Today marks the 31st anniversary of Tim Burton’s Batman (or Batman ’89 as it’s known nowadays). It was a movie that changed the landscape of comic book movies, broke the mould that came before it and wrote the blueprint for how to market a summer blockbuster.
To celebrate this occasion (and the news that Michael Keaton is in talks to don the cape and cowl once again for the DC Extended Universe solo movie The Flash), let’s look at some things about the movie you may not have known. And if you think we’re joking, just look at our face. Do we look like we’re joking?
1. The film was nearly totally different
After the success of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Motion Picture, Warner Bros. started work on script for a Batman movie in 1980.
Tom Mankiewicz (who had an uncredited writing role on Superman: The Motion Picture) wrote a script that was very light in tone and was reminiscent of the 1966 Batman TV show starring Adam West and it would have told the origins of both Batman and Robin. The script also featured Barbara Gordon (who would go on to become Batgirl) and The Penguin alongside The Joker. The plan was to release the movie in 1985 with a $20 million budget.
However, certain releases changed this course.
The first release was Tim Burton’s 1985 movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which had taken $40 million against a $7 million budget, making Burton a hot property for directing gigs. The second release was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which convinced Warner Bros. that the best course of action was to not make a campy comedy movie and give it a serious dark tone much like the comics.
With Burton on board, the Mankiewicz script was thrown out and a new script by Sam Hamm was written based on a 30-page treatment by Julie Hickson. Robin’s role was reduced to a cameo and there was a scene written in which a young James Gordon would look after Bruce Wayne the night his parents were killed.
It still wasn’t until the success of Burton’s Beetlejuice that the movie was greenlit. Due to the writer’s strike, Warren Skaaren re-drafted the movie which eventually removed Robin from the movie all-together. Although you can see the animated storyboard (featuring the voice cast of Batman: The Animated Series) which shows how it would have looked:
2. Robin could have been played by Eddie Murphy or Kiefer Sutherland
While Robin was still a feature of a Batman movie, there were two names that were put forward (and even offered) for The Boy Wonder.
When Batman was in its campy phase prior to 1985, Eddie Murphy was considered for the role of Robin. At the time, he was a very hot actor with big-hit movies like Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop as well as a successful turn as the host of Saturday Night Live. Once the movie was turned dark, Murphy’s name became a non-starter.
Shortly after The Dark Knight, Murphy was rumoured to be playing The Riddler in the then untitled “Batman 3”. This was however reported by UK newspaper The Sun and entirely untrue.
One actor however who was offered the role was Kiefer Sutherland. The future Jack Bauer turned down the role, a decision he regrets to this day. In an interview with On The Box, Sutherland said, “I’d just finished Stand By Me and Young Guns about the time that Warner Bros. were making the first Batman film with Michael Keaton and I got a call which asked me if I would be interested in playing Robin. I was like: ‘as in Robin with tights? No!’ I didn’t realise they were going to make the coolest movie ever! They didn’t have a Robin in the end, but I was only 19 so my agent could have helped me out a bit on that one.”
3. People went to the cinema just to see the trailer
Comic book fans were against Tim Burton’s Batman. Dead against it.
In fact, Warner Bros. received over 50,000 letters of complaint against the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman and even Bob Kane should some concerns. In order to rest the minds of the fans who felt the film was going to be like the Adam West TV show, a 90 second trailer was cut together hastily. So hastily in fact that it didn’t even feature Danny Elfman’s score or even a temp track.
It had the desired reaction.
When it was first shown to an unsuspecting audience, it received a standing ovation. It was so impressive that news stories started to be reported that people were paying for movie tickets where the trailer was attached, would then watch the trailer and then leave the cinema before the movie started. It was also a hot bootleg around comic conventions.
4. Robin Williams nearly played The Joker
Several actors were considered for the iconic role of The Joker including Tim Curry, John Lithgow and British pop legend David Bowie and Burton pushed for Brad Dourif, but this was shot down by Warner Bros. who always wanted Jack Nicholson – even going back to when the movie was first conceived in 1980.
However, Jack Nicholson was holding off.
In order to get Nicholson on board, Warner Bros. offered the role to Robin Williams who had struck it big with critics after Good Morning Vietnam. Williams accepted the role.
Upon hearing the news, Nicholson went back to Warner Bros. and also accepted the role with a lot of agreements in his contract including a percentage of the box office takings and the ability to dictate his own working hours.
When Williams heard the news, he was a bit upset. So upset in fact that he would later turn down the role of The Riddler in Batman Forever and wouldn’t accept any roles from Warner Bros. until the apologised to him.
Nicholson would earn around $60 million for playing The Joker.
5. It played a large part in the 12 certificate
In the UK in 1982, the British Board of Film Certification (BBFC) introduced a new rating system that included U (Universal, suitable for all), PG (Parental Guidance), 15 (for no one under 15) and 18 (for no one under 18). However, Batman sat in a bracket that didn’t exist. It wasn’t tame enough to be a PG and it wasn’t adult enough for a 15, which also meant it would miss its teenage target audience.
In an official BBFC report, one commenter said, “I would have no difficulties at all were we to place [Batman] in the as-yet non-existent ’12’. Secondary age schoolchildren are familiar by now with some ’15’ horror on video would be well versed enough and psychologically mature enough, to take the gloomy colours and fearful characterisations of the film. But 8 to 10 year olds would, in my opinion, have a much rougher ride and find little of particular appeal in the way of levity and brightness to qualify the threat of the ugliness… If a much younger audience than us felt quite certain that little kids could consume the film untroubled, I might be convinced about the ‘PG’, but until and unless this happens, I would urge the Board to use our disquiet to press the argument for the establishment of a ’12’.”
When released, on VHS, it was classified as a ‘15’ as the ‘12’ certificate was not brought to home video until 1994.
6. Jack Nicholson was set to return
Despite arguments to logic, Warner Bros. were insanely happy with the daily footage they were being shown of the much maligned Batman & Robin. So happy were they in fact that they started planning a fifth movie with Joel Schumacher again in the director’s chair and George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Sliverstone reprising their roles.
Batman Unchained was written by Mark Protosevich with a release date plan of 1999. The script featured The Scarecrow as the main villain (and would have been played by Nicolas Cage), Harley Quinn as the daughter of The Joker and even Mad Hatter in a supporting role. Sadly, as we all know now, Batman & Robin bombed at the box office and all plans for Batman Unchained fell apart.
But one of the more interesting notes from the script was that Jack Nicholson (who was still under contract) was to also return as The Joker in a hallucination scene:
“Scarecrow starts transforming into a darkly dressed man in a hat and overcoat. He is holding a large revolver in his hand. It is Jack Napier, the man who would later become the Joker and the man who is a moment away from murdering Thomas and Martha Wayne.”
While the movie was described by Schumacher as “toyetic”, another round with Nicholson as The Joker would have been worth the price of admission alone.
A version of this article was originally posted for Batman’s 25th anniversary in 2014.