American cinema box office receipts in 1989 totalled a record five billion dollars – Batman, Tim Burton’s incredibly over-hyped adaptation of the DC comic, accounted for roughly half of that!
With 160 varieties of merchandise on the shelves (including T-Shirts, coffee mugs, action figures and separate soundtracks by Prince and Danny Elfman), it was impossible to go anywhere without having a stylised Batman logo shoved in your face.
Twentysomething director Tim Burton believed that the notion of a billionaire playboy dressing up as a giant bat in his spare time to clamber over rooftops fighting crime was deeply weird and schizophrenic and felt the film should reflect this.
With Burton installed as director the big question was who would play Batman. The studio drew up a shortlist including Alec Baldwin, Pierce Brosnan, Bill Murray, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and Charlie Sheen. Burton had other ideas though and cast his Beetlejuice star Michael Keaton instead.
The diminutive (5’9) and slight Keaton was a comic actor best known for flippant films like Mr Mom, Gung Ho and Night Shift and his casting drew howls of protest from Batman fans – the studio receiving thousands of letters of complaint.
Jack Nicholson was in fine scenery-chewing form as The Joker (pictured above), who sprung into grinning life after the caped crusader hurled gangster Jack Napier into a vat of acid.
This was no campy cartoon, no Saturday matinee serial with dialogue like “Pow!” and “Shazam!”This Batman was serious stuff. The streets of crime-riddled Gotham City were dark, wet and crowded with underworld killers.
The film featured atmospheric sets and locations – including the disused Acton Lane power station near Wembley (west London) also used in Aliens (1986) – and Batman now had an indestructible Batmobile.
This voice-activated car (that James Bond would kill for) could crash through anything, shield itself from bullets and bombs, and it needed no fuel. In the air, there was the Batwing, and on the ground, he was a one-man army.
Batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, attempted to balance his schizophrenic lifestyle when he fell for ace photographer and token love-interest Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) – at a time when he should have been focussing all his energies on stopping the Joker, who was terrorising Gotham with his deadly Smilex toxin.
British horror star Michael Gough played Alfred, the butler (and pocketed some side cash by doing Diet Coke TV ads as the character).
Unfortunately, the film suffered from a lousy script and a wooden performance by Keaton in the title role.
Still, Batman‘s runaway success ensured that a sequel would be along shortly. And so began a strange and erratic series that hasn’t aged terribly well and somehow managed to feature three different actors playing Bruce Wayne/Batman in only four films.
The notoriously dreadful Batman & Robin (1997) effectively ended the series and took Batman away from the big screen again until the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale reboot.
The Joker/Jack Napier
Billy Dee Williams