Twenty five years ago today, Michael Keaton uttered the words “I’m Batman,” twice. The first was while wearing the iconic rubber bat-mask complete with eye-makeup underneath, but later he repeated this sentiment with his regular non-Bat face, too. All these years later, many of us either love this film or loathe it, but which is the correct way to think about it?
Like the duplicitous nature of Batman himself, the answer is you should both love it and be suspicious of it. Batman (1989) is great because its mash-up of good decisions and bad decisions make it an accidentally perfect tribute to the Dark Knight.
Depending on what kind of person you are, one “I’m Batman” scene is more memorable than the other. On the one gloved-hand, Batman is an art-film send-up of a beloved comic book character, brilliantly executed by an auteur filmmaker in his prime. But it’s also a mishmash of Hollywood bogus hype and marketing which somehow resulted in a classic. Like Batman/Bruce Wayne himself, all aspects of this movie are correct, and it’s in these paradoxes that it becomes accidentally, wonderful.
When casting of Michael Keaton as Batman was announced, comic book fans wrote letters in the hundreds protesting the decision, proving the fanboy rage of the previous century was way more dedicated than it is today. For those of us who simply fire off angry comments online (or in my case, sometimes write scathing reviews of stuff for the Internet) the total rage-commitment of these letters is amazing:
“Hey honey, are you going to the post-office today?”
“Of course I am, I have to send my letter to Warner Bros. about this Michael Keaton thing.”
“Right. Yeah, you stick it to them. Can you pick up some stamps?”
But as it turned out, Michael Keaton is sort of great, if not as Batman in general, then at least as Bruce Wayne. Despite being darker than people expected, and carrying itself—as Gene Siskel put it at the time—as a more “adult,” film than pervious superhero efforts, Batman is not even in the same neighborhood of realistic. The sets obviously look like sets, and the visuals are rooted in film noir rather than the wiz-bang style of the 60s TV show. Basically, Batman is Sin City meets, well, Tim Burton. Which is why you need Michael Keaton. Without his frenetic vibrancy, without his bat-next-door face and vibe, this movie would have quickly fallen flat and become too mired in its own faux-gothic weirdness, totally preventing it from becoming a mainstream blockbuster. (Tangentially, I believe nearly every actor cast as Bruce Wayne—from West through Bale—has been a great Bruce Wayne. Whether they exist in a good Batman movie is a totally different question.) Keaton, though not himself a huge star, is part of why this movie became huge.
It was a blockbuster, by the way. And when adjusted for inflation, no other DC comic book film came close to making as much money until 2008’s The Dark Knight. To say Batman set the standard for superhero movies would be hyperbolic and confusing, but it did set a standard, one which was hopelessly impossible to replicate, partly because this particular movie was such an accident. The script went through numerous re-writes, including some story elements being changed during filming. Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale was originally supposed to die in the final Bats/Joker confrontation, but was brought back to life seeming on the day the cameras rolled. According to various reports, even Jack Nicholson didn’t know how the scene was supposed to end. With this information in your head, it’s almost impossible not to view the last few scenes of Batman with a critical eye—if you get the sense that you’re watching something being made up as it goes along, you kind of are.
And yet, this Batman film offers us more memorable moments, more memorable lines than any other. I’ve come to love and defend the Christopher Nolan Batman films, but I still remember groaning during Batman’s final confrontation with Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. When faced with this nemesis, our contemporary Batman growls “I came to stop YOU!!” with a total lack of subtlety, or even a trace of wit. Back in 1989 however, in a similar final showdown, Keaton’s Batman steals the Joker’s “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” line as almost a punchline, which is of course, followed by an actual punch. This one scene makes The Dark Knight Rises look like a clunky soap opera and Batman look like award winning poetry. I’m not sure this particular character should come across that way, but when it comes to snappy and memorable dialogue, I don’t think Nolan is beating Burton.
I’m always a little alarmed by how little we seem to read these days about directors fighting with studio heads or producers. From Nicolas Meyer, to early George Lucas, to Tim Burton, it seems like the big genre movies of late 20th century history were made by rebels, iconoclasts, and contrarians. Tim Burton felt really wronged by a lot stuff in this movie (Nike demanded they get to make Batman's boots) and his desire to walk out at any second sort of comes across in the tone of this movie.
I never get the sense that people like Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder are really sticking it to anyone, or grumbling about changes made to their material. Perhaps studios trust the creative powers to deliver a product more aligned with what they want now than they did 25 years ago, or maybe the people making these movies are just less risky, saner individuals. Which is why Christopher Nolan's Batman movies are more realistic, but not necessarily better, than Tim Burton's Batman.
Bemoaning the relative faithfulness of Batman from the page to the screen is many people’s favorite thing to get upset about, and whether they are writing real letters in 1989 or tweets to Zack Snyder in 2014, one thing I feel gets left out of the conversation is this: there are a lot of ways to do Batman, and while all those various Bats might not please everyone all the time, each of them pleases somebody, some of the time. Like the iconic mythological character he is, Batman is going to be drawn differently by different people in different ways; even when the same source material is supposedly cited.
Being a schizophrenic crime fighter who seemingly has two distinct personalities who fights other weirdoes who also have mental problems does not necessarily create easy paths for writers of any stripe. The characters aren’t always complex, but they are complicated. With 1989’s Batman, a ton of money, a lot of risks were poured into a movie that, at the time, changed the world. Next year, Batman’s face will change again, and our interpretation of the character will alter slightly. This is as it should be!
But, there’s something unique, something a little wonderfully insane about a normal looking guy, nervously trying to explain he’s Batman. And for a certain group of us, that guy—the one who wants to get nuts!—will always be our Batman.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.