Batman first appeared in Detective Comics Vol. 1 #27, in May of 1939. As a martial-arts expert, an acrobat, gymnast, and escape artist, he did not need superpowers (except that he’s extremely rich). He is the Dark Night and Gotham City’s Guardian, an urban legend living in the shadows. Young Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed in the Park Row district of Gotham City after seeing the movie The Mark of Zorro. He vowed to wage war on criminals from then on. He learned gadgetry from Sergei Alexandrov, driving from Brazilian criminal Don Miguel, Martial Arts with Shihan Matsuda in Tibet. He took the symbol of the bat from the Batcave because he found criminals to be cowardly and superstitious.
Over the years, the dark pulp magazine creature of the night became less shadowy through the Fifties and Sixties, but in the Eighties and Nineties returned to the grim and gritty Dark Knight image, largely because of the brilliant artists of Dark Horse Comics, the dark side of DC. There were even darker versions from the future, in a Gotham City overrun by genetic monstrosities. He branched out with Robin, Batgirl, and dozens of Batman imitators from all over the world. The movie serials and the goofy but popular TV-show made him a household name, but true Batman fans hungered for the brooding, tortured, laconic original. The 1989 movie by Tim Burton was a revelation to me, personally, and many others.
It is the bicentennial of Gotham City. Mayor Borg (Lee Wallace) orders DA Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) and police commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) to clean up the city. Reporter Alex Knox (Robert Wuhl) and photojournalist Vicki Vail (Kim Basinger) investigate the masked vigilante called Batman. They attend a fundraiser hosted by playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who takes a shine to Vicki but has to leave the party.
Mob Boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) sends his sociopath henchman Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) to raid Axis Chemicals. Napier doesn’t know it’s going to be a death-trap because Napier is sleeping with Grissom’s mistress. But Commissioner Gordon arrives to take Napier alive. Batman arrives as well, and trying to escape from him, Napier falls off a catwalk into a vat of acid. He survives badly disfigured, with green hair and white skin. His attempted plastic surgery results in a permanent grin. He is totally insane now and calls himself the Joker, as he takes over the mob.
The Joker terrorizes Gotham City with poisonous hygiene products, but when he attacks the Gotham Museum of Art, Batman arrives and rescues Vicki. He takes her to the Batcave and gives her info to help save the populace. He visits her apartment as Bruce Wayne, but they are interrupted by the Joker. Something the Joker says reminds him of the man who killed Wayne’s parents. The Joker shoots him, but he has a serving tray under his shirt and escapes.
Vicki is taken to the Batcave by Wayne’s butler Alfred (Michael Gough). After exposing his dual personality to Vicki, Batman leaves to destroy the Axis plant. The Joker is holding a deadly parade, promising the people free money and gassing them from the giant balloons. Batman removes the balloons using his Batwing, but the Joker shoots it down and Batman crashes in front of a cathedral.
The Joker takes Vicki hostage inside the cathedral and Batman pursues him to the top of the tower. Batman points out that the Joker created Batman and Batman created the Joker. The Joker calls for a helicopter and starts up a ladder, but Batman uses a grappling hook to attach the Joker to a gargoyle. The Joker falls to his death. Later, Gordon has arrested all of the Joker’s men and unveils the Bat-Signal for future use. Vicki waits for him at Wayne Manor.
In the late Seventies, Batman was losing popularity. Producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan wanted to create a definitive, dark, serious version of the comic, but most studios wanted a silly, campy Batman like the TV show. The creators of Swamp Thing liked the darker version. Tim Burton had the proper Gothic worldview, and after the success of Beetlejuice, he was hired. The tone of the film was influenced by Alan Moore and Brian Bullard’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in Dark Horse Comics.
Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, Tom Selleck, Bill Murray, Harrison Ford, and Dennis Quaid were all considered to play Batman. Michael Keaton was disliked by just about everybody but Tim Burton, who had seen him in an edgy, tortured, serious role and was impressed. Tim Curry, David Bowie, John Lithgow, Ray Liotta, and James Woods were considered for the Joker. Robin Williams was desperate to play the role. Nicholson turned it down until Robin Williams was accepted, and then he changed his mind. Robin Williams never forgave the studio for that and boycotted Warner Brothers for years. Nicholson was approved of by just about everybody, though he came with a multitude of big-star demands, like top billing and—wisely, it turned out—a cut of the film’s earnings.
The character of Gotham City was influenced by the Dark Knight Comics and Andreas Feininger’s photographs of New York City, not to mention Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Everyone was forbidden to watch Blade Runner. The black, muscled Batman suit made Keaton, who has emotional issues, extremely claustrophobic. A logic freak, Keaton was bothered that everyone could see the similarity of Bruce Wayne to Batman, so he lowered his voice when he became the latter and that was picked up by everybody who has played the character since. A strike of the Writer’s Guild didn’t help the production.
Danny Elfman, of course, came in a package with Tim Burton for the music, which I adore. The film is a duel of the freaks, as both Batman and the Joker have dual personalities. The Art Deco design of Gotham is like the 1930’s pulp magazines, a bit film noir, a bit Metropolis, a bit German Expressionist, a bit Fascist. To calm the worried comic-book fans, a trailer was released at Christmas and shown at conventions, which turned everything around. Batmania swept the country before the film hit the screen. It was an overwhelming success and—funny thing—the studio said it made no money. Jack Nicholson stole every scene he was in. The movie was released on the 50th Anniversary of the first appearance of Batman in the comics.
Michael Keaton could not hear in the Batsuit, which enhanced his claustrophobia. He used his comedy chops in several scenes to help create the idea that Bruce Wayne was a bit off, like the dinner with Vicki at the long, long table, and his habit of hanging upside down like a bat. The Batmobile was part Chevy and part Harrier Jump-jet. Tim Burton had a problem with Jack Palance, who was going deaf and disliked having attention drawn to the fact. “I’ve made a hundred movies, how many have you made?” But Burton worked it out and wouldn’t have anyone but Palance in the role. Who else could play Jack Nicholson’s boss?
Tim Burton met first with big, burly actors and by contrast Michael Keaton was less intimidating, but then he realized that’s what the black suit was for. Burton was inspired by the movies of Val Lewton. The Gothic cathedral was inspired by the work of Antoni Gaudi. The death in the Cathedral Tower refers to the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The news channel is called Action News and has a logo similar to that of Action Comics. The line, “I’m Batman,” was originally, “I’m Batman, Motherfucker.” Vicki Vale screams 23 times. Tim Burton played one of the Joker’s goons. He received death threats for letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave, so he stopped going to conventions for a while.