Thirty years ago today, I was standing in a line. A bunch of us were all queued up for what was then the biggest comic book movie of all time, Tim Burton’s Batman. Nobody quite knew what to expect.
There’s a lot of thinkpieces lately about what an event Batman was. You couldn’t escape that symbol, on T-shirts and lunchboxes and gum wrappers. It was the first superhero movie marketing event (the original Superman movies were a lot less pimped out by industry, to be honest). We’ve grown pretty used to that in the years since, but at the time it was dazzling. Good or bad, you HAD to see this movie.
As a kid who’d already been reading comic books for years before “Batman” hit the screen, I was hopeful. I remember painstakingly clipping out newspaper articles about the casting in the months before release – Jack Nicholson as the Joker, well, everybody knew that was perfect, but Michael Keaton as Batman was a bigger question mark. If there was an internet back then, casting “Mr Mom” as Bats would’ve cracked it in half.
It’s hard to explain to fans of today’s slick, streamlined and gorgeous Marvel Universe movies that seeing a comic book movie in the ‘80s and ‘90s was mostly a matter of lowering expectations, of accepting flaws and looking for the bits that worked.
Sure, Superman IV was godawful, but hey, the scene where Christopher Reeve tells the UN he’s taking away the world’s nukes was cool. Yeah, Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey shred the screen as the most overacting villains of all time in Batman Forever, but I kinda dug Val Kilmer. OK, Howard The Duck might not have quite worked, but… well…. the puppet was interesting….
“Batman 1989” isn’t perfect either, but seen decades on, it’s still a remarkably intense, dynamic vision, one that shaped the portrayal of Batman in the comics for years to come. The late Anton Furst’s designs of a haunted, impressionist Gotham City are still remarkable – while the Marvel movies are pretty great, they’ve rarely created as bold a sense of place as Burton’s Gotham is. It’s a WEIRD town, explored further in the sequels, where gangs dress like clowns and oppressive architecture overwhelms humanity at every turn.
Jack Nicholson’s Joker, which received the lion’s share of press going in, has dated a lot worse than Keaton’s Batman. It’s never a bad performance, but it’s hard not to just see it as “Jack doing his Jack thing”. Recently I’ve been rewatching a few of Nicholson’s classic ‘70s films like “The Last Detail” and “Five Easy Pieces,” where you see what a fiery talent he was, and compared to those years, his “Batman” role is more reminiscent of when actors like Vincent Price would appear on the old ‘60s Batman TV show – amusing, yet not all that deep.
But Keaton’s Batman has only grown in strength over the years. He never quite has the classic physical profile – seen in a tuxedo in an early scene, his Bruce Wayne’s shoulders would barely fill half the Bat-suit – but acting is often concentrated in the eyes, and Keaton’s eyes hold a balance of resolve and regret. His Bruce Wayne seems closer to the edge than some – look at the scene where he takes on the Joker in his civilian clothes: “You want nuts? Let’s get nuts!” In contrast, his Batman is more of a blank, grim slate, a mask that wipes out Wayne’s humanity and focuses his mission.
I’d argue that Christian Bale and even Val Kilmer (who I think is kinda underrated in the Bat-acting pantheon) better represent the Batman character from the comics, but Keaton’s Batman still has a mysterious haunted power that makes him unforgettable.
Standing in that line outside the theatre 30 years ago, I never would’ve imagined as a middle-aged dude I’d still be lining up for movies featuring characters like Ant-Man, Aquaman and Dr. Strange, but I’m glad I am. There’s a lot of movies given credit as ‘ground zero’ for the current superhero explosion, from “X-Men” to “Blade,” but as a phenomenon, there’s still no touching the craziness that Batman inspired three decades ago.