Every generation gets the Batman it deserves, and ours is hands-down the best to ever glower down at us from the big screen — Michael Keaton’s scowling, brooding Caped Crusader, and his equally brooding (but also very neurotic) take on orphaned playboy Bruce Wayne.
Early in his career, Tim Burton controversially cast everyman Keaton as the superhero who redefined the modern blockbuster as more than just a movie — with a pop soundtrack by Prince, fast food tie-ins, and an iconic logo everyone was wearing back in 1989. (And ever since.) Jack Nicholson’s unforgettably over-the-top Joker also raised the bar for movie villains (and movie star paydays) in one of the decade’s very biggest films.
The mass-marketing returned in 1992’s Batman Returns, which upped the ante with two larger-than-life adversaries — the oozy, outrageous Penguin, played with gruesome gusto by Danny DeVito, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s seductive but deeply damaged Catwoman.
The podcast invites When We Were Young superfan Jan to reminisce on all the Batman merch, cosplay, and fan fiction of our youths, before revisiting Burton’s Batman films with a critical eye. Does the macabre camp of 1989’s Batman hold up against the more somber Batmen of recent years? Is its chilly, gleefully anarchic, and disturbingly erotic sequel decidedly not okay for kids? And, in a movie landscape that’s now littered with superheroes, do these Batman films look quaint alongside Marvel’s colossal conquest of the multiplex — or is Tim Burton’s singular vision just so much yummier?
Strap on your utility belt, fire up the Bat-vehicle of your choice, and have your butler ready a dirty limerick to excuse your absence, because Gotham City’s most wanted are wreaking havoc upon our podcast — and only your nostalgia can stop them!
It’s finally here! The episode I’ve been waiting for since this podcast was conceived.
Nothing in my early childhood was bigger than Batman. I saw Batman movies, I read Batman books, I played with Batman toys, I collected Batman trading cards. Tim Burton’s Batman was the first “adult” movie I saw in the theater. (I’m still rather astounded that 5-year-old me was allowed to see this. It was a fluke.) It was also probably the first film I truly loved. And you know what? Five-year-old me had good taste!
I don’t know how many times I rented Batman from the video store, but it was a lot. Batman was stoic and awesome, a man of few words who always kept his cool and had every situation under control. I thought Vicki Vale was impossibly alluring, the most beautiful woman in the world. I would have killed for a ride in the Batwing or Batmobile. The climactic showdown with the Joker on the roof of a very tall cathedral never failed to thrill me. I didn’t really have many other “grown up” movies to compare it to at the time, so Batman was that much more epic in scope, with its crime syndicate subplot and political intrigue that I could only half-follow at that age. As campy as some elements of it are — especially in hindsight — it all played dead serious to me. As far as I knew, all adult dramas had fun Prince music interludes and contained sophisticated lines of dialogue like, “Never rub another man’s rhubarb.” This is what a movie was, in my mind. It’s probably impossible to know just how much Batman set the tone for my taste in cinema, and how much it just happened to be the kind of film I would like. Batman is a superhero, sure, but I don’t particularly care for superhero movies anymore. I do like macabre humor, and unexpected musical choices, and brooding, tortured protagonists, and villains with brilliantly evil plots. If anything, Tim Burton’s Batman set me up to love Goodfellas and Network and The Silence Of The Lambs more than it set me up to love Marvel movies. Batman is one of few superheroes who caters to my particular taste, and everything I love about him is encompassed in Burton’s first film.
June 23, 1989
Budget: $35 million
Opening Weekend: $40.5 million
Domestic Gross: $251.2 million
Worldwide Gross: $411.5 million
Metacritic: 69, Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
From LEGO movies to TV’s Gotham to Ben Affleck’s sourpuss spin on the Caped Crusader, Batman has not exactly been scarce in pop culture lately. So it’s easy to forget that it was Tim Burton who put Gotham City back on the map in 1989’s Batman, which salvaged the superhero’s reputation from the campy 60s TV series that starred Adam West, the words POW! and BOFF!, and a whole lot of dad jokes.
Back in the 80s, a gritty comic book adaptation was anything but a sure bet, especially one led by an actor most known for comedic roles (Michael Keaton) and helmed by the unproven Burton. Throw in Jack Nicholson’s way-over-the-top take on the Joker and a funky soundtrack by Prince, and this easily could have been a Howard The Duck-level misfire.
Instead, it’s a pop-art masterpiece.
