The image of Batman as a dark, brooding figure in films is largely thanks to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Before Christopher Nolan rebooted Batman in the 21st century, Burton had left his stamp on the character. The film celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
Before Burton came on board to adapt Batman for the big screen, the popularity of the DC Comics superhero, at least outside comics, was waning. The last time the Caped Crusader was seen on the big screen was in 1966 with Adam West. While it was undoubtedly enjoyable, it was also pretty far from the comic-books’ shadowy figure who strikes terror into the minds of Gotham’s criminals. West’s Batman cracked jokes and puns and just had a jolly good time fighting criminals with his sidekick, Robin. No internal conflict here.
Burton told Empire magazine, “It’s funny, I was never a gigantic comic fan. But I just love the image of Batman – a guy who dresses up as a bat – and the image of The Joker and some of the extreme characters. I remember when I was at art school, we talked about the three most recognisable images. One was Mickey Mouse, one was Coca-Cola and the Bat insignia. So it’s a very powerful image.”
Michael Keaton, not at all a purist’s idea of Batman, was cast in the role and this prompted fans to write letters of protest addressed to Warner Bros’ office, saying Keaton did not have that muscular look and was too much of a comedic actor. However, Burton believed that Keaton had that “comedian who had an insane streak – funny, charming, with that all-important dark side” which was required for the Batman he wanted. WB execs stuck to their guns despite brickbats and Keaton stayed in the role.
Jack Nicholson was a natural choice for the devilish, malevolent Joker — a worthy adversary for the Dark Knight. His Clown Prince of Crime was a far cry from the goofy prankster the character had become of late in comics. Kim Basinger was cast as a journalist and the love-interest of Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne.
Most DC superheroes, especially the top ones, operate in fictional cities. Superman’s home is Metropolis, for instance. Batman and his tales are set in Gotham, a city that is a gloomier, seedier, and more crime-ridden version of other American big cities like Boston, New York and so on. Burton explained how the Gotham of Batman was built. “It was always important to me, especially when dealing with these extreme characters, to set them in an arena where you believe them. Gotham is a bit of a caricature of New York, a timeless American city. You take the New York skyline and squeeze it just a little bit tighter, the buildings would be a little bit taller, bigger, heavier. The juxtaposition of styles would just be a little more cramped together – brownstone, huge metal encasings. I see the sets as an extension of the characters and I wanted to create a playground for these nuts to run around in. A unique place, not too futuristic, not too period. It could be the present or it could be any time,” he told Empire.
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The film was centred around two characters and their different ways of looking at the world: Batman and Joker. While Batman was bound by his own moral code, Joker had no such limitations. The story also dealt with their origins, and how they emerged different men after the traumatic events they both suffered. While Joker went insane, Batman channeled that rage and anger to do something good for his city.
Batman was an instant global box office hit, earning 40.49 million dollars in its opening weekend, according to Box Office Mojo, which was the biggest then. Globally, it ended up grossing 411.35 million dollars. Beyond the numbers, it also helped establish the modern superhero genre even more than Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman. It told the studios that there was a ready audience for comic-book movies.