Michael E. Uslan was a wide-eyed, 28-year-old comics fan when he improbably scooped up the film rights to a character Hollywood had kicked to the curb. Brimming with belief, he bought Batman. Problem was, no one else in town was buying.
It was the late 1970s, the era of “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now,” when Uslan, a comics scholar turned aspiring producer, pitched the major studios on his idea for a Bat-project. He was met with rejection after rejection. One industry executive told him Batman was “as dead as the dodo.”
“It can’t be comprehended today,” Uslan said. “There was no respect for superheroes or their creators.”
The film industry, like much of society at large, still viewed comic books as simply kid stuff. But Uslan saw a path forward: “If we do it as a dark and serious movie, it will almost be like a brand new form of entertainment.”
Today, it’s easy to overlook Batman’s long 1980s slog to Hollywood respectability and bankability. The film’s roller-coaster evolution — from finding producers to winning over wary comics fans — spanned the entire Ronald Reagan presidency.
But the movie’s bruising history can be obscured by its massive success and influence. The Batman film franchise has since grossed nearly $5 billion globally, and the character has been central to the ongoing DC Extended Universe, which has grossed nearly $5.3 billion worldwide.
Everything changed June 23, 1989, with the release of “Batman,” directed by rising animator turned auteur Tim Burton. Thirty summers ago, the film radically expanded the parameters of action-hero casting and box-office forecasting, as well as the marketing and merchandising around comic-book movies. The A-list, PG-13 film also paved the way for three decades of superhero cinema that has come to increasingly dominate Hollywood. (Already this year, the three biggest superhero movies have collectively grossed more than $4 billion worldwide, with “Avengers: Endgame” tracking to become the highest-grossing movie ever.)
So much was different in a pre-”Batman” world — before superhero trailers were pored over like the Dead Sea Scrolls; before the demand for new toys and action figures swelled well ahead of a comic-book movie’s release; before a superhero’s tale was the biggest title of the year.
Comic-book adaptations made inroads in the late ‘70s, when the first “Superman” movie starring Christopher Reeve made a major splash. But that franchise fizzled out by its third sequel in 1987 as yawning audiences turned away from the growing silliness, so there was no industry momentum leading up to “Batman.”
Making matters more difficult, the ‘60s Adam West-starring TV series, saturated as it was with cheesy effects, costumes and sound-effect balloons, had taken a toll on the character’s wider pop-culture appeal. As a result, “There was no great interest in the movie business in making ‘Batman,’” said Paul Levitz, who was then executive vice president and publisher at DC Comics — even though the comic books had begun to reclaim the grittier shades of the Dark Knight.
Since the character had become a caricature in the mainstream imagination, the project needed a director who could craft a shadowy, psychologically rich movie that would attract adult audiences, said Uslan, an executive producer on “Batman” (who, along with partner Benjamin Melniker, has been credited on most every major Bat-film since).
The fortunes of the “Batman” project changed significantly in the mid-1980s, when the producers sought the vision of Burton, a visual stylist then best known for the candy-colored tour de farce “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
“I know it was a team effort — with a lot of brilliant writers, designers, actors, musicians and architects involved — but the decision to hire Tim Burton as the director was the real turning point,” said Andrew Farago, curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco and co-author, with Gina McIntrye, of the forthcoming book, “Batman: The Definitive History of the Dark Knight in Comics, Film, and Beyond.”
After Burton was aboard, Uslan screened “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.”
“I’d never seen a more creative combination of direction and art direction,” he said. “I was amazed he was not a comic-book guy. It was my job to indoctrinate him into the world of dark and serious Batman comics.”
A dark tone was especially crucial because the filmmakers were determined to restore Batman to the proper perch that had defined the character soon after his Detective Comics debut in 1939. Batman’s creators, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, had painted the Caped Crusader not as a wacky combatant, but as a menacing, tormented figure of the night who was bent on vigilante justice.
Uslan said that Burton also brought two especially crucial concepts to the film. “He said: ‘This is not a movie about Batman. If we’re going to do it seriously, this is a movie about Bruce Wayne,” Batman’s on-the-edge playboy alter ego who is willing to “get nuts.” (As this character interpretation evolved, meanwhile, the scripting would pass from Tom Mankiewicz to Sam Hamm to Warren Skaaren — a process that included a treatment by Burton and then-girlfriend Julie Hickson.)
Burton also knew it was vital that the audience quickly suspend their disbelief and buy into a Gotham City that would be “the third-most important character in this piece,” Uslan said. “Because if they don’t believe Gotham City, then they will never believe this guy getting dressed up as a bat.”
But what kind of cast and crew could help make this twisted Gotham City setting feel real?