Some might balk at the “M”-word, as applied here. And yes, this is probably the definitive movie of my childhood, so I’m biased. But what a movie, in every sense! Danny Elfman’s score is is one of the best movie themes, period. The art direction is to die for. Jack Nicholson’s performance is a scream. The dialogue is sharp and funny. The story is strong. Even without Batman’s gadgets and gizmos and the occasional ass-kicking, Batman is engaging. It’s a real film. Could you take the action sequences out of the Marvel movies, and still expect people to watch them? Of course not. But with Batman, you could. I didn’t know it at the time, but Burton made some truly bold and bizarre choices in Batman, and they worked. What other studio blockbuster is allowed to look and feel this unique? Where else can you find German expressionism with an 80s pop soundtrack? Even the color palette is striking, with Batman’s sleek darkness contrasting starkly against the Joker’s bright greens and reds and purples. He is, in every sense, cinema’s most colorful villain.
Batman is the kind of film I wish every summer tentpole had the balls to be. And the fact that it was a colossal hit just makes it that much more fascinating. You might think it would have inspired a dozen copycats, but aside from the underwhelming Dick Tracy — with a Madonna soundtrack, instead of one by Prince — nobody dared take chances with big name superheroes after Burton exited the scene.
Thankfully, he still had one more Batman film in him.
June 19, 1992
Budget: $80 million
Opening Weekend: $45.7 million
Domestic Gross: $162.9 million
Worldwide Gross: $266.9 million
Metacritic: 68, Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Every Batman movie is as good as its villains, and Tim Burton’s Batman movies have the very best. Heath Ledger’s Joker is a villain for the ages, one of the best to ever menace the silver screen. But he’s also kind of a fluke. The Scarecrow in Batman Begins is forgettable, Two-Face in The Dark Knight is mishandled and greatly upstaged by the Joker, and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises is pretty much just a mush-mouthed brute. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is fun, but she’s more heroine than villain, lacking in the character’s dark, damaged sex appeal. Joker aside, Nolan’s villains are a mixed bag at best.
Burton’s bad guys, on the other hand, take over their respective movies. It’s hard to imagine 1989’s Batman looking or feeling the same without Jack Nicholson’s Joker. The movie veers between comic and tragic, light-hearted and cutthroat, right along with the Joker. (Plus, no one else in the movie would listen to Prince.) That’s even more true in Batman Returns, with the monstrous loneliness of Oswald Cobblepot and Selina Kyle baked into the art direction, the cinematography, and the score. Batman Returns takes place at Christmastime, and that chilliness stings through the screen. As iconic as Nicholson’s Joker is, the unholy pairing of the Penguin and Catwoman is an even greater feat — because it’s even more unexpected. Using the Joker as the adversary in a Batman film is a no-brainer, and Burton’s film capitalized on what the comic books and Cesar Romero had built. But the bad guys in Batman Returns are greater departures; they’re as much Burton’s characters as they are rooted in years of comic book lore.
On paper, the duo have almost nothing in common — but together, they’re a magnificent, malevolent “beauty and the beast.” (The actual match between the two is shorter-lived than you might think, with the Penguin attempting to off Catwoman right after their first evil plot is hatched. But it’s fun while it lasts!) All of Nolan’s Batman films look and feel the same, but Burton’s are tailor-made for each of Batman’s freakish foes. This film’s wintery palette feels like an extension of the Penguin’s numbing isolation, so absent of color the film might as well be black-and-white. That’s very different than the 1989 film’s splashy color, which represented the Joker’s outrageous mindset.
The Batman Returns formula worked, with Joel Schumacher’s subsequent Batman films also pairing differently tempered villains. The films were lacking in comparison, but to whatever degree that they’re enjoyable, they’re enjoyable because of those villains. (Even if it’s only ironically, as in Mr. Freeze’s case.)
As would happen with Jurassic Park a year later, I fought hard to see Batman Returns in theaters, wearing my parents down after months of needling. Maybe the fact that I “earned” my love for this one contributes to the feeling that this is the superhero movie for me. Burton’s Batman is brilliant. Batman Returns doubles down on the first film’s weirdness, with two villains who are even more deranged and disturbed than Nicholson’s Joker — and that’s saying something! It’s rare for a sequel to look and feel like it’s own movie, but Batman Returns does that, while still retaining enough continuity that we believe these two films happen in roughly the same place and time. Sequels tend to play it safe, but Batman Returns is even riskier than Batman; honestly, it doesn’t feel like it was made with a summer audience — or, really, any audience — in mind. It’s a weird goth art project that just happens to have many millions of dollars behind it, with the expectation that it would carry on the massive success of that first film. Ultimately, this might be the reason more sequels don’t take chances; as a triumph of commerce, it falls short. But as film art, it is one-of-a-kind and endlessly fascinating. I’m grateful for its unlikely existence, and happily rank both Burton Batmans amongst my favorite films.