Film Retrospective: Batman (1989) 

A full-on geek out celebrating 25 years since Tim Burton’s film was released.

This week, 25 years ago, I was a knot of anticipation. The thing I wanted to see more than any other thing, the Batman film, was at last coming out. I'm not saying I wanted to see Batman more than I wanted to see any other movie at the time; I mean I had never been so eager to partake in anything, ever. In retrospect, I haven't been so excited for the release of any other piece of pop culture. I think the only things to surpass it are real-life greatnesses: kissing a girl, getting married, the birth of my children. Seriously. (Where are you going? Come back!)

I was so excited in part because I loved and devoured the Batman comics. The character appealed to my maturing sense of identity and growing individualism. He was no less human than I was — he wasn't bitten by a radioactive spider, exposed to cosmic or gamma rays, or orphaned from an alien planet — infinitely relatable to this here shy little nerd. What made Bruce Wayne into Batman was nothing but a common traumatic childhood; granted, my sheltered, suburban upbringing was far from harrowing. But, if you stabbed Batman with a sword-umbrella, he'd bleed like anyone else, and he became successful by dint of willpower alone. Plus, what kid doesn't want to hear that it's the monsters who should be afraid of the dark?

click to enlarge Michael Keaton in Batman
  • Michael Keaton in Batman

The movie Batman hit me square in the face, at age 13, the summer before 8th grade, a seminal moment at a seminal age. It marked my transition from an artless, prepubescent consumer of whatever happened to be in front of me to a relatively thoughtful observer of craft and commercialism. The coming of age was my (forgive me) Bat Mitzvah.

Batman felt like the first movie that was made for me. I pined for news in the build-up to its release — this was, of course, long before the internet, a lonely place of dying that left one starved for information. I watched Entertainment Tonight routinely, hoping for clips or updates; I scoured for showbiz tidbits in the Appeal section of The Commercial Appeal — this was pre-Captain Comics. Entertainment Weekly didn't exist yet. MTV ran a "Steal the Batmobile" contest; I obsessed over the glimpses of the movie the promos and commercials showed. When the video to Prince's "Batdance" premiered in advance of the film's release, I was devastated: It didn't show any scenes from the movie.

Finally, Batman came out. I saw it at Highland Quartet, the first showing on the first day. It napalmed me. I could not have loved it more. It buried itself in my DNA instantly. I bought the Danny Elfman score on tape and wore it out. To this day, it's my all-time favorite soundtrack. I waited on tenterhooks for the box office results, finally delivered (at least, in my recollection) in the voice of Chris Connelly on an MTV News segment: Batman had a huge opening weekend. I felt personally vindicated. (As I said, I was a nerd.)

Batman was my first movie review. I wrote it for myself, in a journal kept in a spiral school notebook that has been, sadly, lost to time. After some attic digging, I did unearth the second volume of my journal, running from August 1989 to December 1990. Included within is my first ever movies list, presented here unadulterated:

Top 15 Movies, 6-29-90, 1:41-1:46 a.m.

1. Batman

2. The Hunt for Red October

3. RoboCop 2

4. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

5. Gremlins 2

6. The Jerk

7. RoboCop

8. Die Hard

9. The Terminator

10. Top Gun

11. The Blues Brothers

12. The Running Man

13. Young Guns

14. Blind Date

15. Parenthood

Looking back, there are plenty of things to commend in Tim Burton's film. His German Expressionistic sensibilities (and Anton Furst production design) perfectly reflect the shadows of the mind cast within by Bruce Wayne's psychological scars; Michael Keaton is surprisingly good as Batman; Jack Nicholson is terrific as the Joker. Its reputation was only burnished by the disappointments that followed, with the 1990s sequels Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin.

However, in 2005, with Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan rendered the 1989 Batman irrelevant — astonishingly, but no less substantively. Nolan and Christian Bale made a grown-up adaptation — textually moodier, with characters more realistically beat down by life's injustices — that thoroughly neutered the Burton/Keaton "original."

The one thing missing from Nolan's update was the childhood sense of awe and joy that I see bursting from the 1989 film. It's not really Batman Begins' fault. How could it have possibly contained and inspired all that life-changing ecstasy? After all, I wasn't there to provide it.

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