Batman Memories: Homecoming, Heroes and Hype in the Summer of '89

By Luke Y. Thompson in Comics, Movies, TV, Toys
Friday, August 1, 2014 at 12:00 pm

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In celebration of Batman's 75th, and the Tim Burton movie's 25th, many people have been writing about what Batman has meant to them. I thought I'd give it a go.

While I thought Chris Cummins did an excellent job summing up the significance of 1989's Batman on its official anniversary date of June 23, its significance to me is a little different. See, 1989 wasn't just the summer of Batman for me - it was my first summer in over 12 years as a U.S. resident. Yet when I first heard there was a Batman movie being made - a long overdue one given that there were already four Superman films - I had no idea that the year it would come out would be a year I'd live three different places. Nor that the hype surrounding a dark-toned comic-book movie would be the milieu that would come to define my career over a decade later. What did I know? I was 14, and had grown up in a country and culture (the Republic of Ireland) that neither my parents nor I fully understood, even though we all allegedly spoke the same language.



News traveled more slowly in the pre-Internet days, and rumors were harder to source. I found out from a Tim Burton feature in Rolling Stone that Batman would be his next movie, a combination I as an avowed devotee of Beetlejuice and Pee-wee thoroughly applauded. I learned about the Michael Keaton casting after it was a fait accompli, mentioned in passing in the letters column of an unrelated comic book. While I wasn't as instantly angry as some, it did seem strange, and my gut reaction was that he was physically wrong - my own preference would have been for a guy I was certain nobody else had heard of: a square-jawed horror hero named Bruce Campbell, who more resembled some of the drawings of Bruce Wayne.

I heard from my dad that Jack Nicholson was cast as the Joker, and - more weirdly - that Elton John had been cast as his henchman Tiny Tim (I have no idea to this day where that rumor came from). Regardless, Nicholson seemed perfect for the part in my mind, and gave me hope.

See, even though Batman had returned to his darker roots in the comics - a return solidified in nerd-culture's eyes when The Dark Knight Returns came out - the pop-cultural perception was of Adam West in 1966's TV campfest, and until Burton was signed, the idea was to have a similarly comedic movie, with Bill Murray discussed as a lead. West insisted he could have played an older, more serious Batman, but nobody really took that idea seriously; one of the unfortunate side-effects of the darker Batman would be a dismissal in fanboy circles of West's contributions completely, along with the death of Robin on the page. Burton himself made comments to the effect that a parody Batman was fine, but should never have been called Batman - something like Squirrelman would have been better (the UK comic "Bananaman," now in development as a movie, was something like what Burton may have been picturing here).

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While concerns about Keaton's physicality would still remain, the notion that the movie would be in any way a comedy were starting to be put to rest by a slow series of reveals. Comics Scene magazine showed preproduction images of Gotham, the Batmobile and Batwing, with the flying vehicle in particular capturing my imagination and making me instantly want a toy version. That held me over a few months as I returned to Ireland for what would be the last time as a resident.

An aside, while I quickly go into the personal details you may or may not care about: after my parents split, my father ultimately left Ireland for the U.S. I stayed with my (English) mother, the vague promise of an American college hanging in the distant future. My mother to this day has expressed that she thinks I was turned against her, both by Irish hostility to England and my father's family trying to bribe me. I maintain instead that for years as a child, I was asked, "Which are you, English, Irish or American?" and after years of answering "I don't know" figured it out around the time I was ten. That was the year 1984, the one you'll hear most people my age talking about now as their greatest year for movies ever, and also the first year I started paying attention to popular music (by no coincidence, it was the year of Purple Rain). Pop-culture drew me to the U.S., and has been how I've made my living in some form or another ever since - that was meant to be. As for leaving Ireland, my mother's evident unhappiness was rubbing off on me, and I do think I needed male guidance at that age - plus anytime I expressed nostalgia for something in America, my mother took it as a personal insult and reacted accordingly, counter-productively. I'd love to tell you I had friends to confide in, but I really didn't. Irish kids frequently kept within their own large, extended families.

I made the move stateside sometime around March, to find Batman hype in full swing, the onslaught of merchandise feeling fairly unprecedented since the Star Wars years. And yet they hadn't gotten everything figured out, as now - all the T-shirts that were the hot items at the time were comic-based, and the toy rights had been given to a new company called Toy Biz that was unable to meet demand. It was late summer before I ever saw so much as Bob the Goon on toy shelves, autumn for Joker, and well into the following year before a Batman appeared.

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As for Batman, he was finally revealed in a newer issue of Comics Scene, and my mind was blown - I had assumed that a superhero costume had to be spandex, but this muscle-suit made Keaton look like a monster. I went home and tried to draw what I had seen, only to have my dad tell me he could have drawn better at my age. My attitude to Batman was pretty much what you'd expect from a 14 year-old: I wanted dark dark dark darkity dark, to coin a phrase a colleague of mine would later use to describe the Nolan films. I thought the Adam West version was lame, and disliked the way everything always culminated in a cheesy fistfight; part of this, undoubtedly, was that when I'd wear a modern Batman T-shirt, some redneck or school bully would inevitably find it hilarious to yell "Duh duh duh duh BAT MAN!" every time I'd walk by. But when they finally put-out a full-on trailer for the new movie, featuring the Batwing, I could not wait.

And then, in a fit of stupidity or bad timing, I booked my summer return trip to Ireland to be a month long...and keep me there well through June 23rd. Things were not thought through. Especially grating was the way everyone back in Ireland insisted that a month would be enough time to "turn you back into a Paddy," and the casual way news media there on June 23rd offhandedly referred to the fact that a Batman movie was opening "in the States" with a nonchalant "we'll find out in August."

