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Batman changed how blockbusters look—and how Hollywood sold them

Batman wasn’t just the biggest movie of 1989—it was a cultural phenomenon
<i>Batman</i> changed how blockbusters look—and how Hollywood sold them
Graphic: Jimmy Hasse, Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures
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In honor of The Batman opening this week, we are rerunning some of our favorite features about the Caped Crusader. This article originally ran on June 26, 2020.

The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

It took five years to get the Ghostbusters back on screen. 1984’s Ghostbusters had struck gold, capturing public imagination and pulling in more money than almost anything else that year. A sequel was the obvious move, but the original Ghostbusters stars weren’t sure they wanted to make one. The executives at Columbia Pictures had an internal war over how much budget they wanted to allocate. Co-writers Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis labored over a script that they felt would send a message about the toxic environment of American cities. They got paid a whole ton of money.

Finally, it all came together, and Ghostbusters II opened huge in the middle of June 1989. In its first three days in theaters, the film made nearly $30 million, setting a new record. That record would not stand long. One week later, another long-gestating big-budget spectacle of a movie came out and utterly lapped it. In its first three days, Tim Burton’s Batman outgrossed that first Ghostbusters II weekend by more than $10 million.

Batman wasn’t just the biggest movie of 1989. It was a cultural phenomenon. There were toys, posters, costumes. There was a Batman cereal. Virtually every kid I knew owned at least one Batman T-shirt. Prince, then somewhere near the peak of his powers, made a whole album of Batman-inspired songs, most of which didn’t even appear in the film.

In a lot of ways, 1989 was the first real modern movie summer, at least in the way we understand that concept now. Many of the year’s biggest hits were sequels: Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, Back To The Future Part II, the aforementioned Ghostbusters II. The surprise smashes were high-concept family films like Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, Look Who’s Talking, and The Little Mermaid, the last of which kicked off a whole renaissance of Disney animated flicks. The Oscars that year virtually ignored all the big box-office successes, instead rewarding middlebrow prestige fare like Driving Miss Daisy and Born On The Fourth Of July—both successes, but not exactly blockbusters—which helped codify the divide between Oscar movies and popcorn movies.

And then there was Batman, which towered over this entire landscape like a sort of ominous gothic spire. In a lot of ways, Batman is the movie that perfected the whole summer-blockbuster approach, in marketing as well as content. Batman isn’t a sequel, but it still relies, the way sequels do, on the idea of brand awareness. The producers could rest assured that virtually everyone in the ticket-buying public at least had some idea who Batman and the Joker were, and they built on that. To that simple one-word premise, they added big stars, layers of mythology, and a whole ton of sensationalistic imagery. The formula worked. Jaws and Star Wars are generally credited (and derided) with representing the birth of blockbuster cinema. But neither film fully embraced sheer absurdist spectacle quite like Batman.

All of this seems completely obvious in retrospect, but it was an arduous process to get Batman to the screen. Executive producer Michael Uslan, who’d taken pride in teaching the first accredited college-level class about comic books as folklore, had bought the rights to the Batman character in 1979, when he was a young lawyer. For years, Uslan tried to sell different studios on the idea of a dark, serious Batman movie. Most of them either wanted some version of the knowingly campy ’60s TV show, or they didn’t want anything to do with the idea. Superman: The Movie had been a huge hit a decade earlier, but the ensuing sequels had been progressively crappier and less successful, and nobody else had mounted a real major superhero film. Executives weren’t convinced that adults would pay money to see a story about a children’s character.

Eventually, Uslan was able to convince Rain Man producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber that Batman was a good idea, and the two of them recruited Tim Burton, a director who had made only two movies and who was not yet 30. Burton, a former animator, had quickly cultivated a reputation as someone who could stretch budgets and make movies that over-performed at the box office. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton’s debut, was one of the great left-field successes of the mid-’80s. Beetlejuice, his follow-up, was one of 1988’s biggest hits. And while Burton had never been a comic book fan, Beetlejuice had certainly shown that he had the visual imagination to make something special.

