25 years of Tim Burton's 'Batman' and why I owe it a lot
There is a reason I'm a Batman fan. It's not because I'm a life-long comic book reader. That came later. And it's not because I grew up watching reruns of the old ABC television series. Though I certainly did. It's because Tim Burton's "Batman," released in theaters 25 years ago today, was the first movie that really owned my anticipatory faculties as a child. It was the first film that lit my movie-going fire, a designation saved for "Star Wars," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "E.T." a generation prior and perhaps "Jurassic Park" and Harrison Ford's actioners a generation later.
In the simplest of terms, I wouldn't be a film obsessive if it weren't for "Batman." I owe it that much.
For me, the film was an event not to be missed. I remember watching the commercials flood prime time television: the howling of a Batwing circling a Gothic cathedral, the cool of an actor I knew from comedy somehow tapped to play a brooding character of purpose, "Where does he get those wonderful toys?," etc. The Anton Furst-designed logo was everywhere, seared into immortality by any production that happened to film in Times Square in the summer of 1989, decorating untold numbers of hats and T-shirts, that winged image a specter hanging over the march to June 23.
And then, finally, the release.
It would have been unthinkable for a film so marvelously marketed, so massive in its blockbuster appeal, so undeniably industry-encompassing to bring in anything less than the highest opening weekend box office gross of all time. And so, with a $40 million-plus haul, "Batman" obliterated domestic records set by "Ghostbusters 2" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (which themselves bested "Return of the Jedi's" 6-year-old record) one and three weeks prior…by over $10 million.
Today, with a final tally of $411 million ($760 million if adjusted for inflation), the film remains one of the all-time box office champs. And rightly so. "Batman" came to define, for better or worse, the new era of the blockbuster. It also further established the franchise mentality that can be such a disease on the Hollywood infrastructure. Sequels in 1992, 1995 and 1997 made considerable money, but after those productions had faded away, the character had not. Less than a decade later, Christopher Nolan would resurrect the Dark Knight to further box office success and once again establish another era for the form.
It's intriguing, really, when you consider Batman's place in popular culture and how, every step of the way, the character seems to be right there in the mix. And as Warner Bros. currently tries to find a competitive foothold against the Marvel machine, the studio is very aware of what the Caped Crusader means to the bottom line. So there he is in Zack Snyder's upcoming "Man of Steel" sequel, not just as an icon for Ben Affleck to portray, but as a brand to be flashed in the film's title: "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice."
The 1989 film delivered on its high-octane promise, but under the guidance of director Tim Burton, the story played psychological notes in the character only previously realized by writers like Frank Miller, his 1986 tome "The Dark Knight Returns" serving as a considerable artistic influence. I would later learn, when the film would inevitably steer me into the world of comics, that the adaptation was sacrilegious to Batman fans. "Batman doesn't kill!" "The Joker didn't kill Batman's parents!" "GUNS ON THE BATMOBILE!?" But such belly-aching was far from my periphery when, in June of 1989, I made my way with my parents to a small theater in Selma, North Carolina to finally partake in this visual feast. Sue me for being a wide-eyed youngster who wasn't hip enough to hate on it.
Burton's vision was dark, sinister, irresistible to an impressionable young boy like myself. Michael Keaton's anti-superhero was cool, collected, an antidote to cock-sure protagonists like Pete "Maverick" Mitchell or Axel Foley. Jack Nicholson's Joker became the stuff of instant movie legend; he was terrifying, hilarious, deranged, unyielding, defiant. As a 7-year-old, I always wondered why, on the film's poster, this "Nicholson" name came before the name of the guy who played Batman. When I walked out of the theater, I knew the answer. And I knew I wanted to see everything he had ever done. If it was half as entertaining as what I had just seen, then I was in. Of course, as I would discover, Nicholson's romp in "Batman" was just the tip of the iceberg of what he had offered. So I owe that discovery to the film as well.