Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman Film Changed Everything For Super Hero Movies


It wasn’t the first super hero movie, and it’s long since been eclipsed by numerous others in terms of box office receipts. Still, it’s worth remembering that as the first Tim Burton Batman movie turns 25 (it was released on June 23, 1989), its cultural impact was like nothing we comic fans had ever seen before. It’s possible, maybe even probable, that the embarrassment of riches we enjoy today with comic book-based films dropping multiple times each year wouldn’t exist if Batman hadn’t been such an unqualified success.

To anyone who isn’t old enough to remember the summer of 1989, it’s hard to describe how big a deal Batman became. In the internet era, it’s easy to create buzz and difficult to gauge if hype accurately reflects the feelings or appetites of the masses. That wasn’t the case back then, so when you read (in newspapers!) or saw reports on the news that people were buying tickets to see movies just so they could see the Batman trailer, or that theater chains couldn’t keep the movie posters safe from people who wanted to steal them, you knew it really had people whipped into a frenzy.

That it reached that point was kind of a small miracle given how many doubters the film had before it hit theaters. Burton seemed an unusual pick as director given he was known primarily for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice at that point in his filmmaking career. No one liked the casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman, with skeptics wondering if the tone of the movie was going to be similar to the campy 1960s TV show. Ironically, the finished product was criticized for being too dark, which seems silly in retrospect.

Regardless, moviegoers ate it up, particularly details like the Batmobile and the design of Gotham City. Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker was also a highlight, and while Heath Ledger’s anarchist turn in The Dark Knight was a tour de force and now considered the gold standard by many, the Nicholson “fully functioning homicidal artist” still resonates the most with this writer as the Joker from the pages of the comics.

Beyond the theaters, it was simply impossible to escape Batman for the rest of the summer. The Batman logo appeared on a staggering variety of merchandise, the Prince songs from the movie were in heavy rotation on the radio — mostly “Batdance,” which Prince has mostly disowned over the years — and Batman comics were actually cool to read and discuss in public. Given the way DC and Warner Bros. cashed in on the craze, it’s hard to believe the Marvel-DC dynamic didn’t fundamentally change going forward.

One of the numerous upcoming super hero movies may end up dethroning Avatar as the top grossing film of all time. It could be Avengers: Age of Ultron, it might be the Justice League flick, it may even be something no one is expecting. Even if that ends up happening, it’s doubtful that movie will be able to capture the attention of the general public and grab control of the pop culture scene the way Batman did 25 years ago. There are so many entertainment options and distractions that it’s virtually impossible.

That’s okay, because it cements the first Burton trip into Gotham City as the trailblazer it was. All comic book movies today owe it a debt of gratitude for establishing the genre as a viable moneymaking enterprise, one that could reach an audience beyond fans of the source material. For that, they should all say thanks, and perhaps, do a little dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.