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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: The 30th Anniversary – Batman (1989)

Aron’s Film Rewind Presents: “Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys?” A 30th Anniversary Appreciation Of Tim Burton’s Stunning Big Screen Achievement Of DC Comics Hero “Batman”. 

The iconic character known as Batman aka: Bruce Wayne, was created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, and first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. Originally named “The Bat-Man”, over the course of the characters 80 years in pop culture he has been referred to as the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight, and the World’s Greatest Detective. 

Batman became popular after his introduction in 1939 and gained his own comic book title simply titled: “Batman”, the following year. In the late 1960s the “Batman” television series used a camp aesthetic, which continued to be associated with the character for years after the show ended. Various creators worked to return the character to his dark roots, which culminated in 1986 with “The Dark Knight Returns” by “300” writer Frank Miller.

Up until the first theatrical appearance of the DC comics character in 1989, Batman was most associated with the Adam West TV series. But it was director Tim Burton who first replaced the tights and briefs with a solid black body armor and raised the stakes with an insane, homicidal nemesis in the dark and highly stylized film “Batman”. Burton discards the cultural history camp of the 1960s TV series and brings the mood of the 1940s decade of film noir. 

Producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan purchased the film rights of “Batman” from DC Comics in 1979. Uslan wanted to make the definitive, dark, serious version of Batman, the way Bob Kane and Bill Finger had envisioned him. Richard Maibaum (story and screenwriter for 12 James Bond films including “Dr. No” the first 007 film of the franchise and Ron Howard’s “Ransom” with Mel Gibson) was approached to write a script with Guy Hamilton (director of 4 James Bond films and “Remo Williams”) to direct, but the two turned down the offer. Uslan was unsuccessful with pitching “Batman” to various movie studios because they wanted the film to be similar to the 1960s TV series. Both Columbia Pictures and United Artists (owned by MGM) were among some studios to turn down the film. 

Uslan who was disappointed by the rejections, had written a script titled “Return of the Batman” to give the film studios a better idea of his vision for the film. In November 1979, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber joined the trek to get “Batman” to the big screen. Melniker and Uslan then became executive producers, the four felt it was best to pattern the film’s development after the success of “Lethal Weapon” director Richard Donner’s “Superman” In 1978. Uslan, Melniker and Guber pitched “Batman” to a couple more studios including Universal Pictures, but the studio also turned it down. With no movie studios yet involved, “Batman” was publicly announced with a budget of $15 million in July 1980 at the Comic Art Convention in New York. Warner Bros., the studio behind the successful “Superman” film decided to also accept and produce “Batman”. 

Tom Mankiewicz (director of Tom Hanks “Dragnet”) completed a script titled “The Batman” in June 1983. Mankiewicz would focus on Batman and Dick Grayson’s origins, with the Joker and character Rupert Thorne as villains, and Silver St. Cloud as the romantic interest. Mankiewicz took inspiration from the limited series “Batman: Strange Apparitions”, written by Steve Englehart. Comic book artist Marshall Rogers, who worked with Englehart on “Strange Apparitions”, was hired for the films concept art. 

“Batman” the film adaptation was then announced in late 1983 for a mid 1985 release date on a budget of $20 million. Originally, Mankiewicz had wanted an unknown actor for Batman, William Holden for Commissioner Gordon, David Niven as Alfred, and Peter O’Toole as the Penguin. Holden had died in 1981 and Niven in 1983, so this casting would never come to pass. A number of filmmakers were attached to Mankiewicz’ script, including Ivan Reitman (“GhostBusters”) and Joe Dante (“Gremlins”). In an unusual choice of casting, Reitman wanted to cast Bill Murray as Batman and Eddie Murphy as Robin.

The success of “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Batman: The Killing Joke” had rekindled Warner Bros interest in a film adaptation. After the studio had financial success with “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” in 1985, Warner Bros hired “Pee-Wee’s” visionary filmmaker Tim Burton to direct “Batman”. Burton was initially not a comic book fan, but he was impressed by the dark and serious tone found in both “The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke”. 

Warner Bros. enlisted the aid of Englehart to write a new treatment in March 1986. Like Mankiewicz’s script, it included Silver St. Cloud, Dick Grayson, the Joker and Rupert Thorne, as well as a cameo appearance by the Penguin. Warner Bros was impressed, but Englehart felt there were too many characters. He removed Penguin and Dick Grayson in his second treatment, and was completed in May 1986. The script would go yet another change when Burton approached Sam Hamm, an avid comic book fan, to write the screenplay. 

