Tim Burton’s BATMAN is a movie about a feeling – a feeling called Batman. It’s a lonely, broken, hanging out in a cave with the bats feeling. A sad about my dead parents but trying to be me feeling. A doing a bad job of passing for a normal person but fuck you I’m gonna dress and drive how I want and do what I want at night feeling. An okay it’s true that I am legitimately crazy and even sometimes hang upside down like a bat when I can’t sleep but does that have to mean I can’t have a girlfriend feeling. The feeling is evoked by shadowy alleys, towering gothic structures (thanks to brilliant production design by FULL METAL JACKET‘s Anton Furst), matte black metal and Danny Elfman’s low, murmuring horns that climb to the rooftops, step to the edge and spread their gargoyle wings in a thunderous explosion of marching drums and rococo instrumentation.

Man, that score. There aren’t many I like better than this one. It’s as eternal as the concept of Batman itself.

Now, just as we’re in a groove here – as Batman (in a place that looks sort of like the ’40s, sort of like the ’80s, sort of like a future that never happened) is terrifying muggers, chasing gangsters in fedoras, dodging old timey reporters with similar hats, sitting in his cave looking at scans of old newspaper articles on his computer that looks sturdier than a submarine, or out of costume hiding away in his big empty manor, stewing in a mood that’s black, blue and overcast – here comes this walking splatter of white, green and purple called The Joker. The nerve of this asshole to hold himself as a parallel to Batman! Sure, we understand the need for self expression, the rebellion against conformity, the back and forth between masking and glorying in his disfigurement. And yeah, he knows how to be a funny jerk. His arrogance can be kinda charming. “You look fine.” “I didn’t ask.”

But come on, Joker. Bruce Wayne got this way from having to see his parents die in front of him. You’re the motherfucker who killed them! Even if you weren’t, you’re just another full of shit gangster wearing expensive suits because you bully and ruin people and run crooked businesses. And then you cheat with the boss’s girlfriend and it’s not like you actually care about her. You abuse her. You’re scum.

Even the movie’s famous circular hook – that Joker made Batman by killing his parents and Batman made Joker by knocking Jack Napier into a vat of chemicals – is kind of a lie that the Joker tells himself to feel good. Batman didn’t push him or bump him or chase him. Jack shot at Batman, Batman deflected the bullet and that happened to make Jack stumble over the railing. Batman even tried to catch him. The Joker made himself.

I don’t know where this regular gangster got his cool novelty weapons (electrocuting hand buzzer, acid squirting flower), or his pirate TV equipment, or how just hanging out in a chemical plant gave him the ability to invent a gas that gives people a permanent smile and to taint all of Gotham’s hygiene products with it. But I must’ve seen the movie a dozen times before I even wondered that stuff, because this operates so much on mood and style that standard rules of plausibility seem irrelevant.

Joker declares himself “the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist.” I don’t care much for his found art (crudely spray painting over paintings hanging in a museum), but the orange and green gas mask he gifts to Vicki Vale is a nice piece of design. For a few movies after this, Burton (who had been hired on the strength of PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE and greenlit after BEETLEJUICE!) was most passionate about characters who were misfits and artists, and some felt he cared more about Joker than Batman. But the contrast between these two shows that not all weirdos are equal. Both characters are individualists. Only one is an asshole.

Burton told Cinefantastique‘s Alan Jones in 1989 that Batman “dresses like this for theatrical effect… He dresses up as a bat because he wants to have an amazing visual impact… He’s creating an opera wherever he goes to provoke a strong, larger-than-life reaction. He switches identities to become something else entirely, so why wouldn’t he overdo it?” Maybe you could say the same about the Joker, except he only wants to make an impact to feed his ego. He’s a guy who always travels with an entourage wearing jackets with patches of his face. He’s jealous when he sees Batman in headlines and on TV. He needs everyone to pay attention to him so he pirates the TV signal, gives himself his own show. He turns Gotham’s 200th anniversary celebration into a parade for himself, and against Batman. He lures people to him by throwing them money, which turns out to be a lie.

BATMAN shows that it’s okay to be a so-called freak if you’re using your power and privilege to help people and to challenge the people who don’t. It’s not okay if you treat others as suckers and opportunities and art supplies. Then it’s just hedonism.

For Bruce Wayne, traditionally at least, hedonism is just a cover story. As played by Michael Keaton he doesn’t really have the billionaire playboy vibe, he seems to be more of a recluse, or kind of a spacey eccentric. His name is famous, but reporters come to his charity event without even knowing what he looks like.

I’ve heard more than one person in recent years say they don’t like the character of Batman because he’s just some super rich guy beating up criminals. It’s true that the concept comes from a different time when a hero inheriting massive wealth was just a good explanation for how he could have lots of equipment and not have to work a day job, and it didn’t need to be considered in any more depth than that. But look at what he does. He’s not trying to be like his parents. Do you think he ever once considered going into medicine like his dad? He seems completely not at home in his own home. He has no interest in rich people shit. Bruce Wayne and the Wayne empire are just a front he has to maintain in order to privately be his true self.

And he’s not some up-from-the-bootstraps libertarian. His goal is to stop other people from having to go through what he did. He doesn’t pull a “I had it tough so stop whining.” He doesn’t even seem vengeful. He uses some humor during his super-heroing, suggesting it can at times be fun for him to do this. And he tries not to let The Joker, who he knows killed his parents, fall off that tower. But the Joker does what he wants.

Every kid’s favorite collectible Batman sticker

A part of this movie that I always thought was kind of weak was Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger, BLIND DATE). As super hero love interests go, BATMAN RETURNS’s Selina Kyle blew her out of the water. Vicki is more of an ’80s approach to a “strong woman” character – just someone who succeeds in a competitive profession. She’s an accomplished fashion photographer for Vogue, but more proud of her war photos for Time. Sean Young (BLADE RUNNER) had to drop out of the role a week before filming due to a horse riding accident, and I used to think Basinger was comparatively bland. If Batman is such a freak why is he so sprung on a blonde model who looks more like a Bruce Wayne cover story than a soul mate?

