If you had told me back in the '80s that one day there would be a summer movie season with big budget films based on Thor, The X-Men, Green Lantern, and Captain America, I would've found that almost impossible to believe (hell, I would've had a hard time imagining just one of those movies coming out). It's crazy how common big budget comic book adaptations have become - and with so many of them of a high quality. Before you remind of all the lousy ones, keep in mind that I grew up in the '70s - a decade in which my favorite comic book characters were brought to life in generally atrocious adaptations, like the hideous The Challenge of the Superheroes TV special or the two Captain America TV movies so even the lesser comic book films of today, like Daredevil (2003) or Fantastic Four (2005) seem at least passable to me. Movies like Catwoman (2004), however, are still godawful by any standards.
Today, "comic book movies" have become a subgenre unto itself. They're so much a part of the movie going experience now that it's odd to remember a time when they were considered a rare event. But that was the case back in 1989 when Tim Burton's Batman was due to debut.
As thrilling as it's been to see characters like Spider-Man and Iron Man come to the screen over the past decade and as mind-blowing as it is to know that Earth's Mightiest Heroes will gather next year in The Avengers or that Christopher Nolan will finish out his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, I don't think any comic book adaptation will ever be as hotly anticipated as Batman was in 1989.
Prior to Batman, the superhero movie genre consisted of the Superman franchise, which had begun brilliantly in 1978 with Richard Donner's original, continued in high style with 1980's Superman II, but then sputtered into embarrassment with 1983's Superman III (which, honestly, has a few redeeming qualities) and suffered its final nail in the coffin with 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (which has no value whatsoever).
And that was it. Marvel tried to get its characters onscreen during the '80s but, shamefully, Howard the Duck (1986) was the best they could do. So, for comic fans, the idea that Hollywood would attempt a serious comic book adaptation was a big deal. In the '80s, comics had enjoyed a creative renaissance with works like Watchmen, Daredevil, and The Dark Knight Rises - something that finally made the long-gestating Batman movie an appealing prospect to Warner Bros.
Once the ball got rolling on Batman, fans still had worries. The casting of Michael Keaton was so heatedly debated that the actor and Warner Bros. received death threats. But the casting of Jack Nicholson as The Joker pleased pretty much everybody and once pictures from the film started to be released showing how Keaton looked in the Batman suit (I remember someone on my dorm room floor bringing in a copy of Time Magazine with the first Batman pics and being so stunned by them), the anxiousness in the fan community started to turn into rabid anticipation.
Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy and Nolan's Batman have been generally well-received and caused more than their share of excitement but none of those films created the kind of mania that greeted Batman.
Everywhere you went in the summer of '89, you saw kids (and a lot of adults) in Batman T-shirts, Batman hats, and Batman haircuts, even. A lot of that had to do with Warner Bros.'s marketing muscle but a lot of it was also just a long unfed hunger for this type of film manifesting itself. This was truly an instance of the right film at the right time.
The movie itself...well, it was pretty flawed. For a long time I nursed a fanboy grudge against it for the many ways in which it disappointed - like "why did Alfred let Vicki Vale into the Bat-cave?", "why did they have to have The Joker be the criminal to kill the Waynes?" or "how the hell can one bullet bring down the Bat-wing?". I still believe that these are all legit gripes, not just nerd bitching, and I also maintain that Nicholson was not the most effective Joker. At times his performance is inspired, other times it veers too far into buffoonery. And man, are those Prince tunes a jarring, ill-advised addition to the soundtrack or what?
But its irritating elements aside (a thumbs down for the Vicki Vale/Joker/Bruce Wayne love triangle too) there's so much else to love in the movie that I can never completely dismiss it. For one, the fucking Batmobile is a work of art. That's the definitive Batmobile to me (and I love that they incorporated the rear jet engine from the Adam West Batmobile). Just the whole look of the movie is astonishing. The design work of Anton Furst remains brilliant. His vision of Gotham, with its gothic architecture, is one of the few urban dystopias that isn't trying to ape Blade Runner (1981).
