How the 1989 'Batman' Helped Create the Modern Superhero Genre
I just came from the Little Theater tonight for a special showing of Tim Burton’s Batman. For most old hands, this is considered to be the original Batman and the birth of the franchise. I don’t recall if I ever saw this movie in the theaters when it was released, but I definitely remember the impact it had in high school. I still have one of my old t-top Batman shirts.
The movie also brought back other memories as well. It was interesting comparing some very familiar elements in it to the later 2008 Batman classic, The Dark Knight. What was more interesting to me was how Batman birthed a Hollywood genre in some unexpected ways.
First, it's worth mentioning that the 1989 film is not the first superhero film (if you call a man with no powers a superhero that is). Superman had already come out long before in 1978 and had done rather well for itself. Superman was the classic American hero. He knew good from evil, doesn’t kill, and had superpowers. The franchise established the universe with very black and white themes. By 1989, that was beginning to change.
Tim Burton introduced a moral ambiguity to the hero character that had not yet been seen. Batman fights criminals, but he also kills people (yeah, Ben Affleck wasn’t the first, sorry). He operates outside the law and is not motivated by moral principles. He is driven by an unresolved and intense rage. This was one of the elements that connected audiences to the character and still does to this day. Even the ending theme as the movie closes goes out on a dark tone rather than an upbeat one.
Yes, he has the wonderful toys and Vikki Vale pining for him—annoyingly I might add. But what drove our interest was always the struggle of the man himself. We have someone who hides their inner conflict so well that you could be forgiven for not noticing that Bruce Wayne is certifiably insane.
After this film, superheroes had to have more complexity to them. Knowing right from wrong was no longer good enough, it even became less believable. There had to be struggle, turmoil, or at least an attempt at it. Ironically, that trait for realism is more of a signature of Marvel than DC, but neither have really nailed it for a long time.
Hollywood still focused on the superficial tropes of the origin story, the girl, and the big boss fight at the end. There were exceptions, like the Blade franchise which was rated R and took its protagonist’s darkness to even lower levels than Bats. The first Spiderman series, while breaking away from the dark colors for brighter ones, still had the hero struggling with an inner darkness and the problems that come with his duties. The hero could no longer be a simplistic, wooden cut out.
Shock and Awe
Another way Batman created the genre was its use of spectacle. Burton told his story through the lens of a dark, gothic circus that was somehow still grounded. The overall environment was always dark or cloudy, it was a character in itself. Characters at times seemed over exaggerated, such as the Joker’s mannerisms for his brand of insanity. The supporting characters were very one-dimensional.
Looking at it now, it seems ridiculous. Many people in the screening I attended laughed as if a joke was being made. However, we were never treated to this kind of imagery in 1989. It was new, darkly gorgeous, and fucking amazing as shit. Later films in the genre would try hard to include these elements. Some movies managed to do spectacle in a way that differed from Batman, but others struggled with it. James Mangold stated that his film The Wolverine only had his hero fight a giant samurai robot was because the studio wanted a big CGI fight like other movies did. It was an outlandish moment that missed the mark and it remains as the biggest criticism in an otherwise good film. And for a long time, villains were still somewhat cartoonish and hard to take seriously, like Daredevil's Bullseye.
Burton's film was not world building where new elements are introduced to give the world the hero lives in substance and a life of its own. It was throwing in shit so that we could say something looked cool. Batman was indeed loaded with such devices, right down to the iconic Batmobile itself (which I still call the only true Batmobile). Like with characterization though, it was new to us in the context of comic heroes. So we typically let it go for this film while critiquing other works in the genre..
Lastly, Batman reintroduced the concept of a franchise for the superhero genre. Many consider this movie to be the first true blockbuster. Studios obviously wanted to repeat that success. Tim Burton went on to direct one sequel and was then replaced by Joel Schumacher. Even though the audience missed Burton’s darker take on the Bat, they still gave their money at the box office. At least until Batman & Robin in 1997.
Almost every comic book movie that has been remotely successful has followed this treaded path. Even into the second wave of superhero movies, the sequel is now almost considered biblically fundamental. The thing with this trope is that it’s a tricky one to maintain. Movies like Daredevil, Elektra, and the recent remake of Fantastic Four clearly failed in this regard.
Because sequels are expected of our comic book movies now, it’s hard to believe that there was a time where we weren’t so cynical to the concept. When Batman closed with the character staring into the night at his trademark Batsignal, we couldn’t wait for the next film! Now the high is long gone and studios have to work very hard to overcome our cynicism of knowing what they will do. They have to convince us to be excited.
The Unbroken Mold
There are other more obvious tropes that Batman introduced into American movie theaters. These are the ones that stand out to me more. They set a precedent that others feel obligated to follow even to this day. Because Batman is the first, it usually gets a free pass, though with a wink and giggle at times as I noted in the Little Theater. Most of its elements still hold up today.
Hollywood studios wish that same grace was extended to them today. They are in a constant battle against the fatiguing of audience interest and ready to try new and unorthodox ways to keep the money train going.
So far, they have been successful. I still find myself interested in many comic franchises because their stories are always interesting. They are now starting to diverge from each other and evolve. They all look and feel different and it seems filmmakers are finally starting to realize how to master the genre. However, some still don’t work out.
But Batman always works. 1989 seared the bat symbol onto the American psyche. Even if we grow tired of the Avengers or Wolverine, Batman will always have that special grace. Even the struggling cinematic universe that DC is currently trying to build with other heroes acknowledges that the Batman is still their crown jewel. No matter who directs it or stars in it, everybody knows that Batman will always remain as the first movie of the modern comic book genre. The film will always carry that very unique mantle.