Every kid’s favorite Batman trading card

But now I like Vicki. She’s pretty cool. She avoids the easy path and risks her career, teaming with laughing stock Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl, GOOD MORNING VIETNAM) because she’s intrigued by his claims about a Batman. When she meets Bruce she’s not impressed by the opulence of Wayne Manor – in fact, it’s a turn off. But their date turns into sitting at a regular kitchen table listening to Alfred’s stories.

It’s interesting that even though this was considered the dark, serious version of Batman after Adam West, it’s kind of built on a comical premise: what happens when two people fall for each other, but one of them is Batman? And then he has to rescue her. How many times can he turn his head or stand where the shadows land on his exposed mouth before it starts to seem suspicious?

It’s almost hard to imagine now, but it took the rights holders a decade to get a Batman movie made at all, so it was not considered a sure thing or a probable franchise starter. It finally happened at a time when “there are comic books for adults now!” was considered a novel topic for magazine and newspaper features. In that era it made sense to think you had to riff on the idea of Batman in order to make a Batman movie. And that you’d have to close out the story of The Joker! Those are the types of things that seem dated in this movie, other than the random fucked up part where Bruce pushes Vicki down onto a couch and tells her to shut up.

By the time the movie did hit it dropped through the skylight smack on top of the zeitgeist. I think it was a perfect storm of timing and marketing. I know I mention this often, but it’s worth repeating: it was absolutely brilliant to sell this movie primarily using the bat-symbol (airbrushed to look three-dimensional, floating on a solid black background, printed on extra glossy paper). The teaser poster had no words other than “JUNE 23”. The final poster added NICHOLSON, KEATON, BATMAN, and the credits, but no pictures of the characters. I read in the book Hit and Run that producer Jon Peters (Barbra Streisand’s hair dresser and boyfriend turned movie producer and studio mogul, now best known for wanting a giant spider in Kevin Smith’s unmade Superman movie) had to pin a guy against a wall and yell at him to get WB to agree to it. (I assume the guy said, “Who– what are you!?”) What a dick, but he was right. This way instead of creating specific expectations for the movie it just drew out people’s own feelings of what Batman meant.

And, unusual for a comic book character, pretty much everybody had an idea of Batman. I would argue that more elements of Batman are standard issue cultural knowledge than even Superman. People who never in their life opened a comic book were still aware of Batman, Robin, the Joker, Alfred, the Bat Cave, the Batmobile, the Penguin, the Riddler, Catwoman. And likely Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, Batgirl, Gotham City, the bat signal. Much of this awareness came from the ’60s TV show, which was airing again that summer, drawing both nostalgia and resentment as the “campy” version of a character people wanted to be “dark.” There was lots of hype about Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (which people usually called The Dark Knight) having revived or reinvented the “darkness” of the character. There were these things now, the magazines said, called “graphic novels.” They’re like comic books only better. Darker.

So there was no need for comic book fans to evangelize. Everybody was already on board. I also remember Batman images having a certain counter-cultural appeal, showing up in catalogs of punk and skate t-shirts. But then the movie came along and the bat symbol was on everyone’s t-shirts and hats. Bootlegs thrived, often doing it wrong, like adding eyes to the symbol! And then the malls started to fill up with Batman everything – often based on the comic book character in general. The movie’s official action figure line was funny in that it re-used an old Joker design but got a likeness of Tracey Walter as “Bob the Goon.” Man, where the fuck is the Alexander Knox figure with reporter’s notebook?

I’m telling you, Batmania was real. Warner Brothers did not open their chain of studio stores until 1991, but they had a glossy mail order catalog which seemed to primarily deal in Looney Tunes and BATMAN merchandise.

These scans are from an all-BATMAN pamphlet version that I must’ve gotten from a movie theater lobby. The models were usually stars of Warner Brothers TV shows or children of executives. The best ever is A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET‘s Heather Langenkamp wearing Batman bike gear to promote her sitcom Just the Ten of Us.

It’s important to mention that there was also BATMAN cereal. And the box just had the bat symbol on it. And it was just slightly sugary corn puffs shaped sort of like the bat symbol. But it was worth purchasing for the Batman bank shrink wrapped to the back of it. And on the back of the bank there was an order form for sending away for a Batman night light.

Also, did you know that Batman invented the Taco Bell Cinnamon Twist?

And then of course there were the two albums. The one with just the bat symbol on the cover, which was the Prince songs, and the one with the Batwing levitating in front of the moon, which was the Danny Elfman score. It’s amazing to me that Prince, who I consider the greatest musical artist of my lifetime other than Stevie Wonder, made an entire album for this movie – one sort of in the sample-heavy funk style of the Lovesexy/Black Album era, no less – and it’s not the best part! The songs are all used diegetically, Joker’s henchman playing one on a boombox, for example, or at the parade. This forces me to ask: did The Joker commission Prince to record a theme song for him? That’s what is now known as a “baller move.” And was it Alfred who decided to play Prince for the grey-haired rich people at the Wayne Manor “Save the Festival” party? I’m gonna say it was.

How it went down according to Rock ‘n’ Roll Comics #21. I still don’t know what the lower left panel is talking about.

The two songs from the project that I have always loved are not even in the movie. One, obviously, is “Batdance,” sort of a megamix that rollercoasters through bits of the other songs on the album with some crazy guitar and keyboard jamming and sampled dialogue snippets from the movie. The other was the b-side, “200 Balloons,” which seems like it must’ve been intended for the parade scene, but they used “Partyman” instead (my favorite song actually used in the movie) “Trust.” The rest of the album has grown on me over the years, but those two are classics.

