Writing these off-the-cuff blog posts are taking me down memory lane. For some reason—maybe the advertising of the next Batman movie?—I remembered being on Main Street, Vineyard Haven, on the opening weekend of Batman (late June, 1989).
Vineyard Haven had the smallest theater on the island (the Capawock), and we weren’t able to get in that night. There was a crazy amount of foot traffic outside the theater, from the spillover. I ran into a friend in front of the Bunch of Grapes (our cherished bookstore), who had seen it. I remember him hedging, “It was okay…”
I’m not sure people remember what a big deal this movie was. The advertising had been everywhere:
The movie was produced by Peter Guber and Jon Peters, and they were so larger-than-life—genius promoters who left the actual producing to others—there’s a classic Hollywood book about them. Peters in particular was infamous for being a volatile maniac.
I can’t remember all the details of the movie’s production, and don’t feel like looking them up. The film was at first a curiosity for us fans: Batman was this campy old joke of a superhero played by Adam West with cartoon “POWs!”—so learning that this would be a serious adaptation was exciting.
But Tim Burton was best known for off-center comedies (Pee-Wee, Beetlejuice) along with his composer, Danny Elfman—and Michael Keaton was a fast-talking comedian identified with Mr. Mom, Gung Ho and the aforementioned Beetlejuice.
I remember much grousing from fans that Keaton would never be a proper Batman, which back in the day had to be done in the letters pages of Starlog magazine (no Internet).
As the movie’s advertising rolled out, however, it truly became impossible not to get excited.
This movie looked COOL! The Gothic version of Gotham City, the design, the costume, the music, the catchphrases—oh yeah…
And Jack. He had top-billing. He was already a cultural institution (The Shining, Terms of Endearment, The Witches of Eastwick) and this put him over the top.
Jack Nicholson as the Joker? Take my money, please.
The movie poster simply had the bat symbol—no actors, nothing else—which people today may forget was revolutionary. (That kind of thing might be done for a teaser poster, but not the release poster.)
It totally worked. That symbol was burned into our brains, the pièce de résistance of its advertising campaign: we must see this movie!
When it came out, it truly was an event.
And then, we saw it.
Was it bad? I wouldn’t say that—we definitely got our money’s worth.
Was it good?
Well…that was the question that my friend struggled to answer on Main Street.
To this day, I’m not sure what I think. The movie is certainly way better than the Joel Schumacher films, or a lot of the superhero films that came the years after (The Shadow, oh boy).
It had a ton of awesome stuff—the design, the score, the sheer visual artistry. Credit to Tim Burton: he had a bold, unique, different vision, he executed it, and it landed with the culture.
And yet it was strangely…incoherent? Unsatisfying? Sloppy?
I’m not sure of the right word for it.
This was not, shall we say, a tight screenplay. It was a series of images, events, lines and vivid moments—but not really a story.
It was really the Joker’s movie, not Batman’s (a problem which continues to plague superhero films: the villain is inevitably more interesting than the hero).
What is the story, anyway? Jack is whacked by his mob boss (over mob stuff), survives and becomes the Joker, terrorizes Gotham City, Batman does Bat stuff to stop him…something with Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale…something with the comic relief newspaper guy…Batman and the Joker fight in a very high place and the Joker falls.
And it turns out Joker killed Batman’s parents.
It leaves you with an empty feeling—junk food.
But the movie made a mint. The summer of 1989 was pretty crowded, with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (a quick casualty, deservedly so), Ghostbusters II, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (Batman’s counter programming on opening weekend, a smart play by Disney), Lethal Weapon 2, The Karate Kid Part III, Licence to Kill, and The Abyss later in August.
Batman beat them all.
And movie executives learned a crucial lesson...
All that effort they used to put into making sure a movie was good, and made sense to an audience?
It didn’t matter.
The movie didn’t have to make sense. It didn’t even have to be especially good.
It had to be cool—and have great marketing.
And that was the consequence of the 1989 Batman.