Speak, BATMAN: Tim Burton’s Version, 25 Years Later

Speak, BATMAN: Tim Burton’s Version, 25 Years Later

In the summer of 1989, I had just completed my first year at
Columbia University, fresh out of the family car from Dallas, Texas. While some might say the winters
in New York have gotten milder, the summers have not changed: it was miserably
hot. I was living in a dorm room in Wien Hall, a block of Soviet-style student
quarters in a tall red brick tower whose most exotic characteristics were its
co-ed bathrooms and the private sink in each room. My diet was terrible: pancakes, hamburgers, coffee, soda, bagels, beer.
I was not in a good place. The academic year had left me spent. I hadn’t slept much,
with all the work, but my grades had nevertheless been poor. Most of my
acquaintances (I had few friends) had left for the summer. The campus was
thoroughly empty. At sunset, the expansive steps of Low Library, full during
the school year, could boast just a few random, out-of-shape young souls
hunched over unusually large slices of pizza (my other choice for dinner). The
view north on Amsterdam Avenue, which seemed like a glittering slope of traffic
lights and taillights leading down into unknown territory from September to May,
now seemed like a shimmering tunnel into a bottomless oven. Dangerous. Out of bounds.
Chaos. I was touchy, every second: the smallest thing could send me into a funk
for days. Love, or anything remotely like it, was very, very far off. My Friday
nights often began and ended with a trip to the Metropolitan Museum, open until
9. That was my life. The city itself wasn’t much better off than I was. The crime
rate, which had been escalating for the past few decades, was at an unusually
high point. That spring, the Central Park Jogger incident had occurred, with
all that event entailed, damage lasting for many years afterwards. The crack
business was thriving: the corner of 94th and West End was known as
“Crack Central.” The homeless population on the Upper West Side was large and
often aggressive. In this climate, along with a bunch of other seemingly harmless
summer movies, Tim Burton’s Batman
opened in 1989, on June 23.

I wasn’t necessarily initially drawn to see the film. As a
high school student, I had watched mainly foreign films—Bergman, Fellini,
Truffaut—or older classics—The Wild One,
Streetcar, Psycho
. In fact, I’d studiously stayed away from anything
that didn’t have a fair amount of cultural intellectual endorsement. Due to the
nurturing influence of a number of friends in high school, I’d cautiously added
certain American directors, most notably Martin Scorsese (whose frequent
lunches in the Columbia student center were a high point of the academic year)
and Woody Allen (ah, the pleasure of seeing Radio
or Hannah and Her Sisters at
the time of their release!). Something, though, got me to the theater, to see
Burton’s film: perhaps it was my love of Beetlejuice,
perhaps it was the concept of casting someone as schlubby as Michael Keaton as
a superhero; maybe it was the heat. But there I was. And, at the time, I
probably found the film quite entertaining, and funny: Michael Keaton was still
a relatively new talent to me. Jack Nicholson retained some of the mystery he
held for me after having starred in The Shining, Prizzi’s Honor, and Terms of
all within one career. And Kim Basinger, was, for most 19-year-old
heterosexual males, still carrying the line of credit for titillation she’d earned in 9½ Weeks, however witheringly wrong-headed
that film might seem at this point. Watching Batman today is a bit like watching the 1970s Star Wars today: the good parts stand out, the bad parts seem
worse. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a remarkable figure, the work of an actor
pulling out all the stops, enjoying himself, and possibly scaring himself in
the process. Michael Keaton’s self-consciousness is still amusing, his mouthed
“I’m Batman” still an indication that this is, above and beyond its
summer-comic-book-thriller-blockbuster aspirations, a movie about repressions,
and psychological damage. The rest is a bit of a wash: Kim Basinger’s quite
stiff as photographer Vicki Vale, Robert Wuhl is stumble-footed as reporter Alexander
Knox; the other supporting actors deliver their lines with the awkwardness of Law & Order extras. The onrush of
Danny Elfman’s soundtrack sounds dated, as well, almost like soundtracks from
before the first Batman movie, of the

A couple of things about the film, though, do endure. One
is, of course, its design. Burton’s Gotham/New York, as Anton Furst created it,
is a dangerous, gritty place, and at the time, it matched New York all too
well. Although, as with all of Burton’s films, you can practically see the
brushstrokes in his urban tableaux, you can still sense a seething energy in
the frame, as the old (the dilapidated look of the buildings, the pedestrians
in fedoras) brushes up against the new (the shiny look of the taxicabs). In
1989, Times Square was still a dangerous, seedy, unpredictable place; the risk
of being mugged there, if you were alone, was considerable. I remember being
palpably nervous when going there in broad daylight to get a fake ID (so I
could see a show at the long-departed King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut), so nervous, in
fact, that I gave my dormitory address as my home address for my “Official
Identification Card.” Avenue A, bordering Tompkins Square, was not for lone
travelers after dark, and really not much fun during the daytime either.
Williamsburg was barely a place, it was so dangerous. When I looked at the blue-black
hues of Burton’s Gotham, I saw a reflection of the city I both worshipped and,
from a Texan’s perspective, feared.

