In the summer of 1989, Batman was everywhere, with its revamped emblem plastered on billboards, T-shirts and bumper stickers, in the windows of toy and comics stores — and hell, even on the drinks at Taco Bell. Likewise, seemingly everyone wanted to see it: Tim Burton’s dark reboot boasted a box-office gross of more than $411 million, making about 11 times its $35 million budget, and earning a cool $100 mil in just 11 days. The PG-13 pic’s appeal was massive, piquing the interest of kiddos (look at that cool new Batmobile!), comic-book nerds, everyday Joes, and even cineastes interested to see how its young director would follow up his goofy (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) and gothically gonzo (Beetlejuice) comedies.
Yet, despite being Certified Fresh at 71%, Batman is critically bested by its sequel, Batman Returns (78%), its campy ’60s predecessor, Batman: The Movie (78%), The Lego Batman Movie (90%) and, you guessed it, every installment in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. (It did manage to top Joel Schumacher’s twofer, so… there’s that.) What’s more, Burton himself confessed to Empire in 1992: “I liked parts of it, but the whole movie is mainly boring to me. It’s okay, but it was more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie.”
Let’s agree to disagree. An occasionally messy masterpiece? Sure. But as Batman enters its dirty thirties, here is why we think it still dazzles — and what future franchises can glean from its success.
Strictly speaking, Michael Keaton was a star at this point, as the stand-up-turned-actor had held leads in comedies like Mr. Mom and Johnny Dangerously, flexed dramatic chops in Clean and Sober, and wowed in unhinged glory as titular role in Burton’s previous effort, Beetlejuice. But was he near the level of stardom of, say, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, or Kevin Costner, who were all considered to don the Batsuit? Hardly. In fact, fans of the beloved character were so miffed by Keaton’s casting that droves of complaints were mailed to Warner Bros. The seemingly odd choice — he hardly had the build of a superhero, let alone the action-star demeanor some at the studio envisioned — paid off, with Keaton grounding billionaire Bruce Wayne with an everydude charisma and shifting into low-voiced seriousness as Batman, a move informed by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (and later used by Christian Bale).
Yet Keaton wasn’t the film’s top billing — that distinction belonged to Jack Nicholson, who took home a tidy $6 million payday, as well as an estimated $60 million bite of the box-office, and whose contract included demands like not having to shoot during Lakers home games. And in many ways, Nicholson’s villain is very much the star of this show, with the actor zig-zagging around Gotham as a candy-colored Pop-Art terrorist, delivering tasteless zingers (“This town needs an enema!”) and reveling in that psychotic laugh.
Back before franchises being grim or deep or serious or important was pretty much de rigueur, Batman was something of a shock — a popcorny shock, but a shock nonetheless. Compared to the frothy 1960s TV show that bore its name — most moviegoers were likely not familiar with the edgier Batman comics and graphic novels of the 1980s — Batman was a decidedly bleak onscreen left-turn. In creating Gotham City, designers Nigel Phelps and Anton Furst, collaborating with Burton, concocted a cityscape that screamed seedy New York, with trash-strewn streets billowing with portentous steam and intimidating skyscrapers stacked atop each other, like in an Andreas Feininger photograph. The characters, too, reeked of urban decay, with sickly-looking corrupt cops (William Hootkins’s Eckhardt), prostitutes, spiky-haired punks, a maimed muse (played by Jerry Hall) and an un-kiddie-friendly scene where a young Wayne watches his parents bite the dust.
We shudder to think what would have become of Batman without Burton behind the helm. (For one thing, Keaton would have definitely been nixed, as producers were much keener on a stereotypically macho lead.) Part of the joy of watching it three decades later is how it comes off like the creation of an art-school kid with a blockbuster canvas. There’s a stirring opening-title sequence, nods to the Batman of the ’60s and some still-nifty action sequences, for sure. But it’s the director’s gothic fingerprints — the shoutout to Francis Bacon’s grisly painting Figure with Meat, the mood of Alan Moore’s graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, which the director called “the first comic that I ever loved” — that stick with you after the closing credits. Now, years later, Hollywood happily gives huge superhero movies to exciting directors outside the blockbusterverse.
Earlier this month, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Mark Ronson explained that he was the youngest intern ever at Rolling Stone, when, at age 12, he’d alert the art department about the best-selling albums. Topping the charts during his tenure? Prince’s Batman soundtrack, which held that spot for a whopping six consecutive weeks. That’s how big of a deal it was. Onscreen, Prince’s “Partyman” and “Trust” add some funky levity and spectacle to scenes where the Joker literally gasses Gothamites to death. (Originally, the project was supposed to be a collaboration between Prince, handling Joker’s bits, and Michael Jackson, doing romantic numbers.) And that wasn’t all: The film inspired another entire soundtrack composed solely of Danny Elfman’s rousing score.
In fact, Batman raked in more than $500 million in merchandise sales — that’s higher than its blazing box-office gross — with cereals, pinball machines, piggy banks, toy cars, and a trillion other things. Three years later, Batman Returns would double down, tossing in pre-release commercials for the likes of McDonald’s and Diet Coke, living up to the credo, to misquote Nicholson’s Joker, to “make art until someone buys.”
Batman was released on June 23, 1989.