For a few months in late 1965, Marvel Comics changed the corner brand on the covers of a few of its bestselling titles, unofficially re-dubbing the company “Marvel Pop Art Productions.” Marvel had been getting glowing coverage in the mainstream press for its new kind of superhero comics, which were generally bolder in style and more psychologically complex than what the industry had been producing over the previous 30 years. Simultaneously, painters Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol had begun appropriating images from comics as part of the “pop art” movement. So Marvel editor Stan Lee appropriated right back, intending to ride the wave of positive publicity and keep pushing his product.
Around the same time, TV producer William Dozier accepted an assignment from 20th Century Fox to produce a twice-weekly primetime series based on DC Comics’ iconic superhero, Batman. Dozier and writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr. had little experience with or interest in superheroes, so they decided to play up the inherent campiness of costumed people fighting each other, while adopting a visual style that relied heavily on the Warhol/Lichtenstein aesthetic. Dozier and Semple referenced comic books ironically, and created a show that children loved, the cognoscenti admired, and many adult comic-book readers came to see as a betrayal.
So it went for superheroes over the next two decades: sometimes comic-book publishers would act as though they were working within one of the great American artforms, and sometimes they’d sell their properties to any Hollywood type with cash in hand. In the 1970s, while Marvel and DC experimented with social relevance in superhero comics that dealt with drug abuse, bigotry, and political disillusionment, television was airing cheap-looking, kid-oriented shows like Shazam! and The Incredible Hulk, which frequently treated their superheroic elements as an afterthought. Then in the mid-1980s, a handful of more mature superhero comics—highlighted by the Alan Moore-penned Watchmen and Frank Miller’s dystopian Batman riff The Dark Knight Returns—brought the kind of media buzz that hadn’t been heard since Marvel’s 1960s heyday. It was in that context that Warner Bros. announced the first Batman movie since the 1966 tie-in to the TV show. Comics fans everywhere braced themselves for another letdown.
The 1989 Batman film is defined as much by what came after it as what came before, which makes it tougher to assess as a standalone entity. In comparison to Christopher Nolan’s much more somber Batman movie series, the 1989 Batman is cartoonish and, yes, campy—everything that fans feared back in the late 1980s when the news leaked that Pee-wee’s Big Adventure/Beetlejuice director Tim Burton would be helming the project, with comedian Michael Keaton as his star. But in comparison to the 1989 film’s immediate sequels, the first Burton/Keaton Batman is serious and cinematic, nodding to Fritz Lang and film noir in its evocation of a grim Gotham City under siege by a crazed, colorful Joker played by Jack Nicholson.
Batman’s “depends on how you look at it” quality is reflected in the movie’s logo. Designed by Anton Furst—who also designed the movie’s ominous urban landscape and its stealthy, sleek Batmobile—the logo first appeared on posters that included no other information except the movie’s release date. Not everyone who saw the poster could tell right away what the image was supposed to represent. To some, it looked like a mouth with just a few teeth, or like a cave, with symmetrical stalactites and stalagmites. Furst adapted the logo from the emblem the comic-book Batman wore on his chest—an emblem that had changed since Batman’s 1939 Detective Comics debut, evolving from a sketchy black bat-outline to a more defined bat-shape set against a bright yellow oval. Furst changed the yellow to a shiny bronze, and extended the bat-outline to the oval’s edges, while adding little highlights that provided the illusion of depth, like those drawings of a cube that seem to be simultaneously protruding and receding.
Most importantly—to fans anyway—the logo looked super-cool. After the panic over the hiring of Burton and Keaton, the introduction of Furst’s logo brought back some anticipatory excitement. The biggest worry among the maturing comics fans who loved Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns was that the people making Batman didn’t “get” the property, and that they were going to make something overtly silly or slapdash. But that first poster didn’t look slapdash. It looked like Warner Bros. was spending some money on marketing, which meant the company probably thought it had a hit on its hands. It was a good sign.
By the time Batman was released on June 23, 1989, Furst’s logo was on hats, T-shirts, and buttons, where the “What’s that supposed to be?” factor proved to be a selling point. The abstractness of the image upped the hipness quotient for the movie, creating a little club for people in the know. And the eventual ubiquity of bat-apparel increased awareness for Batman, which became one of the decade’s biggest hits.
Comic-book fans played a big part in the success of the 1989 Batman, because they’ve always had a “gotta support the team” spirit, especially in an era when the medium was still widely considered inherently juvenile. But that doesn’t mean those fans were completely gung-ho about this Batman. There’s an exaggerated quality to Burton’s style, not unlike the pop-art William Dozier Batman, and the story willfully disregards the comics’ continuity when it comes to Batman’s origin story and his need to safeguard his secret identity. A lot of things about the movie smack of Hollywood intervention: the beefing-up of Nicholson’s Joker role until it eclipses Keaton’s Batman; the sprinkled-in, out-of-place (albeit catchy) Prince songs; the addition of Kim Basinger as intrepid photojournalist/love-interest Vicki Vale. There are flashes here and there of the kind of acid wit that Frank Miller brought to his Dark Knight Returns—particularly in the recurring gag of local TV news anchors who look increasingly bedraggled, due to The Joker’s poisoning of Gotham’s cosmetics supply—but this Batman didn’t really keep pace with what was going on with superhero comics in the late 1980s, let alone with groundbreaking non-genre comics like Maus or Love And Rockets. It’s an action movie with self-consciously gothic overtones, not a complex study of heroic archetypes like Watchmen or The Killing Joke.
Burton’s 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, is richer, but it’s more a Burton film than a Batman film, exploring the director’s obsession with outsiderdom. Then the two Joel Schumacher Batman movies—1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman & Robin—revert to the idea that there’s no way to make a superhero movie without embracing the goofiness. By contrast, the 1989 Batman operates with a caution that ultimately serves it well. Its action sequences tend to be oppressively lumbering (which is true of most superhero movies), but otherwise, Burton seems willing to go with what works from moment to moment, be it Nicholson’s interpretation of the Joker as an anarchic performance artist, the similarity between Batman comics and hard-boiled detective fiction, or Furst’s vision of Gotham as a chaotically modern city similar to the one in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
Furst wasn’t involved with Batman Returns. (He committed suicide in 1991.) But his work on the first Burton Batman had a long-term impact on the look of superhero movies. In Batman’s wake, studios started adapting comics properties and giving them a Burton-esque skew in films like Dick Tracy and The Addams Family. But when superhero movies finally started catching up to the maturity level of their source material in the 2000s, Furst’s innovations had a lot to do with the success of those films, if only because he’d shown how to make superheroes less ridiculous by placing them against suitably impressive backdrops.
“The abstractness of the image upped the hipness quotient for the movie, creating a little club for people in the know.”
Superheroes are superheroes. They can be done well or badly, in print or on film, and making them “darker” doesn’t necessarily make them better. (Frankly, there’s more imagination and delight in the average Silver Age Superman 12-pager than in any of the 200-page Superman graphic novels released over the last decade.) But for a long time, before fans of superhero comics started to bully doubters on Internet message boards, they mainly demanded some modicum of respect for the genre. The 1989 Batman is far from perfect, but it’s largely respectful, because the people behind it understood the iconography. The movie is bookended by triumphant moments involving its logo: first during the opening credits, which explore the contours of Furst’s bat before revealing it in full; and then at the end, when the Gotham police demonstrate how they can summon Batman, saying, “He gave us a signal.”
Sometime, a signal is enough.
Next month: The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.