VIDEO ESSAY: CRUEL SUMMER: BATMAN (1989)
The "Cruel Summer" series of articles examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), WARGAMES (1983), PURPLE RAIN (1984), PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985), TOP GUN (1986), ROBOCOP (1987), and DIE HARD (1988).
Tim Burton’s Batman was a game-changer for summer blockbusters. It closed out a decade marked by light and sunny escapist entertainment by applying a more serious, atmospheric attitude, both dark and thrilling. It also ushered in a new level of hype that became an integral part of the movie-going experience. And it pointed the way for comic-book movies to become the dominant vehicle for summer entertainment.
Before Batman, Hollywood had created comic-book movies as silly, second-tier product. With the exception of the first Superman movie, comic-book movies lacked high production values and fidelity to their source material.
Things began to change when comic-book artists like Frank Miller and Alan Moore offered their takes on the superhero genre. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns brought a new level of psychological depth and graphic sophistication to comics.
Meanwhile, Hollywood was searching for the new Steven Spielberg or George Lucas, another prodigy with a childlike sense of wonder to dazzle audiences. Enter Tim Burton, who scored two hits, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, before turning 30. The surprise success of these dark, anarchic films marked Burton as having the ability to be edgy and still appeal to mass audiences. The execs at Warner Brothers could sense that audiences’ tastes were changing and a risk-taker like Burton might be necessary for Batman.
Batman arrived at the end of a decade where greed ran rampant, recession was imminent and people sensed things were getting worse, not better. Burton’s vision of Batman matched his audience’s feelings of restlessness and unease.
Every aspect of the movie was infused with Burton’s desire to present the world of Batman as a reflection of modern dystopia. Anton Furst’s groundbreaking production design took elements of Metropolis, Blade Runner and Depression-era Art Deco Manhattan, heaping layers of urban squalor upon itself.
But if there’s one image that defines the bold new vision of Burton’s Batman, it’s the Batsuit. Designer Bob Ringwood totally rejected the gray and blue image from the camp TV series. Ringwood’s design is a suit that contains drama in itself, something powerful but unwieldy, something closer to Robocop than Adam West. The Batsuit is a vision of man made superior by advanced technology, but also encased and imprisoned by it. It’s a 21st-century suit of armor for a Dark Knight, and it is still the template for how we see Batman today.
At the same time, the new Batman’s rigidness made him a foil for the film’s true protagonist. The Joker, with his anarchic wit and irreverent gags, is the heir to Beetlejuice. the charismatic anti-hero and master of ceremonies of Burton’s funhouse. At the same time, he was the comic alibi that could make Burton’s seriousness acceptable, breathing life and energy into his arty aspirations.
The Joker may have overwhelmed Batman in this film, but looking at the superhero movies that followed, we see the real winner, in a legacy of dark, disturbed protagonists whose vulnerabilities reflect the anxieties of our era. At the same time, Batman’s demons yielded a new dimension of interior drama and fragility that feels real—something that modern-day superheroes with their unlimited CGI powers can’t compensate for.
With its groundbreaking character types and radical visuals, Batman provided a new template for blockbuster storytelling, one that could even overcome its greatest weakness: its script. The plot of Batman may dip into incoherence, revolving around the Joker’s wanting to become some kind of homicidal artist by poisoning the citizens of Gotham until they die with a smile on their face.
Then again, the plot holes didn’t seem to matter to audiences. What mattered was the vision, the mood, the experience of a live-action comic-book movie that treated its source material seriously. Burton’s Batman provided the signal for a new comic-book movie whose ambitions often surpassed its abilities to deliver. These films are often incoherent or overloaded, but at their best, they come through with unforgettable images and moments. The Joker’s master plan has come to fruition. For better or worse, we exit the theater with a smile on our face.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.