The Grace of 1989's Batman: How it Helped Create the Modern Superhero Genre
I just came from the Little Theater tonight for a special showing of Tim Burton’s 1989, Batman. For most old hands that is considered the original batman and the birth of the franchise. I don’t recall if I ever saw that movie in the theaters, but I definitely remember the impact it had in high school. I still have one of my old t-top batman shirts.
The movie also brought back other memories as well and it was interesting comparing some very familiar elements in it to the later batman classic, 2008’s, The Dark Knight. What was more interesting to me was how Batman birthed a Hollywood genre in some unexpected ways.
First is that its worth mentioning that the 1989 film is not the first superhero film in the genre(if you call a man with no powers a superhero that is). Superman had already come out long before in American cinemas in 1979 and had done rather well for itself. Superman was the classic American hero: already knew good from evil, doesn’t kill, and had superpowers. The franchise established the universe with very black and white themes. By 1989 however, that was beginning to change.
Tim Burton introduced a moral ambiguity to a hero character that had not yet been seen. Batman fights criminals, but he also kills people (yea Ben Afflect wasn’t the first, sorry). He operates outside the law and is not motivated by moral principles but unresolved and intense rage. This was one of the elements that connected audiences to the character and still does to this day. Even the ending theme as the movie closes goes out on a dark tone rather than a upbeat one.
Yes he has the wonderful toys, he has Vikki Vale pining for him- annoyingly I might add, but what drove our interest was always the struggle of the man himself. Someone who hides it so well that you could be forgiven for not noticing that Bruce Wayne is certifiably insane.
Afterward superheroes had to have a complexity to them. Knowing right from wrong was no longer good enough, much less truly believable. There had to be struggle, turmoil, or at least an attempt at it. Ironically it is that trait for realism that Marvel is more known for than DC, but neither really nailed for a long time.
Hollywood still focused on the superficial tropes of the origin story, the girl, and the big boss fight at the end. There were exceptions, like the Blade franchise, which was rated R and took its protagonist’s darkness to even lower levels than Bats. And the first Spiderman franchise, which though breaking away from the dark colors for brighter ones, still had the hero struggling with an inner darkness and the problems that come with that career. The hero couldn’t be a simplistic, wooden cut out or the movie was going to fail and many did at first.
Shock and Awe
Another way 89’s Batman created the genre was its use of spectacle. Burton told his story through the lens of a dark, gothic circus that was somehow still grounded. The overall environment was always dark or cloudy and created a character in itself. Characters at times seemed over exaggerated such as the Joker’s mannerisms for his brand of insanity and the supporting characters were very one dimensional.
Looking at it now it seems ridiculous and many people in the theater laughed as if a joke was being made. In 1989 though, we were never treated to this kind of imagery. It was new, darkly gorgeous, and fucking amazing as shit. Descendants would make sure to try extra hard to include these elements in their films. Some movies managed to do spectacle in a way that differed from Batman, but others struggle with it. Even James Mangold recently said when talking about his 2013 film, The Wolverine, that the only reason he had his hero fight a giant samurai robot was because studios wanted a big cgi fight like other movies did. It remains one of the criticisms of an otherwise good film. And for a long time, villains were still somewhat cartoonish and hard to take seriously, like Daredevil's villain, Bullseye.
This is not world building where new elements are introduced to give the world the hero lives in substance and a life of its own, expand the universe. It was throwing in shit so that we could say, “damn that was cool!” Burton’s Batman was indeed loaded with such devices, right down to the iconic Batmobile itself (which I still call the only true batmobile). Like with characterization though, it was new to us in the context of comic heroes. So we let it go.
Lastly, Batman re-introducing the concept of a ‘franchise’, in the comic book genre. Many consider the movie to be the first, true blockbuster, and as such studios obviously wanted to repeat that success. Tim Burton went on to direct a sequel and was then replaced by Joel Schumacher. Even though audiences missed Burton’s darker take to the Bat when compared to his successor, they still gave their money anyway until 1997’s Batman And Robin.
Because it’s Batman: enough said.
Almost every comic book movie that has done remotely successful has followed this treaded path. Even into the second wave of superhero movies, the sequel is now almost considered biblically fundamental and a given. The thing with this trope though is that it’s a tricky one to maintain. Movies like Daredevil, Elektra, and the recent remake of Fantastic Four clearly failed in this regard. While other in contrast done very well.
Because sequels are expected of our comic movie now, it’s hard to believe that there was a time where we weren’t so cynical to the concept. When Batman closed with the character staring into the night at his trademark bat symbol, we couldn’t wait for the next turn! Now the high is long gone and studios have to work very hard to overcome our cynicism of knowing what they will do.
‘Yes we are going to make another movie, but here’s why you should be excited about it and spend your money’
The Unbroken Mold
There are other, more obvious tropes that Batman introduced into the American movie theaters, but these lesser ones stand out to me more. They set a precedent that others felt obligated to follow, even to this day. Because Batman is the first, the granddaddy, it usually gets a free pass, though with wink and giggle at times as I noted in the Little. Most of its elements still hold up today.
Hollywood studios wish that same grace was still extended to them today. They are in a constant battle against the fatiguing of the audiences’ interest and ready to try new and unorthodox ways to keep the money train going short of financial failure.
So far they are successful. I still find myself interested in many comic franchises because their stories are always interesting and now starting to diverge from each other and evolve. One doesn’t look like the other and it seems filmmakers are finally starting to realize how to master the genre. Still though, some still don’t work out.
But Batman always works. 1989 seared the bat symbol onto the American psyche and even if we grow tired of the Avengers or Wolverine, Batman will always have that special grace. Even the struggling cinematic universe that DC is currently trying to build with other heroes, acknowledges that the Batman is still their crown jewel and ace in the hole. No matter who directs it now or stars in it, both actors, studios, and the masses know that Batman will always remain the first movie of the modern comic book genre and carries with it a very unique mantle.