Bat to Basics – The history of Tim Burton’s Batman (2003)

(Originally published in Hotdog, July 2003)

Event Movies- they’re big, they’re dumb, and Hollywood wouldn’t be able to survive without them. The financial landmarks that major film companies arrange their schedules around, they arrive each summer with a deafening level of hype, promising the latest blockbuster thrill-ride will be bigger, faster, sexier, and louder than ever before.

Sadly, in an age where trailers are frequently more entertaining than the movies they’re selling, we often end up paying our money only to complain afterwards how it should have been so much better. Tweedy highbrow film critics point accusing fingers at event movies for causing the end of Intelligent Cinema as we know it- but while they’ll blame the original STAR WARS trilogy or JURASSIC PARK, to find the real birth of the modern blockbuster, you have to look in the shadows for a bat-costumed vigilante with a suprising taste in rubber.

First swooping into popular culture back in 1939, millionaire Bruce Wayne’s superheroic alter-ego Batman has always seemed an eye-catching choice for big screen adventures. Unfortunately, his only major pre-1980s appearance was the jaw-droppingly camp 1960s BATMAN television show, meaning that for two decades the word “Superhero” conjured up images of Adam West sprinting around a day-glo Gotham City in grey tights.

Only after Christopher Reeve’s first crimson-knickered flight in 1978’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE did Studio big-wigs at Warner Bros start considering a less campy, more action-packed version of Batman. Pre-production rumblings started in 1979, but the project stalled for several years, searching for a decent script and the right director.

In the end, the man for the job turned out to be a tangle-haired 29 year old ex-animator with a stunningly gothic imagination. Tim Burton was never likely to fit in at Disney, particularly after his animation designs for FOX AND THE HOUND were described as “looking like roadkill”, but outside the grip of Mickey Mouse, he grabbed Hollywood’s attention with two mind-boggling movies;- the utterly demented PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, and twisted afterlife comedy BEETLEJUICE.

Enlisted for BATMAN, his eventual concept turned out far more radical than the straight action-adventure the studio intended- Burton wanted to capture the style of the 1940s comics, and explore the psychological weirdness of a man dressing up as a giant bat. It was the era of the “graphic novel” craze, and Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS had already proved successful superhero stories could be challenging, edgy and crammed full of creative violence- so it didn’t take much persuasion for the studio to give a potentially trailblazing blockbuster the thumbs-up.

Burton quickly set about building Gotham City with the aid of acclaimed production designer Anton Furst, the man who transformed the Docklands into Vietnam for Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET. Together, they re-vamped Gotham as an art-deco BLADE RUNNER-style nightmare, created a new, sleeker Batmobile, and dressed Batman in a suit of rubber body-armour that’d help the Caped Crusader easily fit in down at the local Fetish club.

Casting the film was trickier- Jack Nicholson was everybody’s favourite choice for cackling bat-villain the Joker, but the legendary reprobate wasn’t interested, only signing after a ludicrously tempting offer- $6 million and a cut of the merchandising- was slammed on the table by BATMAN producing team Jon Peters and Peter Guber.

While favoured female lead Sean Young suffered a riding accident and was replaced as Vicki Vale by Kim Basinger, the big debate was over who’d get the keys to the Batmobile. The Studio wanted a dynamic action star- but Burton had set his sights on the wiry, distinctly un-macho Michael Keaton.

“I wanted to steer away from that square-jawed look in comic books where everybody is a hulking brute,” explained Burton in 1989, “The whole point is that Batman’s not Arnold Schwarzenegger, because if he was, why would he need to put on a Bat-suit? He’s like the Phantom of the Opera, but instead of physical scars he’s hiding emotional ones.”

Going for the star of comedies like NIGHT SHIFT, MR. MOM and Burton’s BEETLEJUICE caused some Studio jitters- but finally the bat-cape was officially handed to Keaton, the decision was announced to the world… and the world replied by going spectacularly apeshit.

First off the starting post were the comics fans. Always ready to howl in protest at the slightest deviation from the original sacred texts, they responded to the idea of Keaton as if Warners had just invaded Poland. “Casting Keaton as BATMAN is like the Brady Bunch going porno!!” exploded one of fifty thousand angry letters which poured into the Studio offices, while outraged fans tore down pre-publicity for the film at comics conventions.