Making Batman, Burton clashed bitterly with his producers over just about every decision. He used up most of his juice in convincing them to cast his Beetlejuice collaborator Michael Keaton as Batman. The director knew that Batman was a fundamentally disturbed character, a billionaire who thinks that he can put his money to its best use by dressing up in rubber and dangling purse-snatchers off of fire escapes. Keaton had the kind of manic energy that could make something like that work. But Keaton wasn’t big or physically imposing, and he was mostly famous for down-the-middle comedies like Mr. Mom. Incensed Batman fans sent tens of thousands of letters—actual written letters, on paper, sent with stamps—to the Warner Bros. offices to complain about the casting. No film executive would face down that kind of fan insurrection now. The Twitter ratios would be through the roof.

The letters weren’t the only problem. Sean Young, originally cast as Vicki Vale, was injured while horseback riding, and Kim Basinger had to come in as a last-second replacement. The budget ballooned. The London set was under siege from photographers, all competing to see who could be the first to get pictures of the stars in costume. Michael Keaton and the stuntmen could barely move in the different Bat-costumes, so all the fight scenes had to be edited into dark blurs. Screenwriters were coming in to do script polishes, and other screenwriters weren’t being told about those polishes. It was a mess.

And yet the various head-butting collaborators managed to make exactly what the ticket-buying public wanted to see in 1989. Batman is, in some ways, a giddy and schticky ’80s action movie dressed up in arty German Expressionist drag. It’s a showcase for dense, imaginative gothic screencraft. (Less than two years before his death, Anton Furst won an Oscar for the Batman production design. His was the only nomination for the film.) Batman also is a pyro-addled stunt show that occasionally dissolves into absurdist prop comedy, as in the great and nonsensical moment where the Joker pulls a gigantic revolver out of his pants. And most often Batman is a sheer over-the-top star vehicle.

Getting Jack Nicholson to play the Joker is the sort of coup that ultimately changes the course of movie-business history. Originally, Burton was interested in casting people like John Lithgow and Tim Curry in the villain role. (Curry had even signed a deal to do it.) Both of those actors obviously could’ve done the job, but with them in the role, it seems far less likely that Batman would have outgrossed Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade or that it would’ve signaled a Hollywood sea change.

Nicholson, at the time, was the very definition of a larger-than-life movie star. He’d won two Oscars, and he’d been nominated for seven more. He’d been a crucial part of the ’70s New Hollywood wave, and in the process, he’d remade the entire idea of film stardom in his own horny, scene-gobbling image. Nicholson had also just played the literal Christian devil in The Witches Of Eastwick—a role that, in retrospect, now seems like an extended dress rehearsal for Batman. Most importantly, he was really into the idea of playing the Joker.

Nicholson had caveats, of course. He had to have top billing on the movie despite not playing the title character. He had to be paid vast sums of money. Nicholson got a big piece of the Batman grosses, which ended up earning him somewhere between $60 and $90 million for the role. Nicholson also earned money from the merchandise and even the Batman sequels, though he wasn’t in them. It’s still one of the all-time biggest paychecks for a single movie. The makeup artists had to work around Nicholson’s allergy to spirit gum, and they had to find a way to present a flashy, theatrical Joker who was still recognizable as being Jack Nicholson. Nicholson was worth all of this.

Some of his value is in the name recognition. With one of the world’s biggest stars in the film, it suddenly seemed a whole lot more plausible that adults would pay to go see Batman. But more importantly, Nicholson just eats up the movie. He hogs the attention and the screen time. He has a blast, reeling off endlessly quotable lines that likely didn’t come from a screenwriter: “Who do you trust? Hubba hubba hubba! Money money money! Who do you truuuust?” He gibbers and leers and waltzes. He dances with wild levels of clumsy swagger.

Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker is the one that’s come to loom larger in the cultural memory. But while Ledger’s take is brilliant and mesmerizing, it might’ve ruined the character; every Joker since has been all sweaty and malformed. Joaquin Phoenix seemed to hate his own existence when he played it. Nicholson, on the other hand, doesn’t hate anything—not even Batman. He just wants people’s attention, something he figures he can earn by killing them.

He’s also wildly charismatic. The Joker is a known murderer who killed a mob boss in broad daylight in front of cameras, and he’s also a suspected terrorist in possession of chemical weapons. But throngs of Gotham citizens still clog the streets when the Joker shows up to throw money from a parade float. Nicholson makes this seem vaguely plausible, at least within the movie’s skewed reality. His Joker is so magnetic that crowds of people risk almost-certain death just to hang out around him (also, to grab some free cash).

Nothing about the Joker makes sense—the indiscriminate spraying of poison gas, the rampant shootings of his own underlings, the willingness to get into a fistfight with Batman that he can’t possibly win, the go-to dance move where he kind of pumps his cane in the air. It’s all perfectly unhinged, which makes it entirely in keeping with the Joker character. And it also works because Tim Burton situates Nicholson in a world where nothing makes sense.

Burton’s Gotham City looks a bit like the ’40s Los Angeles of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, if the cartoon and film noir aesthetics had somehow been fused into one. Thanks to Danny Elfman’s thunderously brooding score, it sounds like that, too. Burton surrounds his stars with larger-than-life figures like Jack Palance and Billy Dee Williams, both of whom get minimal screen time. To watch the movie is to plunge into its world, to lose all grip on our own.

And while he’s more of a supporting player in his own movie, Michael Keaton remains an endlessly compelling Batman—itchy and distracted whenever he has to pretend to be Bruce Wayne, icy and purposeful whenever he’s getting to live out his true identity as the guy in the bat costume. Burton presents Batman and the Joker as complementary lunatics: two deranged misfits who are least comfortable whenever they attempt to resemble regular people. (Joker has to put on flesh-toned makeup in order to disguise himself as a human being. It’s not convincing, and it’s somehow creepier than his regular clown face.)

Batman isn’t all that heavy on action scenes, and the set pieces are sloppy and incoherent by today’s standards. It’s meaner and more vicious than your standard PG-13 blockbuster fare. It’s built more on performances and on a very particular director’s vision. But Batman is a true inflection point, dividing film history into the before and after. With its wild, outsized success, Batman ended the age when a quiet, character-driven chamber piece like Rain Man could dominate the box office. After Batman, every big movie had to be a noisy event. This was happening anyway. If it hadn’t been Batman, it would’ve been something else—Ghostbusters II, maybe. But to anyone watching the way history unfolded, Batman is still the glowing signal in the sky, the sign that everything had changed.

The contender: A funny thing about those big 1989 summer sequels: They’re mostly pretty good. Lethal Weapon 2 sharpened the buddy-cop patter of the first film, adding some good comic relief and some loathsome villains, and it became a much bigger deal than the first film. Ghostbusters II gave Bill Murray a chance to deadpan about a river of pink slime and a walking Statue Of Liberty. Back To The Future Part II used the magic of time travel to twist its plot up into some truly fun pretzels. And Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade fulfilled the promise of Raiders Of The Lost Ark, bringing back the giddy charm that had gone missing in 1984’s Temple Of Doom.

For his third Indiana Jones movie, the No. 2 highest grosser of 1989, Steven Spielberg is so in love with movie history that he casts the literal James Bond as Indy’s father, but he’s also irreverent enough to make the character into a fussy, hapless professorial gasbag. Spielberg turns his jokes into action scenes and his action scenes into jokes, and he keeps his touch light even when he’s dealing with ancient mysteries and Biblical prophecies. In its own way, The Last Crusade is nearly as miraculous as Raiders—a zippy multiplex entertainment that remains endlessly rewatchable decades later.