Can it really be 25 years since Batman appeared in cinemas? I can still just about recall that giddy summer of Batmania: the t-shirts, the lunch boxes, the adverts on television. I can still remember queuing up to see it, breathlessly excited. Already a fan of the Caped Crusader thanks to the old Adam West series, I’d begun reading the comics around that time (I particularly liked Detective Comics) and still have the ‘Official Comic Adaptation Of The Warner Bros Motion Picture’, which cost me £1.50 in 1989. I still have it sitting by my desk.
Before and right up to its release, Tim Burton’s Batman was a media event with a capital ‘e’. I was swept up by it, and loved everything about the movie at the time.
Yet the reaction from the public and certain sections of the press towards Michael Keaton’s casting as Bruce Wayne was bordering on the toxic before filming even began, and in the early part of 1989, Warner pushed back with an equally aggressive – and ultimately successful – marketing campaign of its own. Batman ultimately stood and won as the defining superhero movie of the 80s, and its tone, advertising and structure still influences comic book movies even today.
The power zeitgeist-y of Burton’s Batman was such that it was the story surrounding its pre-release controversy and subsequent hype that became the focus of my 25th anniversary article.
The movie itself is still a thrilling one, even if it is, inevitably, a product of its time: loud, brash, yet iconoclastic, playful and as subversive Burton could get away with in a colossal studio picture. But, for me, the story surrounding Batman’s release was more interesting than a straight critique of the plot.
Here, long before the internet, was a battle for the hearts and minds of a suspicious and vocal audience – Burton and Warner Bros had to fight an uphill battle to convince their public that Batman 1989 wouldn’t be a pun-laden, camp exercise along the 60s TV series’ lines. How fascinating, then, that the film itself is about a battle via media: Bruce Wayne’s efforts to use newspapers and TV to sell himself as a mythical being in the shape of a bat, and The Joker’s toxic-narcissist attempts to upstage him with a PR campaign of his own.
Burton played fast and loose with the history laid out in the comic books in the process – something few filmmakers would get away with now – but he dug into the psyches of his hero and villain in a way that would become standard practice in later years. The result was a pivotal superhero movie.