Let’s get this out of the way right off the hop: Batman - on paper - should never have worked. I’ve witnessed a few films of its ilk in my years and it was like catching lightning in a bottle. I’m going to be tough on the movie here for a minute, but please just hear me out.
The film in its earliest incarnations was bounced around for years after the fall of the ultra campy Batman TV series in the spring of 1968 and was intended to be - no joke - Batman In Outer Space. Luckily, producer Michael Uslan bought the rights to the film seeking a restoration of the dark roots of the original subject matter. After shopping the film to several production companies that wanted to stick to the tone of the television series, he penned a treatment entitled “Return of the Batman”, several years before Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in fact, in order to properly sell the idea of a gritty Batman film.
After riding the conveyor belt that is the Hollywood machine for several years, with numerous updates and rewrites, the film managed to keep its edge, but even then there were those who wanted to go with the campy, comedy option. At one point, Bill Murray was considered for Batman and Eddie Murphy as Robin; a film that if I’m being completely honest I still wouldn’t be against seeing.
Then something even more unlikely happened: Warner Bros. - several years after having success with a comic franchise in Richard Donner’s Superman - decided to greenlight Batman and gave the job to up-and-comer Tim Burton, thanks to the box office earnings of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and contingent on the success of his latest film, Beetlejuice. Burton’s crazy little ghost (with the most) movie was a hit and Batman swung onto the silver screen June 23rd, 1989.
Tim Burton, after-the-fact, seems like an excellent choice, but at the time it’s borderline madness. Not only had Burton never read a Batman comic book, but he had never read a comic book period. After getting the gig he sat down and took in seminal Batman graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke and thankfully believed in this vision of the Batman. Burton - even with several decent scripts at hand - hired Sam Hamm, a writer and, more importantly, a comic book fan, to pen another script, which would ultimately be the backbone of the film we all know and love.
Now let’s consider the casting. Jack Nicholson was goddamn made to play The Joker. It was kismet. But Michael Keaton for Batman? Bruce Wayne is supposed to be square-jawed, 6’2, and jacked. Even if he did an incredible reading for the part I can’t believe they decided to go with Keaton.
And it was that casting choice that lead to the Batsuit. It’s known that Burton wanted a black suit, which honestly in the fullness of time is kind of cool and makes sense. But the now iconic rubber muscle suit was a necessity to make Keaton imposing. Leather fetishists the world over have never been the same.
Then there is Jack Napier. The origin story that Sam Hamm went with (The Joker landing in a vat of chemicals) is pretty much lifted from the source material, but giving The Joker a real name and a backstory is something that just shouldn’t be. The Joker is a total enigma. He has dozens of origins and in a way they’re all real, but at the end of the day none of them are real. Making him a real person first sort of takes away from that mythos.
The final strike is that the production behind the film became the archetype of the superhero film for over a decade. Instead of letting the source material drive the film’s creation they let the filmmakers play helter skelter with - at the time - 50 years of great Batman stories.
Alright, alright, alright. I’ll stop.
The truth is that despite all these checks in the negative column the movie ended up a standout classic. Like I said, lightning in a bottle. The only way it works, however, is if you turn off your inner comic nerd and let everything slide or if you don’t care about the authenticity at all and enjoy the film for what it is. The thing is, it isn’t that hard. Keaton in the black batsuit using the gravelly voice ends up doing the trick. It’s not my Batman, but it is a Batman and for a generation it became the popular image of the character. And movie-thirsty comic fans at the time took what they could get!
Nicholson as The Joker, however, is easy to watch. He just slides into that role. Even if I don’t like The Joker having a backstory, I can easily overlook it while Nicholson completely kills it as the unpredictable psychopath he was meant to play. Warner Bros. went through great lengths to get him - including a final cut of the film’s profits and top billing - but it was worth every penny.
Let’s not neglect the rest of the cast. Robert Wuhl as Alex Knox, Michael Gough as Alfred, Tracey Walter as Bob, Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, and of course Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale and Jack Frickin’ Palance as Carl Grissom. You’ve got heavy hitters, industry vets, a few quirks and they all gel.
The most important character, however, is Gotham City. Every set in the film oozes with gritty noir. The combination of matte paintings and dark art deco is perfect. It’s exactly how I’ve always pictured the city.
The icing on the cake is Danny Elfman’s score. The theme he wrote has become completely intertwined with the character, in my mind. It doesn’t hurt that Warner Bros. used the same music for Batman: The Animated Series, which - for my money - is the best film depiction of the character.
So, I may have been unnecessarily contrary at the start of this article, but it was purposeful. How many times have you read how great Batman is? I love it, too. I get it. But the truth is that the film is great and beloved despite the fact that it is a batshit crazy (pun intended) depiction of the Dark Knight.
