It's almost impossible these days to remember the overwhelming collective geek intensity devoted to the hype for Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film.
Almost from the day the movie was announced, the pre-Internet fan world was buzzing about the movie – mostly in anticipatory terror about how terrible the movie might be.
A lot of that fear came from memories of the 1960s Batman TV series, that camp monstrosity that turned Batman into a nationwide laughingstock and firmly planted the Caped Crusader in the minds of the vast majority of Americans as a ridiculous, overweight dork who had no idea that his fans weren't laughing with him but rather laughing at him. We were all afraid that the '89 Batman would be as bad as the '66 Batman, and that this time the movie wouldn't just drag Batman down in the opinion of most people, but even – as the apocalyptic theorists felt – the whole comic industry would suffer a deathblow from which it might not survive.
And why did fans feel that way? Because a fairly unproven director by the name of Tim Burton was given the assignment of bringing the Bat to life on the silver screen. It seems odd to think of it now, but at that time we had no idea how fascinating and bizarre Burton's movies could be. He only had oddball comedies under his belt at that time – the wacky Pee Wee's Big Adventure and the weird supernatural comedy Beetlejuice – and the fans were convinced that Burton was going to make a kind of Beetlejuice 1.5.
That suspicion was even more emphatic because Burton or his studio cast a surprising man to wear the Bat-suit. The man who wore the cape and cowl wasn't one of the great dramatic actors of the day but instead was the star of Beetlejuice, Michael Keaton.
If you haven't seen Beetlejuice or Mr. Mom or Gung Ho, you've missed some of the funnier acting jobs of the 1980s from Keaton, by an actor who seemed to capture the cultural zeitgeist of the time. In most of his movies of that era, Keaton had an earnest silliness, a kind of quest to do what was right. He managed to be both earnest and silly. And while comics fans love earnestness, they most certainly do not like silliness, especially the kind of silliness that Keaton showed in his previous collaboration with the director.
And oh my god, did the fans ever blow up about the Burton-Keaton collaboration. The main fan mags of the day, Amazing Heroes and the Comics Buyer's Guide, saw their letters columns filled almost to overflowing with anger about the placement of Keaton in the cowl. Fans believed the actor didn't have a strong enough chin, or a serious enough personality, or the right level of gravitas to bring to the role. A breathtaking 50,000 letters – actual letters sent before email existed – were sent to Warners by fans protesting the casting of Keaton in the role.
But as the fanboy hype kept building incessantly about the movie, a parallel thing started happening: the non-fans bean getting more and more excited about the movie. Warner Brothers' hype machine produced the greatest explosion of hot air in Los Angeles at the time, as the Bat-hype was inescapable. The trailer was everywhere, t-shirts with the Bat symbol were ubiquitous, even the rock God Prince, who was the coolest man in show biz at the time, was recruited to do the music for the film. Yeah, the "When Doves Cry" guy was going to deliver music about our favorite black-clad hero.
Maybe the most hype was around Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the Joker. Before the movie was released, there was great relief that Burton chose a man with the acting chops of Nicholson to appear in his movie, and in retrospect the casting of Nicholson was a genius move for everyone. As I'll discuss more below, Jack steals the movie, lighting up every scene he appears in with a truly manic scenery-chewing performance.
Nicholson was then at his most popular, coming off a long line of fan-pleasing performances in movies like The Witches of Eastwick, Terms of Endearment, Prizzi's Honor and Broadcast News. He was one of the most popular actors in Hollywood at the time, and everyone seemed to feel that the Joker was a role that the actor was born to play.
And for Nicholson the movie was an unbelievably good thing as he signed a contract that gave him royalties on all toys sold that were based on the movie – reportedly an enormous amount of money.
If you've read this far, you probably know the movie was a tremendous blockbuster, breaking all box office records of the time, and that it was seen as the new gold standard for superhero movies.
But how does the movie stand up now, almost 25 years after its release?
Well, the first thing I noticed when watching this movie is how much it seem like a Tim Burton movie. So many qualities of Burton flicks are on display here – an outsider lead character whose parents are distant (in this case dead), the setting of a large mansion, strange and often nonsensical plot twists, vivid supporting characters, awesomely complex and surreal locales – that it fits very tightly into Burton's oeuvre. All that's missing are the inevitable casting of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter in the movie.
Secondly, the fans' fears were both right and wrong. Keaton is indeed shockingly weak, particularly in his portrayal of Bruce Wayne, who comes across as more of an idiot than billionaire, more of a naive spoiled rich kid than a man who could wear the cowl. Yeah, maybe that's part of the nature of the character and proof that the secret identity is well-portrayed. But even when he puts on the Bat-suit, Keaton seems to fade into the shadows a bit. Far from being campy in the role, Michael is really kind of underwhelming.
But maybe that's just a function of the wildly exciting scenery chewing by the great Jack Nicholson. Sure, Nicholson overacts in this movie like a wild, insane demon, but nobody can do a wild, insane demon like Jack Nicholson – and besides, that sort of portrayal fits the Joker perfectly. Unlike the Heath Ledger version of the Joker, who was kind of a brooding madman, the Nicholson Joker is an out of control, giggling lunatic whose plans form a kind of dada take on the whole idea of crime. He's truly frightening because he makes no sense, seems to have no coherent plan and is willing to kill millions unless he gets to succeed in his insane pseudo-plan. He's colorful and bizarre and steals every scene in which he appears.
The movie is quite beautiful, especially the scenes that show off the breathtaking city design of Anton Furst. Gotham has looked terrifyingly beautiful in the past, but in this movie the gothic intensity of the city designs help to lead to a feeling of an overwhelming and oppressive city that is beautiful in its faded, frightful glory.
Your opinion of Tim Burton's first Batman movie will depend a lot on your tolerance of Burton's filmic eccentricities and Jack Nicholson's overacting. I was surprised by how fresh and fun this movie feels, even today. The movie lives up to its hype and reputation. It's fun and fresh and very, very strange.