13 THINGS I Still Love About BATMAN ’89 (Mostly)

BATMAN ’89 WEEK: Wow, has it been 30 years?

 

UPDATED 6/25/19: Hey, it’s BATMAN ’89 WEEK, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Tim Burton’s landmark blockbuster. I first wrote this piece in 2014 but it’s obviously the perfect time to re-present it (in slightly altered form). Oh, and for all the fancy new retrospectives we’re publishing, click here. You’ll dig ’em! — Dan

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.

batmankeaton3

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.

batgirl-color

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

batman8996

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.

batman-basic-logo

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 in certain respects.

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. The pacing can be sluggish. 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.

Now, I acknowledge that some of my complaints are quibbles and I’ll always honor Batman for its legacy. But as a straight-up movie, it gets a B to these 52-year-old sensibilities.

13. Still, these are really cool.

Pix by Sam Greenfield

Pix by Sam Greenfield

photo 2

MORE

— The Complete BATMAN ’89 WEEK Index. Click here.

— 13 THINGS You Might Not Know About BATMAN ’89. Click here.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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13 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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  3. I actually like the Prince songs. My problems with the movie:

    1.) I think Nicholson’s performance is vastly overrated. It’s not the Joker, it’s Jack Nicholson doing his Jack Nicholson shtick in clown make-up.

    2.) Tim Burton has no clue on how to direct an action sequence.

    What I do like about the film: Keaton’s performance, the new-Gothic look of Gotham City, and the overall atmosphere. Burton’s was able to merge the comic book feel to his own personal vision pretty successfully

    It’s a good movie and an important movie for the superhero genre. It’s not a great movie.

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  4. LIke many true Batman fans. I too was initially livid at Keaton portraying the Dark Knight. Blue Beetle-juice maybe, but NOT Batman. But I was pleasantly surprised by his depiction of the Dark Knight Detective. As for the somewhat “campy” museum scene with the Prince song, the Joker and his henchmen, I loved it. I seem to remember reading or hearing somewhere that that one scene was a hat tip or homage to the campy TV show.

    I enjoyed the Adam West show when it was originally on and I was a kid. But now? I’m a MUCH bigger fan of the no nonsense, grim and gritty DARK Knight of the Aparo and Neal Adams era, so the TV show NOW is only slightly amusing to me.

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  5. I had the great honor of catching “Batman” on it’s opening night (Knight) . Not talking about the Tim Burton movie, but the original 1966 Batman movie itself! They had a premier showing at the Wilshire Blvd. Theater on the same night. In attendance was Cesar Romero, Burt Ward, Burgess Meredith and Julie Newmar! I still have my ticket stub from the show and this was a very special time for us old Batmaniacs! Meeting them all for the very first time was sensational and the rest is history…!

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  6. —————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

    Why do Facebook profile pics cover the content here??? Here’s my original post again so you can read what’s UNDER the Fb pic. Google Chrome has a hiccup that won’t let me post AT ALL?!?
    I too was initially livid at Keaton portraying the Dark Knight. Blue Beetle-juice maybe, but NOT Batman. But I was pleasantly surprised by his depiction of the Dark Knight Detective. As for the somewhat “campy” museum scene with the Prince song, the Joker and his henchmen, I loved it. I seem to remember reading or hearing somewhere that that one scene was a hat tip or homage to the campy TV show.
    I enjoyed the Adam West show when it was originally on and I was a kid. But now? I’m a MUCH bigger fan of the no nonsense, grim and gritty DARK Knight of the Aparo and Neal Adams era, so the TV show NOW is only slightly amusing to me.

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  7. As flawed as it was, I still got a kick out of seeing the film. I kinda liked the songs by Prince, especially “Batdance.”

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  8. Okay…one more try. Dan, either you or Facebook need to fix this problem with Facebook profile pics covering our comments please.

    Why are our Facebook profile picurtes covering the content here??? Here’s my original post again so you can read what’s UNDER the Fb pic. Google Chrome has a hiccup that won’t let me post AT ALL?!?
    I too was initially livid at Keaton portraying the Dark Knight. Blue Beetle-juice maybe, but NOT Batman. But I was pleasantly surprised by his depiction of the Dark Knight Detective. As for the somewhat “campy” museum scene with the Prince song, the Joker and his henchmen, I loved it. I seem to remember reading or hearing somewhere that that one scene was a hat tip or homage to the campy TV show.
    I enjoyed the Adam West show when it was originally on and I was a kid. But now? I’m a MUCH bigger fan of the no nonsense, grim and gritty DARK Knight of the Aparo and Neal Adams era, so the TV show NOW is only slightly amusing to me.