So why was it such a hit? Bat-Mania, my friends. Warner Bros. had just become a subsidiary in the conglomerate giant of Time-Warner and all the strength of that marketing powerhouse was put behind Batman. There were action figures, clothing, posters, trading cards and more, and stores could barely keep up with demand. Hell, Warner Bros. even got Prince to do original songs for the soundtrack, like Batdance. From the kid begging his mom for a Batman t-shirt at the mall, to the guy getting the Batman logo etched into his scalp at a barber shop, Batman was a cultural phenomenon.
Everyone back then - and I mean everyone - was obsessed with Batman. My grandfather, who had zero interest in comic books or superheroes, owned a copy of Batman on VHS, which worked out for me, because that’s how I first got to watch the film!
With Bat-Mania running wild, a video game adaptation was a no-brainer. I’d love to say that the video game version of the film had a more straight-forward tale behind it, but if you've played many film-to-game adaptations you know that’s usually not the case. Not only are there multiple ports of each game, but there were two developers involved and several internal development teams. There were variants for the Nintendo Entertainment System, Game Boy, and Sega Genesis built by Sunsoft, and a plethora of PC ports made by Ocean.
I’ve chosen to focus on the Sunsoft games, because they are likely the most ubiquitous. I think if you asked ten people if they played Batman on the NES or the Commodore 64, you’d find ten of them played the Nintendo version.
Batman: The Video Game was released in December of 1989 on the Famicom in Japan, but didn’t hit shelves in the US until February of 1990. Still, the fact that it managed to be released just four months after the film shows that it was in development before the movie made it to theatres. So, as you would expect, it’s more “loosely” based on the film.
It features five stages that mimic the movie rather faithfully. There’s the streets of Gotham, the sewers (not sure why), Axis Chemicals, a mysterious laboratory where The Joker created all those deadly beauty products, and finally the Cathedral. Of course, the developers had to flesh out the enemies for the game, so they brought in all sorts of deep cuts from the Caped Crusader’s rogue’s gallery, like KGBeast and Maxie Zeus.
The NES version is actually sort of inspired by Ninja Gaiden. It was loaded with cut scenes inspired from the film and Batman had this cool wall-jump move that really spiced up the gameplay. He also had sub-weapons he could use, which included Batarangs, a Bat speargun (which pretty much shot missiles), and the Batdisk, which blasted three flashy laser disks. Where does he get those wonderful toys!?
Although the controls are a little stiff, the game is really playable. It has tons of catchy music and pretty solid graphics for 1989. It’s all pretty dark, but it suits the subject matter. One glaring issue that had to be fixed before the game’s release was that the final boss wasn’t The Joker at all. It was Batman’s true arch nemesis… Firebug!? Bats dealt with The Joker in a final cutscene in the prototype, but luckily it was rectified and The Joker battle was added before release.
The Game Boy port, although the simplest of the three, actually ends up being one of the more interesting ones. It's a fairly simple platformer in which a stylized, almost super-deformed Batman shoots his way through the streets of Gotham. You read that correctly. Batman’s only tool in the game is his trusty pistol! It’s very loosely based on the movie and follows Batman as he takes down The Joker’s cronies in Gotham, but it also features some vehicle stages, which liven things up and give it some variety. This is a very fun little game, and one of the more underrated titles for the Game Boy.
Lastly, we have the Sega Genesis port. This one is actually pretty faithful to the film and has, obviously, the best graphics for its time. It sees similar stages to the NES version, but adds in the Flugenheim Museum and a few horizontal shooting stages in the Batmobile and the Batplane. Batman only has the Batarang and grappling hook this time (no gun, sorry), but in a weird plot twist, instead of trying to save Jack Napier from falling into the pit of chemicals, he knocks the bastard in! Dark Knight, indeed.
Each of the Batman video games holds up in their own way. Honestly, you could play all of them for distinctly different experiences. They each earn the title Batman: The Video Game, even if a few of them go off script quite a bit. That’s to be expected when Japanese developers get their hands on the source material and mine it for what they think is the best stuff.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Batman. The honest truth here is that without this film there likely wouldn’t be a comic book-to-film subgenre that there is today. The movie was a dynamite hit, bringing in $400M at the box office and reportedly as much as $500M in additional merchandising. Although comic book films suffered at the hands of studios that couldn’t really care less about the original material for years to come after, the fervor of Bat-mania got people into the theatres and without it we likely wouldn’t be enjoying huge setpieces like Avengers: Endgame and… I’m struggling to think of a good analog in the DC library. Maybe Batman didn’t make out so good in this deal after all?
Either way, close out 2019 and take in a viewing of Tim Burton’s take on the Dark Knight, and while you’re at it, try out one of the many video game versions. It was a very special slice of the late 80s and - in many ways - there’s never really been anything like it.
Ryan Hollohan is a husband and father of three based out of Nova Scotia, Canada. In his free time he is a freelance writer for Pixel Elixir and creator of the nostalgia site RetroDef.ca. You can find him on Twitter at @RyHoMagnifico.