Today's comic book movies are largely set in the real world - both for aesthetic reasons (Marvel's heroes have always inhabited real locations, like New York, rather than fantasy cities like Metropolis) as well as budgetary (the cost of creating an entire world out of sets and filming on soundstages would be a hard sell to studios today) and while that's worked out ok, when you look at Burton's Batman it's hard not to feel that something has been lost. This wasn't just filmed on the streets of Chicago or New York and it wasn't a world that was created in a computer. It was handmade. We're not likely to see its kind again.
For a long time I thought that Batman suffered from the idiosyncratic Tim Burton being forced to shoehorn his style into a more conventional framework but now I think it was actually to the film's - and Burton's - benefit. It's still an eccentric film (just for the casting of Keaton alone - a move that proved to be inspired) but yet there's still the kind of fisticuffs and action beats that comic fans would demand from a Batman film (as constrictive as the Bat-suit often appears in this film, I admire how well the stuntmen were able to convincingly sell the fight scenes - especially the ones with the Joker's henchmen in the church tower). There's a creative friction between Burton's sensibilities and the writer and producer's sensibilities that ultimately serves the final product well - as opposed to Batman Returns (1992), which favored Burton's quirky whims above all else.
Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) are superior in many ways to Burton's original Batman but they weren't the galvanizing event that Burton's film was and the same will be true for next year's The Dark Knight Rises. That film might be (oh, let's just say it will be) better than Batman but it won't be the same kind of epic deal. The world has just changed too much. It's not just that fans and the public are accustomed to comic book films in a way they weren't in '89 and it's not just that audiences practically take these movies for granted now (although both those statements are certainly true). It's also due to the fact that in '89, going to the movies was so much more important. People still love movies, they still flock to them in sizable numbers, but nothing like back in the day.
Back then, yeah, you had the promise of eventually being able to see a movie on cable and home video but the theatrical window was so much longer then. It was ages before a movie would make it to home viewing. And thanks to our age of rampant piracy, anyone who really wants to can get a copy of any new release before its opening weekend is over. Hell, some stores are so brazen as to sell bootlegs right out in public. Thor is opening tomorrow (well, midnight tonight) in the US but thanks in part to it being released two weeks ago in the rest of the world, it's already available on bootleg for anyone who cares to see it that way. If you were a comic fan in '89, you were hyped out of your mind to see Batman and your ass would be at the theater. Not just opening day but repeatedly. Today, a lot of fans will be happier to just download Thor or Green Lantern rather than see them in theaters even once and that strikes me as sad.
Shit, fans used to fall over themselves just to see a trailer on the big screen:
Now people are good with watching this stuff on their phones. It's just a different world (he said sadly).
As much as I enjoy Nolan's take on Batman, I can't help but feel they've shortchanged a generation of younger fans by being dark to the point that no responsible parent would take their kids to see them. It's incredible to remember that in '93, Batman Returns was vilified in some quarters for being too frightening for children but yet you never hear a peep over the violent content of Nolan's films - at least not in respect to it being inappropriate for kids. I guess that's because it's taken for granted that these movies aren't meant for kids in the first place but - pardon me - I find that to be a little nuts. Come on - it's Batman!
I would love to take my son to see a Batman movie but even when he's seven next year I'd be very leery about taking him to The Dark Knight Rises. Not only do I suspect it wouldn't be appropriate - I'm pretty sure it just wouldn't be fun for him at all.
The approach of Nolan's films is just too adult - it's not thrilling from a kid's perspective. For ones who are ten or eleven and up, ok. But that still shuts out a lot of kids who would love to see Batman in action. As an adult I appreciate where Nolan has taken the franchise but yet I like the balance between fun and darkness that Burton achieved and I wish that in the future someone could do the same again. Perhaps whoever makes the next cinematic reboot of Gotham's Guardian can move forward by reaching back into the past.