Batman 1989 was not Batman…until it was.

What does Batman look like?

If I tasked you with drawing and coloring a picture of the caped crusader, but you were only allowed three colors to use, what three would you use?

Blue, grey, and gold?
Black, grey, and yellow?
Black, black, and more black?

Depending on your age you probably visualize a different version of the greatest comic book hero of them all (truth). Some might point to Adam West…

Others may think of Christian Bale…

Bruce Timm’s take is considered definitive by most, taking the basic look of Adam West and running it through a grittier, more serious filter.

As maligned and cinematic-universe crushing as it was, Batman v Superman gave the world a Batman that looked like he stepped right off the comic page…

And then there’s Batman 89, which celebrates its thirtieth year this month, and which gave us this new look for the hero…

The Tim Burton blockbuster revolutionized, the character and his look, as well as rewrote the script on what was possible for a summer tentpole film. It took the comic book movie genre, which to that point had consisted of the four Superman movies (only two of which were considered watchable) and paved the way for countless other movies that followed. Everything from Dick Tracy, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Rocketeer, The Mask, The Crow, Men in Black, Spawn, Judge Dredd, and more, owe some measure of gratitude to Batman 89. Before the summer of 1989, pitching a film based on a comic property was considered a fool’s errand.

After Batman 89, it was open season.

What made the 1989 movie succeed so fully? I would argue it had very little to do with Batman. As a matter of fact, Batman 89 (along with its follow-up, Batman Returns) is the least “Batman” movie that’s ever been made. Yes, even more than Batman

 

and Robin.

Say what you want about Joel Schumacher’s two-film Bat-fiasco, the movies captured the essence of the very worst Batman comics perfectly. Batman and Robin especially operate as sort of a bizzaro-version of the Adam West version. It’s not as effortlessly “in on the joke” as West’s TV show and movie were, but then again it’s not adapting the same Batman property that West’s franchise did. Adam West was 1960’s Silver Age Batman: Whimsical and surreal. George Clooney was 1950’s early Comics-Code Batman: All of the insanity, but none of the fun.

What version of Batman did Tm Burton and Michael Keaton bring the world?

No version that had ever been seen before. It wasn’t an adaptation at all, other than in the broadest sense. It was often compared to Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns, but Burton’s movie has none of the subtext, none of the history, none of the “this could be the last Batman story ever and I’d be okay with that” feel. Other than the fact that both Batman 89 and The Dark Knight Returns both stood in marked contrast to the bright and happy Superfriends/Adam West Batman, the two have nothing in common.

It sounds like I’m bashing Batman 89, but let me assure you I am not.

Batman 89 is an absolutely brilliant movie and is one I have watched more times than I can possibly imagine. Other than maybe the original Star Wars Trilogy, I don’t think there’s a movie I’ve seen more than Batman 89. When I was a kid my mother would drive me to our local video rental store every Friday and allow me to rent a movie, and every Friday I would rent the same movie: Batman. Every week: Batman. If ever Batman was not available, I would rent Batman: The NES Game instead.

I loved Batman 89. I still love Batman 89.

I just also appreciate that Batman 89 isn’t really a Batman movie. It’s a peak-Tim Burton movie.

What’s great about Batman 89 are what’s great about every Tim Burton movie from the era. They are as follows:

1. The music

2. The set-design

3. The inspired casting

All three helped make this movie great and all three strut their stuff within the movie’s first ten minutes.

To start with, the first thing you see in Batman is…the Bat symbol. But for the first three minutes or so you don’t even know it is the Bat symbol. It looks like the inside of a stone maze. But that doesn’t matter because it’s the music that first grabs you. It’s moody at the outset, with a hint of leitmotif before becoming a full-on march, driven by this recurrent “dunna-duh-duuuuh-duh.”

I can’t do it justice. Here…

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Perfection.

Contrast that with almost every superhero movie these days which begin usually with a cold opening and little more than a quick fanfare and title card. Batman 89 opened like an EVENT.

Once the credits ended, the first thing we see is Gotham, which looks like the love child of 1980’s New York and 1920’s New York, with some crazy Art Deco on steroids designs on top. The costumes, cars, sets; everything looks all at once to be modern and bygone. It’s a remarkable blending that works better than it had any right to, creating a fully realized atmosphere that has yet to be replicated in a comic book movie.

After a mugging—framed and shot I am sure to make you think you were about to watch the Wayne’s get murdered—we meet Batman in all his new, black rubber glory. It’s one of the most effective superhero introductions (second only to Superman’s helicopter rescue in 1978) in that it tells the audience exactly what this new Batman can do and how the movie is going to present him.

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Scoffers will mock the scene by pointing out that the first thing Batman does in the movie is get shot and fall down. True, but the point is to show that bullets won’t stop him. The sight of his shadow rising from the roof strikes exactly the terrified reaction out of the criminals that was intended. A quick batarang and menacing threat later and he was gone, leaving the criminal to tell all his friends about the terror that hunts bad guys.

The opening scene captures the “man in suit” aspect of the character really well, even better than “better Batman movies” do, which make the hero so ninja-like and skillful it defies belief. This Batman is just Michael Keaton, all 5’10 of him, wearing a bulletproof suit and using simple tech to hogtie and punch people. It works though. It works, and in particular, Michael Keaton works, when no one said he would after the casting was announced. It works because this Batman is a deranged man, walking the line between mild-insanity and full-on Joker insanity.

So while Batman 89 was not, in 1989, very much a “Batman” movie, it was so humongous, so monumental, and so genre-defining, it rewrote many of the rules that made Batman “Batman.”After just ten minutes of film, Batman as everyone had known him was gone, and a new Batman was born.

Batman 89 wasn’t Batman in 1989 but by 1990 Batman 89 was Batman.

Happy thirtieth.

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