Autumn Classics: Batman (1989)

30 years ago, Tim Burton set the Caped Crusader’s tone for a generation.

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Autumn Classics: <i>Batman</i> (1989)

As the sun lies lower and the sound of the wind in the leaves makes you feel as if you’re being followed, many movie lovers feel the urge to revisit the spooky, macabre and melancholy films that evoke the feeling of autumn. Ken Lowe will be remembering four of these Autumn Classics this October. You can read last year’s picks here.

I don’t think I’m the only one who associates Batman with the colder and darker parts of the year. Gotham isn’t a city that’s typically depicted in the midst of a heat wave—it’s all dark colors, shadows and, in a lot of depictions, gangsters dressed to the nines in hats and creases and hems and trench coats that give you the impression it’s crisp outside. It probably also has a lot to do with Tim Burton’s Batman, the movie it feels as if Warner Brothers is still chasing 30 years later.

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Superhero movies were by no means a surefire success in 1989, but in looking back, the current dominance of the genre stems from Burton’s gothic/Expressionist action movie. The Superman series had fizzled out with 1987’s abysmal Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. A comic book movie was a risk, said producer Michael Uslan in an interview about his efforts to make the movie that he wanted, which “was the dark and serious Batman, the Batman created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger as the creature of the night stalking deeply disturbed criminals from the shadows. I said … if I can show the world a different version of it … it would almost be a new form of entertainment.”

Uslan said when he began trying to realize the project, he met with a studio system convinced that the only viable superhero was Superman, and dismissive of the idea of a Batman movie in the wake of the ’60s TV series starring Adam West. Uslan was able to secure the rights in 1979. What followed was a decade of failed attempts to shop the concept to major studios and a number of abortive scripts. At one point, Ivan Reitman was trying to get the movie made with Bill Murray as Batman, proof positive that we can’t possibly be living in the best timeline.

As the ’80s wore on, the ground finally shifted under the production. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns reimagined Batman as a grim shit-kicker in 1986, to resounding success. Warner Brothers had by then hired Tim Burton to direct, whose skewed Expressionist sensibility gelled with the story of the Joker, a character basically birthed by Expressionism.

Those paying attention during the internet chatter surrounding the casting decisions of, say, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight or the current incredulity surrounding news that Robert Pattinson will be the next to wear the batsuit will probably be amused to learn that there were concerns about Michael Keaton taking on the role.

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It turned out to all be unfounded. It’s hard to say whether Keaton’s portrayal really made the movie, but everything else about it did. Released in June of 1989, Batman was an injection of darkness into the veins of the nation’s moviegoers right in the middle of summer. It was from beginning to end unlike any other comic book portrayal on the big screen before, and not really like any action movies, either. Burton created a towering, twisted Gotham City that looks as ill as its residents. Though the technology and Keaton’s glasses suggest we’re in the present day, the cops and robbers look straight out of the war years that cemented Batman as an iconic character.

The movie wisely begins with Batman already on the prowl in Gotham City—something the subsequent film treatments of the character apparently never learned. His origin is only gone into in flashback, and very briefly. We don’t even meet Bruce Wayne until literally every other main character has already been introduced, and Keaton plays him as an out-of-touch weirdo on an obsessive crusade in a lonely house.

If that all sounds standard, it’s because Batman made it that way. Hot on the heels of it, releasing around the same time as Burton’s follow-up, Batman Returns, Batman: The Animated Series debuted on late afternoon TV. Borrowing the general aesthetic of Burton’s Gotham and iterating on Danny Elfman’s score, it essentially carried the torch of the “Dark Deco” Gotham that Burton created. Nearly everything related to Batman’s portrayal outside of comics has been colored by the two works, or actively worked to subvert them: The Arkham Asylum videogame series in particular owes nearly everything to them. 

Jack Nicholson’s take on the Joker remains among the best portrayals of that character, as well, displaying some of the traits people associate with the character most strongly: Impeccable dress, narcissistic vanity and self-aggrandizement.

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Batman played through December of 1989 and raked in more money in 1989 dollars than Batman Begins did in 2005 dollars. Debuting as it did when VHS was just becoming a fixture in American living rooms, it became a hot seller and one of the things that cemented Warner Brothers’ determination to keep the franchise alive on big and small screens.

More than Superman in 1978 or X-Men in 2000, Batman is responsible for the ongoing superhero craze. Of more significance, though, is what it’s responsible for doing to the character of Batman. The dreary Wayne Manor, the smoky and wintry Gotham, all presided over by the strange loner in his cave struggling for human connection. That aesthetic and thematic darkness had already suffused the comic books, but Burton’s off-beat movie forced them out into the popular imagination.

The studio didn’t learn its lesson, releasing Batman Returns in the summer again, even when the movie’s plot explicitly places it around Christmastime. Both of Burton’s bat-films are fundamentally sad stories, starring sad people. They belong in the time of year when the sun lies low.


Kenneth Lowe can be even deadlier if you mean it. Check back this month for more Autumn Classics that are reaching major milestones this year, and read up on previous picks here.

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