Burton found a simpatico spirit creatively in British production designer Anton Furst — who, working with Peter Young, would deliver “Batman” its lone Academy Award nomination and win, for art direction and set decoration.
The producers also landed a superstar to play their villain. The highly compensated Jack Nicholson ($6 million plus a big cut of the box office), whom Uslan had admired in 1980’s “The Shining,” would play their Joker, delivering a high-octane, Golden Globe-nominated performance — and setting a high bar for all future superhero-cinema baddies.
Yet what actor could stand toe to costumed toe with Nicholson? The team, led by producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber, looked away from unknowns and tall, dramatic stars and toward Michael Keaton, the kinetic comic actor of slight build and fast-paced delivery best known for “Mr. Mom” before teaming up with Burton on 1988’s “Beetlejuice.”
Even in an era before social media, doubt and derision over Keaton’s casting simmered and circulated in fan circles — a reaction repeated to this day, when Robert Pattinson having signed on as the next actor to don the cowl. The studio, having received more than 50,000 complaints and letters of petition about casting Keaton, took to fan conventions to try to allay the headline-grabbing outcry, even employing Kane as an on-brand mouthpiece.
Comics-savvy executives, too, were initially skeptical about Keaton, whose physique was abetted by a new kind of rubber-carved Batsuit. Uslan said his first reaction to the casting was, “I can picture the posters now: ‘Mr. Mom as Batman.’ I was apoplectic.” And Levitz scratched his head before being won over by Keaton: “He turned out to be just an amazing actor.”
Toward the end of 1988, Warner Bros. — encouraged by the success of “Beetlejuice” — fired up its promotion of “Batman.” The studio decided to experiment with a national theatrical trailer. The teaser, a rough montage that still lacked music (Danny Elfman and Prince would eventually provide the tunes, including dueling hot-selling albums), became its own sensation, inspiring excitement over the footage and kicking off a bravura marketing campaign. One popular version of the film poster, which spotlighted the black-and-gold Batman logo, was boldly wordless, save for the date: “June 23.”
“Every casting announcement, every bit of news or set photo, every film clip — it all built to a fever pitch as the movie neared its release date,” Farago said.
Warner Bros. also ramped up the merchandising until, to many fans, the release of “Batman” felt like a preordained “event.” Uslan recalls that “Batman”-branded clothing and paraphernalia seemed to blanket Times Square. And Levitz jokes that because the campaign’s dark T-shirt sales were so massive, you “couldn’t get any more black cotton — it was a scarce good.” Soon, more than $1.5 billion in official swag had been sold in stores.
All these moving pieces meshed like clockwork upon release. “Batman” received mostly positive reviews — The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson called it “dark, haunting and poetic ... a magnificent living comic book,” while Roger Ebert dubbed it “a triumph of design over story.”
The movie’s box office quickly topped that of other action heroes that summer, such as Indiana Jones. “Batman” enjoyed a then-huge $40 million domestic debut, and grossed $100 million in North America within 10 days — the first film ever to do so.
“Batman” was the biggest movie of 1989 — it remains one of the top 60 films ever in domestic gross, when adjusting for inflation — as well as the only major superhero release that year. (Last year, by comparison, more than half of the top 15 films — eight in total — were superhero movies.)
“Batman” would spawn a series of ‘90s sequels of gradually diminishing critical returns, but the franchise did hold down the Hollywood fort till such fellow comic-book adaptations as 1998’s “Blade,” followed by 2000’s “X-Men” and 2002’s “Spider-Man,” arrived — all of which launched their own franchises.
And the greatest legacy of “Batman’s” revolutionary filmmaking is twofold, said Levitz: “It changed the cultural view of the character, and it changed the cultural view of the comics themselves” in an era when readers were increasingly appreciating dark Batman comic books by star writers and artists, including “The Dark Knight Returns,” “The Killing Joke” and “Batman: Year One.”
“The success of ‘Batman’ and its sequel, ‘Batman Returns,’ were attributed in large part to Tim Burton’s vision,” Farago said. “The biggest films that have come along since, in terms of both financial success and critical acclaim, have directors who had bold visions for their characters. Bryan Singer’s ‘X-Men.’ Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man.’ Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy. Who could have imagined a world with Kenneth Branagh directing ‘Thor’?
“I don’t think any of that happens without the 1989 ‘Batman’ leading the way.”
Perhaps the film’s tallest monument today is how Burton and Furst created a visual spectacle that “had no specific precedent,” Levitz said. “It sprang like Minerva from Tim and Anton’s brains.
“They built an immersive world and they invited us in, and in many ways, we’re still living in the world they built.”