Where Does He Get Those Wonderful Toys: BATMAN At 30

A look back at the first Bat-series.

In a month where eight franchise films are being released - Dark Phoenix, The Secret Life of Pets 2, Men in Black: International, Shaft, Toy Story 4, Child’s Play, Annabelle Come Home, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged - I’m not sure if it’s superfluous or absolutely essential to revisit the movie whose success inspired most or all of them. But Tim Burton’s Batman turns 30 today, and it’s impossible to overstate its effect not just on superheroes or movie series but the industry as a whole, alerting generations of filmmakers (and more importantly executives) how important pre-existing properties would become as a cornerstone of studio revenues, and consequently, priorities over the next three decades.

As a 13-year-old kid, it felt like a dream come true - my imagination, brought to life by Hollywood’s biggest stars and splashed across the big screen. But the four films in that cycle would eventually come to epitomize almost all of the virtues and shortcomings of not just “event” movies but bona fide cultural moments. Looking back at Batman and its sequels in the wake of their commercial success and cultural impact, the biggest lesson it taught - and studios keep having to re-learn - is that there’s no definitive right way to translate an iconic property to film, but a sure wrong one is to focus on the packaging and forget about the characters underneath.

Of course, by the time of Batman, I was already a huge fan of Tim Burton; though I wasn’t smart enough then to understand why, he made mainstream audiences understand what it felt like to be outsiders, and made outsiders feel like they were accepted. (It helped that he told underdog stories that were invariably bankrolled and marketed by the biggest studios in Hollywood.) But looking at the film now, I’m not quite sure who I’m supposed to identify with; I mean, Batman’s the one with all of the wonderful toys, and he is of course the hero. But the Joker is just so much more fun, and Burton oddly seems like he’s more in the villain’s corner, even when he’s defacing priceless artwork and gassing Gotham’s citizens by the thousands.

Nevertheless, Burton shouldered with genuine skill and passion the unenviable challenge of bringing the character to the screen for the first time in a believable and “serious” way, and that feeling remains today as you watch Michael Keaton turn the limitations of that inflexible rubber suit into an opportunity for mythic theatricality. Even featuring some inexplicably re-recorded sound effects on the new 4K Blu-ray release, the film oozes with pre-CGI charm, lending that suit, the fight scenes, the vehicles and Gotham’s enormous iron silhouette a weighty physicality that would soon be composited together with computers rather than, well, photographed (at scale or actual size) in physical space.

The movie’s actual release, however, changed the ideas behind studio moviemaking forever. Star Wars certainly overhauled the opportunities that studios had to create merchandising tie-ins - opportunities carried forward on many films throughout the 1980s - but Batman, arriving several years after Lucas’ flagship franchise had “ended,” supercharged that process, making publicity and the art itself synonymous with one another. Not only were there books, comic adaptations, soundtracks, film scores, and a slew of action figures and other toys, but there were bed sheets, dishes, and apparel lines in a variety of price ranges. That visibility helped catapult the film to record-breaking box office returns, becoming the first film to earn $100 million in just ten days. Even to cynics long since disabused of the notion that Hollywood majors make movies for anything other than profit, Batman’s success established a problematic notion, at least in the middle of summer - namely, that art is the last, and least, reason to make them.

Mind you, I don’t believe that Burton and his collaborators were disinterested in making something good, much less personal. The movie is infused with his visual sensibilities as well as themes common to his earlier films - and he shows a remarkable inventiveness in bringing together a lot of intense and unique technical challenges in terms of set design, costuming, fight choreography and visual effects together to create something smart, engaging and cohesive. Moreover, the filmmaker immediately took advantage of the commercial muscle that he developed with the first film in order to make Batman Returns even darker, nastier and more macabre.

Reminding Warner Brothers that the film’s financial success was a public vote of confidence for his take on the superhero and his world, Burton dug deeper into the psychology - the psychosis - of the caped crusader and his deeply troubled adversaries to create the Temple of Doom of Batman movies, a considerably more disturbing and violent adventure than its predecessor. Like the second Indiana Jones film, Batman Returns seems to attract fans who celebrate its comparative maturity, evidenced in a more literally cutthroat competition between good and evil for control of a Gotham that is itself perhaps too compromised for redemption. In retrospect, the movie feels to me like patient zero for the “dark, gritty” superhero takes that fans claim to want now, but as the product of a bygone era - one where those words still had little to do with true realism - its theatricality remains its greatest virtue.

