It is nearly impossible to understate just how influential Tim Burton’s 1989 adaptation of Batman to film was for the future of superhero franchises and media.
Developed during the late 1980s, Tim Burton’s Batman combined the noir legend with the director’s own quirky aesthetic sensibilities to produce a film that is simultaneously a comic book and a piece of art unto itself.
Rather than going full camp like the Batman in the 1960s, Tim Burton decided to highlight the underlying darkness to both Batman, Gotham City, and the Joker.
Presented with complex characters played by actors who gave very nuanced performances in their individual roles, Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, in particular, embodied their roles so thoroughly that it was hard to imagine anyone else doing it.
Sure, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger gave the franchise their own legendary turn as the Caped Crusader and Joker, respectively, but it is Tim Burton’s dark, art deco-laden Batman that does a superior job of capturing the spirit in which Batman was born which was out of 1930s to 1950s noir pulp novels. These stories, known for their violence and sordid “realism,” are not in the least bit bright and romantic. They are tales of human depravity and the people that fight against them, typically detectives. It is not hard to see how Batman fits into this genre and how his character is fundamentally shaped by the mores of this time period.
While the newer films tend to delve more deeply into the grit and reality of fighting crime on the streets of Gotham City, 1989’s Batman is both an origin story and a deep tragedy. It barely touches the surface of some things and implores the audience to ask questions about motivations, in particular Bruce Wayne’s, who seemingly shuns love and human comforts in pursuit of justice against the people who murdered his parents.
Having previously worked in a series of comedic roles, Michael Keaton as the choice for Batman was not at all natural or a foregone conclusion.
Indeed, many people worried that Michael Keaton just didn’t bring enough to the role.
But how wrong they were.
Unlike Batman actors that came after, Michael Keaton portrayed a Bruce Wayne that was tragic, relatable, and distinctly different from the rest of us.
Rather than treating the superhero thing as a given, Burton shows that Batman was actually born out of deep trauma, a tragedy that impacts the way he both views the world and his relationship with it.
For instance, the relationship with Vickie Vale is depicted as the meeting of a strong woman with a very wealthy, very eccentric billionaire. This is more accurate than the clubby, familiar, almost celebrity air that Bruce Wayne is treated with in the newer films.
Why would Bruce Wayne pursue the spotlight given his secrets? Why would Bruce Wayne court attention when Batman’s enemies are everywhere? Again, Michael Keaton does an excellent job of portraying a wealthy billionaire that is reluctant to let anyone inside his world – especially the society he vows to protect.
Tim Burton realized that keeping it realistic, in terms of character development and the emergence of an organic plot, was more important than creating larger than life characters that could become caricatures more than actual archetypes. To be sure, the characters are larger in life but it is because the role shapes them into that rather than ham-fistedly inserting that into the media.
Yet, in keeping the character development as realistic as possible, Tim Burton shows us a side of Batman and his foes we would have never seen before. And, just in case you were worried, all of this is done upon a backdrop that looks ripped from the comics.
The juxtaposition of superheroes as people living within our reality and being constrained by our same physical and mental weaknesses results in a much stronger movie than one in which Batman is depicted as wholly good and fabulous (a la Iron Man) and the Joker is depicted as pure evil and without basis.
Spawning the DC cinematic universe with its box office success, Tim Burton’s Batman revealed in the spectacle of Gotham City while firmly grounding the characters in a realistic, relatable way. This would go on to set the tone for the Batman animated series that followed as well as other superhero films of the 1990s which eschewed camp and embraced “gritty” realism to bring these characters and their worlds to life.