Hamm decided not to use an origin story, feeling that flashbacks would be more suitable and that “unlocking the mystery” would help the storyline. Hamm replaced Silver St. Cloud with Vicki Vale and Rupert Thorne with his own creation, of Carl Grissom. Hamm completed his script in 1986, which demoted Dick Grayson to a cameo rather than a supporting character. One scene in Hamm’s script had a young James Gordon on duty the night of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. When Hamm’s script was rewritten, the scene was deleted.

Warner Bros was still skeptical in moving forward on development, despite their enthusiasm for Hamm’s script, which creator Bob Kane greeted with positive feedback. “Batman” was officially given the greenlight in 1988, after the success of Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice”. When comic book fans found out about Tim Burton directing the film with Michael Keaton starring in the lead role, controversy quickly arose over the tone, direction and casting choice for the film. Screenwriter Hamm explained, “They hear Tim Burton’s name and they think of “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure”. Or they hear Keaton’s name and they think of “Mr Mom”. The 1960s version of “Batman”, is the complete opposite of our film. We tried to market it with a typical dark and serious tone, but the fans didn’t believe us”. To counter-react the negative reports on the film’s production, Bob Kane was hired as a creative consultant.

Like most films with such an iconic role their is a who’s who of Hollywood top stars that were considered for the role of Batman, including Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford and Dennis Quaid. Tim Burton was pressured by Warner Bros to cast an obvious action movie star, so they approached future 007 star Pierce Brosnan, but he had no interest in playing a comic book character. Burton was originally interested in casting an unknown actor, and had offered Ray Liotta a chance to audition after having seen “Something Wild”, but Liotta declined, a decision he has since said he regrets. Willem Dafoe, who was falsely reported to be considered for the Joker role (he would have been a great Joker), had actually been considered for Batman early in development. It came around to Michael Keaton because of Burton’s experience with him on “Bettlejuice” and producer Jon Peters suggested Keaton, by arguing that he had the right “edgy, tormented quality” after having seen his dramatic performance in “Clean and Sober”. Keaton’s casting caused such a controversy among the comic book world, that 50,000 protest letters were sent to Warner Bros offices.

In the role of the Joker “Child’s Play” voice actor for Chucky Brad Dourif, Tim Curry, David Bowie, John Lithgow and James Woods were considered. John Lithgow during his audition, attempted to talk Burton out of casting him, a decision he would later publicly regret, stating, “I didn’t realize it was such a big deal”. Burton’s favorite choice was to cast Brad Dourif, but the studio refused. Robin Williams lobbied real hard for the part and was rather determined to get it. 

Oscar Winner Jack Nicholson had been producer Uslan and Bob Kane’s choice since 1980. Nicholson was approached during filming of “The Witches of Eastwick”, but unlike Keaton he was a popular choice for the role. Nicholson who had already won 2 Oscars and had been nominated 9 times by the time he was casted in “Batman”. He had what was known as an “off-the-clock” agreement. His contract specified the number of hours he was entitled to have off each day, from the time he left the set to the time he reported back for filming, as well as being off for Los Angeles Lakers home games. Nicholson demanded top billing as well as to have all of his scenes shot in a three-week block, but the schedule over lapsed into 106 days. He received a $6 million salary, as well as a percentage of the box office gross estimated to over $90 million.

It’s easy to say that the real star of the film is Jack Nicholson. He completely turns his performance on a dime, going from buffoonish clown to psychopathic killer and back again in a matter of seconds. He even gets the best and most memorable lines, who can forget his classic delivery of dialogue like “Wait’ll they get a load of me” and “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” 

Batman would be nothing without the Joker, and this film makes that connection even more explicit, as the film primarily adapts the “Red Hood” origin story for the Joker, in which Batman inadvertently creates the Joker by dropping him into Axis Chemical acid, resulting in his transformation into a psychopath, but it adds a unique twist in presenting him specifically as a gangster named Jack Napier. Sam Hamm would also change the comic-book origin to make a young Jack Napier the one who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents.

Sean Young (“Blade Runner”) was originally cast as Vicki Vale, but was injured in a horse-riding accident prior to commencement of filming. Young’s departure necessitated an urgent search for an actress who, besides being right for the part, could commit to the film at very short notice. Producer Peters suggested Kim Basinger as she was able to join the production immediately and was cast.

