Influential Films in Pop Culture History: ‘Batman’ (1989) – Tim Burton’s Dark Knight Deluxe
“I’m Batman”- Batman.
The summer is nearly over and that means it’s time for another time-travel trip back to the 80’s and a decade of movies that have won their way into the hearts and minds of film lovers of all ages. This time, it’s a trip back to 1989, a year that saw Michael Jackson earn the title of ‘King of Pop’ after receiving the Soul Train Heritage Awards, the beginning of civil unrest in the Eastern Bloc that would lead to the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and for TV in America, a new show called Shining Time Station debuted on PBS, introducing American audiences to beloved British children’s program Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. In the movie world, June of ’89 and the months before it saw a craze sweeping the nation, even the world.
Tim Burton’s Batman opened to high critical acclaim, presenting a Dark Knight reminiscent of the comics; dark, in a Gothic world that brought endless amounts of delight to comic book fans and the viewing public. Bat-mania hit hard, and under Burton’s direction, the superhero movie craze kicked off, paving the road for what is now a constant and ever growing sphere of costumed adventure hitting theaters regularly. Burton gave the world a Batman who was not the same blue-suited, cheerful Caped Crusader of late 60’s television. Instead, he presented a Gothic world of shadow and towering architecture, a city overrun by crime that finds itself under the protection of grim urban hero, fighting injustice that swells with the advent of a new kind of criminal, a super criminal. Within a two hour window, Batman soared into the mainstream eye once more, and with that the ball started rolling on public fascination with superhero media and has not stopped since.
This casting for the summer blockbuster flick is one of legend. Fresh from starring in Burton’s crazy comedy-fantasy Beetlejuice in 1988, Michael Keaton being cast as Batman/Bruce Wayne caused massive amounts of controversy among fans, with a large volume of letters of protest being sent to the main Warner Bros. offices. Despite the outcry, Keaton proved to be the ideal choice for the role, bringing a dark edge to Batman, tempered with the humanity of Bruce Wayne.
For the Joker, Jack Nicholson took a role that had been once goofy and comical under Cesar Romero, and transformed it into one of pure madness, with a desire to make the world as mad as he is. His performance set a standard for how Hollywood should portray supervillains, making them serious and often frightening, destructive figures to go up against their heroic counterparts.
Leading lady Kim Basinger as comics love interest/crusading photographer Vicki Vale, brings warmth to the movie, a determined yet caring woman who helps Bruce see that, despite the darkness that clouds the world and clouded his life, there can still be light. In two very fine casting choices, Pat Hingle takes on the role of Gotham Police Commissioner James Gordon, continuing to play Gordon for three more movies alongside two other actors as Batman. As butler/confidant Alfred Pennyworth, Michael Gough fabulously stands by ‘Master Bruce’ as his stalwart companion (with a classic dry wit) in a one-man war on the criminals of Gotham, and like Hingle, would also carry over the part of Alfred into further Batman films.
Two other elements that have made this movie so memorable and beloved are its themes and score. Thematically, there is the central focus on duality and as Time Burton once put it “the whole film and mythology of the character is a complete duel of the freaks. It’s a fight between two disturbed people”. For duality, there is the obvious case of Bruce Wayne living life as himself, then at night putting on the costume of Batman and fighting crime to avenge the deaths of his parents. Bruce is at the start of his mission here, and clearly struggles with reconciling himself and his role as Batman. It takes Vicki to help him see past the mask, to see that despite the tragedy and loss, things are not totally bleak. While Burton’s use of the term freaks is a broad brush to paint with (the only true freak is the Joker, a man disfigured and mentally unhinged), it is easy to see how and where Batman falls into that grouping. A man like Batman and a man like Joker are both what society would term as “freaks”, people who live outside the confines and rules of everyday living and on one hand, seek to make life better for people by being outside the law, while on the other hand, seeking to upset the established order and bring about chaos, sheer unabashed chaos.
Danny Elfman’s score for the movie is the stuff of myth. A beautiful and powerful orchestration that has carried over in its fame to other Batman media. Shirley Walker‘s opening credits (composed with Elfman) is powerful, a symphonic blending of brass with piano, strings, percussive and other instruments. It is so powerful that a variation of it was used for the opening credits of Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series. Other compositions are reflective of characters and scenes, such as Joker’s being more light (depending on the mood), but also dark with cheeky undertones to mirror his brutal sense of humor. Not to mention the use of Prince’s upbeat and funky song “Partyman” when the Clown Prince and his gang deface priceless works at the Gotham Museum of Art. Put all these songs and tracks together and what one gets is a dynamic soundtrack for a groundbreaking superhero film.
1989’s Batman will for many remain one of the definitive Batman Hollywood productions. Its cast, its music, its sets, costumes and other elements (like a very excellent Batmobile and Batwing) are forever ingrained into the viewing public’s conscience forever. To many people no doubt, Michael Keaton still IS Batman, a role so big and vast and fantastic, that it took a serious director like Tim Burton working alongside Keaton to take the character off the comic book page and fully flesh him out in the real world. If all who have been reading these inspired articles are still searching for a great 80’s movie to watch with what is left of summer, then look no further. There can be no finer “kick back and relax with popcorn” masterpiece than Batman, a dark and stupendous superhero picture that still brings joy and excitement twenty-eight years later.