Batman 89: The most influential film of the last 25 years

Anghus Houvouras on Tim Burton’s Batman: The most influential film of the last 25 years….

keaton_batmanThe summer of 1989 was brimming with blockbusters. A number of high profile sequels were set to light up the box office. Massive franchises like Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, and Lethal Weapon were debuting new installments guaranteed to rake in fat stacks of cash. But this summer would be ruled by another movie. A film that had been widely speculated about since it started production. A movie with an unproven dramatic leading man and a director seen as something of an anomaly in the studio system. This film would forever change the landscape of the summer blockbuster and serve as an influence for a generation of movies.

That movie: Weird Al Yankovic’s UHF.

Actually, I was talking about Tim Burton’s Batman.

It’s easy to see the impact of Batman 25 years later as comic book adaptations are commonplace and a pillar of the summer movie season. Back then, it was a movie that had polarized media analysts. Some people were smart enough to realize that Batman was going to be huge. Others were outspoken about their reluctance to endorse a dark and moody movie about a man dressed as a bat. There were those who still thought of Batman as a camp icon of the 1960’s and could never be taken seriously.

The casting of Michael Keaton inspired the first fits of incredulity. Up until then, he had been known for comedic roles in movies like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice. This supported the naysayers who still thought of the caped crusader as Adam West dancing the batusi and using bat-shark repellent.

batman-logoBatman would eventually go on to be the most iconic blockbusters released that year. A movie that quickly conquered the pop culture landscape in so many fronts. At one point it was a chart conquering monster not only topping the box office but the album chart thanks to it’s funky soundtrack by Prince. Even Danny Elfman’s score managed to rank impressively high on the Billboard top 100. Shirts featuring the bat symbol were flying off store shelves.

The first Batman film was a true event. Even the advertising leading up to the film’s release seemed revolutionary. The kind of appetite whetting campaign that took a minimalist approach. A stark black bat-symbol cast against a yellow oval was plastered in every theater lobby. It drew the attention of fans and helped stoke the interest of the uninitiated.

On June 23rd, 1989 Batman arrived and nothing has ever been the same since.

Tim Burton’s Batman was the perfect summer movie. The kind of film that didn’t really exist before then. Burton brought his dark, gothic aesthetic to the world of Batman. When the black clad, sculpted Dark Knight arrived on the scene, audiences were ushered into the modern era of comic book heroes. Superman had wowed audiences 10 years before with equal parts earnestness and spectacle, inspired by the golden and silver age comics that had launched the medium. Burton’s Batman was a glimpse into the darker tone that comics had embraced in the mid 1980’s. Tragic heroes, deadly villains, and a twisted psyche that linked them both.

Batman-1989-batman-confronts-the-jokerTim Burton’s Batman may very well be my favorite summer movie. A perfect blend of drama and design. The film is chock full of so many great little moments. Weird, wonderful imagery buoyed by some off-the-wall performances with a soundscape that bounces back and forth between the orchestral three ring circus of Danny Elfman’s score and the synth-rock sounds of Prince’s strangely inspired soundtrack. Keaton is a perfectly stoic Batman. Nicholson delightfully chews the scenery as the Joker. The script pops with a slew of memorable lines. The moment someone brings up Batman you can hear Nicholson asking “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” or declaring “The pen is truly mightier than the sword.”

What I find most fascinating about Batman 25 years later is how its influence has surpassed the film itself. Every subsequent superhero film has borrowed from Batman. You can see it in the design of movies like The Crow, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, and X-Men. You can hear it in movies like Spider-Man where Elfman’s comic book film compositions continue to sound like an echo of his most celebrated score. It inspired a highly successful animated series which took many cues from the tone of the film. The film was the first to launch the priced-to-sell initiative for VHS tapes and closed the gap between theatrical and home release. There was a day and age where VHS tapes cost $99.99 and were only purchased through rental shops, and most movies had a minimum of six months between the end of their theatrical run and the release to video. Batman changed all that.

Batman impacted the way movies are made as well as the way movies are marketed and distributed. It redefined the culture of comic book adaptations and big budget summer movies. We live in a time where comic book films are commonplace and a staple of the cinematic calendar. Every single one owes a debt to Batman:

The most influential film of the last 25 years.

Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the novel My Career Suicide Note, is available from Amazon. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • astroworf

    “This town needs an enema!”
    I had forgotten about the sell-through strategy on the VHS, but thinking about it, this was the first tape in my collection–and the first DVD, as well. Saw it at least a dozen times in the theater, thanks to a dollar movie house nearby. Still have my t-shirt (now a few sizes too small), my coffee cup )it’s handle since broken off and glued back on), a hard rubber book mark and a Batman head key chain still in it’s original packaging. Yeah, I liked the movie.

