Batman on the Big Screen - The Tim Burton Era

To celebrate the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, we will revisit all the Batman films leading up to the release of The Dark Knight Rises.

THE BURTON ERA (1989-1992)

There are two pop culture loves that have been with me my entire life. I don’t remember a single day without their presence. One is Star Wars, the other is Batman. It started, like it did with most of my generation, with either the reruns of the campy Adam West incarnation on TV, or on Saturday morning cartoons, care of Filmation or Hanna Barbera. I have read the comics every month from the age of 10 (which is starting to be a long time ago!), and have eagerly gobbled up anything on the Dark Knight that was offered. Of course, back then he wasn’t so dark, was he?

What I had noticed, beginning to delve into the monthly adventures of Detective Comics and Batman comics, was that nothing I had seen on the boob-tube had come close to the tone of what I was reading. Batman’s world was corrupt, brutal, and he defended from the shadows; this was the original conception of Bob Kane and his collaborators Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, and this was something we had yet to see on the big screen.

After Richard Donner’s masterpiece, Superman, had shown what valuable properties these characters were, there were many attempts to bring what was then DC’s next best thing to life. Nothing worked for almost a decade, until a young filmmaker by the name of Tim Burton was approached.

The then 20-something managed what no one could before: he polarized a gargantuan production into accomplishing his unique vision; he cast the impossible as the leads: Michael Keaton, a renowned comedic star, to everyone’s chagrin (but not for long), and the acting force of nature Jack Nicholson as the Joker. These were the first of many surprises. Batman’s suit would forgo the blue and grey audiences had always known for straight out black. There would be no Robin. Gotham would be an oppressive gothic jungle that seemed beyond redemption. This would be, as the studios asserted, the first accurate representation of the character on the big screen.

Batman Logo

In 1989, Batmania swept the world, and as a 14 year-old, I got swept away with it. I had missed the previous wave of adoration for the character in the 60s, so was well primed to enjoy the frenzy of anticipation that befell Burton’s Batman. After the trailers and teasers and toy store pegs loaded with (crappy) action figures, the bat symbol plastered onto absolutely everything conceivable (I saw bat logo toilet paper!), the film opened and didn’t disappoint. It was like nothing else we’d ever seen.

The passage of time has tempered this reviewer’s assessment of this movie. In ’89, it was the closest thing to the comics I had ever seen. Batman was a tortured soul, haunted by the death of his parents; the Joker was a homicidal maniac, completely devoid of empathy or sanity. But it’s a very quirky movie, with the narrative asking for some enormous leaps in logic (kind of an ironic statement, when talking about a guy who dresses up as a bat, I know!). The intent was to not pander to making this film only for children, and tonally it does exactly that, but it’s not really written for adults either. It’s somewhere in between, but never clearly defined. Perhaps that’s why it did so well. Everybody found something in that movie that they loved, and I was no different. For me, the most impressive thing about this incarnation is the production design and the casting. I don’t think there’s anyone now who doesn’t think Michael Keaton’s Batman isn’t definitive and that Jack Nicholson’s Joker wasn’t iconic. Story-wise, it’s simply okay.

Over 400 million dollars later, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone that Warners were planning another one. Burton has since told us he had a rough time on the first film, with studio and producer interference, and the sheer scale of the production, he was burned out. He had no intention of going straight back into another Batman movie, and found a project closer to his comfort zone in Edward Scissorhands. It wouldn’t be until 1992 that Batman would return (see what I did there?).

Warners finally lured Burton back to the director’s chair with the promise that this time he could make the film however he wanted. This would be the unchained Tim Burton’s Batman, and boy did those chains go flying.

Burton had wanted to use just Catwoman in the next entry, but the studios one piece of interference was the insistence that he also use the Penguin. Burton wanted to work closer to home, so the production stayed in the States this time. Michael Keaton agreed to return, Danny DeVito and Annette Benning were cast as the Penguin and Catwoman respectively, and all was good to go. Then Benning discovered she was pregnant. Burton had to scramble for a last minute replacement (just as he had when Sean Young fell off a horse just before shooting on Batman, replaced by Kim Basinger) and Michelle Pfeiffer slipped into the very S & M vinyl. They even got Christopher Walken to play the ‘odious Mr Shreck’.

Sam Hamm did indeed come back to write the sequel, but ultimately Burton went to Heathers writer Daniel Waters to complete what we know today. If Batman is dark, Batman Returns is vicious, and it created quite the shit-storm when parents took their little ones along to see it. There was no attempt to adhere to the fidelity of these characters’ origins, and so the Penguin was reconceived as an abandoned freak, dumped by his well to do parents into a sewer and left for dead. Embittered and outcast (a fairly common theme in Burton’s films), he has become vengeance incarnate, and has a plan to repay Gotham for its indifference. Catwoman is the product of a murder attempt by her less than upstanding boss (Walken), and she too takes the path of vengeance. Batman… well this time, Batman is more of a reactionary character than anything else, and doesn’t really have an arc of his own to speak of.

Burton has come out in answer to the criticism that he has sacrificed Batman at the expense of his villains in both movies by saying that, to him, the point of Batman was to keep him in the shadows. I think I agree that Batman should always strike from the darkness, but as the protagonist shouldn’t he also have some kind of journey that emotionally resonates with the audience? In Batman Returns he doesn’t. It’s a critical error that soured people off this one.

Danny Devito The PenguinI happened to love DeVito’s turn as the Penguin, and fell in lust with Pfeiffer’s Catwoman like most young men. Production design was completely different for this movie, and lacked that continuity with the first film that perhaps it should have? I understand that directors and designers alike don’t want to just do the same old thing time and time again, but there are some fairly significant changes to the Gotham of Returns. Anton Furst’s stamp is nowhere to be seen, save for the Batmobile.

Burton set out to make what Warners allowed him to: his own version of Batman. It’s distinctly him, heavily focused on design and quirk. I liked the film, and prefer it by leaps and bounds over what followed in the next era, but what I was longing to see was Batman really kick arse, some spectacular chase with the Batmobile. What I got was great character moments, and underwhelming spectacle, all played out in a masterfully created environment.

This one didn’t recreate the box office of its predecessor, and Warners got nervous. Parents complained that it traumatised their little ones; critics bemoaned it. Burton’s tenure behind the camera was coming to a close.

A meeting took place where Burton had outlined what he wanted to do for the next one. After some less than subtle segueing from the studios suits, the man who had finally given us a successful Batman franchise walked away, knowing Warners wanted to go in another direction.

For this Batman fan, Burton gave us the best Batman in Michael Keaton. He started a new wave of superhero films that actually tried to stick to the original material. He brought a unique take to a well-known character that worked like gangbusters. I don’t there will ever be a Batman movie that completely incorporates everything everyone loves about the character, because Batman has been around for so long, there’s just not enough room in a movie to do that. Burton picked what elements he wanted, and he picked them well. If there is one major weakness in his two Batman adventures, its story. Ultimately, though, these are the two films that gave us the rest. They are still enjoyable, and they always will be.

Here's a link to Part 2 of the 3 part series -  Batman On The Big Screen: Part 2 – The Schumacher Era (1995-1997)

Here's a link to Part 3 of the 3 part series -  Batman On The Big Screen: Part 3 – The Nolan Era (2005-2012)