…Wait ’til they get a load of me….
In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman was released to high levels of anticipation. The project had been on and off for at least 10 years with Warner Brothers as regular disagreements took place about the right tone and approach to take to the film. Luckily for everyone, one pitch where Bill Murray would take the lead role with Eddie Murphy as Robin was never progressed.
Ultimately the direction that was approved was one that would violently shift the characters away from the 60’s TV show, with its campy near-spoof approach, back tot he darker design that Bob Kane had intended for the Bat Man.
The script was jointly credited to Sam Hamm (who wrote the original treatments and early versions) and Warren Skaaren who joined the film and provided later additions to the script.
The director selected was Tim Burton which was a huge gamble itself, as the young director at the time had only completed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and was close to completing Beetlejuice with Michael Keaton.
The casting of Keaton was also controversial, having aimed to shift away from a potential spoof the decision to cast Keaton (who at this point had been putting out light comedies like Gung Ho and Mr Mom.
Whilst later films (we’ll get to them later in the series) address the journey of becoming Batman, this film is more focussed on introducing the character of Bruce Wayne with his conflicts and issues.
The initial set up of the film is with Batman as a vigilante that is creating fear across Gotham’s criminal groups. Rumours that the Batman ‘can’t be killed’ and that ‘he drinks blood’ show him to be established, however he is also yet to build a relationship with law enforcement (especially Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon) who are refusing to acknowledge his existence.
Parallel to this, it is the transition of high ranking criminal Jack Napier (local boss Carl Grissom’s ‘Number one guy’) to the Joker. Perfectly cast as the villain of the movie, Jack Nicholson’s Joker is born out of a disfiguring interaction with Batman that leaves him falling into a vat of chemicals.
Jack is dead my friend… you can call me Joker.
Off Joker sets on his criminal rampage with joke hand electro-cuter, murdering someone with a quill and mass poisoning where people die with wide grins on their faces. He dances, quips and murders his way through the film and captures all of the insanity of the character.
If anything, there is over focus on his character, with over focus on set pieces for the character such as a visit to the museum where he and his henchmen work through the room dancing and defacing art work to the sound of Prince’s Partyman.
Kim Basinger’s investigative photographer Vicky Vale provides the way in which we learn about Bruce Wayne as she develops a relationship with him. Vale is new to Gotham and working with journalist Alec Knox (Robert Wuhl) who quickly falls for her whilst she in turn is falling for Wayne.
Other set pieces stand out with the Gotham 200 year parade, and a finale based on the Gotham Cathedral.
The production design stands out with its industrial, art deco feel, huge sets and the team behind it would go on to win the only oscar that the film would garner. You can’t help but think Nicholson may have deserved a nomination for best supporting actor in here.
The film was a huge financial success. By the end of its run, it was the fifth highest grossing film of all time with over $400M in box office receipts.
In the UK, the film stood out further due it being the first film to be given the new ’12’ rating, with the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) having recognised a need to cater for films between PG and 15.
Whilst this film was in part born out of the Superman films financial successes (and recognition that super hero films could work on the big screen), this was a very different film. It captures the darkness and psychology of the early character of Batman and reset the prior perceptions of Batman on screen from the 60’s to the original image of the Dark Knight.
I also thought that this comment from the original BBFC report of the film makes for interesting reading…