Anghus Houvouras on Tim Burton’s Batman: The most influential film of the last 30 years….
The 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 30 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 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.
Tim 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 30 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 30 years.
A version of this article was first posted in June 2014.
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.