan's movies (esp the first 2) are going to age better than Craig's.

      They've been anti-pulp for a very long time.

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    3. Once again we see Hollywood remembering everything but learning nothing. They had a hit pulp-Western on their hands which happened to include cape elements. Their takeaway was, "More SFX-driven capeshit!"

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  4. The amount of hit and cult films that released in 1989 is insane. You'll never see anything like that again. As for Burton's Batman, it's one I return to often. Still stands up as does its sequel in my opinion. Also, I agree with you that Jack's Joker is easily the best live action Joker that we've had. He actually still creeps me out in certain scenes.

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    1. It was also the last year Cannon Films had hits with Cyborg and Kickboxer. The last few years were rough for them.

      '89 was a solid year for films.

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    2. There must have been some kind of once-in-a-millennium planetary alignment going on in 89. All those massive hits created a box office singularity.

      And Batman was the biggest of them all. It beat Last Crusade domestically and was not only the highest-grossing Batman movie, but the highest grossing movie starring a DC Comics character, until The Dark Knight.

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    3. Sequel definitely holds up. It dodges typical sequel pitfalls by being Catwoman 1 instead of Batman 2. The crew conjured an excellently eerie fairie tale atmosphere I found befitting the story and characters.

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    4. My Batman Returns review drops tomorrow. I can already tell it will get a lot of comments.

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    5. Do you plan on doing the Joel Schumacher ones?

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    6. Is this because they're awful or because you know Schumacher's deal from CDAN?

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    7. Neither. It's because I'm not interested in reviewing products of Cultural Ground Zero.

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    8. While a take down of the mess that is Batman & Robin would be highly entertaining, your point is well taken.

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    9. Today I took down the mess that is Batman Returns instead.

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