How Burton's 'Batman' changed the future of superhero films, 27 years ago
There are more comic book franchises in the spin than one could care for, yet not many can come close to the legacy of Tim Burton’s Batman.
With the release of the recent Zack Snyder-directed Batman Vs. Superman (2016), the Christopher Nolan trilogy — Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) — has been adorned the status of the ‘original’ Batman film. And, with the news of Ben Affleck, who played the caped crusader in the Snyder directorial, all poised to reprise his role and direct a Batman reboot, the honorific for the Nolan edition only becomes stronger. But while Snyder’s interpretation had Nolan’s vision as a reference point, Nolan’s rendition, too, somewhere had a ready template to emulate in Tim Burton’s iconic 1989 version, Batman (1989) that not only changed the way superhero films were seen but also transformed Hollywood itself.
The world was a different place in 1989 and before Burton’s Batman, which featured Micheal Keaton as Batman and the legendary Jack Nicholson as the Joker, films based on comic books were not taken seriously. Although Batman wasn’t the first superhero film or the greatest one either, its cultural significance was immense and it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that had it not been for Burton, superhero films would have been a different ballgame.
The works of artists such as Alan Moore and Frank Miller through books like The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight had infused some degree of psychological complexity vis-à-vis the character of Batman and also the universe that he operated within. But this change was yet to be seen in films that featured characters like Batman or other such as Superman, etc. When Warner Bros. announced Batman in the late 1980s director Tim Burton wasn’t a big name. Although Burton’s reputation as someone who could make dark and edgy fare within a certain budget made him the ideal choice for the studio, there was immense pressure to change Michael Keaton as the lead. The studio received over 50,000 letters from fans but Burton believed that in Keaton he had found someone who could be dark and also humanise Batman at the same time. This was also the advice given by Moore, who urged Burton and writer Samm Hamm to “make it dark” but more importantly, “get Gotham right.”
Burton took more than Moore’s advice. He imbibed the author’s seminal classic The Killing Joke into the foundation of the film where Batman and his nemesis, the Joker, were treated like two sides of the same coin. Burton got Nicholson to play Joker and this contrast where one of the greatest leading men played the villain and an upcoming actor played the hero battling his inner darkness gave the comic book material a more serious makeover. Comic book film villains as well as those from other films in the 1980s were reduced to cardboard cutouts and Burton’s idea to place the villain in the center of the narrative seemed intriguing. In his piece on how Batman Changed the Movie Business Scott Mendelson evoked the memory of Goldfinger (1964) being the last high concept film to feature an interesting antagonist; Batman’s neurotic hero and limelight-devouring villain were new for comic books adaptations.
Besides everything else, the manner in which Burton made the comic book become real right from the actors, the production design and the execution took the genre to the next level. If Nolan’s Gotham looked organic in the 2000s it was all thanks to Burton’s genius, which Hal Hinson’s 1989 Washington Post review called a magnificent living comic book that in some ways was “a masterpiece of pulp, the work of a true artist.” Looking back at the hype surrounding Batman when it first came out seems trifling when compared to the blitzkrieg today but considering that back in 1989 there was no Internet, the ubiquity of the cultural phenomenon called Batmania was colossal. One couldn’t escape the Bat logo and everywhere you went there was something to remind you of Batman. The studio made over $500 million only through merchandising and some of the pop culture fascination was courtesy Prince’s soundtrack. Burton confessed that he listened to Prince while making the film and had included some of the artist’s songs in a rough cut before the singer officially came aboard. Prince’s music for the film is more like an observation as most of his work doesn’t even appear in the film and it’s most famous number ‘Batdance’ is a six-minute vamp composed of scenes from the movie, references to an old Batman theme, and even his own numbers from the album including bits of The Future and Electric Chair.
Batman not only changed the future of superhero films or films based on comic books but also revolutionised Hollywood. Batman might not have been the original summer blockbuster but it was the first one to make the most money in the opening weekend up until then. The film raked in over $40 million in the first three days and coupled with the pre-release fever pitch via merchandising and the short-term profitability, it made $100 million in 10 days. But the next $100 million took a month and because of this the trade started looking at the opening weekend as the end all when it came to big ticket films.
Today, the superhero genre is one of the most successful ones ever and there are more comic book franchises in the spin than one could care for; yet not many can come close to the legacy of Tim Burton’s Batman. Superhero films might be darker, edgier, macabre-laden and more real than the flashiness of Keaton and Nicholson but the overwhelming reliance on CGI and special effects have somewhere made them far too synthetic. While watching Batman you are mesmerised by what unfolds on the screen while be it Justice League, Captain America, Iron Man, Spiderman or Thor or Hulk or what have you, one can’t help but sigh at the thought of grown men and women who happen to be some of the highest paid artists in the world, draped in body-hugging costumes reacting to imaginary dangers or dodging things that don’t exist in front of a green screen. Is it that bad? Yes, and more so when you compare this to watching Keaton and Nicholson locking horns. But what makes it worse is that in some oblique manner, the further the distance between superhero films today and Batman increases, the greater the debt to Burton becomes.
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