Burton, Tim: How the Innovative Director Changed Forever the Comic Hero Movie

In this Batman, viciousness is a way of life, and New York City terminally ill.
Vincent Canby, New York Times

In 1989, the massive media blitz accompanying the release of Tim Burton’s “Batman” reached the fevered pitch of the media’s later hyper-attention to such dark events in America’s history as the Gulf War, the Hill-Thomas hearings, and the Los Angeles riots. The media’s passionate love affair with “Batman” was predictable, given the film’s compelling and unusually dark aesthetics, which played off of the late 1980s blues.

Tim Burton’s “Batman” was so noirish and so far removed from “Superman” and “Flash Gordon,” that, initially, critics and audiences were upset by the dark vision of American society that cast a shadow over the sacred space of mainstream Hollywood entertainment. Reagan’s “kinder, gentler” America and Hollywood of the early 1980s was rapidly becoming a “Harder! Faster!” dark New Hollywood at the end of that decade.

The dark characterization of Batman was fittingly glum for an end-of-era audience that had survived Iran-Contra, the sleaze factor, the Wall Street crash, the Alaskan oil spill that reflected the then lack of care Americans paid to the environment, and cities, which were likewise rotting with crime and dirt from neglect. The darkness of this Batman, and of his surroundings, Gotham City, was totally unexpected. Critics who predicted a few months before the film’s opening that “Batman” would be a frivolous and glorious send-up proved to be wrong, very wrong.

In fact, “Batman” was aesthetically and thematically so dark that on the eve of release in Belgium, a few months after its stateside release, it was banned. Children under 16 weren’t allowed to see it, because the Belgium Film Review board felt “Batman” was “too violent, too frightening and too traumatic for children.” Despite the fact that the Board had recently approved the “Rambo” movies and “License to Kill,” they held to their guns. “Batman” was perceived as much more dangerous than those other violent filmsdark tone and sensibility were more frightening than violence. The Belgian Police was actually present at cinemas to enforce the ruling. Warner filed an appeal, questioning Belgium’s 70-year-old film censorship, which was antiquated and absurd.

In the U.S., the reaction to “Batman” was generally positive, which helped the film eventually gross $400 million. At the same time, there was more than a slight surprise at the film’s dark and subversive nature, which was embodies in the character of the Joker, flamboyantly played by Jack Nicholson. A memorable scene in the film depicts Nicholson’s Joker, commandeering an art museum and destroying great art works just for the fun of it.

New York magazine’s David Denby wrote that the Joker’s escapades constitute “scenes from an ongoing show he’s staging for his own entertainment, tests of his imagination.” One of Nicholson’s scariest lines was, “I’m the world’s first fully functional homicidal artist.” “Batman” subversively encouraged the audience to join the Joker in thoroughly enjoying the destruction of culture. “Batman” might have thrilled audiences, because it seemed to careen off the tracks of Hollywood morality, allowing Hollywood goodness to become Hollywood evil, and vice versa.

Indeed, the film’s main characters, the Caped Crusader and the Joker, were clearly, unquestionably, and irredeemably diabolical. Moreover. The movie’s true antagonist was Gotham, a campy, Langian “revision” of New York City, conjured by designer Anton Furst. Unlike the New York City-inspired utopia of Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic “Metropolis,”
Furst’s Big Apple was visibly corrupt and full of worms. The art museum (the `Fluegelheim’) was a spectacular pile that mixed Gothic, stripped-down Classicism and industrial architecture, as it might have been designed if the W.P.A. had built it during the Depression.

It was the industrial edge to Furst’s sets that made the images of New York hit close to home. The allusions to New York were certainly deliberate. The Gotham City Hall, for instance, is a dead ringer for New York’s Criminal Courts Building. Moreover, in the picture, Gotham has run out of money for its Bicentennial! In his review, the N.Y. Times’ Vincent Canby called “Batman”‘s Gotham, “A fantastical x-ray picture of the soul of the city we know and tolerate. If, like Dorian Gray, Manhattan has a portrait stashed away in an attic, this is how it would look.”

In a feature article, “New York City’s Problems are in the Picture,” Canby described the film’s Gotham as “a gray, dark, smoggy wasteland of crime and corruption, crooked cops, bemused politicians, decaying buildings, pot-holed streets, dead ends and ugly high-rises that block out whatever sun there might be. Canby bemoaned the fact that Batman marked New York’s complete loss of its prized status as Hollywood’s romantic and magical metropolis: “The world’s brightest, most exciting, most glittering city, which has been the setting for happy-ending fantasies since movies began, looks to be on its way out.”

