The summer of 1989 was one of the most historical and memorable that cinema has ever given us. The slate of films that were released that summer was a who’s who of blockbusters: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Lethal Weapon 2 to name a few. While the films I just listed experienced varying degrees of success and quality, it was definitely a great summer to go to the movies. But there was one movie that was released in 1989 that took the country by storm and gave birth to the modern crop of superhero movies: Batman.
Batman was everywhere you looked in 1989. Not since Return of the Jedi six years prior had there been such an onslaught of hype and merchandising connected to a single film. It seemed as though everyone jumped on the Batman bandwagon. On any given day in the spring of 1989, you could see dozens of people wearing Batman t-shirts (before you could find memorabilia of anything the way you can today) or seeing him on a magazine cover. It was truly a magical time. Long before the internet and its propensity to start flame wars, there was the controversial casting of Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader (Mr. Mom, Beetlejuice, really?) and the spot-on casting of Jack Nicholson as The Joker. Hell, Prince got into the hype machine and made the famous Batdance video. Even Adam West got into the spotlight again by campaigning that he should don the cape and cowl, coming out against the dark tone of the film. Batman had truly permeated every facet of popular culture before its release and you couldn’t escape it. It was the first time I had ever heard of people paying to see a movie just to see a trailer and walk out of the feature. Then the movie was finally released on June 23rd and the world got to see what the hype was about. And what followed was just as big as all of the pre-release hype promised.
Batman broke the box office record with over $40 million in its opening weekend, nearly recouping all of its production costs. Ultimately, the film would go on to earn over $250 million at the box office, making it the king of the box office in 1989. But those numbers alone didn’t tell the full story of the movies influence. For the first time since Superman: The Movie in 1978, a comic book icon ruled the box office and opened the door for other superheroes to get a chance in the spotlight. Tim Burton’s tale captured the imagination of audiences everywhere and to this day, many still see Keaton and Nicholson as the definitive Batman and Joker. The movie was a huge risk. A large majority of the movie going audience knew Batman from the campy, colorful 1966 television show and Keaton’s Batman was the polar opposite of West’s. Clad in black body armor and striking fear into the criminals of a dark, cynical Gotham City, Batman became the symbol for the times. The show didn’t touch on the fact that Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered, but that cataclysmic event was what created this “new” Batman. Ironically, this Batman was closer to the original version of the character that debuted 50 years earlier.
Although it would be 11 years before we saw another credible comic book franchise make it to the silver screen, the modern superhero franchise can credit Batman with laying the groundwork for all of the movies that came after it. It was a huge risk at the time, and it paid off tremendously. The Superman movies had floundered badly. The third and fourth films in that franchise dropped off in quality and box office returns. If not for Batman and its legendary success, we wouldn’t have the seemingly endless list of comic book adaptations (would anyone dare to dream that there would be a Guardians of the Galaxy movie back in 1989?) that we’ve seen over the course of the past 14 years. While the original Batman franchise eventually floundered as well, Hollywood saw real box office potential in superhero franchises. If not for Batman, we would never have seen Spider-Man break box office records in 2002 and Marvel Studios certainly would never have been able to create their cohesive cinematic universe. Studios even began taking risks on lesser known comic properties such as Blade and Ghost Rider to tap into the potential audience that a comic book movie could offer.
So thanks to a quirky director, Beetlejuice and the guy from The Shining. They created a modern masterpiece and helped usher in the era of the superhero movie.