In addition, its Black-White-and-Gray Morality Play lasts. I
identified with this aspect of it partially because of my own mental state at
the time. I was blasted out from a year’s worth of reading everything from
classics to Lolita to Mayakovsky to Marquez to Hobbes to Hume, lonely, freaked
out, psychologically tired from combating the regular pressure New York puts on a novice. The world began to seem like one of extremes to me:
either a day was good, or it was terrible. Either I was sated, or I was
starving. Either I was wide awake, or I was collapsing. Similarly, the movie’s
polarities are dramatic: Rich vs. Poor. Innocent vs. Corrupt. Happy vs. Unhappy.
Past vs. Present. (In other words, it’s a movie based on a comic book.) The
movie isn’t necessarily simple-minded—these qualities dance around each other,
and occasionally disguise themselves, in the film, but the manipulation we
witness is writ large. There’s nothing complex about the way the complexity is expressed.
Bruce Wayne is Batman, but he is tormented about it—and then, on the other
hand, he isn’t. All of these sides of his character are openly stated.
Similarly, the Joker’s complicated stance—a crook out-crooked by his more crooked
boss, with a tremendous sense of humor (remember his sparing of the Francis
Bacon grotesques in the museum? Or “I’m no Picasso”? Or “This town needs an
enema”?)—makes him both malevolent and sympathetic, as with all the great
villains of literature and film. His complexities, as with Batman’s, were
broadcast on such a large scale that you would have had to have been asleep or deeply stupid not to have noticed them. So, my younger self, nursing the
dogmatically snotty should-I-be-here feeling only a 19-year-old can pull off,
sat in the theater, surprised at the degree to which I could relate to the film, and to its warped figures.

Things would improve: for Batman retellings, for Gotham, and
for me. It would be hard to deny, in all honesty, that Christopher Nolan’s
Batman films, based as they are on a more nuanced telling of the superhero’s
story, are more subtle, more multi-layered, more deftly filmed, more atmospheric,
and possibly more profound than Burton’s version, or any of its sad successors;
Batman Returns could boast the gifts
of Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito, but the series did not progress well
after that point (enough said). New York City looked up after 1989 as well; while David
Dinkins’ mayoralty of New York was problematic on many levels, the crime rate
was reduced, and with each successive leader, the metropolis has continued to change. Today, Times Square is a clean, well-maintained tourist
depository; Avenue A is prime real estate territory and a dining destination;
and many parts of Williamsburg resemble a suburb populated by Ivy-League
educated hipsters who like drinking beer out of the can. And me? Well, my days
became more well-rounded, the summers shorter; my sociability intensified; my
mind grew; my urban environment became, rather than a vast zoo in which I was
wandering without defenses, a complex place with which I would develop a relationship,
much like an interpersonal relationship—and a place in which I would build a
life. Nevertheless, I remember Burton’s film as a document of the summer of
1989, of a particularly odd patch in my own life, and as a film with a
tremendous amount of, for lack of a better word, soul, with all of that word’s
glories and imperfections.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

5 thoughts on “Speak, BATMAN: Tim Burton’s Version, 25 Years Later”

  1. Batman Returns remains my favorite Batman film, by far, but the 89 Batman looks better with each passing year. It's uneven, but its genuine kookiness makes it easy to forgive quite a lot. And I, too, still like the score!


  2. I also reckon you're a bit hard on the score. Its one of my favourite parts of the movie and I thought it complemented Tim Burton's style perfectly. I remember being bitterly disappointed by the music in watching the more recent Batman movies – completely forgettable.

    It also might be worth noting that without the commercial success of this string of Batman movies, a whole bunch of other comic book based movies probably don't get made. Likely including the remake Batman movies.


  3. A note: you mean David Dinkins, not Bill Dinkins.

    And I think you're a bit hard on the Elfman score. I can't remember the main themes for any of the Nolan movies, but I do still remember the Elfman music.


  4. I showed Batman '89 to my two kids recently, aged 5 and 8. I felt that it's few violent moments aside it was fantastical enough that it wouldn't really scare them. My kids drew my attention to something I never realised before. The connection between Bruce Wayne and Batman isn't made in the film until half way through, in the above mentioned 'mouths "I'm Batman"' scene. In fact since both my kids missed that it's not until we see Bruce siting at some monitors about 70 minutes in that it's actually made explicit. It's almost like there are two separate stories, one about a man bat fighting crime, and then a related one about a lonely millionaire trying to find love. On that basis the film really seems to be about Vicky Vale, who is in fact the common thread to both stories.

    For about 2/3 of the film, my daughter was convinced that Billy Dee Williams was Batman.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: