Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Batman '89

Twenty-five years ago today, Tim Burton's Batman arrived in theaters. With a new superhero movie popping up every couple of weeks these days, it's hard to remember what a seismic event that was, especially for a ten-year-old kid like myself. Batman was already fifty years old by point, but to my limited perspective, superheroes were relegated to Saturday morning cartoons and the occasional comic book my parents bought to keep me quiet on long car trips. Once Tim Burton's movie appeared, though, it really seemed like everybody was talking about it.

For me, not only did I see Batman multiple times that summer, I also attended my first ever comic book convention (a scrappy little affair at the Wheeler Basin Public Library.) I saved my allowance for weeks to buy a Batmobile toy. (Tim Burton's Batmobile remains my favorite version to this day) and began watching reruns of the Adam West Batman TV show religiously.

Recently, I re-watched the movie for the first time in a decade or so, and I was struck by how...offbeat it is. I hate when people call superhero media "campy" because it's usually accompanied by an unspoken assumption that superheroes shouldn't be any fun or, god forbid, something a kid might enjoy. But the 1989 Batman is definitely a Tim Burton movie. A whirl of whimsy and lurking dread, it has as much in common with Nightmare Before Christmas as The Dark Knight Returns. The props and art deco set designs make it impossible to say if the movie is set in the 1930s or sometime in the near future. Where Heath Ledger created a Joker who was terrifying other, Jack Nickolson's Joker was much more of a puckish, pied piper character. At ten years old, even though I knew he the bad guy, it was impossible to watch him bopping through the art museum, "improving" all the paintings, and not want to be him a tiny bit. And then you have Robert Whul's Knox, wandering through the movie, commenting on the action like a one-man, Borcht Belt chorus. Seriously, what the hell was up with Knox?

The movie isn't perfect. Neither Michel Keaton nor Kim Basinger seem to have any idea how to play their characters, and the batsuit looks so stiff and cumbersome, I'm pretty sure a hard shove would have trapped Batman on his back like a turtle. Still, that summer twenty-five years ago marked the first time since Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent that superheroes took a central place in popular culture. Moreover, that summer began a lot of the obsessions and loves that would define my life.

Since then, superhero movies have become big business, and especially with DC/Warner properties, deathly serious business as well. I can't imagine them releasing anything as idiosyncratic, as bizarre, or and brilliant anytime soon.