There's a funny thing about superhero movies: Structurally speaking, they're fundamentally different from superhero comics, just by the very nature of how they're presented to the public. Or at least, they used to be. Until fairly recently, the appeal of comics had always been in the continuity, the ongoing sagas that built on each other and were designed to run indefinitely as a long-form narrative. The movies -- even when they were designed to kickstart a run of sequels -- were always meant to be self-contained stories.
That's flipped around the other way over the past ten years or so, with comics often looking to provide low-continuity, self-contained stories to readers picking up paperbacks and hardcovers even as the movies build billion-dollar franchises by creating a shared universe that stretches across multiple forms of media. It's no surprise, then, that if you really want to see where that trend got its start, you can trace it back to Batman '89 and the influence that came to the comics when screenwriter Sam Hamm was tapped to craft a story for Detective Comics #600 and provided the blueprint for the modern Batman event in the process.
Ah, I thought, as the camera panned lovingly down Vicki Vale’s high-heeled, black-pantyhose-clad legs — here she is. The Strong Female Character. The 1989 model had fluffier hair than her successors, but that's really the only significant difference. She establishes her Totally Empowered cred early, makes eyes at the hero, then gets the hell out of the way as he and the (male, naturally) villain go about the business of advancing the plot. She snaps a photo once or twice to remind us that she's a globe-trotting photojournalist — the kind of photojournalist with no compunction toward sleeping with her subjects, but hey, whatever. She ends the film in the hero’s arms, fulfilling her role as reward for his victory, with nary a whisper of the professional goals that drove her to him in the first place. She is pretty and in need of rescue and almost entirely in service to the male characters’ plot and characterization—but she gets to be vaguely spunky and is slapped with a typically male career, so it’s totally okay.
I can only imagine the interviews that took place upon the release of Batman, touting her modernity, her break with the damsels of the past, her ineffable 1989-ness. I’m sure the crew patted themselves on the back heartily for providing the women and girls of America with such a vibrant reflection and role model.
I'm sure of these things because 25 years later, very little has changed regarding how women like Vicki are portrayed: superficially empowered and ultimately disposable.
Michael Uslan's name might not be known to most comic book fans, but he is probably one of the most important figures in the cinematic history of superheroes. He obtained the film rights to Batman in the late 1970s, spent ten years fighting to bring a project to fruition, and since the completion of Batman '89 twenty-five years ago has been credited as producer or executive producer on every major cinematic Bat-project since (including Batman: The Animated Series, Mask Of The Phantasm, the Christopher Nolan trilogy of Dark Knight blockbusters, and the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice film). He's a life-long comic fan, a pop-cultural historian, a conversationalist, and an author (his memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman, is an essential read for anyone interested in comics and comic-influenced media).
As the man largely responsible for Batman '89 existing at all, there's no person better suited to tell not just the story of the film's production, but the long and winding path the project had taken over the preceding decade on its way to success. But besides the unusual story behind Uslan's relationship with the Dark Knight on film, the producer told us about his broader goals for Batman and comic books in general, which went far beyond simply making a successful motion picture.
On the occasion of the film’s 25th anniversary, ComicsAlliance represents our in-depth commentary and review of Tim Burton’s Batman ’89, the father of modern superhero cinema. Originally published in 2011 as part of our exhaustive Cinematic Batmanology series (which also included a massive five-part analysis of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), this piece by Chris Sims and David Uzumeri strips the fan favorite Batman ’89 down to the bone to get at what works, what doesn’t work, and what’s just plain crazy about Burton’s enduringly influential film.
There have been five men to portray Batman in the character's eight live-action feature-length films, from Adam West in Batman '66 to Christain Bale in 2012's The Dark Knight Rises. All five actors came with their strengths and weaknesses, but the best was Michael Keaton, who played the DC Comics superhero in 1989's Batman and 1992's Batman Returns.
In the first major scene of Batman '89, Keaton famously grabs a terrified mugger by the collar, holds him off the side of a building, pulls him close to his face, and hisses, "I'm Batman." As a 12-year old watching that moment on a VHS tape in my living room, I believed Michael Keaton. And I still believe him as a grown man watching it on DVD in my office 25 years later, even after having seen a half-dozen different Batman movies since.
I realize declaring Michael Keaton's performance as Batman to be not only my favorite Batman but the best Batman is a somewhat controversial statement, even (especially?) among my fellow writers at ComicsAlliance, but allow me to make my case.
On the occasion of the film's 25th anniversary, ComicsAlliance represents our in-depth commentary and review of Tim Burton's Batman '89, the father of modern superhero cinema. Originally published in 2011 as part of our exhaustive Cinematic Batmanology series (which also included a massive five-part analysis of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight), this piece by Chris Sims and David Uzumeri strips the fan favorite Batman '89 down to the bone to get at what works, what doesn't work, and what's just plain crazy about Burton's enduringly influential film.
I was an unabashed fan of the 1989 Batman movie around the time of its release (particularly after it hit VHS), but the years have worn down my appreciation of it, and quite a few aspects of it don't entirely stand up to the scrutiny of a critical lens anymore.
There are a few pieces of media related to the film, however, that I feel just as positively about as I ever have. The Prince soundtrack, for one. And for another, the Sunsoft-developed game for the Nintendo Entertainment System that included a few cutscenes with lines from the movie, and largely ditched its plot otherwise. I took a stroll down memory lane with it, and it still holds up.
There may be no better proof of just how much pop culture can shift in a quarter century than the above, 20-minute video Warner Bros. produced in 1988 to show ancient movie distributors who were not so sure a film about a dark, intense Batman would be something anybody would want to watch -- which is pretty funny considering just how massive and influential the film turned out to be.
In the summer of 1989, primed by "Kiss" and "Alphabet St." and "Sign 'O' the Times" to expect brilliance from the first taste of new Prince music, I raced out to buy "Batdance," the first single to be released from his soundtrack to Tim Burton's Batman. It seemed like a great idea at the time.
I remember my feeling of dazed disappointment the first time I heard "Batdance" lurch to an end. "Batdance" isn't even a song, as such, but a cluster of unrelated chunks of underdone rhythm tracks, ineptly pasted together with chopped-up samples of film dialogue, a couple of lines flown in from other songs, Prince singing the hook from Neal Hefti's '60s Batman theme, and (in its album mix) a very aggressive guitar solo that has almost nothing to do with what's going on around it. Prince and Batman together? How could that not be awesome? What just went wrong here?
In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Tim Burton's Batman movie, The Arkham Sessions takes a break from analyzing the psychology of Batman: The Animated Series to pay special tribute to the legendary film that influenced the style, music, and dark themes of the animated show. Consistent with her measured, analytical approach to the characters and stories of BTAS, Dr. Andrea Letamendi offers psychological conceptualizations of Burton's Batman and Joker with the help of co-host Brian Ward.
Is the film, as Burton once described, a story about the intertwined paths of Batman and the Joker, culminating in a "fight between two disturbed people?" Furthermore, how does Keaton's Bruce Wayne compare to Kevin Conroy's version when it comes to the maintenance -- or fusion -- of multiple identities? How is Nicholson's Joker more destructive and dangerous than Hamill's? Listen to this special edition of the The Arkham Sessions and reminisce about Batman '89 in a whole new way.
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