The Hidden S in Phone Booth

An appreciation of Tim Burton's Batman at 20... Hard to believe, but it has been 20 years since the original Tim Burton Batman was released in 1989. This film has come to be underappreciated over time while managing to be still hugely influential. How is this you ask? 1. It set the standard for offbeat casting in comic book films. When Michael Keaton was cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman in 1988 there was a pre-internet storm of furious comic fans who feared that a Batman with Mr. Mom would be a joke (the memory of the Adam West Batman was still not a distant one for comic fans). Keaton, an always reliable, occasionally brilliant actor was at a peak when he was cast in Burton's film, having just come off high profile, Award Winning performances in Beetlejuice and Clean and Sober. Part of the problem, in comic fans minds, was that Keaton was not sufficiently physically "big" enough to play the Caped Crusader. This was the era of the steroidal action hero in films such as Rambo, Terminator, et al. and Keaton was hardly up to that standard. The early publicity stills with Keaton wearing a Batsuit with apparently etched-in muscles didn't help this issue. Keaton, however, acquitted himself more than admirably as the Dark Knight. His Batman remains my favorite because of the Kabuki like body language Keaton employs as part of his performance. Keaton's Batman is also the only screen Batman who really seems weird. Burton's Batman is an operatic creation as much as a comic book one and there is a sense of artificial theatricality in the way Batman is inserted into some of the sequences. It is hard to find fault with Bale's Dark Knight; physically, Bale resembles the Batman from Neal Adams' run in the 70s. However, Bale strikes a couple of wrong notes (so far) as Batman (mainly his technologically altered voice) that mar his otherwise solid performance. In any event, Keaton's performance and the film's impact satisfied most comic fans at the time. Casting Keaton had worked, and as a result, Hollywood was comfortable looking towards offbeat actors to fill superhero roles. In the late 90s Nicolas Cage was set to play Superman (the thought of which horrified many Superman fans). The film would not materialize for about a decade later, but ideas about superhero films and the actors that inhibit these roles had changed. Examples of this are Tobey McGuire as Spider-Man, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine (Jackman had been a theatre actor in Australia and England who specialized in musicals) and Alan Cumming as Kurt Wagner/NightCrawler. The latest and one of the best examples of this was casting Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man- an actor with offbeat qualities whose apparent unsuitableness is the secret to a good fit of actor and role. The casting of Liev Schreiber, a Tony Award winning theatre actor, as Sabretooth is also part of this trend, as is the probability that Seth Rogen will be the Green Hornet in the near future. Strangely enough, when a conventional looking leading man is cast in some of these films it often doesn't work (I'm looking at you Val Kilmer, George Clooney and Ben Affleck!) 2. It made Superhero films Director Driven and Auteur Friendly When most people talk about Batman and Batman Returns, they usually say "Tim Burton's Batman Films," and not "The Keaton Batman Films" or even the "Nicholson Batman Film." The reason being that the first Batman was one of the most distinguished and stylish films of the 80s and the film has Burton's fingerprints on it completely. The first Superman film was directed by Richard Donner. A solid, reliable craftsman who had worked in television for many years, Donner rose to the occasion with the Superman films dealing with a high-strung and high-powered cast (Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Margaret Kidder, etc.), tricky special effects and a budget that was pretty huge at the time. Donner, however, was no artist and Superman the Movie does not have a stylish look (Luthor's underground lair is interesting looking however). This does not really hurt the film, but had the movie had an artist's touch it might be a truly great film instead of just a very good film. With Burton this changed. Suddenly, superhero films looked to be an outgrowth of the director's artistic vision. (To be fair, Burton's genius production designer Anton Furst helped implement a lot of the visual elements of the film). Guys who had made edgy independent films like Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead), Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects), Jon Favreau (Swingers) and Christopher Nolan (Memento) made a name for themselves by delivering superhero films (Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man and Batman respectively) that were popular and well-received while managing to maintain, and even enhance, their auteur status. Now another well-thought of high end director, Kenneth Branagh, is set to helm the first Thor film, and this pattern seems to be set. Marvel still tends to hand off some of its second tier offerings like Ghost Rider and Fantastic Four to reliable studio workmen like Mark Stephen Johnson and Tim Story, but for its flagship heroes the filmmakers seem more apt to aim for interesting-even prestigious-directors. 