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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Wayne’s 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.
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.
Originally published here.