Word at the time was that Burton was a Prince fan but was sort of pushed into using the songs, and tried not to put them too upfront. It’s a weird fit, but for me it works. Something about one very distinct artist creating all of the songs makes sense in this world. And they’re only dated if you know Prince eras because there was no one else making music that sounded like that in 1989. Or any other year. Billboard‘s number one song on June 23rd was “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” by New Kids On the Block! I think it also works because Prince seemed to be interested in Batman in the same way as Burton. I can’t picture him reading The Killing Joke or having an opinion on the best Robin, but he was fascinated by the idea of Batman’s duality, the imagery of the costumes, the parallels between the hero and the villain, shit like that.

But I guess I just get that from the videos (which I analyzed in this piece, “Batdance: Celebrating 25 Years of Bustin’“), because it’s hard to decipher what, if anything, most of the lyrics have to do with Batman.

Making BATMAN the center of my series on the action movies of ’89 feels weird, because I’ve never thought of it as an action movie. Batman punching guys does not seem to be one of Burton’s interests. On one of the documentaries on the Blu-Ray, Peters-Guber VP of Production Michael Besman says of producer Peters, “Some of the fight scenes he really insisted on.” And in the Cinefantastique quote I used earlier I deliberately skipped the part where Burton said he wanted to get away from “the fact he’s just being a simple vigilante, something I always loathed about the character.” (He also refers to parts of Batman’s origin story as “stupid comic book stuff.” If everybody was on the internet when he did this interview, he would’ve been in trouble.)

This costume design imagines a more machine-like look, a non-Michael-Keaton type in the suit, and a bootleg t-shirt style bat symbol.

But Batman is still a man of action, even after casting Keaton over the “actors who were more the fan image of Batman” that Burton says he also considered. He takes advantage of his technological superiority over foes, so many of the action bits involve dropping in or flying away with his grappling hook, ziplining, deflecting bullets with his armor. There’s a chase in the Batmobile (an astonishing creation by Furst that we take for granted now) and another scene where he drives into Axis chemical and attacks with machine guns and bombs. But his tech fails him when his bat-symbol-shaped aircraft the Batwing, which must’ve cost him millions of dollars, gets shot down by the Joker’s novelty-sized handgun.

But, as is traditional, he seems to have elite fight training too. He scuffles with muggers, kicks a gun out of Jack Napier’s hand, there’s an alley fight with Joker goons including a brief but cool clash using his forearms and feet against a guy with two swords (Master Sken). Making his way to the Joker at the top of the bell tower he has to battle through a few different martial artist henchmen, including a gratuitous handspring guy with knives on his feet (Philip Tan, SHOWDOWN IN LITTLE TOKYO, BLOODSPORT II) who he fells with one punch like that joke where Indy shoots the hot shot swordsman in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

And what is this brief sequence:

…if not a riff on this sort of thing:


That little suit-up montage might be the most traditionally ’80s action bit in the movie. And you know what makes alot of sense about that? The second unit director was Peter MacDonald, the director of RAMBO III. (IMDb also says he did uncredited second unit on RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II, so it’s possible he shot both Batman’s and Rambo’s gearing up scenes.)

(Unrelated, but weird: the year after BATMAN, MacDonald was an executive producer on Prince’s GRAFFITI BRIDGE.)

From what I’ve read it sounds like MacDonald shot most of the fight footage. The stunt coordinator was Eddie Stacey, who also did summer of ’89’s RED SCORPION. Batman stunt doubles were Sean McCabe and David Lea, who, in an interview with Batman Online, described Batman’s approach to fighting thusly: “Batman doesn’t have time to do spinning kicks and have a fight with you unless you’re the main guy. So if you take a punch of him you go down and you don’t get up… Batman’s on the move – he doesn’t stop. He doesn’t stop to introduce himself. He’s just bang, crash and on the move.”

The movie did that too. Bang, crash and on the move into the ’90s, kicking off that decade’s wave of stylized comic book movies (see my article on Polygon for my takes on almost all of them) that filled up many of those summer movie slots once reserved for straightforward buddy cop movies and shit. For example in 1990 there was DICK TRACY, where Warren Beatty does indeed punch some guys and get shot at, but you’re watching more for its stunning five color production design and cartoonish special FX makeup. And the next summer there was THE ROCKETEER and the next BATMAN RETURNS and soon THE SHADOW. There were even movies starring accomplished martial arts actors (THE CROW and SPAWN) that put more emphasis on mood and production design than the physical execution of their many scenes of violence. It was a movie era more for artists than for bodybuilders, and BATMAN was the cause.

There have been better comic book movies. There have been better Batman movies. Even a better Tim Burton Batman movie. But there’s still nothing quite like BATMAN – as a movie, as a phenomenon, as a feeling.


I mean, I think I made my argument for BATMAN’s biggest influence above. But the movie was followed by one Tim Burton sequel, two Joel Schumacher sort of sequels, and reboots by Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder and soon Matt Reeves.

Warner Brothers capitalized on the BATMAN phenomenon by producing the groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series. It borrowed Elfman’s theme and seemed to take inspiration from Furst and Burton’s timeless dark deco Gotham. Elfman’s conductor, Shirley Walker, composed much of the regular score as well as the theme that eventually replaced Elfman’s.

It took many years for another DC Comics character to be translated into a movie without causing embarrassment. Burton and Peters couldn’t even get a Superman movie off the ground. But in 1990 they at least pulled off a TV series of The Flash. He wore rubber muscles much like this Batman, and the theme song was by Elfman.

P.S. Believe it or not this is the restrained version where I stopped myself from going into everything I find interesting about this movie. But I want to mention this one random thing because I can’t remember anyone else ever talking about it: the very first time we see Batman in this movie he’s hand drawn animation. It’s an overhead shot of his cape and shadow, not at all photorealistic. I always thought that was a cool Burton touch, and 30 years later it’s even odder than it was then.

* * *

PROGRAMMING NOTE: I need a little recuperation and catch up time after doing Steve Wang Week, Mark Dacascos Week, Highlanderland and this first stretch of The Last Summer of ’80s Action all in a row, so I will be having an intermission – some catch up reviews and possibly some off days – before returning to 1989 for something called “Karate Kids number 3.” Thanks friends!

