1989 was the year that I turned 12 years old. I was getting to be the age where I was all in on films. I drove my mom crazy when I begged her to buy me some magazine at the grocery store that cost $4 just because the cover briefly mentioned a movie that I was excited about. We didn’t have 50 websites giving us up-to-the-minute details behind the scenes like we do now. We got our news in spurts. So, if there was a tiny mention of something we were into, we had to be on it.
It wasn’t plausible to get my mom to buy every magazine on the rack at Food World. So, many Saturday afternoons saw me at the local convenience store, sitting in the floor next to the magazines and comics, reading what I could until old Mr. Smith told me to go home.
This is probably the hardest installment that I’ve had to write since I started this project. There are so many movies from 1989 that I love. And unlike a lot of the ones that I’ve written so far where my favorite movie from a given year wasn’t discovered until years later…1989 was the first year that I can remember falling in love with many of these films from the word “go”. Some of them I had to wait until the following year to see them on video because movie-going in my rural town was a pretty big outing and not something that we did every weekend.
Why is it so hard to pick a winner for 1989? Because I love so many of the titles that came out that year…especially in the summer. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Back to the Future Part II, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, Ghostbusters II, and even Look Who’s Talking.
See? See how hard that is to choose from? No? Well, then you’re not a dude that’s about to turn 40. Because if you were my age…that’s some Sophie’s Choice level stuff right there.
So…I asked myself which movie from that year has meant the most to me over the years. Did any of them shape the way that I watch movies? Did any of them affect the movies that I love now?
Yes, one of them did. Batman.
Batman starred Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Jack Palance, and was directed by Tim Burton.
This wasn’t the first comic book movie ever made. Several of the Superman films had already beaten it to the punch. But it was the first one that came out when I was of an age to care about it. I became a regular viewer of Entertainment Tonight just hoping to get a glimpse of a costume or any breath about the production. When the Batmobile was first unveiled it was the greatest thing that I’d ever seen.
I wasn’t a huge consumer of comic books. I wasn’t the kid that went to the comic book store every weekend and bought an armload of the newest titles. I got an allowance of $3.50 a week. With that money, I went to the local convenience store and bought four things. A Snicker’s bar, a Sunkist soda, a copy of the latest Superman title…and Batman.
The only exposure that I’d had to an on-screen version of Batman up to that point had been the campy version from the 60s that starred Adam West and Burt Ward. It was entertaining as I watched it in reruns. But even as a kid I knew that Batman was supposed to be a darker character.
If you want to make a dark movie, Burton is the man for the job. Although, at that point in his career that might not be as widely known as it is now. At that time his claim to fain was directing Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. You don’t remember the genius that movie was but you need to revisit it. It really was well done. But what he could do with the visuals of this film given what he had to work with at the time was incredible. There aren’t a lot of special effects here. We didn’t have CGI at the time so most of what you saw was practical. They used real cars. They used models. They built actual sets. And what we got was a very dark rendition of Gotham City that looked like a comic book page had sprung to life on the screen.
The film was out of time. It was assumed that it was set in present day (of the time) since Batman had a lot of advanced tech to work with. But the cars and the clothes looked like it was set sometime in the 30s. In this way Burton created a universe that became synonymous with the Batman franchise and was utilized in most of the later films. It inspired the animated series, which I argue is one of the best cartoons that has ever been on TV.
One thing that I love about this film is that it is not an origin story. So many times we’ve seen a film versions of comic book heroes come along and we get a long drawn out story about how the hero came to be. Sometimes we get that story over and over again in various films. But, Burton didn’t want to make a movie about how Bruce Wayne became Batman. He wanted to make a movie about Batman fighting the Joker. So, he took the origin that could have been a whole movie of its own and broke it down to a short flashback scene. It’s all that we needed. We got the whole story of Batman’s birth in that scene that took less than three minutes. It was brilliant and it’s something that I wish we could see more of today.
When Michael Keaton was announced as Batman, it went over my head. My 12-year-old self didn’t know enough about Hollywood to care who was playing the characters. I know now that it was a decision that was well hated by a lot of fans. He was a comedic actor for the most part. But I think that he did a good job in the part. He was an excellent Bruce Wayne. He was a little less excellent as Batman. But that black rubber suit that they built restricted his movement so I think he gave the same performance as Batman as anyone else would have.
Jack Nicholson played the Joker. His performance is legendary. He took the character that we knew from the comics and told us to forget all that. He played Joker as a 30s-style gangster that lost his mind. He still wore the colorful costumes and he still had a maniacal laugh, but he wasn’t jumping all over the place and acting cartoonish the way we’ve seen before. This version was much more along the lines of what we saw in The Killing Joke.
What we have today is a Hollywood that churns out comic book movies like it’s all they know how to make. And I’m not complaining about that. We get a lot of really good movies that way. The MCU hasn’t put out a bad movie yet. But something they all have in common is that they depend greatly on CGI to tell their stories. Batman didn’t have that problem. Burton proved that all you need is a good concept, a decent script, and a great cast and you can make a film that will be the template for a ton of others for decades.
And, it’s my favorite film from 1989.