Of all the superheroes to appear on the silver screen, the greatest legacy undoubtedly belongs to the Caped Crusader. With such a storied history, however – eight live-action films since 1966 – you could be forgiven for overlooking just how cataclysmic Tim Burton’s Batman was.
Previously the Dark Knight had always been a figure of fun, of camp: who can forget Adam West calling for the shark repellant bat-spray as he dangled from a helicopter, a rubbery-looking predator latched to his ankle? Prior to 1989, comic books were simply not taken seriously; they were something bright and distracting for kids to gawp at. Burton’s take on the character was strictly PG-13, which meant, if not quite Midnight Express, it did have a bit more darkness to it. Even its choice of hero was unconventional.
Unlike Christopher Reeves’ Superman – with his baby blues and All-American physique – Michael Keaton was a comedic actor and, accordingly, slightly funny looking. His pale blues eyes were accusatory, his demeanor pensive yet capable of instant pugnacity; his hair was crimpy. This eccentric-looking figure was, however, a perfect fit for Burton’s macabre Gothic vision.
Burton’s Gotham, never more appropriately named, was stark and expressionistic. With Batman himself a force of morally ambiguous heroism, driven by neuroses and obsession to stalk the night, the film would require a suitably terrifying villain, which it found in no less an actor than Jack Nicholson. Nicholson’s bleach-skinned Joker was a far cry from Cesar Romero’s scampering loon – greasepaint painted on straight over his mustache; here was a clown who could really slay you laughing.
Where Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning incarnation, was twitchy and anarchic, Nicholson imbued the character with a sense of gleeful malevolence. His origins in the urbanely sadistic Jack Napier – and Batman’s inadvertent role in his creation – made the parallels between hero and villain all the clearer. Bruce Wayne might be a cold fish, unreadable even in his unlikely romance with Kim Basinger’s chicly spirited Vicky; but The Joker is truly nuts.
And, lest we forget, the film is a stylish affair, too. The scene in which he and his henchmen maraud through Gotham City Art Museum, vandalizing masterpieces to the tune of Prince’s “Partyman”, plays like a brilliantly grotesque music video. It’s a film you feel that Andy Warhol would fine as much to enjoy in as Carl Jung. Batman is, after all, the first truly psychological hero: his crime-fighting endeavors are born of trauma, not innate goodness or superhuman abilities like his other DC brethren. The battle between him and Joker in the bell-tower of Gotham Cathedral are like the better angels of man’s nature brawling with his worse.
The film itself was a phenomenal success: it made more than $400 million at the box office and is still the 14th highest grossing superhero movie of all time – The Dark Knight and Dark Knight Rises come in at 2nd and 3rd. Without Burton’s Batman, there would be no Nolan franchise, no career revival for Christian Bale, likely no Avengers too. In fact, it’s safe to say that the face of modern cinema could be entirely different had the Beetlejuice director not turned his hand to a genre otherwise regarded as superficial, frivolous.
The garish colors and comic-strip sensibilities of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, which came out a year later, were strictly for kids, despite Al Pacino’s barnstorming performance as Big Boy Caprice and Madonna’s sensual Breathless Mahoney. Burton’s Batman had, in the words of its predecessor, “changed things”; the time of the Beattys and the Reeves had passed. Marvel may now reign supreme, but for a time, at least, was the Age of the Bat.