A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1989: Look. I’m sorry.

BATMAN (dir. Tim Burton)

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty tired of superheroes on film.

But the thing is (*looks around*), this is all my fault. Well, mine and the fault of thousands of other people who had opinions about who the best writer for Superman was or what we’re supposed to take from the ending of Watchmen. We all thought “god, superhero comics can be cheesy, but they can also be so much fun, so resonant, and such fertile ground for metaphors that can really take you to interesting places looking at the real world! Wouldn’t it be great if everyone would wake up to this and get on board?” And then a monkey’s paw twitched, and a long fuse started burning, eventually leading to a world where everything at the multiplex was competing examples of CGI punchfest dogshit where all the life and humanity had been purged by a corporate assembly line filmmaking process.

This isn’t true, of course; or at least it’s not true in the sense that there weren’t actually any cursed monkey’s paws involved. But I do think that there’s probably some truth to the idea that the critical mass of comicsheads in the early 00s who all went and bought tickets to the first Nolan Batman movie, and to the Raimi Spider-Man movies, and the Singer X-Men movies, we were the accelerant that gave Hollywood in general and Disney in particular the idea that there was endless money to be made by quadrupling down on this superhero thing. It’s not just a thing that we let happen; it’s a thing that we cheered on at the time. And I don’t feel great about that.

Tracing definitive cause and effect in stuff like this is rarely possible, of course. But I feel like it’s reasonable to say that a lot of my cohort of 2000s-era young nerds with disposable income were all put onto this track just by living through the hype cycle for Burton’s Batman.*

*Purists will no doubt argue that the Donner-Reeves Superman movie was there laying groundwork a decade earlier, and that Superman and Batman had been showing up in movies since the 40s. And this is all true, of course! But subjectively, at the time, the Batman ’89 hype cycle felt different and more lasting, even if I’m just saying that from the center of the marketing-push blast zone.

I can’t find the citation now, but I read somewhere that at one point Nicholson said to Keaton something like, “a movie like this, you just sit back and let the makeup do the work.”

In the course of this series, I’ve been falling back a lot on statements to the effect of “if you weren’t there, you just can’t understand what [X cultural phenomenon] felt like.” But it keeps feeling true, and I think it applies here. Maybe it’s that the cultural landscape has changed massively; maybe the only thing that’s actually changed is that I was only a 13-year-old with no defense against marketing once in my life. But in the summer of 1989, it felt like someone had flipped on a gigantic, all-powerful Think Batman Is Cool ray and blasted every inch of the United States with it, awakening never-perceived Batman fever in millions of us (thinking about it more, this kind of thing almost certainly does still happen, and I’m just fixated on the one time it happened to me). Some of my friends resisted it, but for a bunch of us, Batman moved from despised Adam West thing** to the coolest, most serious pop cultural thing in town, and it was crucial that we all get on board. Black t-shirts with the Burton Batman logo on them just spontaneously appeared on the floors of everyone’s bedrooms.

**And of course I know that the cultural pendulum has swung back around towards general appreciation for the Adam-West-vibe Batman, and inasmuch as I have an opinion, I’m down. Let Batman be silly and fun! But also maybe Batman just needs some rest now.

It’s weird to put myself back into the ’89 frame of mind. Succumbing to Batmania meant getting into comics, theoretically, but the idea of onboarding 50 years of continuity with no guides or even sense of what was important and what wasn’t was just overpoweringly daunting (I can report subjectively that this is a thing the internet made a thousand percent easier). That backlog of material was just a baffling thing to confront; in 1989, it seemed to me that Batman was this ancient thing, so old that it was laughable to think that people might know who made him up. Now, of course, I know that Bob Kane*** was a paid consultant on the movie, and that contemporaries of his and Bill Finger’s were still alive and active at the time. Anyway, we all went nuts for this, and a decent-sized chunk of us kept on buying comics, and after some time had passed we were all just a giant pile of accelerant for a bigger, more all-encompassing pop culture phenomenon.

***by the way, Fuck Bob Kane.

All this talk about the phenomenon, no engagement so far about the movie itself. But maybe that feels appropriate? I don’t want to shit on something that I know some people love, but honestly Batman ’89 feels more interesting to me as a phenomenon than a work of film. The script isn’t great! It feels like it gets less worked-on as the movie goes on, which I gather might literally be the case because of a writers’ strike. The production design is next-level, and that’s something.

Boy, did we love our symbolically significant huge walls of TV screens back in the 80s. But: hey, big points that this is a physical set Keaton’s actually standing in.

If there’s greatness lurking in this movie beyond the production design (and if production design was enough to vault a movie to greatness, Lynch’s Dune would be the only movie from the 80s anyone would talk about), it’s in the performances. Or at least in the screen presences. Keaton’s weird intensity serves him well when he’s onscreen as Bruce Wayne; as I typed this, it occurred to me that with the possible exception of Adam West and Kevin Conroy, nobody really does much acting as Batman, as much as they do posing and fight choreography. (As an actor, Kim Basinger is innately arresting onscreen, but the script here doesn’t really give her a goddamned thing to do).

But really (and strangely) it comes down to Nicholson. It’s weird to me that Batman ’89 has become part of the affirmative case for the greatness of Jack Nicholson; because it’s always been pretty clear to me that he really only works in the movie because of the previously-established greatness of Jack Nicholson. Like, the whole deal is just watching him calmly lay his Nicholson vibe on the Joker, so that viewers are constantly thinking “holy shit it’s Jack Nicholson being the Joker! No way!” But as a practical matter, it works. If I try to think of great standout scenes from Batman ’89, they’re pretty much all Joker scenes- the big reveal in the doctor’s office, maybe the entry into the art museum. Maybe you can argue that, playing at Nicholson’s level of fame, knowing how to bring your offscreen persona to bear onscreen becomes a key part of the game.

I had a great time getting hyped up about Batman back in 1989, and a good time seeing the movie. By pointing me towards comics, I guess it altered the course of my life. But I think there’s a decent chance I’m going to live out the rest of my life without seeing it again, and with the possible exception of Michael Keaton, I don’t know that it’s a movie that subsequently led to anything good for anyone involved in either the production or the consumption.****

****Including Tim Burton! His hot run continued after Batman ’89, but the seeds were being planted here of the Burton Genius myth that would end up allowing himself to self-indulgently swallow himself whole.

Oh, but the soundtrack? Pretty great, except for some very specific situations.

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