If you were around and old enough to know anything in the summer of 1989, you remember what a phenomenon the release of Batman was. Tim Burton’s comic book movie was almost as significant to blockbuster history as Star Wars, only in a different way. The DC superhero adaptation was sort of a peak for Hollywood’s aims in the wake of the surprise game-changer of 12 years prior. Warner Bros. went all out to sell Batman as an event long ahead of its June 23rd opening and then used that hype to in turn sell the world on Batman merchandising, especially to those who weren’t already hardcore fans. There’s very little about today’s blockbuster and fan culture that wasn’t around for Batman 25 years ago. Even the Internet was involved.
To commemorate the anniversary of the movie that sent America into a frenzy of Batmania, I’m not going to highlight a bunch of scenes we love or controversially compare it preferably to The Dark Knight or champion Michael Keaton’s return to the cape and mask after he returns to the black and white stripes of Beetlejuice. Instead I’ve selected a bunch of my favorite ridiculous facts about Batman, many of which are mostly crazy for how similar the preconception and reception was way back then to what we commonly see with tentpoles today.
1. We Thought This Was a “Dark” Superhero Movie
“Dark” was a typical adjective in reviews for Batman upon release, and for the next couple decades it was our standard for at least a darker take on the Caped Crusader. In the next few years there may have been Darkman, The Crow and Spawn, but as far as a real pop-culture heavy like Batman was concerned this was deemed pretty gritty. Not only was it more serious than the Batman TV series everyone was familiar with, even if they didn’t know the comics, but unlike the comparable Superman movies this one ended in the explicit death of the main villain (unlike Lex Luthor always being dragged to prison and the semi-offscreen deaths of Zod and friends). Once the silly Joel Schumacher Batman installments came out, there was even more relative reason to praise Burton’s version – including Batman Returns, which some critics thought even darker. 25 years later, though, it’s kinda laughable to think of Batman as being a dark movie, let alone a dark superhero movie, in spite of all the inspiration it took from Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke.” Maybe if it wasn’t for all the goofy Prince songs…
2. Michael Jackson Was Wanted For the Soundtrack
It’s not that Michael Jackson was an alternative choice to Prince, whose contribution allowed Warner Bros. to sell two separate soundtracks to Batman. The King of Pop was originally desired in addition to Prince. Jackson was to provide the movie’s love theme while Prince would do a song for The Joker – that being “Partyman,” possibly, or maybe the cut track “Dance With the Devil,” which was considered too dark (interesting for the above fact). Burton wasn’t into the idea of such a pop-heavy soundtrack, claiming his movies aren’t mainstream stuff like Top Gun. He did want two Prince numbers, though, one for the Joker’s museum scene and one for the parade. But apparently Prince wrote a bunch of songs and the studio went with a lot of them. It’s one of the director’s biggest regrets about the movie, believing the songs to be great but not right for the movie, partly because of how much they date it.
3. Fans Were Against the Movie Sight Unseen Solely Because of Tim Burton and Michael Keaton
Whenever we have overblown reactions to casting choices today, especially for the specific role of Batman, it’s worth remembering that it’s hardly anything new. In 1988, comic book geeks were enraged at the idea of the director of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure not only being in command of their favorite superhero on the big screen but also of his casting his Beetlejuice star in the lead. To them, there was no way this could be a serious take on the Dark Knight. Warner Bros. attempted to appease the fans, first signing creator Bob Kane as a consultant and then sending him to San Diego’s growing Comic Con in August to give the movie his blessing and share some stills from the production. In September, studio publicist Jeff Walker went to New Orleans for the World Science Fiction Convention for a presentation that was still met with groans. According to the Los Angeles Times, he argued in favor of Keaton by pointing to his performance in the recently released Clean and Sober. It worked for some, but many fans thought Kane was just being paid to support the movie and continued protests. By the end of the year, 50,000 complaint letters had been sent to Warners while additional hundreds went out to publications like “Comic Buyers Guide.” It wasn’t until they all saw the awkwardly cut teaser thrown desperately together for Christmastime that the majority of skeptics calmed down.
4. Kiefer Sutherland Was Approached to Play Robin
Who knows how the fans would have reacted to this close call. Try to picture Kiefer Sutherland at any point in his career where he seemed appropriate for the part of Robin. For one thing, he’s the same height as Keaton, and no scrawnier. According to recent comments from the actor, he was right off Young Guns (and Stand By Me, he says, although those movies were two years apart) and got the call. He turned the part down because he pictured the TV version with the tights. “I didn’t realize they were going to make the coolest movie ever!” he told On the Box in 2012. So, who took the gig in his stead? Nobody, of course. At least not in the end. The character was in the shooting script, however, as alter ego Dick Grayson. It was only a cameo, as a member of a family acrobatic troupe during the parade scene, and would have been the kind of sequel lead-in we’re more used to today (Billy Dee Williams’ minor appearance as pre-Two Face Harvey Dent was also a similar set up). Even storyboards for the scene were drawn and later animated for a DVD bonus feature, seen below.