This entry was posted on Friday, June 21st, 2019 at 9:46 am and is filed under Action, Comic strips/Super heroes, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

54 Responses to “Batman”

  1. A group of friends and I would hit a big multiplex every Friday and I usually volunteered to grab the tickets and hold a place in line. Each week there’d be friends of friends or other people, and while Lethal Weapon 2 drew a big crowd Batman was the monster that summer. We had nearly 50 people in our party and I was first in line, something the rest of the crowd didn’t appreciate as more of our group arrived and pushed the line back lol

    Great movie, loved the performances. Elfman’s score really sets the mood but my favorite of his will always be the jaunty one from Midnight Run. Wuhl will always be the guy he played in The Hollywood Knights to me so his sad sack goofball was a little tonally off but otherwise Burton really got the best out of his actors.

  2. “Even the movie’s famous circular hook – that Joker made Batman by killing his parents and Batman made Joker by knocking Jack Napier into a vat of chemicals – is kind of a lie that the Joker tells himself to feel good. Batman didn’t push him or bump him or chase him. Jack shot at Batman, Batman deflected the bullet and that happened to make Jack stumble over the railing. Batman even tried to catch him. The Joker made himself.”

    I disagree. I saw Batman last year and I was struck by something. I mostly blame the editing but I think Batman intentionally let Joker fall. Watch that scene again. Napier falls and is holding on for his life. Batman reaches down and grabs his hand. They cut to Batman’s face. Back to Napier and then back to Batman again. After the last Batman close it up cuts to Napier falling down. The look on Batman’s face isn’t one of convern for saving his life, it’s the look of this guy seems familar and he seems dangerous and it’s probably not worth saving him. I’m telling you that I”m 100% convinced that Batman let Napier go. This is Batman’s fault.

  3. Great write-up Vern.
    I was listening to the Prince soundtrack just the other day, and marveled that someone convinced this one-of-a-kind musical genius to write an entire album of music for a big blockbuster movie. Imagine Stevie Wonder or Paul McCartney doing an entire album soundtrack for the Towering Inferno.

    I cannot remember the last time I saw this movie, but I remember being 7 when it came out, and just being all consumed.
    My son is 7 now and a HUGE Batman fan, so I think I know what we are doing for movie night this weekend.

  4. I could be wrong but I think “Trust” is playing at the parade, not “Partyman.” I’ve always enjoyed the song “Electric Chair” on that soundtrack, can’t remember if it ever appears in the movie.

    I sort of think this is the best Batman movie. It could just be that it was formative for me as a kid, but I rewatch it all the time and it’s always really enjoyable and beautiful. Batman Returns is even prettier but is more of a mess in terms of the story and pacing, and I enjoy Nicholson’s performance in the first a lot more than Devito’s in the sequel.

  5. Seeing this in theaters about a month just cemented my love of this very flawed movie. I still think the pacing is really weird but when you got a movie this stylish it doesn’t matter. I also don’t think this movie gets enough credit for how weird it is. I guess they got away with it because this early in his career Burton was already known as a bit of a weirdo and it is based on a funny book and funny books are weird. I mean how many other huge spectacle movies have a random scene of the hero just hanging upside down? None that’s how many!

    Things I disagree with the majority of fans though are:
    -Jack Nicholson’s performance is fine… it doesn’t ruin the world-beloved children’s cartoon character of the Joker.
    -Bassinger’s Vickie Vale character is problematic and the source of most of what I don’t care for in the movie but I gotta say… I found it pretty funny on this watch on how she refuses to ‘take the hints’ from Bruce Wayne and ends up being fought over by two legitimately crazy people.
    -Everyone hates the “Let’s get crazy” scene. I love how even before the Joker crashes it highlights HOW much of an antisocial weirdo Bruce Wayne is. Then the Joker does come in and he shows us that he’s crazy on top of that. I respect the movie, especially a Batman movie, for not minding to giving us a hero who is a crazy weirdo.
    -Everyone also seems to hate the Knox character. I enjoy him and his presence. Maybe I like ‘walking studio-note’ characters as I also like d Agent Myers in HELLBOY.
    -The Prince soundtrack is a feature, not a bug. Yes there are some who think it is too out of place and was a bad idea. How many Marvel Studio movies have a Prince soundtrack? None! Therefore BATMAN >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> every Marvel Studios movie

    I highly recommend the book CAPED CRUSADE by Glen Weldon. It’s an excellent look at the history of the Batman-fandom. Anyways, he REALLY hates this movie and at one point says it’s just a Charles Bronson movie with Batman in it. I doubt he’d like any Bronson movies but as someone who has seen quite a few of them, I can safely say this movie is absolutely nothing like any of his films. Also, Charles Bronson as Batman would’ve been cool.

  6. Also just listened to ‘200 Balloons’ again for the first time in a while, and am struck by how similar the bass and chord progression is to the ‘Jungle Love’ song that Prince wrote for Morris Day and the Motherfucking Time.

  7. I’m with Sternshein, I’ve always taken it for granted that Batman let go.

    geoffreyjar, I guess RIDER ON TH RAIN could fit.

    The “Let’s get crazy” scene is why no one will ever be a better Bruce Wayne than Keaton.

  8. Clubside: totally agreed on Elfman, his MIDNIGHT RUN score is great even if it’s a throwback. His work here is no less great for the synergy he’d already developed with Burton.

    Haven’t seen this or RETURNS in a very long time, and even though I prefer the Nolan films more for the form and style, I think Keaton did an excellent job that nobody else I’ve seen has risen above. Playing Bruce Wayne as the reluctant weirdo instead of faux-party boy as Christian Bale did seemed more genuine to me. Although I guess Nolan’s objective was to make Wayne as un-Batman as possible so understandably nobody suspected him. It’s clever, but maybe too much so.