Even Adam West leapt on the chat-show circuit to proclaim himself a far better Batman than Keaton, and soon industry insiders were sombrely shaking their heads at the outcry. PREMIERE and the L.A. TIMES wrote that Keaton was the wrong choice, while Warner Bros chairman Steve Ross was told by one of the most powerful men in Hollywood that casting Keaton was “a horrible idea, and would bring the Studio to it’s knees.”

The Keaton furore even wiped several points off Warner Bros’ share price- a worrying sign, especially as Warners was moving towards a merger with the Time Corporation. They needed BATMAN to be a major hit, and a flop could fatally damage the deal. Suddenly, the potential for a Studio-busting, HEAVEN’S GATE-style bomb looked too large for comfort…

While Bat-fans across the world were sharpening pitchforks and preparing to storm the gates of Castle Warners, Burton was at Pinewood Studios, discovering that shooting a big-budget blockbuster was stressful enough without creatively-minded producers breathing down his neck.

Peters and Guber were constantly tweaking and changing the script, desperate to make the story appeal to the widest possible audience, and they urged Burton to inject less gothic psychology and more sex-appeal into Batman’s character, complaining “He’s supposed to be Batman, not Wuss-man!”

This was hugely frustrating for Burton;- “There were so many changes and fixes that it was like unravelling a ball of yarn. It gets to the point where you’re not helping anymore”;- and to make matters worse, Peters abruptly decided to dump the film’s original ending. Possibly influenced by the affair he’d been having with Kim Basinger throughout the shoot, Peters jettisoned the idea of Vicki Vale being killed off, instead conceiving the operatic pursuit through Gotham Cathedral.

Burton was horrified by the changes but ended up having to shoot the scenes, frequently without a completed script;- “We were shooting a scene leading up to the Bell-Tower, and Jack’s dragging Kim up the steps, and he says to me ‘Why am I walking up these steps? Where am I going?’ All I could say was ‘I don’t know- we’ll talk about it when you get to the top…'”

While the shoot was winding down, the complaints of furious comics fans were still echoing across the world, and the WALL STREET JOURNAL ran a piece declaring the new movie was in serious trouble. “That story just deflated everybody,” said Jon Peters at the time, and he fought back against the bad publicity by releasing an early teaser trailer and coming up with the first promo posters, setting the tone for the groundbreaking press campaign.

Instead of highlighting the stars, the only focus would be Anton Furst’s evocative Bat-Logo illustration, and soon the logo was everywhere, as Warners merchandised the film as aggressively as possible- it screamed from album covers, computer games, action figures, and 1001 other pieces of movie merchandise.

By the time the tidal wave of maketing hit Europe, it was impossible to open a magazine without seeing Nicholson’s red-lipped grin or Keaton sheathed in the rubber bat-suit, and even Burton felt the inescapable hype had gone too far. “I saw with BATMAN a level of greed I’d never seen before in my life” said Burton in 1991. “If I was a normal person, I’d have gone ‘Shut the fuck up, I’m sick of hearing about this thing.'”

Despite Burton’s fears and mediocre reviews, the film smashed every Box-Office record imaginable, grabbing nearly half a billion dollars worldwide- although an estimated $60 million vanished into the show-stealing Nicholson’s pockets thanks to his lucrative merchandising cut.

The gamble had paid off;- Keaton’s effective performance silenced the fan-boy critics, while Burton’s Hollywood future was secure, and the Time-Warner merger could proceed as planned. Everybody seemed to have the happy ending they wanted- except Anton Furst. Despite having scooped massive acclaim and an Oscar for his work on the film, the troubled designer committed suicide in 1991.

Fourteen years after it’s release, BATMAN may show it’s age with some arthritic action sequences, but it’s the first genuine example of Event Movie filmmaking- where the marketing drives the movie, and it doesn’t matter if the story’s non-existent, as long as there are vivid characters and brain-dazzling visuals. Burton’s gothic landmark has also been massively influential, taking over from the Adam West TV show to become the standard perception of what superheroes are all about. From flops like THE SHADOW to smash hits like BLADE, it’s rare to find a comic book movie that doesn’t owe BATMAN a serious debt.

As for the Bat-franchise itself- Joel Shumacher may have crashed it into hibernation with the shriekingly camp BATMAN AND ROBIN, but as long as cinematic superheroes are beating the crap out of the forces of evil, don’t count the Dark Knight out yet…

Originally published in Hotdog Magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2003