5. Roger Ebert Gave Batman a Worse Review Than Batman Forever
Not every critics loved Tim Burton’s Batman, but surely nobody liked it less than the Schumacher movies, right? If you go just by thumbs up and thumbs down, Roger Ebert disliked everything (live-action) before Christopher Nolan took over, but when you look at his star rankings, there’s one installment that rises above the others: Batman Forever, which received 2½ stars rather than just 2. Of course, thumbs and stars are a bad way of gauging a critic’s overall reception of movies. Ebert was impressed enough with the visuals of the first movie that he admitted to recommending it in person to people on the look alone in spite of his thumb’s direction on the Siskel & Ebert show. He had somewhat similar things to say about Batman Returns, which he admitted isn’t bad just “misguided,” and then with Batman Forever he noted that he couldn’t recommend it but he enjoyed it more than Burton’s sequel. In his review, he made it seem like the extra half star was because it was more appropriate for kids. Comparatively, Gene Siskel gave thumbs up to the first three movies before finally agreeing with Ebert on Batman & Robin.
6. Fans Took to the Internet to Complain About the Ending
During the summer of 1989, the world wide web was still just an idea, but while there were no movie websites around just yet (though IMDb was springing up in a nascent form) there was an Internet already filled with fanboys. And they were opinionated from the get-go. Some of them might have even been part of the premature complaints about director and cast discussed above. On the other end, though, they were also already posting amateur reviews and, more presciently, tearing apart parts of movies in spoiler-filled discussions. Some of the comments I’ve been able to find from Usenet newsgroups of the time question the authenticity of what The Joker’s fall does to his body, suggest ways that the character could be back in spite of his fate at the end of the first movie, wonder how Bruce Wayne was able to build his Batcave on his own and argue about the technology behind the Batmobile.
7. Fans Took to the Barbershop to Shave the Batman Logo Into Their Hair
Batman was so huge 25 years ago that Warner Bros. was able to let the media pick up the best of the marketing for free. Reporters continually referred to the season as “Batman Summer” and regularly ran stories on fans of the superhero and the movie, before during and after release. One of the most memorable parts of Batmania, as the craze was also coined, is the hairdos. Every local paper and national magazine and nightly news show (go to 6:36 in the video below) had a piece about people shaving the Batman symbol into the backs of their heads – or, for the less brave and less wealthy, merely a spray dye job in the same shape. Of course, the studio not only got lucky with the media but with those fans themselves, as the symbol was also the movie’s logo and therefore an advertisement in itself. I can’t recall anything comparable with any movie in the two and a half decades since. Maybe we’re too wary of movies like this to participate in the hype so visibly and publicly, and maybe fanboy culture has grown enough that it’s not big news for mainstream media to pay attention to things like special grooming or cosplay, etc. But the idea that many were doing stuff like this before even seeing the movie isn’t quite as ridiculous today as it was then; all we do now is contribute to the buzz machine prior to release.
8. Sequel Plot and Character Casting Rumors Popped Up Immediately
It’s easy to forget that before all the movie sites came about there were a lot of magazines doing the same sort of thing, including spreading rumors about plots and casting for releases that were far from production let alone release. It’s not surprising that Warner Bros. wanted to get going on a sequel right away following the buzz on Batman, not just the enormous success it proved to be. Scripts were in the works early on, and the studio hoped for shooting to begin less than a year from the original’s opening, but that didn’t happen for various reasons including Burton’s hesitancy to come back and his script demands once he did. In the meantime, leaks of actual and discussed ideas could easily find their way out to journalists, and before 1989 was even through there were claims that Danny DeVito would be the Penguin, Cher was in talks for Catwoman and Robin Williams – who’d been a possibility for The Joker, was now up for The Riddler – a role he’d be attached to even beyond the release of Batman Returns, according to a rumor put out in “The Film Journal” in 1993. I’m not sure what publications are represented in the following video, which is said to be part of a September 1989 video called Batmania: From Comics to Screen.
9. Theater Owners Were Pissed About the Batman VHS Release
It’s not so ridiculous that movie theater owners were upset in the fall of 1989 when Warner Bros. planned its home video release of Batman as early as November 15th – little over four and a half months since it hit the big screen. Reportedly it was the first time a movie had such a quick turnaround to VHS, and back then most movies, not just blockbuster hits like Batman, continued to play strong in theaters, mostly second-run houses, after that much time. The ridiculous part is that the complaints continued over the next two decades. We don’t hear too much about shrinking windows today, but as recent as a few years ago we were still seeing protests about not just DVD release dates (and they were a big deal five years ago when home video sales began to drop) but day-and-date plans. Hollywood had really conquered the theaters 25 years ago, but they at least made it seem like the theater owners had a chance for a long time. As for what was ridiculous back then, the way Batmania was still strong enough in November 1989 that the media was still giving it this kind of attention/advertising for its home video cassettes:
10. Batman’s Success Helped the Career of Michael Moore
There are no concrete facts that confirm Warner Bros. only picked up Michael Moore’s debut feature film, Roger & Me, because they made so much money off Batman, but that’s sort of an accepted circumstance after all these years. The studio paid $3m for the documentary, which was unheard of at the time, and in 2005 Moore apparently made the claim that they could easily afford the deal – which included rent money for some of the film’s laid-off subjects – thanks to the superhero movie success. Before that, in his 1995 book “Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes,” indie film guru John Pierson says, in a conversation with Kevin Smith, that because of Batman the studio “had money to spare – ‘the dabbling fund.’” Moore also went on “The Tonight Show” in early 1990 and mentioned his idea for a combined Batman and Roger & Me sequel where the Caped Crusader “would come to save Flint, dangle Roger Smith from a tower, and everyone would go back to work to build Batmobiles.” I wish so badly that the episode was online to watch and share. Due to the way Moore broke out with that movie and went on to inspire and influence the eventual new wave of nonfiction cinema, you could say Batman’s success helped the whole field of documentary, as well. And some have.