Feature: 'Think About The Future!' - a Retrospective on Tim Burton's BATMAN

PrintE-mail Written by Nick Blackshaw

Tim Burton Batman Retrospective

The year is 1989, Rain Man took the top prize at the Oscars for Best Picture, James Bond went rogue in Licence To Kill and Harrison Ford donned the fedora for a third time in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. However, no one was quite prepared for the film that not only changed the way in which comic book films were seen but the whole concept of a summer blockbuster; this film of course was Tim Burton’s Batman. Tim Burton defined Batman for a generation, taking him back to his darker roots after a long association with the high camp KAPOW! And OOOOFFFs! of the Adam West TV series.

What follows is a trip down memory lane, with an in depth look at how the 1989 film came to be and how this impact could help define a post-Nolan Batman. In the words of co-producer Peter Guber, speaking on Shadow of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight documentary, “the making of Batman was a marathon, it was not a sprint”, this metaphor doesn’t even begin to illustrate the development hell that Batman was landed in for the best part of ten years! The initial idea of a Batman film began in 1979 and was the result of two contrasting factors; firstly, executive producer Michael E. Uslan, who, as an avid Batman fan, had used a golden opportunity to raise the profile of comics by teaching a college-accredited course on comic books, as a result, he was able to acquire the rights to film a dark and serious portrayal of the Dark Knight. Secondly, 1978 saw the release of Richard Donner’s now classic superhero film Superman, which was a box office hit and got Warner Bros thinking that there was an opportunity for a serious Batman after all. But the problem for Warner Bros began when no could agree on the tone of the film. Screenwriter Sam Hamm commented that “they looked at doing an art-deco period Batman, they looked at a comedy Batman and looked, if I remember correctly at one point, at Bill Murray as Batman and Eddie Murphy as Robin!” And with these distinct suggestions of a tone came distinct choices of director, early candidates include Joe Dante (of Piranha and Gremlins fame) and Ivan Reitman (of Ghostbusters fame). As a result, there was never a satisfactory script developed, even a script submitted by the late writer of Superman, Tom Mankiewicz was knocked back, he later reminisced “they naturally wanted to follow up Superman with Batman and I was seen as a logical choice, but it soon became apparent that you can’t write these characters in the same way, they’re totally different characters”.


It was not until the late 1980s when the pendulum started to swing in the favour of Warner Bros. One reason for this change of mood was the sudden appetite for the dark, serious and psychologically driven interpretation of Batman which had been used in works now considered classics such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke; the media attention gained from such works shook away the camp images of the characters from the previous twenty years. Meanwhile, a little known director by the name of Tim Burton, who at this point had only released two other films, had developed a reputation for dealing with quirky, dark subject matter and making it accessible to a mainstream audience, as confirmed when Beetlejuice was released to commercial and critical success. Burton was prepared to use Miller and Moore’s work as inspiration for the dark tone of the film, whilst inviting Batman creator Bob Kane to help develop a faithful interpretation of his characters, including eliminating the part of Robin (though he was originally included and storyboards featuring the character’s introduction were developed for the film). This was based on the logic that Batman, when first introduced in the comics, worked solo. It seemed at long last that Warner Bros had found their tone and their director...


...And just when you thought it was safe to book your cinema ticket, the next problem emerged; casting! There was unanimous backing for Jack Nicholson to play the Joker, now one of his most memorable roles, and he was able to negotiate a deal which entitled him to a percentage of the film’s overall takings which made Nicholson a phenomenal amount of money. But the first problem came with the casting of Batman himself and Burton’s preferred choice; Michael Keaton. Keaton, then known for his comedy roles, created such a stir, the Wall Street Journal ran a front page article suggesting the problems with Keaton, that fans feared Burton’s choice would revert the film back to the high camp of the 60s; interestingly enough it was reported at the time that even Adam West felt himself a better choice for the role! However, Burton’s logic for such casting came from the fact that his Batman needed to be someone that didn’t look like a superhero and would need to dress up like a bat for effect. This then reduced the questions but no-one was ever quite satisfied until the film’s release.

The second problem came with the casting of love interest Vicki-Vale. Blade Runner actress Sean Young was cast originally. However, Young was later injured on set and had to be replaced; Kim Basinger was then selected for the role, as someone who could help sell the film in the way that Nicholson and Keaton could. The rest of the cast was made up with actors such as Star Wars’ Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent (who took the role with the expectation that he would be Two-Face in a future film), Hammer Horror actor Michael Gough (who became one of Burton’s regular performers), Mick Jagger’s former girlfriend Jerry Hall, Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon and veteran actor Jack Palance as Carl Grissom.

The filming, done completely at Pinewood Studios in London, has now passed into folklore as far as blockbuster films go; Burton had yet to have his smash hit despite such a good reputation as a filmmaker and came into conflict with producer Jon Peters over aspects of the film and the script (he allegedly re-wrote the film’s ending having seen The Phantom Of The Opera without consulting anyone); Kevin Smith has since commented on working with Peters on the Superman Lives film which was never made and it seems a similar conflict arose, the widely circulated film clip makes for a funny anecdote from Smith. Burton also talks to this day with high regard for Jack Nicholson who supported him a lot throughout the making of the film, instructing Burton “to keep going, you just get what you need”.

And keep going he did... upon release Batman earned $411.35 million worldwide (which for its day was unprecedented having earned over $110 million in less than 10 days!) and it changed the way in which films were merchandised (with everything from t-shirts to action figures to breakfast cereal which would eventually earn $750 million!) Burton’s reputation as a film director was sealed...


...In hindsight, one can argue that Burton’s Batman film is quite tame in comparison to some of the more dark comic adaptations out there. And yes, the use of the songs by Prince does date the film dramatically (one wouldn’t think that it is 25 years old in 2014!)  However, the legacy that it has left could affect both future Batman films and other franchises. Burton was able to establish a dark, serious tone which Christopher Nolan has applauded Tim Burton for in the wonderful Batman films that he has created, and that we will see I’m sure in his final instalment The Dark Knight Rises. However, what I feel Nolan’s films lack and what Marvel’s Avengers universe of films has embraced (this is due to the creative control given to Nolan and the need for his series of films to be seen as nothing like the Joel Schumacher films) is the larger than life flamboyance that comic books allow films to achieve without becoming ridiculous. As this article is being written, Warner Bros are planning a future for Batman without Nolan at the helm with attempts being made at a Justice League film, Warner Bros should look back to Burton’s Batman as this is the legacy that has been emulated in the Marvel movies with resounding success, it would be such a shame to go to ten years worth of trouble to establish a tone for it to be then completely disregarded.

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