This weekend, on Saturday, September 21, Batman will celebrate his 80th birthday on Batman Day 2019. The Caped Crusader has been influencing comics and pop culture for decades. But if we were to go back 30 years, we could witness a movie phenomenon that, it could be argued, was the single most influential Batman project ever made.
On June 23rd, 1989, Tim Burton released a film that would change the way people saw superheroes in movies. Even with the quirkiness that Burton brought to his films, the dark tone of Batman showed that movies like it could be more than just counter-programming to the “grown-up” movie released on any given week.
Batman’s influence on the world at large transcended the screen. It impacted all facets of pop culture at the time, kickstarting trends still used today. Let’s take a look at how the influence of Michael Keaton’s version of the Dark Knight reached figuratively (we like to use “figuratively,” the correct way) everywhere.
The Music Inspired Future Movies In Two Ways
From Star Wars to Superman, John Williams epic work has become synonymous with genre films. However, when it came to Batman, “epic” wasn’t the right fit. Enter Danny Elfman, whose dark and gothic score for the movie became the theme in everyone’s head when they thought of Batman.
Elfman created something so iconic that Warner Brothers asked him to return in 1992 and build the theme to the legendary Batman: The Animated Series, which spawned the definitive voices of both Batman and the Joker by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, respectively. Two years before, Elfman also created the theme for the short-lived CBS television show The Flash starring John Wesley Shipp. If you listen to both of these great themes, it would be hard to argue that Elman’s original Batman theme didn’t provide some inspiration for them. Even today, the importance of Elfman’s theme is recognized. In 2017’s Justice League, it integrated with that movie’s score during the first interaction between Batman and Commissioner Gordon.
Batman‘s music also impacted future movies in another way: Danny Elfman’s score influenced Batman in the years that followed, but Prince’s soundtrack shouldn’t be discounted. At the time, including his funky, bombastic music was a controversial choice, with none more against it than director Tim Burton. But the album went on to be double platinum with three of the singles landing in the Top 20 on the U.S. charts, with “Batdance” taking the crown at #1. Its success meant pop music soundtracks and superhero movies were married together from that point on. While the popularity of original motion picture soundtracks eventually died out, classic pop and rock songs were still regularly used, a comic book movie trademark that continues today.
The Costume Helped Solidify The Image Batman’s ‘Dark Knight’ Aspect
When Michael Keaton was first announced to be playing Batman, plenty of people thought the film was going to be a near-spoof akin to the cheesy Adam West series in the ’60s (this is in NO WAY disparaging the series, which is one of the greatest shows in the history of television). That mentality changed when they caught the first glimpse of Keaton in the Batsuit. Keaton’s costume was not the blue and gray spandex we saw two decades prior, the classic costume of Batman in the comics. Dressed in all-black body armor, save for the classic yellow bat insignia and utility belt, Keaton epitomized the term “Dark Knight.” Moving forward, this was the template for how Batman would look in movies. Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and Christian Bale all followed suit with black armor (There will be no nipple discussion other than this sentence explaining how there won’t be a discussion).
From a tactical level, it made perfect sense. If you are taking on multiple goons and henchmen at once, you would need to stick to the shadows. Ben Affleck’s incarnation was the first one to give the Batsuit multiple distinct tones and was the closest thing to the classic comic book suit we received on film. But even Affleck wore a costume that was serious rather than silly. Keaton’s costume was the first to set that dark tone for the superhero and it’s now become synonymous with the character.
The Poster Inspired The “Less Is More” Approach For Superhero Films
If you went to the movies in 1989 and looked at the movie posters plastered on the theater walls, there was one that is probably still ingrained in your memory.
This poster gave you everything you needed to know and no more. Batman was coming. Batman was going to be BIG. Batman was opening June 23rd. It proved that more doesn’t always mean better. Teaser posters for superhero movies played with this concept from that point on. How excited were you in 2002 when you saw Spider-Man peeking his head from around a building? How intrigued were you in 2008 when you saw the helmet for a little-known Marvel hero named Iron Man? Four years later, it was unbelievable to see the now-iconic Avengers “A” with one word: “Assemble.” Batman showed that the less you reveal, the more you can say.
It Established The Joker As Batman’s #1 Villain For All
Fans can legitimately argue that while the name of the movie is Batman, the film is really about the Joker. Jack Nicholson’s performance stole the show. The evolution of the calm, cool, and collected Jack Napier to the Clown Prince of Crime is what drew fans to the movie.
Fast forward three years later and Batman: The Animated Series premiered to rave reviews. Kevin Conroy’s Batman is still many fans’ favorite to this day. However, it was the debut of Mark Hamill’s Joker that set the tone for how the character’s portrayal would be seen for years to come. Like Nicholson, Hamill made the Joker his own, and any voice actor that has followed since is always compared to him.
2008 proved that lighting can not only strike twice but three times. Heath Ledger’s performance in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight showed that the Joker still had some tricks up his sleeve and could be reinvented. Unlike Nicholson’s Joker, Ledger didn’t have an origin story. His Joker just showed up and started causing chaos. Not because he went crazy from being dumped in a vat of chemicals, but because he just wanted to do it. Ledger’s take on the character was so nuanced that it earned him a posthumous Academy Award. It wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Jack Nicholson’s portrayal. Comic book readers already knew it, but 1989’s Batman established for the world at large that there is no Batman without Joker and vice-versa.
The Merchandise…So Much Merchandise
When Batman was released, it not only sparked influences in movie making but merchandising as well. You couldn’t walk 10 feet without seeing someone wearing a basic black t-shirt with the Bat-symbol on it. If you went to Taco Bell, you could get a special “Bat-Meal.” If you were one of the lucky ones, you got to walk around wearing Chuck Taylors adorned with Bat-symbols. Bat-Mania was running wild, and without it, the pop culture collector’s market wouldn’t be what it is today.
Head over to the mall and walk into the nearest Hot Topic. No longer is the pre-requisite to enter being a teen to someone in your early 20s wearing all black. If you are a fan of something, Hot Topic has it. From t-shirts to purses to toys, pop-culture merchandising is at an all-time high. While this isn’t necessarily directly due to the movie, there’s no arguing Batman‘s influence cemented pop culture memorabilia as a viable merchandise stream. The people behind Batman knew that fans loved the character so much they would be willing to buy far more than just comic books. Taking that chance to create other products for fans created a domino effect that we’ve seen for the last thirty years, and will continue into the next decade and beyond.
It felt like only yesterday a 10-year-old kid arrived with his dad two hours early to the theater because they misread the times, only to be thankful for it because the theater was absolutely packed (You know, back in the days before digital ticketing and assigned seating). It’s hard to believe that Batman, the movie, turned thirty years old this year and that Batman, the character, turns 80 this weekend. Time flies when you’re busy being a cultural icon.