Costume designer Bob Ringwood turned down the chance to work on 007’s “License to Kill” in favor of working on “Batman”. Ringwood would find it difficult designing the Batsuit because “the image of Batman in the comics is a big six-foot-four hunk with a dimpled chin. While Michael Keaton is a guy with an average build. “The problem was to make somebody who was average sized and ordinary looking into this bigger than life creature”. Burton has stated, “Michael is a bit claustrophobic, which made it worse for him. The costume put him in a dark, Batman-like mood though, so he was able to use it to his advantage”. Burton’s idea was to use an all-black suit, and was met with positive feedback by Bob Kane.

With 28 sculpted latex designs created; 25 different cape looks and 6 different heads were made, accumulating a total cost of $250,000. Comic book fans initially expressed negative feedback against the Batsuit. Burton opted not to use tights, spandex, or underpants as seen in the comic book, feeling it was not intimidating. Prosthetic makeup designer Nick Dudman used acrylic-based makeup paint called PAX for Nicholson’s chalk-white face. Another part of Nicholson’s contract was approval over the makeup designer. 

Burton hired Danny Elfman of the band Oingo Boingo, best known for the theme song to “Weird Science”. Elfman was also his collaborator on “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Beetlejuice”. Since then Elfman has become one of the prominent composers in movies and still composed for films and Tim Burton movies till today. Producers wanted musician Prince to write music for the Joker and Michael Jackson to do the romance songs. Elfman would combine both styles of Prince and Jackson’s songs together for the entire film score. Burton had protested the ideas, citing “my movies aren’t commercial like “Top Gun”. Elfman enlisted the idea of splitting up the albums with one being a score and the other being a lyric album with original songs by Prince. “Batman” would be one of the first films to take on the challenge of spawning two soundtracks.

“Batman” would become the eleventh studio album by Prince, released on June 20, 1989 by Warner Bros Records. The result was yet another multi-platinum successful cross-media enterprise by Warner Bros, in the vein of “Purple Rain”. The album was No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart for six consecutive weeks. It has sold over eleven million copies worldwide.

During filming the films budget escalated from $30 million to $48 million and through the production filming was highly secretive. The unit publicist was offered and refused $10,000 for the first pictures of Jack Nicholson as the Joker. The police had to be later called in when two reels of footage (about 20 minutes worth) were stolen from set.

“Batman” had grossed $2.2 million in late night previews on June 22, 1989 and grossed $40.49 million during its opening weekend. This broke the opening weekend record, set by “Ghostbusters II” one week earlier, with $29.4 million. “Batman” became the fastest film to earn $100 million, reaching it in 11 days. The film had a final gross of $411 million and was the highest grossing film based on a DC comic book until 2008’s “The Dark Knight” with Heath Ledger and Christian Bale. It was the fifth highest grossing film in history at the time of its release. The film received several Golden Globe nominations, and won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction. 

“Batman” initiated the original “Batman” film series and spawned three sequels: “Batman Returns” (1992) which brought back Keaton and Tim Burton as director, “Batman Forever” (1995) and “Batman & Robin “(1997); the latter two of which were directed by Joel Schumacher (“Lost Boys” and “St Elmo’s Fire”) instead of Burton, and replaced Keaton as Batman with Val Kilmer and then George Clooney. Since the original four films Batman has since made an appearance a few times on the big screen in Christopher Nolan’s (“Inception”, “Dunkirk”) trilogy with Christian Bale as Batman. The second best actor (after Keaton) and the latest to don the cowl is Ben Affleck in Zac Snyder’s (“300”, “Watchmen”) films “Batman v Superman” and “Justice League”. It has been announced that director Matt Reeves (“Dawn and War Of Planet Of The Apes”) will direct a new Batman film, with “Twilight” star Robert Pattinson taking on the role of The Dark Knight. 

The extravagant sets and distinctive production design are pure Tim Burton. Gotham City features a fusion of gothic, art deco and industrial styles, with a grunge noir in the style of “Blade Runner”. The success of Warner Bros live-action “Batman” feature films have helped maintain the character’s prominence in mainstream culture.

Batman is a triumph of design and stunning achievement. If Richard Donner’s “Superman” laid the groundwork for comic properties being taken seriously as big-budget, summer events, “Batman” certainly reinforced that notion, delivering a rousing example of the storytelling possibilities that still exist in such heightened worlds. And while there was an undeniable drop-off in terms of quality as the series progressed (most of the blame goes to “Batman & Robin” and “The Dark Knight Rises”). Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” 30 years later and it’s still one of the greatest comic book films ever made. It still holds up as the film that reinvented and reignited the superhero genre as a major theatrical event.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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