  9. Man, this series is a trip down memory lane and it’s giving me all the feels, as the kids say nowadays. I had no idea that the summer of 89 held so many events for me. Almost every movie you’ve reviewed has sparked a memory. LAST CRUSADE was the movie I went to with that guy who upon reflection now was probably too old and a creeper. This one reminds me of a church sponsored trip to the lake where we listened to the soundtrack and my friend accidentally on purpose flashed the boys.

  10. MAN, that video with Bugs and Daffy hocking the merchandise brought a powerful wave of memory to me. Having watched the VHS of BATMAN an untold number of times, scenes not only from the movie but from the pre-roll on the tape are seared into my subconscious.

    I think BATMAN still holds up pretty well today, even though a lot of subsequent super hero films took the wrong lessons from it. As you alluded to, people thought this movie was dark and serious when it’s actually pretty much a comic book movie (the Joker thugs have a comic book version of Joker’s face on their jackets!) with all that entails. Ergo, there’s a school of thought that thinks the only way to make people care about a superhero movie is to make it morose and “realistic” (JOKER SHOOTS DOWN A JET WITH A TELESCOPING REVOLVER!). BATMAN isn’t at all realistic, it’s just (mostly) internally consistent. After all, the “realistic” Batman movies had a police captain have the resources/motivation/ability to fake his own death for an extended period for…reasons.

    Going back to it as a comic fan years later, it’s weird seeing something made closely in the aftermath of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS totally changing Batman forever and helping to ruin comics for decades to come. There’s even a little reference to TDKR in dialog re: Vicki Vale’s photography of Corto Maltese.

    Even if BATMAN sucked, though, helping to make space for B:TAS would make it more than worth it. Also, my recently-passed brother had great fun holding a cigarette in his mouth and quoting the thug from the beginning and I’ll always treasure that.

    PS: BATMAN holds up pretty well but as noted, it’s not even the best Tim Burton Batman movie. BATMAN RETURNS is a goddamn miracle of strangeness.

    PPS: Vern, when you say

    I’m pretty sure (it’s been a couple years since I’ve watched) that they mention Napier has a scientific/chemistry background. I wonder if the implication is that he always knew how to make the Smilex, but just didn’t feel like it.

  11. Oh man, I totally borked the quoting on that previous post. It’s supposed to read:

    PPS: Vern, when you say

    “I don’t know where this regular gangster got his cool novelty weapons (electrocuting hand buzzer, acid squirting flower), or his pirate TV equipment, or how just hanging out in a chemical plant gave him the ability to invent a gas that gives people a permanent smile and to taint all of Gotham’s hygiene products with it.”

    I’m pretty sure (it’s been a couple years since I’ve watched) that they mention Napier has a scientific/chemistry background. I wonder if the implication is that he always knew how to make the Smilex, but just didn’t feel like it.

  12. Sternshein – I don’t see it. I don’t think I ever caught him recognizing him before, that’s interesting. But his arm shakes and then he drops him. I don’t see how it would fit anything else in the movie, like at the end when he actually knows that this guy killed his parents and tries to stop him from dropping (unless he’s supposed to have learned his lesson, and then fail anyway).

    Random notes:

    -Jack Nicholson was actually Bob Kane’s choice to play The Joker ever since seeing him in THE SHINING. It was reported that Burton and Nicholson didn’t get along, but of course they seemed to be friends by the time of MARS ATTACKS! Jack Palance supposedly challenged Burton to a fight at one point though.

    -When they’re going up the clock tower Joker calls his goons and says to meet him in five minutes, then says to make it ten. And it’s just over ten minutes later in real time when the helicopter appears in the movie.

    -Maybe it’s just me but I look at this movie and these pictures and man did they make that Batman costume look cool.

    -Only recently did it occur to me that Wayne saying “Let’s get nuts!” could’ve been (but probly wasn’t) a reference to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.”

  13. Oh man it was a surprise to see this as the next one, but it totally makes sense! I’ve gone on a real roller coaster of feelings with it over my life. When I was a kid I LOVED it, but then I turned into a lame Batman snob in my teens and twenties and kind of sneered at it for a long time, but now revisiting it in recent years I’ve really come to love it again for all the reasons Vern talks about, just the feeling of it all. It’s a really fun unique vision of the character.

    Two things in particular come to mind for me.

    1. The one painting the Joker tells his goons not to deface in the museum scene is a real painting called “Figure With Meat”- it’s one of a number of paintings by a guy named Francis Bacon of screaming popes with blacked out eyes positioned between raw cuts of hanging meat. If you look em up it’s pretty clear the Joker would like them.

    2. It always bothered me how the Bat-symbol they use for that great, iconic poster is *not* the bat-symbol on Batman’s actual chest in the movie! The one in the movie has a brighter yellow background, bigger scalloping on the wings, and a forked tail and it looks way worse than the poster one in my opinion. I just never understood why they didn’t just use the great version from their own damn poster.

  14. Oh yeah, and wasn’t it the first (or one of the first) big movies to be priced for retail when it was first released on tape? That was one of the reasons (besides being THE MOVIE OF THE DECADE) everybody owned it.

  15. It must have been an early retail-priced VHS because it’s the first non-recorded VHS tape I remember owning. I believe they also rushed it out only like four months after the theatrical release. It was still playing in some theaters.

    One of my favorite lingering pieces of Batmania was this Hot Chip song that came out 20 years later that’s built around a minor (but wonderfully delivered) line in the movie, and has the Joker subjecting people to some kind of Japanese game show or something.

  16. This might interest you all.

    The Battle to Make Tim Burton’s 'Batman'

    Thirty years after the hit, Kim Basinger, producer Michael Uslan and actor Robert Wuhl recall tense table reads, alternate castings (Michelle Pfeiffer as Vicki Vale?) and convincing Hollywood the Dark Knight had potential: "Not only did they turn us down, they basically said, 'This is the worst idea we've ever heard.'"

