Over the years, there have been countless adaptations of superheroes on the big screen. Some have been standalone epics while others have launched franchises. Some have been colourful and joyous while others have taken us to the deep dark roots of the characters (and some have even managed to do both!). Thus, superhero movies have been a significant part of Hollywood for decades now: beginning as occassional special events and burgeoning into the modern blockbusters we have today that will ultimately lead DC's and Marvel's respective Cinematic Universes into the future. With the releases of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, Suicide Squad, Deadpool and X-Men: Apocalypse, 2016 looks set to become another big year for the comic book movie. Thus, let's cast our minds back over the decades worth of archives of superhero films to remind ourselves of what came before. There have been some truly epic films: The Dark Knight, Superman, The Avengers, X-Men, Batman Returns, Spider-Man just to name a few. But there is one masterpiece that sits just a little bit above the rest. One piece of cinema history that launched us into the current generation of comic-book films. When you think of the greatest superhero movies ever made, there is one that should ultimately be on every list. And that is 1989's revolutionary Batman.
When Tim Burton's Batman was released in 1989, it was both a critical and financial success, grossing a phenomenal $411 million at the Box-Office. It went on to become the 5th Highest Grossing film ever at the time. But it did so much more than that. It has created a legacy, paving the way for future movies and TV shows of the same genre and here is why it stands the test of time, able to hold it's own against any of today's crop of movies.
When you hear the word "Batman", some people can't help but think of Adam West's legendary interpretation in 1966 while others think more fondly of Christian Bale's chilling potrayal in The Dark Knight Trilogy. Now with Ben Affleck set to take up the mantle of the Caped Crusader with this year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we must remind ourselves of what came before. And when it all comes down to the best live-action adaptation of Batman, that honour belongs to: Michael Keaton.
When Michael Keaton was cast as Batman, there was outcry among critics and fans who were looking forward to a fresh serious adaptation of the character. They feared that Keaton's previous comedic roles were a sign that we would once again get a Batman reminiscent of the 1966 TV Series. But alas, Keaton silenced those critics in his first scene as Batman when he uttered those two famous words:
His portrayal of Batman completely redefined everything about not only the character but superhero movies as a genre. In 1968, after the decline of the TV Series, the comics reinvigorated Batman by returning him to his darker roots. Keaton was the one who finally delivered a performance on the big screen that was worthy of those darker graphic novels. His Batman rarely spoke and when he did, it was in a monotonous tortured tone. He was brooding. He was intimidating. This was not the same character from 1966. It was a new incarnation that would become a yardstick for any performance or adaptation to follow. Furthermore, as Bruce Wayne, Keaton was both powerful and subtle. He conveyed Bruce's emotional attachment to the Joker's past which ended up fuelling the film's main storyline. Batman was not a one-dimensional protector of the law. He was a driven vigilante who developed as a character, a vigilante and finally into a hero.
Keaton's Batman embodied all the darkest traits of the character and became larger than life on the big screen. He was so popular that he returned to the role in the sequel Batman Returns in 1992. Moreover, he was supposed to return for the third film, but dropped out after reading Batman Forever's script, unhappy with the lighter tone as well as Burton's removal as director. I am one of the few who actually really enjoyed Batman Forever but I shudder to think how awesome it could have been had Burton and Keaton stayed on. They were a dream team. Burton may have directed this masterpiece but it was Michael Keaton who turned Batman from Caped Crusader into the Dark Knight! The BatSuit was like the city itself: dark, intimidating and perfect for the world that had been created. With the exception of the yellow emblem and utility belt, the suit was black from head to toe. The decision to change the entire costume to black instead of maintaining the usual grey bodysuit was a decision that paid off. The use of bright colours had been reduced to a minimum and added to the realisation that this was very much a dark movie. Little did they know how effective this change would be as every single Batman movie since has maintained the all black Batsuit.
Furthermore, we got see Batman fight with many of the Joker's goons. While we may not have seen his training like we did in Batman Begins, that doesn't matter because as we saw in the scene above, he still had a very effective fighting style and the fighting scenes themselves were very impressive. Michael Keaton's Batman was well-versed and skilled, incredibly intimidating and the personification of the Dark Knight. What Keaton's portrayal did for the character and other comic book films will remain etched in history forever.
It Was Before It's Time
Batman was literally way before it's time. It was dark before it was cool for superhero movies to be dark. It's a common misconception that Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Trilogy kickstarted this string of dark superhero origin stories. Well that is incorrect, because 16 years before Nolan's Batman Begins came out, Tim Burton's Batman made it cool to be a dark superhero film. In fact, Burton followed it up with what is still possibly the darkest superhero film ever with 1992's Batman Returns.
Batman is a visual spectacle that takes place in an eerie haunting Gotham City. Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren's screenplay describes Gotham City as though "hell had erupted through the sidewalks." The film is the perfect visual representation of this. Unlike later films, the Gotham City here appears as though it had been ripped straight from the pages of a graphic novel. More recent films seem to focus on "realism" forgetting the fact that these characters are comic book characters. Thus, they have fictional cities appear identical to real cities of the world, focusing on their internal corruptness. But Batman portrays that internal corruptness through Gotham City's external corruptness, capturing the very essence of the comics. The architecture is downright frightening and adds to the awe of the film. The daunting skyscrapers are accomapnied with eerie gargoyles to remind us how "Gothic" Gotham City can be.The film empolyed a noir-like style and stood out among other colourful productions of the decade. It also wasn't afraid to get violent either. It's tone was clearly influenced by graphic novels at the time such as The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns. Simply put, the entire style of the film was like nothing that had ever been done before. The Batmobile/police chase is something that would later be adopted in follow up films: Batman Returns, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises all feature amazing high-speed chases. Batman was the first to adopt this and is still arguably the best. Danny Elfman's stunning music in the background made for a highly enjoyable and theatrical chase, worthy of such a revolutionary film.
