It's hard to imagine a time when superhero films weren't the norm, in an age when they fill the screens of our local movie theaters. But not so long ago there weren't that many cinematic caped crusaders. In fact, in 1979 there was really only one on the big screen, as DC's own blue-eyed boy Superman had flown into theaters mere months earlier. That was the year producers Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker bought the rights to make a film focused on the second pillar of DC's Trinity, Batman; and so began a ten-year battle to bring the definitive version of Bruce Wayne to the screen.
The impact Tim Burton's Batman (which you can currently watch here) had on the landscape of Hollywood and comics can't be underestimated. Uslan had a severely tough time selling studios on his dark vision of Gotham, one that he saw as a return to the Bill Finger and Bob Kane comics of the Golden Age. Alas for Uslan, the studios were more interested in leaning into the camp popularity of the 1966 Batman television show rather than buying into the gothic-tinged creation that Uslan was trying to sell them.
In hindsight, that decision seems strange. But that's only because Burton's Batman redefined the idea of what an on-screen superhero could be, the ripples from which can still be felt in the grim and gritty aesthetic of contemporary superhero movies. But as Uslan found for the first few years he possessed the rights to make Batman, no one was interested in a dark vision for the Dark Knight. Warner Bros. got involved in the early '80s, yet the film still struggled to find its direction, eventually passing on both a script Uslan himself had written, and a different take inspired by writer Steve Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers' run on the character.
The young Tim Burton was hired in 1986. A largely unproven director at the time with only Pee-wee's Big Adventure under his belt, Burton brought in screenwriter Sam Hamm to shepherd the film's story. A few months earlier, a groundbreaking comic book had been released, one which would change everything for Gotham's guardian. That comic was, of course, The Dark Knight Returns. A brutally violent and bleak vision of Batman, Frank Miller's seminal story was a critical and commercial success. It was followed two years later by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke, which hit stands shortly before Burton's smash hit movie Beetlejuice would take over movie theaters.
Warner Bros. and director Burton were inspired by these incredibly dark visions, and the long-awaited Batman film quickly went into production in April 1988 as Beetlejuice sat atop the box office. You can feel the fingerprints of both Moore and Miller all over Burton's take on Batman. Gone are the bright colors and camp puns of the classic '60s TV show, here replaced by shadowy alleys, gothic architecture, and conniving crime bosses. Warner Bros. had found their blockbuster director, Burton had found his direction, and Uslan finally had his take on the Caped Crusader.
One thing that stands out when watching Batman now is how seriously it takes itself and its audience. Though the film may sometimes wink at you -- admitting it's a tad ridiculous to see a man dress up as a bat and beat up criminals -- the self-awareness never overtakes the drama at its heart. Burton and co. create a pulpy world, complete with steaming manhole covers and classic cars. Though set in the present, it feels straight out of the film serials that first introduced cinemagoers to the protector of Gotham in the 1940s. It balances realism and cartoonishness in a way no one else has ever quite managed to replicate. A lot of that is owed to Academy Award-winning production designer Anton Furst, who won an Oscar for his astonishing work creating the eerily beautiful world of Gotham, as well as perhaps the most visually stunning Batmobile ever put on camera.
That world, helped by some memorable performances, ushered in the second wave of Batmania, after that which had surrounded the '66 show. Though many had at first balked at the casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne (rumor has it over 50,000 letters of complaint were sent to Warner Bros.), fans fell in love with Keaton's portrayal of the orphaned billionaire vigilante. But the biggest get for the film was Jack Nicholson. His incarnation of the Joker, as a low-level crook who becomes a psychotic mob boss, differed from that of the comics, but clicked with movie audiences.
The dark yet cartoonish realism of the Joker is a perfect example of what Batman gets right. It balances the comic-book origins of the film with Burton's pop gothic style whilst always keeping the core conceit of a crime film that just happens to center around a super hero. Keaton plays Bruce Wayne with the utmost sincerity, making him relatable, heroic, and -- most importantly -- empathetic. The film also strays from what we're used to in an origin story, throwing us straight into the action and building the backstory of the Bat through flashbacks. This delivers us into the action immediately, with Batman already a mythological figure within his own world.
Nothing less than a cultural phenomenon, Batman broke box office records and set a new precedent for blockbusters. As we approach the film's 30th anniversary, amazingly, it still manages to feel both fresh and nostalgic at the same time. Danny Elfman's character-defining theme and Burton's bold direction, coupled with Furst's artistic vision and Nicholson's improvised one-liners, still feel magical to this day. Balancing humor, action, and noir, Batman remains a singularly satisfying experience.