It seems difficult to imagine a time when movie screens weren’t packed with comicbook titles, but before June 23, 1989, masked heroes were in short supply. On the 25th anniversary of “Batman,” here’s how the Michael Keaton starrer revolutionized the modern comicbook movie.
Designed by British costumer Bob Ringwood, the Tim Burton bat-suit put an end to five decades worth of corny spandex jokes. Replete with a bullet-proof chest-plate, weaponized boots and lethal forearm gauntlets, it instantly became the template for virtually all future cinematic superheroes. One need only look at Captain America's Kevlar stealth outfit, Wolverine's black leather combat suit or the sculpted design of Henry Cavill's "Man of Steel" costume to see its lasting influence.
Burton’s nightmarishly beautiful Gotham City earned production designer Anton Furst an Academy Award and raised the creative bar for all subsequent comicbook films. While the previous Superman films were set in a realistic world, Burton created an entire universe from scratch. Combining Gothic architecture and a noir-steampunk aesthetic, its striking impact can be felt in films like “Blade,” “Hellboy” and “Watchmen.”
Eschewing the campiness of the classic 60s era TV show, Burton reinvented the caped crusader as a psychologically damaged loner, prone to brooding in the shadows when he isn’t stalking the streets like a haunted vigilante. In many ways, he’s as frightening as The Joker himself. This grimmer, darker version of the character proved so popular that 25 years later it is echoed in films like “The Punisher,” “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
With only two modestly -budgeted, yet commercially successful, features under his utility belt, “Batman” catapulted Tim Burton onto the world stage as a visionary filmmaker whose unique imagery and recurrent themes are instantly recognizable. His artistic integrity helped legitimize the still-fledgling comicbook genre, laying the groundwork for directors like Nolan, Sam Raimi and Guillermo del Toro to take the reins decades later.
Although controversial at the time, Burton and producer Jon Peters insisted that comedic actor Michael Keaton had the “edgy, tormented quality” necessary to portray their darker version of Bruce Wayne and his costumed alter-ego. The film’s critical and financial success proved their quirky instincts correct. This risky decision opened doors for the unlikely casting of Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo, and helped redefine what cinematic superheroes look like.
Behind every great hero is an even greater villain, which is why casting Jack Nicholson as Batman’s cackling nemesis was a true game-changer. The presence of a two-time Oscar winner hidden beneath layers of comicbook makeup helped pave the way for future evildoers like Ian McKellen, Jeff Bridges and Willem Dafoe. Nineteen years later, Heath Ledger would win an Academy Award for his interpretation of the same diabolical character.
In the 2005 reboot “Batman Begins,” Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne delivers the line “As a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.” He may as well have been discussing the gleaming black-and-gold Bat-logo that became a phenomenon during the summer of ’89. The instantly-iconic image drew global attention to Burton’s film without even mentioning its title. Today, Captain America’s shield, Spider-Man’s webbing and The Fantastic Four’s metallic “4” are used in similar fashion.
Before “Batman,” superhero movies took inspiration loosely from comicbooks, incorporating some aspects while ignoring others, often to fans’ displeasure. Burton rewrote the rules by mirroring imagery directly from the books themselves, particularly Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and Alan Moore’s “Batman: The Killing Joke.” This type of fidelity to the source material is now a signature of directors like Zack Snyder, Matthew Vaughn and Bryan Singer, who painstakingly recreate specific panels from memorable issues.
While the previous Superman films were content to market T-shirts and a handful of toys to children and comicbook fans, Warner Bros. took a page from the “Star Wars” playbook and merchandised “Batman” tie-in products of every conceivable variety. In a single bound, their marketing blitz brought superheroes into the consumer mainstream, setting the precedent for unlikely-seeming partnerships like Limited Edition Captain America Anti-Wrinkle Moisturizer for Men from Kiehl’s cosmetics.