Tim Burton's Batman: 25 Years Later
Batman, 25 Years Later: How a Movie Changed the Summer Blockbuster, and My Life
By Adam Marcey
It’s hard to think of a time when summer rolled around and you didn’t see a movie poster plastered in a theater months before the release, or when you didn’t see the trailer on TV at least 20 times before you actually sat down in the theater. It was few and far between as the 1980s began to come to close, but one movie changed all of that: Tim Burton’s Batman.
At the time, Batman was an ambitious project to say the least. It’s almost impossible to remember a time when there weren’t any superhero/comic book related movies, but the only successful superhero movies before Batman were the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve. Warner Brothers, the studio that produced the Superman movies, decided to take a chance on a little-known, as well as mostly unproven, director named Tim Burton, who ended up solidifying his name in Hollywood history after the huge success of Batman. But it wasn’t an easy start: after choosing a mostly comedic actor named Michael Keaton to fill the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, the studios were flooded with complaint letters. The Batman “fan-boys” wrote roughly 50,000 protest letters complaining that Michael Keaton would make the movie a farce, almost goofy and un-Batman, like the 60’s TV show starring Adam West. To silence the dissent, Warner Brothers released a short teaser trailer for the film, which was met with a standing ovation after it was released. It was widely reported that many theater goers would pay full admission price for a movie ticket, and leave after seeing the Batman trailer.
Not only did the studio start generating hype with its trailer, but it absolutely flooded the market with Batman merchandise. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing Batman products. My cousin and creative partner recounted a story with me about visiting Howe Caverns in upstate New York over that summer and buying a Batman pin/button for a souvenir of his visit. Howe Caverns is an underground system of caves that one can tour after taking a short elevator ride underground, which I can see having a parallel with Batman and his Bat cave, but still seems to be an odd place to buy Batman merchandise. But that’s the point: it was everywhere. The New York State Fair had Batman prizes in almost all of its game booths and stand-alone vendors selling Batman t-shirts and hats among others. Batman was truly ubiquitous that summer.
The success of the movie can draw from many factors in my opinion. Not only did Michael Keaton actually fit his role, but the casting of Jack Nicholson was another genius move. It seemed to me that Jack Nicholson put forth very little effort to portray the Joker, as if he was the Joker or that part of his personality was hiding and finally had the chance to burst through onto the screen. The imagery of the movie itself was something entirely different from what we had seen before on the screen, thanks to Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City and Batman. From the dark and industrious Gotham skyline to the armor-plated Batman suit and Batmobile, there wasn’t anything cute or goofy about this Batman. Tim Burton was able to shake the effects of the kinder, gentler Batman and portray a darker, brooding and troubled Batman. Tim Burton once said that he used Frank Miller’s the Dark Knight Returns as part of his inspiration for the Batman portrayed in the movie, which is evident in what we see on the screen. I think this was one of the rare occasions when the cast of the movie flowed beautifully with one another, and made their characters believable. It was a shame when this movie series lost the appeal of the original and faded into obscurity and shame near the end (see Batman and Robin).
So what did this movie mean to me, and how did it change my life? Well, at the time of release I was 8 years old. Most of my creative side and play life revolved around GI Joe and army men and war games and cops and robbers, I was only faintly aware of the world of superheroes at this point. I knew of Superman from the movies and I was aware of Batman, but had very little interest in them. I was fortunate enough to see the trailer for Batman in the theaters and I was instantly hooked. I never really imagined someone dressed in a Halloween costume fighting bad guys before, and I immediately took an interest in it. My interest turned into obsession after watching the movie in the theater with my parents. I wanted the action figures, I saved my allowance to buy the Batman trading cards, I begged my Mom to buy me the souvenir Batman magazine, and so on. I eventually plastered the trading cards and posters and drawings I made myself on the walls and I turned my closet into my own Bat cave. I was even photographed and placed in my hometown newspaper that summer sporting a Bat symbol painted on my face, wearing my Batman t-shirt and hat I had just gotten from the before mentioned State Fair (I was practicing my swing at one of my Dad’s softball games, the caption read Bat-boy at Bat). After the initial obsession wore off, I decided to explore other comics and superheroes, and I eventually rekindled my obsession with Star Wars. Although Batman was never again at the top of my list (Spiderman became my favorite, a character I found easier to relate to), I still think fondly of Tim Burton’s vision and how it ushered in a whole new world that I still find interesting to this day.
Tim Burton’s Batman was the most successful superhero box office draw of all time, until it was eventually dethroned by Christopher Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight (fitting I think). Whether you liked the film or not, there is no doubt that Batman changed the way a movie was marketed and merchandised and definitely ushered in a new era of the summer blockbuster. If Warner Brothers didn’t take a chance on this little known director with a huge ambition, they might have missed the most important notch on their utility belts. As for the rest of us, we may have never known the likes of the superhero action movies widely known and loved today.