IGN posted a lengthy article on “How Burton’s Batman Changed Hollywood.” The full article can be found by clicking on the link.
We’ll go over some of the highlights.
First off, Warner Bros’ hiring of Tim Burton as the director for their Batman movie didn’t sit well with a lot of fans. Much less, Burton’s casting of Michael Keaton as the treasured Bruce Wayne. This Batman movie debuted in 1989, so consider what the Dark Knight was going through in the comic universe. This was the decade of Alan Moore’s Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Fans’ idea of Batman was far from campy, Adam West version from the ’60’s. They wanted more psychological complexity and less blue spandex.
Also around this time, Burton was widely known for Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. But despite the criticism and uneasiness, Burton kept to his guns and moved forward with his own vision for Batman and his “casting against type.” He wanted to “take comic book material and make it real.” Burton was more interested in the psychology aspects and the complexities as opposed to how square the guy’s jaw is. Instead of casting the typical male-role model, Burton sought out someone who’s “a real person who happens to put on weird armor… funny and scary.”
Another bold casting move was his choice of actor for his main villain. Played by the uncontrollable Jack Nicholson, the Joker’s character was a gleeful, homicidal maniac whose anarchist theatrics were performed “just because.” The Joker represented a psychological mirror image of Batman. Though not homicidal, Bruce Wayne dresses up in a bat suit and chases criminals in the night. In its own complex way, the two are depicted as two sides from the same coin. An idea that can be traced to those same popular works from the ’80s by Moore and Miller.
In order to quickly address the uneasiness with Burton’s hiring as director for Batman, Warner Bros. quickly put out a teaser trailer to show the the more menacing tone of the movie. A tone that complimented the dark, yet complelling aesthetic that was popular in the 80’s. This essentially kicked off a cultural phenomena appropriately called “Batmania,” and launched the movie into a must-see cinematic event. Merchandising for the film met unprecedented extremes. Everyone wanted in on Batmania. At the time, it was unusual for a non-sequel movie to be surrounded with such intense hype before or during early days of its theatrical run. It normally happened after it grows in popularity after its movie’s release. The movie’s eventual success set up the idea that comic book movies and merchandising have a symbiotic relationship that did not exist before Burton’s Batman film.
The film debuted on a Friday in June of 1989, where Batmania had reached fever pitch. Its immediate success in the box office was a surprise. The movie drew in $40 million by that Sunday. It showed Hollywood that “short-term profitability” was possible. Nowadays, it’s almost standard to judge a film based on their opening weekend box office numbers.
But what good is all the hype if you don’t have the performance to back it up. Nicholson and Keaton’s performances were revolutionary. Keaton showed that superhero roles were accessible and desirable while showing directors that casting against type can prove successful if done right. Nicholson’s Joker changed the mold of villains being a hero’s punching bag and made way for more compelling, complicated villains that deserve the limelight across from the hero. A perfect example can be seen in a more recent Batman movie, The Dark Knight. The portrayal of Ledger and Bale’s Joker and Batman being two sides of the same coin are shown in full effect here as well.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway from Burton’s Batman was his faithfulness to the spirit of the comic books of the time period. It didn’t exactly propel comic book movies to the position we see them in today (there were some that hurt that progress along the way. IGN mentions X-Men, I may have said a lot more), but Burton could be considered the first to prove that keeping faithful to the comic stories can be valuable. We can see its influence in movies today like Captain America: Winter Soldier, Amazing Spider-Man 2, or X-Men: Days of Future Past, as writers and directors look to draw more of their material from the comics for their characters and storylines.
“Comic books were supposed to light… I did what I wanted to do and it seemed different at the time.” – Tim Burton