  17. No matter what you think of the overall quality of the movie, this moment is as iconic as Superman rescuing Lois Lane from the helicopter in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE:


  18. We should also give a mention to the awesome NES video game:

    Which in return inspired this awesome action figure:

  19. Burton’s roots as an animator really shine through in this movie. Almost all of the action beats are ‘gags’ in the style of a Looney Toons short. Especially the batwing vs Big Gun bit mentioned in the review.

  20. This is the only Batman I have never gotten to see in theaters. I was in the Dominican Republic when it droppes and returned in mid september when it was already out of my local theater. But it’s also the only one of the bunch that I could quote line for line. I remember Batmania being so insane that you’d even see bums on the streets with fresh yellow oval t-shirts well into the early 90s. Those things were just tossed around everywhere.

  21. I also really appreciate the expressionistic influences (which Burton went all in with on the sequel) and how much of the film tonally felt like something out of the Hammer film catalogue. There has also yet to be a Batman movie since that has even come close to matching this one’s level of style.

  22. Sternshein back when I used to regularly post on the superherohype Batman forum we debated that ad naseum. The conclusion was that it was too ambigious to call down the middle. Your reading of it is valid but so is the interpretation that Batman couldn’t maintain Jack’s weight on that arm and that’s why he dropped him.

  23. I never heard of Nicholson and Burton not getting along during this. Matter of fact I had heard that whenever Jon Peters tried to bully Burton it was Jack who always stood up for Tim during the production.

  24. Speaking of The Dark Knight Returns – the very early poster concept pretty explicitly is playing off of that, talking about it being the future and that “he will return” – https://www.denofgeek.com/us/movies/batman/121142/unused-poster-for-1989s-batman

  25. Triple karate kids, shrunken kids, lethal weapons, plenty more summer goodness. But we definitely need Vern’s take on Shaft, Toy Story 4 and the Jarmusch too.

  26. Vern reviewing Batman on the day that Vertigo is closed down is some sort of cosmic irony.

    Seeing Batman is one of my favourite childhood memories. My dad surprised me by stopping at a theatre on our way back from my grandparents. He never stopped for anything. Always had to make good time. We got there in time to see Joker say “Hey Eckardt, think about the future!”

    And seeing all those Batman tee shirts was mind blowing. Was there any other pop culture stuff on shirts back then? Maybe Mickey Mouse or Garfield? I only had sports related shirts. I was already a four eyes, anything else was too risky.

  27. I remember Batmania too well, including some really popular bootleg shirts and official merchandise shoes. I was in first grade and there was no escape, even months before the movie started here. (It was a winter release, because back then movies took longer to start internationally.) My sister and I were super pumped for it, because a.) we loved the old TV show (Which by then ran for the first time in Germany, btw!) and b.) loved BEETLEJUICE even more. However when we watched it, we were not just disappointed by it not being like the TV show at all, my mother made us leave early because of the violence. (Jack Palance’s burnt skeleton was strike 1, but the feather through that one guy’s throat sealed the deal.) We didn’t even protest. The whole thing was a lot to swallow back then.

    Later on I liked that movie and I still do, but it’s obvious that it was studio noted to death at times. And because it looks so much like pure Tim Burton, people often give him credit for the worst parts, although he had reportedly almost zero script input and it was one of those movies, that were rewritten daily. (Which obviously also frustrated Nicholson and I guess that’s were the rumors about him and Burton hating each other came from.)

  28. Broddie – the rumors of Nicholson and Burton not getting along are mentioned in that Cinefantastique issue I quoted from, but I think they were bullshit. I have also heard that about Nicholson protecting Burton. Also a story about Burton being terrified when Nicholson was tired of walking up stairs and asked what he was going to do when he got to the top and Burton had to tell him he didn’t know yet.

    CJ – From what I read, Burton was very frustrated with the rewrites, but he had a big influence on the writing. Sam Hamm based his script on a 43 page treatment Burton developed with Julie Hickson, the producer of his early Disney shorts Hansel and Gretel and Frankenweenie.

  29. Yeah, I mean he obviously had input on the original version. It would be weird if they let him cast Michael Keaton and let him erect all those gigantic sets, but then didn’t even ask about his script ideas, but from what I’ve heard once the movie kept rolling, the script was more or less re-written by the producers. It never got to the point where he would disown the whole thing like his PLANET OF THE APES though.

  30. john is right, the parade song is “Trust”. I think on the album you can even hear Knox’s line about “Gotham’s greed”. “Partyman” plays on the henchman’s boombox in the museum scene.

  31. Search for Peter MacDonald and Dave Lea on YouTube.

  32. Hey y’all, I love BATMAN ’89 as much as anyone (I first saw it at a drive-in!), but I just wanted to give everybody a heads-up that I just stumbled into the Shaw Bros. 1978 classic FIVE DEADLY VENOMS on goddamn Netflix Streaming, of all places. I honestly haven’t seen too many of these but this one’s gotta be up there. Check it out while you got the chance is my advice.

  33. IMDB trivia page has a lot a few interesting tidbits. I think they filmed some of it on the same sets James Cameron used for ALIENS, and even found one that hadn’t been torn down and just left to rot basically.

    Also what was purported to be Spielberg’s dream cast. Harrison Ford as Bruce Wayne, Michael J. Fox as Robin, Martin Sheen as Harvey Dent among others. There’s also the version that nearly happened with Bill Murray as Batman, at one point with Ivan Reitman though I guess he said Burton offered it to him too.

  34. Yeah, owning that VHS just 4 months after it opened definitely felt like I had something I wasn’t supposed to have yet. That made watching it more fun. Eventually that faded and it became just another tape on my shelf, but I did make it a point to own all four on VHS.

    Midnight Run is my favorite Elfman score too, but for more traditional Elfman i’d Go with Edward Scossorhands. Batman and Pee Wee are so damn good tho.

  35. Fred I also owned all four. Twice!

    It is June 23rd. Do you know where your Batman is?