3. It made Superhero films an event and helped set the stage for Pre-Release Hype and Viral Marketing... When Superman: The Movie premiered there was no E! channel, No Access Hollywood or none of the light news/entertainment shows that featured entertainment news exclusively. By 1989, the entertainment world was much more overblown and visible on television. Early in the film's production a clip of the 1989 Batman was shown on Entertainment Tonight and managed to be compelling enough to relax Batfans about the direction the film was taking. Along these lines a trailer snuck into theaters in early 1989 that helped relax Batfans and amp up the hype for the general public well before the film opened. The trailer was such a sensation that many patrons paid for a ticket just to see the trailer at which point they left the theater afterwards (I was one of those patrons). Editor's Note: While Mark may have left the theater after seeing the trailer, he is not condoning leaving this site after watching the trailer. There's plenty more to read. Now IMDB, YouTube and sites like Ain't It Cool News (and this one for that matter) help comic fans chronicle every move, casting choice, clip and/or picture relating to whatever superhero film happens to be in production. At this point, this kind of information stream is overwhelming and threatens to become a kind of silly time suck (do you really want to follow Jon Favreau twittering about rehearsing with Robert Downey, Jr.?). In any event, this sense of pre-release information overload started with Burton's Batman production way back when. 4. It set the stage for big actors being cast as supervillains Jack Nicholson's turn as the Joker was a very big deal and there was little, if any, backlash about this bit of casting. Nicholson, thick-set and short, did not resemble the comic Joker anymore than Keaton resembled the comic Bruce Wayne. However, Nicholson's status as a heavyweight actor and icon and his lurking instability and wildness as an actor made this, in the public's mind, a perfect fit of actor and role. Nicholson's work here has been devalued a bit over time. For one, Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight has definitely overshadowed Nicholson's earlier work. This is mostly unfair, for the simple reason that without Nicholson's Joker, there would have been no Dark Knight Joker. Editor's Note: It could even be argued that Mark Hamill's Joker from Batman: The Animated Series replaced Nicholson's Joker as well. But Nicholson, Hamill and Ledger were all going for different takes on the character, and all did their take extremely well. Whichever you like best really boils down to whether you like your Joker maniacal, funny or maniacal and funny. In any event, the list of great film actors as supervillains is impressive: Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin, Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, Ian McKellan as Magneto, Liam Neeson as R'as al Ghul, Jeff Bridges as Obediah Stone and even John Travolta lent some legitimacy to the Thomas Jane Punisher. This trend shows no signs of letting up with Mickey Rourke set to play Whiplash in Iron Man 2 and John Malkovich set to play the antagonist Turnbull in the upcoming Jonah Hex. The lure of these roles is fairly obvious: it is a chance to get a big check, have some scenery chewing fun, wear a groovy helmet and not have to take flack if these films don't work, but take some credit if they are successful. For filmmakers, it is a chance to give weight and credibility to a project. With all of these influential ideas, how is it the 1989 Batman arrived at its undervalued status? There are a couple of key reasons I think. One is the horrible misfortune and subsequent death of Christopher Reeve which I think had the effect of raising the bar of the 1978 Superman: The Movie as the standard bearer of great comic book films, thereby circumventing the 1989 Burton Batman. The other reason is the fact that Keaton doesn't work much anymore, at least in high profile projects. Also, the two Burton films are unfairly yoked to the two unholy Shumaker efforts which came after and are widely considered the worst superhero films of all time. Finally, the biggest reason of all is the Nolan Batman films which have truly raised the bar for all superhero films with great acting, thoughtful casting, strong allegiance to both realism as well as Batman's history and mythology and effective promotion. Many comic fans are justifiably relieved that Nolan's steady hand is at the helm of the latest series of Batman films and, as mentioned previously, I think comic fans think of these films as a corrective of the late 80s-mid 90s Batfilms. If this happens to be these case, it is too bad because Burton's vision of Batman remains the one closest to the weird early stories of Bob Kane. The Hidden S... Editor's Note: One more reason for Tim Burton's Batman (in my mind at least) to be as popular and auteur as it is has to do with Danny Elfman's composing. His cacophony of horns and drums are almost as iconic as the entire film itself. Elfman has since done the score for numerous other superhero films including the Spider-man trilogy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Hulk, Darkman, Dick Tracy and Wanted. So clearly he's not a stranger to composing comic book films.


  1. plus Billy Dee Wiliams was Harvey Dent in the Burton's Batman and Lando ROCKS!!! and i think the nick fury movie or the dolph lundgren punisher are the two worst comic book movies

  2. Although Elfman has become a little repetitive over time, I think JP makes a good point-Elfman's Batman score still sounds fresh and it has set the standard for popular Hollywood scores...


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