On this day in 1989, Tim Burton’s noir spin on the well-known story of the DC Comics hero Batman is released in theaters.
Michael Keaton starred in the film as the multimillionaire Bruce Wayne, who has transformed himself into the crime-fighting Batman after witnessing his parents’ brutal murder as a child. As the film’s action begins, mob henchman Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is gruesomely disfigured after Batman inadvertently drops him in a vat of acid during a stand-off in a chemical factory. After killing his boss (Jack Palance), Napier–now known as the Joker–goes on the loose in Gotham City, wreaking havoc and trying to turn its people against the caped crusader. When Batman’s affection for a beautiful newspaper reporter, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), is revealed, the Joker uses her to draw his rival out into the open, with dramatic results.
Controversy had surrounded the casting of Keaton (best known for comedies like 1983’s Mr. Mom) as Batman. An entire roster of prominent leading men–reportedly including Mel Gibson, Dennis Quaid, Harrison Ford and Kevin Costner–were considered for the role, and Burton reportedly wanted to cast an unknown actor (a la Christopher Reeve in Superman). Having worked previously with Keaton in Beetlejuice (1988), Burton liked the idea of collaborating with him again, and the producers agreed, after screening Keaton’s 1988 film Clean and Sober, that Keaton had talent as a “serious” actor as well.
In a new marketing strategy that would become a trend for movies featuring super heroes, Warner Brothers hyped Batman as a major summer “event” long before its release. The results were stunning, as the film grossed some $100 million in its first ten days of release, including $82.8 million at the domestic box office alone. Reviews for the film were mixed, though most critics praised Nicholson’s scene-stealing performance as the Joker. For his creation of the movie’s impressive Batmobile and the dark, cavernous Gotham City, Batman’s production designer, Anton Furst, won an Oscar for Best Art Direction – Set Decoration.
Burton’s second Batman film, Batman Returns (1989), also starred Keatonas the caped crusader. Most critics considered the sequel, also a box-office hit, to be a better movie than its predecessor. Warner Brothers, seeking even greater commercial success for the franchise, hired Joel Schumacher to direct the next installment, Batman Forever (1995), which starred Val Kilmer as Batman; Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey were the villains in that film, while Nicole Kidman was the love interest and Chris O’Donnell came on as Robin, Batman’s sidekick. Kilmer, like Keaton before him, left the franchise before the making of the next planned film because he felt Batman was getting less attention than his enemies; George Clooney took his place for Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997), which was roundly panned by critics.
A few years later, the director Christopher Nolan reoriented the series, going back to Bruce Wayne’s childhood for Batman Begins (2005), starring Christian Bale in the title role. That film earned the best reviews of all the Batman films to date, and was a huge box-office success. Nolan and Bale returned for a 2008 sequel, The Dark Knight, which featured a stunning turn by Heath Ledger (who was found dead of an accidental prescription drug overdose soon after filming was completed) as the Joker. In its opening weekend, the film raked in some $158 million, surpassing the previous record-holder, 2007’s Spider-Man 3, to score the highest-grossing opening weekend of any movie in history.