Well, that and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight may have been the first performance of the modern superhero era to be taken “seriously” from a critical point of view, but her transformation in the film outpaces Keaton’s as Batman and even Danny DeVito’s as The Penguin in terms of both complexity and sheer, leaping-off-the-screen fun. Where Keaton feels sidelined in a movie that’s supposed to be about him, and Penguin’s tragic story dominates Burton’s story (and his sympathies), Pfeiffer not so quietly steals the show as a character who is simultaneously clever, empowered, sexy, and deeply confused - a combination that is both incredibly appealing and deeply sympathetic.

Unfortunately - and again, not unlike Temple of Doom - the film proved too grim for many moviegoers, testing the limits of its PG-13 rating and failing to provide the kind of manic fun that, well, inspired ticket buyers to keep spending their money on Batman-related trinkets after they left the theater. (McDonald’s even reportedly shut down a related Happy Meal promotion for the film.) And so, depending on who you ask - and according to interviews conducted for the film’s home video release in 2005 - Burton was either (or both) not invited back to direct a third film, or actively discouraged from doing so. In retrospect, it makes financial sense - the movie grossed $150 million less than the first film, not counting the drop in merchandising sales - but Batman Returns suggested that Warner Brothers needed to exert more control, not less, over the creative impulses of the filmmakers shepherding their moneymaker to the screen.

Then, of course, came Joel Schumacher’s two films. According to Schumacher, the word “toyetic” became an inextricable part of his vocabulary on Batman Forever after he agreed to helm an installment that was engineered to be more family-friendly both on screen and off - meaning that the film was accessible to audiences of all ages, and of course would encourage them to shell out money for toys and other goodies after the credits rolled. The shift marked a growth spurt in the wrong direction for longtime Batman fans - or even just those drawn to the character by Burton’s ’89 film - as it de-escalated the darkness and intensity of the character and embraced a level of camp associated with the 1960s television series, albeit in a more technically sophisticated way. Certainly there were still opportunities to explore the character’s fractured psyche on screen, but Schumacher, working from a script by Lee and Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman, opted instead to leave that psychological work to replacement Bruce Wayne Val Kilmer while externalizing the broadest details of his identity - his provocative duality - with cartoon simplicity.

But more importantly, it also evidenced Warner’s growing understanding of the character, and IP in general, as a revenue generator rather than an opportunity to tell interesting stories. As studio leadership grew up, their audience got younger. Whether it was an inspiration or byproduct of this new thinking, Forever featured more characters than ever before, once again sidelining Batman with multiple villains as well as a sidekick, Dick Grayson, whose character was undoubtedly aimed at teens but seems way, way, way too old to be an orphan long before Bruce decides to “adopt” him.

Warner Brothers’ decision-making was for better or worse validated by the film’s success, earning more than Batman Returns and becoming the second highest-grossing film of 1995, after Toy Story. It of course led Schumacher to plunge right back into Batman’s world for Batman & Robin, which effectively quadrupled down on every wrong instinct of its predecessor. Trying to revisit it now is genuinely painful; the plot itself is incomprehensible, but the production design is so overbearing that it feels as if you can’t even keep track of the characters when they’re shuffling through their one-dimensional melodramas. It went on to become the lowest-grossing live-action (modern) Batman movie to date.

Unfortunately, those lessons had already been absorbed into Hollywood’s bloodstream, and the industry has spent every minute of the subsequent 30 years trying to replicate its success with one idea or another, increasingly involving “known” properties that executives get in a hurry to build a franchise around years and years before bothering to examine whether they can consistently attract audience, much less support multiple stories. In which case, Batman’s duality has become not just a metaphor explored on screen time and again but an emblem of the industry’s penchant for taking rich, complex literary and artistic legacies and reducing them to their most salable, sometimes ruining what makes them interesting but certainly ruining audience interest in seeing them explored at all. But even at their worst, the four Batman films in the series’ original cycle serve as an important reminder that there are available versions of characters and their worlds for all audiences - and there absolutely should be, so long as the goal is to reward their interest with more stories, and produce more interest, and not just to separate them from their cash while woefully underserving the mythologies being brought to life.