One of my favourite scenes in the entire film is when the Batmobile slowly glides through that eerie forest with the obscenely high trees as the subtle music in the background begins to build up. As Batman puts his foot on the accelerator and the Batmobile roars onto the highway, thundering past fallen leaves as Elfman's powerful score bellows in the background. This scene was a work of stylistic genius. Like it was taken from the pages of one of the Graphic Novels from the 1980s, this Gothic forest is (like the rest of the film) visually stunning.
"Have You Ever Danced with the Devil in the Pale Moonlight?"
In order to be a truly great hero you must overcome a truly great villain. In today's world, many hold Heath Ledger's flawless Oscar-winning performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight as the greatest Joker ever portrayed. And I totally see their point. Ledger's Joker was truly show stealing. But that doesn't take away from or overshadow Jack Nicholson's truly exhilarating interpretation of the character. Unike Ledger's anarchist, Nicholson's iteration was more of a maniacal mob boss, obsessed with art. Mirroring both the gothic and the noir feel of the film, Nicholson managed to combine these themes to deliver us with a remarkable performance. His famous "Have you ever danced with the Devil in the Pale Moonlight?" is still regarded as one of the greatest movie quotes of all time. As Jack Napier in the first half of the film, Nicholson gave us what was sure to be another one of his well-crafted villainous roles. But from the first moment he appeared as the Joker, it became clear that this would go down as one of his most (if not the most) memorable roles of the film Icon's career. With Danny Elfman's carnival-like theme in the background, this incredible scene put everyone on notice: The Joker had arrived!
In the earlier comics, the Joker was mainly a comedic Jester-like character concerned with robbing banks like other criminals and that was portrayed beautifully by Cesar Romero in the 1966 TV Series. But during the 1980s, novels such as The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns portrayed the Joker as the maniacal killer that he still is today. Jack Nicholson captured that perfectly. He even referred to himself as "the world's first homicidal artist". He was superb and brought the role to life, being incredibly villainous in one moment and hilarious in the next. Many have claimed that he stole the show and I'm not sure I could argue with them because he was simply phenomenal.
The Final Act
Every film hopes to deliver a memorable final act - that moment when the protagonist faces their obstacle head on. Well Batman's final act was nothing short of superb. Every fan already knew that Batman and the Joker would collide and the possibility and suspense was built up throughout the entire film. Furthermore, throwing in Batman's emotional attachment to the Joker's past half way through the film was a curveball that added more and more layers to an already intense build-up. That build up is responsible for bringing to life one of the greatest battles ever waged in cinema history. From the moment that the Joker's parade hits the streets of Gotham and Batman takes to the skies, we get a thrilling final act that lasts for the better part of 30 minutes.
Whether it was in the skies, the streets or even the Cathedral: the final battle between Batman and the Joker was a huge pay off to end a fantastic film. Batman's physical fight with the well-trained henchman was graphic and featured vicious blows and even a chokeslam. Again, this scene was styled magnificently as the Joker's theme played and the fight was intercut with scenes of Nicholson's Joker waltzing maniaclly with Vicki Vale. Another work of comic genius! All this was capped off when we finally saw Batman confront the Joker on the roof of the Cathedral. Keaton delivered an emotionally powerful performance as Batman confronted his parents' killer. Nicholson should be appluaded because he was simply manicially brilliant in that scene. It was just too epic. We got to see the Dark Knight clash with his ultimate nemesis in what was a simply phenomenal final act. And that Trumphant ending just before the credits roll as Danny Elfman's triumphant score chimes in the background was the icing on an already delicious cake. No Batman movie has been able to follow that triumphant last moment and none ever will. That, Ladies and Gentlemen is how you end a Batman film.
Batman was a critical and financial success. It was the 5th Highest Grossing film of all time in 1989. But like I said, it was so much more than that. It left behind a legacy that we are still embracing to this day. Batman created a revolution and is partly responsible for the creation of the modern day superhero movie. Gone were the days of the colourful "Pows" and "Zaps" from the 1966 TV Series and the respective comics. In it's place was a mature form of superhero film that had never been done before. Superheroes were no longer exclusively for children, they were for adults too. In today's world, we are overwhelmed with dark superhero stories in film, television and even web: The Dark Knight Trilogy, Daredevil, Arrow and Man of Steel. Batman was a significant driving force behind this movement. The success of Batman promopted Warner Bros. to create the legendary Batman: The Animated Series which in turn spawned the DC Animated Universe. The universally acclaimed animated series would borrow a great deal from Burton's world, including the Batmobile design, Gothic aspects of Gotham, the adult and dark storytelling. Even their Penguin was based on Tim Burton's Penguin from Batman Returns. Speaking of Returns, Batman was so successful, it was commissioned for a sequel in 1992 (Returns) and eventually had two more follow ups also.
Nearly 30 years later Batman has stood the test of time. The effects are still as realistic. The outfit and sets still look perfect. It has aged very well. And it has left behind a legacy that will remain forever. Batman set the standard for any superhero and comic book movie that should follow it. And what a high standard it is! 27 years on and Batman is still the greatest superhero film of ALL TIME!
If you haven't seen it yet, you are missing out! Check it out NOW! And in the meantime, check out this amazing fan-made trailer for Batman!