  • Chris Chris Chris

    Never rub another man’s rhubarb!

    Style-wise I actually preferred this movie over the Nolan movies (although they had better storylines – excluding TDKR)

    Tim Burton makes a great Batman
    Jack Nicholson was an iconic Joker – toss of a coin between who is better between him and Ledger.
    Gotham City is much more gothic and terrifying in Burton’s film.
    Batman Returns had a large element of creepy horror that the Nolan films didn’t have.
    Burton’s suit looks cooler – although very impractical.
    Batman’s entrance in the first movie, as he drops in to the shot in the background, is the coolest superhero entrance in ANY movie.

    Nolan’s movies were great and had a touch of fantasy realism (I wasn’t a fan of TDKR though) but Burton’s movies just looked like they had been plucked out of a comic or gothic watercolour painting.

    Thank you Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher hang your head in shame 🙂

  • The Walking Cuban

    Hey Eckhart, think about the future.

    What I miss most about the VHS was daffy and bugs selling merchandise at the beginning, and something about Alfred, the batmobile, and Coke? Ah, it’s been awhile.

    Alfred, the batmobile, and coke? Yeah. I’d probably watch that at least once.

    • Nathan

      You ain’t got not future Jack, you’re an A1 nut ball and Grisham knows it.

      • The Walking Cuban

        I’m glad you’re dead! Heeheeheehee, I’m glad you’re dead, AH, AH, AH, AHHHH!

        • Anon Nymous

          He must have been “King of the Wicker People”

          • The Walking Cuban


  • Nathan

    We went to the drive-in to see it and they gave away free batman cups and coke transformers (a transformer that transform into a coke can) which I still have. Fantastic movie – Keaton is and always will be the best Batman.

  • Iam_Spartacus

    Maybe influential in terms of style, but in terms of storytelling and concepts I’d give it to Terminator 2.

    • you could make a solid argument for that. T2 set the tone for FX in blockbusters.

  • Nix_Nightbird

    Elfman’s compositions ALL sound like his stuff from Beetlejuice and Batman. That’s not an homage, that’s Elfman being cheap and limited.

    • Timothy J. Phlaps

      You haven’t listened to enough Danny Elfman.

  • Anm8me

    “The film was the first to launch the priced-to-sell initiative for VHS tapes and closed the gap between theatrical and home release.”

    No, that was already happening. The tipping point was Crocodile Dundee, in 1987.

    • P K

      Raiders Of The Lost Ark, in 1983 I believe, was released at $29.99. That’s the first one I can remember, but don’t know how much of a splash it really made at the time.

  • Joey Jacobson

    It was one of those summers where you had to be there. I was obsessed with this movie that year and even the next year, along with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lol.

  • Sonny Crockett

    “What I find most fascinating about Batman 25 years later is how its influence has surpassed the film itself.”…..Very true, possibly…BUT…
    There would be no Batman 89 had not Superman The Movie came along…
    The Donner film set the standard (and may STILL be the standard) in style, substance, special effects and story-telling for every film of this genre from then till now….

  • brainflow

    What’s with this treacly nostalgia for the movie? It’s definitely got nostalgia-fication bringing it into every freaking thinkpiece… oh – it’s been 25 years. That explains it.

    • nos·tal·gia
      a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past

  • I don’t agree with the assessment, and I was a 12-year-old boy who loved comic books when the movie came out. I love the movie, but you overstate its influence.

    Others have noted that various aspects of the film were derivative of earlier movies (conveniently outside of the 25-year window), but one was missed: Burton’s earlier Edward Scissorhands, which clearly inspired almost all of Burton’s Batman, including the Elfman soundtrack.

    Also, VHS movies were about $20 each for several years prior to this time. I can’t name the first one at that price, but I know that my lower middle class (if that) family had quite a few in our collection before Batman came out.

    • DRM08

      Batman came out in 1989. Scissorhands came out in 1990. I would say Batman inspired Scissorhands, not the other way around.

      • You are correct about the dates, which I just misremembered.

        The point I was trying to make would be more accurately stated that many of Batman’s tropes were common to Tim Burton’s films of this era. One could possibly argue that late 1980s-early 1990s Tim Burton was one of the most influential film-makers of the last 25 years, but Batman alone does not fill that role. His work on Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands, in particular, shows an evolution in progress. Batman was not the epitome of this development.