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  9. I forgot to add this cool bit of info I discovered several months ago concerning Jack Nicholson’s role as the Joker and a previous role and similar dialogue in another movie he was in.

    FUN TRIVIA FACT: I posted something about this a while back on a comic fan Facebook page but had to wait for a repeat of this western movie before confirming what I thought I heard the first time I watched this movie. An hour and 45 minutes into the 1978 movie “Goin’ South”, Jack Nicholson’s character ‘Moon’ says this 11 years BEFORE he was in the 1989 Batman movie as the Joker… “Wait till the Domingi Sisters get a load of me!”

    I tried finding a reference online to these two similar but different movie lines by Jack N., but couldn’t find a thing. It’s so close to what he says in Batman ( “Wait till they get a load of me!” ) Now I can’t help but wonder if he ad-lib-ed that or if he requested it be in the script based on the similar line from Goin’ South. This Jack Nicholson western was his first movie as the Director of a movie and it also starred another Batman movie villain, Danny Devito/Penguin.

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    • Agree, sluggish pacing. I remember how big a thing it was and where I was when it came out in 89. I had one if those t shirts. I actually prefererred the sequels over this first entry.

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  10. I remember being excited for a serious take. I remember being really upset with Keaton being cast. I still say I’d prefer another casting of someone taller, stronger etc.

    The aloof Bruce Wayne was irritating. I hate, hate, hate the black rubber suits that became the standard going forward. Vicki Vale finding out his secret due to Alfred was cringe worthy. Joker replacing Joe Chill made no sense. A non-fan wouldn’t miss anything but a fan is left shaking his head.

    I will say that the novelization of the movie was a good read. And, I can still enjoy the movie today for what is. But, it is just not the version I envision. BTAS…..now that is my version.

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  11. I think Batman ’89 holds up pretty well and deserves more than a B.

    Michael Keaton devised a new and intriguing interpretation of Bruce Wayne–a neurotic recluse who went through everyday life distracted and off-balance and came fully alive only when he put on the cowl. As Batman Keaton had a great mystique and his “talk softly and carry a big stick” approach contrasts nicely with Christian Bale’s.

    The Prince songs don’t bother me–they’re used primarily for “party scenes” and work fine in them. When serious music is needed Elfman takes over.

    Seeing the bat crash through the window would, I think, look hokey in live action.

    I agree that Alexander Knox is annoying, and the character wasn’t well-served by the script changes. And certainly more could have been done with Gordon. Vicki Vale in the batcave is more than made up for the scene of Bruce telling her he has to go out there and stop the Joker.

    Giving the Joker an extended origin meant giving him a name, so that doesn’t bother me. And making him the killer of Batman’s parents works because it cements the movie’s theme: that Batman and the Joker are freaks who created each other. The movie is about them struggling for possession of an equally freaky city.

    Batman using machine guns and killing hoods might upset some fans, but that’s also how Batman used to be before Robin came along and he stopped being a grim creature of the night.

    Looking back after the heavily plot-oriented Nolan Batman films, the intense mood and visuals of Burton’s films are a relief. The ’89 Batman might have wonky plotting, but in visual terms it remains one of the strongest and most iconic superhero films ever made and the strongest Batman film. As Pauline Kael wrote in her review, “the images sing.”

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  12. I wanted to expand on the whole…# 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.”
    When I was a kid it never occurred to me that an average sized bat probably could NOT crash through an average sized window pane. So I bought it hook line and sinker. As an adult, or even a teen that made less and less sense to me. Unless it’s a fox/fruit bat ( the largest bat ) that doesn’t have sonar then the odds of a smaller bat dramatically breaking through ANY window and not killing or knocking itself out is unrealistic.
    When I read comics or see comics based TV shows and movies now, I EXPECT a certain amount of scientific plausibility in them, A coyote suspended in mid air before finally falling into the canyon is kids stuff. As a teen or adult I can only “suspend reality” just so much. So put the bat into a scene as an inspiration flying into an open patio door, but not as a 1 ounce window crasher.

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