Other films released in the late 1980s also contributed to Hollywood’s new negative image of New York, including Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (released a few months after “Batman”) and the “Ghostbusters” films. “Batman” was nothing like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “On the Town,” or Woody Allen’s poetic portrait, “Manhattan.” Canby concluded his article with a diagnosis: “Viciousness is a way of life. New York is terminally ill.”

For most Americans, and most New Yorkers, “Batman” was proof that the quality of Big City life had plummeted beyond recovery. A N.Y. Times/WCBS Poll of New Yorkers, which coincided with “Batman”‘s opening, found that a majority of the city’s residents were more hopeless about the City’s future in 1989 that they had been at any time since 1977. New Yorkers cited drugs, crime, and worsening racial relations as the city’s biggest problems at that time.

If the 1966-1968 “Bat-Man” TV series destroyed the comic book hero in general, leaving in its place campy and glorified superheroes like Christopher Reeves’s “Superman” of the early 1980s, 1989’s “Batman,” in turn, destroyed this second phase. Indeed, director Burton and star Michael Keaton became caught up in a popular debate, as Batman’s personality in the film was questioned before the film was even released. Batman’s persona had been through many changes between his 1939 creation and his 1960s TV incarnation. A more ambiguous figure than “Superman,” at-fans knew that their hero’s personality was up for grabs when Warner decided to revive him. At the heart of the debate over Batman were deeper questions related to the public’s conception of superheroes in general.

Originally, the 1980s Batman was conceived of as something close to “Bat-Rambo.” “Batman” producer Jon Peters said, “When we got into this I thought, what a great opportunity to have this guy kick some ass.” Burton had a different plan in mind, however, a total rewriting of “Batman” and of superheroes that would cast doubt on macho and simplistic figures like “Rambo.” Using a 1980s revisionist Batman comic book by Frank Miller, “The Dark Night Returns,” which was described as “a sociological treatise,” Burton set out to explore the truly dark side of a pop superhero.

The Bat-community, hardcore members of the 40 million people a day TV audience was against Keaton from the start. Jon Peters claimed that representatives of the film were booed off the stage at a Bat-convention. Word of the Bat-community’s disenchantment with the project spread quickly. On November 29, 1988, a few months before the film’s release, the Wall Street Journal ran a damaging article that detailed this disgruntled fandom. As a result, the financial community worried that the $50 million budget would lead to an impending disaster.

Mutiny was averted, when Warner screened a trailer to 300 Bat-fans, who loved it. Positive word- of-mouth began to spread, snowballing a few months later into an unforgettable “Batman” media blitz. By May of 1989, American kids were buying tickets just to see the “Batman” trailer, regardless of the movie that followed. Warner smartly encouraged promoters to stay far away from the “Pow, Bang, Thud” language of the past, instead utilizing Prince’s hit song “Batdance,” a collage of one-liners from the film, to introduce the public to Batman’s satirical cynicism. The Bat-community’s approval encouraged leery merchandisers, who were afraid that it was too dark, and might get an R rating for violence. With merchandisers reassured, the campaign began in earnest.

The genius of Burton’s conception was in decenteralizing the superhero. By closely pairing Batman with the Joker, Burton showed two halves of same obsession. The strong similarities between hero and villain became the new movie’s focus. Burton realize what the makers of the “Superman” movies did not, that “Star Wars” Darth Vader was as, if not more, interesting, than Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo. A Manhattan bank employee told Newsweek: “Batman is the best of both worlds, a hero who looks like a villain.” Truth to tell, the Joker was more interesting than Batman, which reaffirmed Burton’s philosophy by showing how substantially “Batman” rewrote the rules of the American superheroand Hollywood entertainment.

The movie’s most hilarious sequence involves the Joker’s plot to distribute poisoned cosmetics which freeze a person’s face into an everlasting Joker smile. While the film had fun with its “shopper’s nightmare,” Americans felt that “Batman” the movie became a shopper’s nightmare itself. Through a relentless, obnoxiously inescapable merchandising war, “Batman” became what it satirized: Capitalist Poison. Canby wrote that the film “has the personality not of a particular movie but of a product, of something arrived at by corporate decision, and Denby, echoing Canby’s sentiments, noted “It’s not about much of anything but its own ambitions.”