  36. grimgrinningchris

    June 23rd, 2019 at 8:56 am


    I am pretty sure that despite the poster version of the logo, that the actual suit version was WB wanting a seperate, copyrightable logo that was specific to the movie. But yeah, it was stupid and too busy and I am glad they ditched it for RETURNS.

    Though I hate that someone presented as so strong and smart and capable is later reduced to a screaming damsel in distress (Marion Ravenwood Syndrome)… man, Basinger had one HELL of a scream.

  37. I can’t think of this movie and also not think of the Diet Coke commercial that played in front of it on the VHS. Now that I think about it, the sell-through pricing of the VHS was probably subsidized by Coca-Cola.

  38. I like BATMAN just fine, but it didn’t move me the way Donner’s SUPERMAN (well, Reeves’s Superman really) did or blow me away the way BLADE did.

    But Batdance was something else. I saw Prince play London in summer 1990 and my recollection is that he closed out his set with Batdance and Partyman; I don’t expect to see a better stadium performance in this life!

  39. After so many movies and iterations of Batman, I’d be curious to know how younger people view the Burton films. It seems to me that because they have such a unique visual style, they’ve never been fully replaced by Nolan’s movies. But of course, I lived through these movies, so my view is a bit skewed. I’d be interested in a fresh take on Burton’s Batman films that wasn’t just “Lolz! They’re old!”

  40. It’s so weird that “a 30 years old movie” meant in 1989 something from the 50s, most likely in black & white, not looking and sounding at all like anything right now in movie theatres, but for the kids today it’s stuff like this movie or INDIANA JONES.

  41. The advances in technology or a bit more subtle from 30 years ago to now as they might have been from 1959 to 89. Films in color and in widescreen were still rather new and not quite the norm it later would be heading into the 60’s, and even just that decade alone saw lots of changes in terms of the culture, and pushing the boundaries of the medium like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

    Comparatively the advances in computer and digital technology, while having clear advantages of their own compared to the process 30 years ago, haven’t resulted in those kinds of forward-thinking leaps Hollywood produced. The corporate takeover of all the major studios haven’t helped much in this regard though there have been obvious exceptions.

    Batty, I think people viewing it now especially younger ones, could see more direct links to the TV show than we did in the 80’s and 90’s. The Schumacher movies aside, which obviously dove back into the campiness, there is enough inherit quirkiness in Burton’s style that lends itself to comparisons to the show. Not all bad, mind you, but I can certainly see it with the hindsight of time passed and Christopher Nolan’s more serious-minded take on the character.

  42. The qualitative difference between film and digital is as palpable to me as Technicolor vs Kodak. And that makes movies even 10 years old look like a different era to me.

  43. BTW, I think Vicki and Knox don’t get enough appreciation for being such a good team. They instantly get along well, Vicki never has to proof to Knox that she is a real journalist, Knox isn’t acting like a creep towards her, they are probably just a few days away from finishing each other’s sentences and it’s just too bad that they don’t share enough screentime and never return.

  44. Also, I like that Knox just sort of accepts that he’s outmatched here. I mean, Wayne is a billionaire, no matter how weird he is. Of course he can’t compete. He even gets a moment towards the end where he takes a baseball bat to the Joker’s goons. He’s a better character than he’s often given credit for.

  45. I think this movie may have damaged me. There was all this huge hype surrounding it, and I was a sheltered kid, never having seen all the movies all the cool kids had seen in school — E.T., GHOSTBUSTERS, GREMLINS, POLTERGEIST, TEMPLE OF DOOM, you name it. Then finally I was 17 years old, I had my driver’s license, and I didn’t have to ask my parent’s permission for shit. BATMAN was this huge event, and I was going to see it in the fucking theater, not two years later on VHS in some friend’s basement.

    I am a bit of a stickler for narrative. If a movie meanders, and there isn’t a real central plot that you can latch on to, even the most stylish movie is gonna lose me. Movies that just throw a bunch of shit at the wall and see what sticks are a big pet peeve of mine, and BATMAN is an unfocused mess. After watching it a few times a few years later I grew to appreciate the style over the substance, and it has grown on me some. It actually holds up in my opinion, better than you would think. This is obviously due to the directorial and acting talents at hand. But wow. The Joker’s big “plan” in this movie is some cosmetics bullshit, which was pathetically copied in CATWOMAN for crying out loud. The movie has so many great moments, like the dinner date in Alfred’s kitchen. But other “iconic” scenes, like the art gallery one, just come out of nowhere. Why are the characters in that place? What are they doing? Why? So much of the plot goes unexplained. There are many, many scenes where things happen and it is blatantly obvious that they had an idea and just threw it in there carelessly because they thought it would be cool, without any notion of how it should fit within the overall plot, or anybody’s character arc. I don’t think there are any character arcs in this movie.

    The movie needed a script doctor and a script done by somebody a bit more competent. Unfortunately this kind of shit is now the norm. T2 came out two years later and is 1000 times better on every level, and partially restored my faith in blockbusters.

    I am not saying that BATMAN sucks. It just could have been so much better. It has style, and talent, and class, and some great scenes.

  46. Interesting article from about a month after RETURNS’ release, where Warners was already eying up the neon path to FORVER.

    Unhappy 'Returns'

    The talents of Warner Bros., Tim Burton, and Michelle Pfeiffer couldn't help ''Batman Returns'' succeed

    Just watched RETURNS, a film I have gone back and forth on over the years; on this occasion, it worked for me. Is it also the first major film to specifically address fan/”nerd” feedback from the previous film, with Batman contrasted with Catwoman’s pure vigilantism and saying that he isn’t above the law (although he still seems to waste a couple of henchmen), and in particular admonishing Alfred for letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave? It’s hardly BATMAN V SUPERMAN dedicating half of it’s running time to “I hear what you’re saying about how Superman shouldn’t have killed so much in MAN OF STEEL, but here’s the thing…”, but as far as I know these were more comic book convention circle gripes with the 89 film rather than anything critics cited. and it’s interesting to think of an effectively pre-internet Warners doing this. Although to hear him talk about it, it might just have been one of Daniel Water’s own gripes with the film.