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I don't mean to imply that the release of Batman was the only factor in my life at that point. But it was a big deal. The day after I set foot back on US soil, my dad took me to see it.

My reaction, in the end, was mixed. I loved the spectacle of it and enjoyed every moment Nicholson was onscreen; the humor Keaton actually did get was subdued and welcome, though he still looked way too small as Bruce Wayne. Yet I was annoyed that Batman not only killed the Joker, but explicitly set out to do so, and HOLY SHIT ALFRED WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING GIVING AWAY EVERYTHING TO VICKI VALE? Still, I'm pretty sure I saw it in the theater three more times (later, Pat Hingle's fat Commissioner Gordon would become more and more objectionable to me), and I definitely wanted those wonderful (terrible, actually, but the only option) toys that Toy Biz was taking forever to meet demand with. I had a leftover blue and gray Super Powers Batman I had to make do with, and made an amateur Bat-signal with a flashlight. And I cannot count the hours I spent trying to accurately draw the weird-ass new Bat-logo with the fat tail that Keaton wore on his chest, though I did significantly better drawing Batman himself, arms hidden under his massive cape for easier rendering.

In the years since, I've come to forgive the "canon" inaccuracies after reading some of the earlier Bob Kane tales, but also notice, for instance, how egregious "Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?" is, not just as a cheap example of planting and payoff, but also as a signifier that the Joker really isn't much different from his previous incarnation as Jack Napier. And that cartoon of Batman from above at the beginning always looked cheesy. Nonetheless - and this easier to roll with now, since there have been so many more incarnations of Batman in media that came after - it's a valid "Elseworld" take, and still has the best version of Gotham ever put to celluloid (RIP Anton Furst). Michael Gough and Pat Hingle, the two most miscast actors IMO, would ironically go on to be the only unifying threads between the Burton and Schumacher movies. Both were bigger mistakes than Keaton, who may not have been the disaster people had expected, but was still no Heath Ledger skyrocketing far above what was imagined.

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None of this dimmed my excitement for Batman Returns. In the meantime, though, reruns of the 1966 Batman came on cable, and I began to gain a new appreciation for it, along with the knowledge that the comics in the '60s were almost as silly in many ways. This was right around the same time that impersonations of William Shatner were becoming a thing, and Adam West seemed like his spiritual twin in that regard. I think there are three phases for something like Batman '66 - delight as a kid, jaded above-it-all-ness as a tween, then appreciation of its irony as a young adult. By the time I was reintroduced to the Super Friends cartoons I hadn't seen much as a kid, and was somewhat horrified to hear Casey Kasem as Robin, I understood that there was an art to doing a campy Batman right.

In January of my senior year of high school, the Batman Returns trailer got me hyped all over again. The Penguin makeover was downright creepy, and Catwoman was clearly going to be a boner and a half. When the official T-shirts started coming out - this time with drawings of the movie characters - I thoroughly approved of the more armor-styled Batsuit, and the traditional Bat-logo on his chest (how tired I got in '89 of trying to explain to the parental generation that the Bat-logo on the poster was not in fact the one on the costume. That is, if they could even see a Bat-logo on the poster - my mother, seeing the negative space, was only able to make out a mouth with roundy teeth).

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Kenner, having finally gotten the toy rights back, made some great versions of the Batmobile and Batwing, though their Batman figure was a Keaton head on a slightly retooled Super Powers body, and their Penguin a Super Powers repaint. As great as the vehicle toys were, I always wanted more screen-accurate versions of the major characters; the Joker had turned out decently with a Super-Powers body, but what about his onscreen variant costumes? College beckoned before I could worry too much about it, and with it came the leaving behind of most of my toys.

The movie itself improved on many of my sticking points with the first film. Batman evolves into someone who doesn't kill, though only after cruelly murdering the Penguin in a thoroughly unfair fight, causing death by internal bleeding, of all the gruesome things. Alfred also gets chastised for tipping off Vicki in the last movie, and she's out of the picture. On the downside, Gotham was less cool as a Tim Burton drawing come alive than it was as art-deco Anton Furst urban hell.

Val Kilmer made a promising Keaton replacement - and a Bruce Wayne truer to what I imagined - but lasted only one movie, which I enjoyed a fair bit at the time but has really not aged well. Ironically, by the time Batman and Robin turned the series into camp, I felt like the only one who enjoyed it on the Adam West level that seemed intended. Never having expected it to be dark once that first teaser was unveiled - and enjoying the first real wave of hipster irony that entered pop-culture around that time - I was unable to be heartbroken over it being so silly. I recall hearing at the time that Adam West himself thought the movies had finally gotten it right, but again, this was pre-Internet and I've no idea where that came from.

The Christopher Nolan Batfilms all came during my adulthood as a professional writer, and I couldn't necessarily tell you where I was in life when they opened. I know only where I was when I got sick of fan-made Bane viral videos - right here at my TR desk. The Burton-Schumacher era, however, reminds me in installments of many key turning points. Batman and Robin at my first post-college job. Batman Forever at the end of my junior year of college, which began my definitively film-based curriculum. Batman Returns right before that first year of college, and the original granddaddy was a welcome home to the USA and the pop-culture hype machine that would come to be such a part of who I am today.

In the last six months, I picked up NECA's Adam West and Michael Keaton 18" Batman figures, the latter of which you've seen throughout the review - in an ironic twist of fate, the Adam West one turned out to be literally lame, with a leg removed from his body. My punishment for ever calling him that.

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When it comes to embodying the same character, they probably couldn't be more different, but you need both for a complete picture. Like probably a lot of you, I am the dark and brooding guy who feels violent and gets a kick out of looking threatening, but I'm also the sincere guy who loves deadpan silliness and saving the day in a positive way.

I'm not gonna kill you. I just want you to tell all your friends about me.

Holy Whose Responsible This?


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