13 Things I Still Love About Batman ’89 (Mostly)

Wow, has it been 25 years?

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Summer’s almost over but I couldn’t let it pass without a remembrance of 1989 — a watershed year for me and Batfans everywhere.

I’m obsessed with Batman ’66. You know that by now. But in 1989, I was 22 and I wanted nothing more than to run away from Adam West and all the Biffs! and Pows!

You gotta understand. If you were a Batfan at the time, you kinda had to keep it under wraps. Friends — and girls — knew nothing of Frank Miller or Steve Englehart or Denny O’Neil or Neal Adams or Marshall Rogers.

To them, Batman was kid’s stuff. And when you’re 22, kid’s stuff is something you want to bury and forget. “I’m a man, man.”

I remember when they announced that Michael Keaton was gonna be Batman. Had there been an Internet at the time, it wouldn’t have cracked in half. It would have disintegrated.

Sheer outrage and panic. That’s what I remember most. And it was universal. Michael Keaton was the guy from “Night Shift” or “Beetlejuice.” Batman? BATMAN?!

We felt betrayed. Batfans had waited and waited to be taken seriously. We were closeted and embarrassed and this didn’t help at all.

Then — and I’m pretty sure it was in USA Today — they released this picture. Or something close to it.

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And, just like that, I was a convert. We were all converts. We knew this was gonna be the real deal.

By the time the movie finally premiered in 1989, I was working at a Boston theater chain. In one of the earliest instances of living a charmed Batlife, I was able to go to the first screening.

And this is where I jump in with 13 Things I Still Love About Batman ’89 (Mostly):

1. The memory of seeing it that first time.

Batman-1989-Teaser

I don’t want to insult anybody, but for me it was akin to a euphoric, religious experience. The place was packed and people were shouting and hollering throughout the whole thing — in the best possible way at the best possible times.

Batman on the rooftop, taking out two thugs? “YEAHHHHHHHH!!!”

Joker kills Grissom? “YEAHHHHHHHHH!!!

First shot of the Batmobile? “YEAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!”

The Batsignal? “Oh, MY GOD, YEAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!”

I walked out feeling like my life was changed. I went to dinner afterward with friends and I sat there, feeling my body vibrate, my ears ringing. It was a physical reaction.

Finally. We finally got the Batman we wanted.

2. The score.

And I’m not just talking about the theme, which soon became one of Hollywood’s most memorable. I’m talking about the entire score. And there are two tracks on the album that really soar:

Descent Into Mystery

and

Finale

Now of course, on the album there’s no dialogue, but I included these clips for the full effect. But I tell you, this music is perfect. If it’s late at night and I’m driving down a darkened, tree-lined road, Descent Into Mystery slams through my head, with all its Carmina Burana gothic menace.

One thing, though about the finale. Why is Batman just standing there looking at the Batsignal? I mean, time to go to work, dude!

3. On the other hand, everytime I hear a Prince song, it takes me right out of the movie.

Even the best use of it — in the museum scene that rips off a similar one from Batman ’66 — feels really forced.

It’s not like I dislike Prince. He’s OK. I just don’t like him mixed with Batman unless it’s Cliff Chiang’s handiwork.

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4. I was the first person to cast Jack Nicholson as the Joker.

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I was! I used to write to DC Comics with my suggested cast for a serious Batman movie. And I pegged Jack Nicholson as the Joker from the get-go. I’m sure they passed my notes on to Warner Brothers.

So you can thank me.

5. Vicki Vale. Vicki Vale. Vicki Vale.

Sorry, no.

6. Why don’t they ever explain why he became a bat?

They give us his parents’ death, but we never see that bat crash through the window. Missed opportunity. His explanation to Vicki that bats are great survivors is really thin. Oh, well.

It's not like it was an antiquated idea. Here's a fantastic version in Batman: Year One by Miller and Mazzucchelli.

It’s not like it was an antiquated idea. Here’s a fantastic version in Batman: Year One by Miller and Mazzucchelli.

7. I think Billy Dee Williams would have made a fine Two-Face.

He was so smooth, he was almost unctuous. But it really would have worked.

8. The show gave us Batman: The Animated Series — and by extension, the entire Bruce Timm-helmed animated universe.

Without Batman’s success, the dominoes never would have fallen in such a way that the network suits at Fox would have greenlit a darker Batman cartoon for prime time. For many children of the ’90s, this version of Batman is the platonic ideal.

9. This image is still one of the best in any Batman movie.

l, Batwing

10. After the movie came out and was such a ridiculous smash, the Batlogo was everywhere.  Everyone wore it, whether it was on T-shirts, decals, pins or cut into their hair. It was ubiquitous. These days, you walk through a city and you see men, women, kids wearing a wide variety of superhero gear. Marvel, DC, it doesn’t matter. Those logos are everywhere.

The summer of 1989 was the first time you saw something like that, only it was that Batlogo over and over again. I remember riding the T in Boston and thinking to myself, “I wonder when will be the next time I’ll go a day without seeing that logo.” At some point I gave up looking because it had become so routine. I never thought I’d see Batman become that kind of phenomenon.

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11. My love of action figures and Batswag was rekindled.  Batman, Joker, Batcave, Batmobile, Batwing, an ancillary wave of reconstituted Super Powers figures, all of it, I had to have it. Even the Batman cereal with Batman bank. ALL of it.

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12. But when it all comes down to it, the movie doesn’t age well for me.

The criticism at the time was that it was a great-looking movie in search of a plot. I dismissed such talk. But then I began to recognize the seams: Too much Tim Burton. Not enough Batman. Alexander Knox is annoying. Gordon is a non-entity. Bruce isn’t driven as much as he’s befuddled at times. “We can try to love each other.” The Joker has a real name. Machine guns on the Batwing. Batman blows people up real good, and kills thugs without a second thought.  Some of my complaints are quibbles. But it’s a movie that really suffers from poor pacing.  I’ll always honor it for its legacy. But as a movie, it’s a B- to these 47-year-old sensibilities.

13. Still, these are really cool.

Pix by Sam Greenfield

Pix by Sam Greenfield

photo 2

Author: Dan Greenfield

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2 Comments

  1. Interesting article. There are some points that I really share, some that I don’t. The main one that I don’t share is that the movie has not aged well, which is absolutely not true because “Batman” is one of the best examples of how you can place a movie totally out of space and time, so that it becomes eternal. Nothing has aged in this movie and even after 25 years you can perceive something “like it was yesterday”. I agree concerning the plot, a bit confusing in certain moments and not focused enough on the Joker’s poisoning plan. I think this is because, being a prototype, it was very hard to gather so many elements all together in 2 hours. Today we have movies 3 hours long and people are never bored or annoyed, back then it was impossible to do something like that. However, “Batman” is and always will be the best Batman adaptation alongside “Batman Begins”, it set the standards for everything we have today.

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  2. Watching the movie more recently, the Prince songs stick out like a sore thumb. But in the context of 1989, I can remember why they were accepted, as hip-hop and sample-based music was becoming more and more mainstream (Yo! MTV Raps debuted the year prior.) The songs haven’t aged well, but they made some sense at the time. And I remember the Batman t-shirts–more common than just the logo were the Aparo and Gaiman pin-ups turned to (probably bootleg) t-shirts, at least in New York. But kids getting Batman symbols shaved into their heads, while less prevalent than the shirts, made a huge lasting impact on me! That was real dedication, I thought.

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