  47. Pacman – I think Magnum Force (with its villainous gang of vigilante cops murdering criminals and innocents alike) was totally a response to people thinking the original Dirty Harry was too fascist. (“See, Harry’s not so bad…this is what REAL bad cops look like!”) But yes, that’s an interesting take on Returns…a movie I too have gone back and forth with over the years and I think last time I basically settled on “the Catwoman stuff is great, the entire ending with the penguins and the rockets is terrible.”

  48. Articles like that are so funny. The quoted executives, moviegoers and parents and the writer all come across as hopeless squares with no taste. I kind of enjoy the fact that they were so confused and put off by such a good movie. That’s how I felt reading that exact article at the time and even moreso after decades of confirmation that the movie fucking rules.

    I’m almost positive I’ve read an interview where Waters says he put in the Vicki Vale line because he hated that in the first movie.

  49. neal2zod- MAGNUM FORCE is a good one, I think I consider it a slightly different thing because from my second hand vantage point DIRTY HARRY’s politics seemed more of an intelligencia issue than an audience one, but I could well be wrong about that, and how do you even compare audience feedback in 1971 with audience feedback in the social media age? Is #notmysuperman the modern equivalent of “Dirty Harry is a Rotten Pig” placards outside the 1972 Academy Awards? Maybe.

    Of course I’ve just remembered INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE, which arrived in theatres the same summer as the first BATMAN with the implicit promise that it would be a sequel to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and not TEMPLE OF DOOM, though that was perhaps more reflective of Spielberg’s misgivings than the audiences’.

  50. I don’t know where else to put this but I am crushed to now be in a world without Batman. I mean, THE Batman, not a big name hanging out for a minute having fun in rubber…the man who breathed honest to God LIFE into a character that FINALLY matched how we all felt about the character on the page.

    So many line readings that are just the foundation of how I “hear” Batman and the character behind that voice in a way nothing else gets close to (“I’m Batman.” is great though) what he does with just his voice ACTING.
    “Andrea…nooo.” Gets me everytime.

    God, Vern, both of the Kyodai-Ken episodes are just the best of badassery.


    Jesus, this was a Batman kids cartoon that has Batman pose as a hobo, get amnesia and wake up in a desert penal colony black market mine and…?

    The FEAT OF CLAY (fantastic pun!) 2 parter is an amazing piece of combing classic 30’s to 40’s noir tropes with 30’s to 40’s monster movies.

    Okay, I gotta stop.

    R.I.P. Batman.

    Okay, so here’s my request from our man: I know it’s a bit taboo but I would love for you to do a B:TAS retrospective or at the very least a look at a handful of your favorite episodes, or even the animated films if you really, really don’t want to do TV.

    I’d be curious to know what some of your favorite episodes were, whether you agree with Burtonising of The Penguin, if Kate Mulgrew kinda turned you on, if you totally believe that you can’t read in a dream so picking up a book and jumping out of tower can release you, Y’know, basic type stuff.

    Either way, my cape is at half-mast today.

  51. I don’t have specific plans to write about it, but I will answer your questions. Favorite episodes: Over the Edge, Beware the Grey Ghost, Mudslide, Heart of Ice, Harley & Ivy, Bane, Showdown, Almost Got ‘im, Baby-Doll, World’s Finest. I think the Penguin worked because of the brilliant casting of Paul Williams, but the second design is better since he really wasn’t similar to the Burton character anyway. Mulgrew did not turn me on, I thought that was kind of a boring episode, but she has a good voice. I have not experienced reading being like that in dreams but I love the gimmick in the episode. And you didn’t ask but the Scarecrow was the best redesign for the last season, holy shit.

  52. I think as a kid I assumed B:TAS was in continuity with the Burton movies, admittedly it didn’t make much sense that The Penguin and The Joker were still alive, but a lot of stuff like that didn’t make sense back then.

    R.I.P. Kevin Conroy

  53. Such a huge loss. Too many great episodes to pick from and there’d be a number of them already mentioned here, but Joker’s Favor was a great one too. One of BTAS’s great strengths was its willingness to make characters other than Batman the focus at times and got great people in to play them. An ordinary guy intimidated by the Joker into doing his bidding only to turn the tables on him was such a fun and satisfying concept.

    I should note that DC made free to read their last PRIDE special, which had a short autobiographical story written by Conroy that’s really good. Since the site requires sign up to read it and it’s a pain outside the US to deal with, here’s a link to a gallery of that specific story pages:

    Pacman 2.0- They did do a couple things to tie into the movies a bit. Not just the theme music, but also in one early episode Batman goes to Arkham and one of the Doctors he’s talking to refers to The Joker as “Jack Napier”, which got ignored after that, though then kinda got supported more by the reveal of his gangster history in MASK OF THE PHANTASM.

  54. Interesting, thank you…although I must admit my Bat-knowledge is patchy enough that I often forget that “Jack Napier” was just a Burton thing. But yeah, the music was obviously a big part of it. Also, more a sign of the times (the glory days of the WB Studio Store!) but a lot of branding seemed to blur the lines between the films and the series in a way it didn’t for, for example the 2004-2008 THE BATMAN series and the Nolan films (of course there was that DTV anthology that explicitly did tie in with the Nolan films, but I digress), like one of the later films having a promotional offer where you got a free VHS of THE CAT & THE CANARY PART 1&2, and some BATMAN & ROBIN merchandise which used the art style and character designs from the Timm series. Of course BATMAN & ROBIN’s Mr Freeze was in concept (if not execution!) heavily based on the B:TAS incarnation, a sign of the big impact it had on the mythos in the long run, along with Harley Quinn being embraced as a legit Bat character.

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