On July 9th, Marvel Studios simultaneously released Black Widow (dir. Cate Shortland, 2021) in theaters and on streaming services. Recouping $100 million of its $200 million budget within six days, the film is the usual blockbuster fare we’ve come to expect from Marvel. Despite the numerous COVID-related difficulties studios have faced over the last year, Black Widow’s performance at the box office and on streaming services proves that the superhero genre is alive and well. When we examine at other MCU films like it and the way superheroes have dominated the box office for the past decade, it seems strange to imagine a time where movie adaptations of comic books weren’t guaranteed moneymakers. Ironically, it’s more concerning if you don’t see at least one superhero-related film on a major studio’s release schedule.
It’s easy to forget what the world was like pre-MCU. Before superhero films became fixtures of the summer blockbuster season, they were a niche genre dismissed by Hollywood as unmarketable. That all changed in the summer of 1989 when one movie grappled onto the scene. Whether you’re Team Marvel or Team DC, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) is the movie you have to thank for the way we watch comic book movies and how they’re made. Burton’s film forever changed the entertainment industry, from the way movies are marketed to how they’re released on home video. It’s the reason why we immediately think of Batman as a dark, brooding antihero and his villains as colorful freaks with bizarre modus operandi. Without it, characters like Superman, Wonder Woman and the Justice League wouldn’t be the household names they are today. The impact Batman had on pop culture can’t be understated. Although Superman: The Movie (dir. Richard Donner, 1978) was the first blockbuster movie based on a comic, it was Batman that provided a template for future superhero movies to follow.
When Batman was released, comics were going through something of a metamorphosis. The colorful aesthetics and wholesome heroes that made up the period in comic history called the Golden Age were starting to fade. In their place, gritty art styles and morally complex characters began to take over. Batman was one character affected by this shift, and the tonal changes his comics went through were profound. If you read comics back in the 80s, your impression of him would have been informed by the many dark stories aimed for adult audiences he featured in, stories like Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. For readers, Batman was a serious and multifaceted character. For everyone else, he was the hammy detective from Adam West’s 1966 Batman TV series.
That image was shattered when Batman was released in June 1989. For the first time, mainstream audiences got to see Batman as comic book readers did. No longer was Bruce Wayne the Shark Repellent Spray-wielding goofball of the 60s. He was fearsome, brooding, equipped with an all-black Batsuit and sleek gadgets. Gotham was no longer the sunny and humdrum city it was from the TV series — it was dreary and bleak, filled with gothic architecture that put it somewhere between an art deco fantasy and a German expressionist nightmare. Rather than having no creative identity, the film was bursting with the energy of its director Tim Burton.
Burton wasn’t a comic book fan. However, he connected with the imagery of the comics and with the characters of Batman and Joker. Though he only had directed two movies before Batman — Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988) — his sensibilities as a lifelong artist and character designer were already starting to coalesce into a visual style that favored the dark, the macabre, the freakish. Even his early movies tend to explore the concept of otherness in some form with protagonists that were almost always misunderstood antiheroes. In short, he was a natural fit for Batman and his world. One of the things that appealed to Burton about the Batman project was the chance to explore the psychology of its characters, Batman and the Joker, the hero and the villain who were two sides of the same coin.
Ironically, Burton’s creative spark paired with his complete lack of knowledge of the source material is what makes Batman such an effective movie. The film isn’t an accurate depiction of the comics, nor is it intended to be. Rather, it’s the story of Batman and the world of Gotham as seen through the eyes of an artist, reinterpreting something unfamiliar to him.
Burton’s Batman has very few similarities to the character he’s based on. Burton’s interpretation of Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) isn’t the confident, smooth-talking playboy comic book readers are used to: he’s aloof and introverted, and he always seems distracted, like he’s too busy thinking about his ongoing war on crime to bother with niceties. He still has the same backstory as his comic counterpart, but while the Batman of the comics adhered to a strict moral code, this one has no qualms with killing criminals. Far from the unambiguously noble hero he was portrayed as in the comics of the 80s, this Batman is one of the most morally grey versions of the character. However, he’s still recognizably Batman. Instead of disrespecting his comic book origins, Burton enhances them by allowing the audience to see a new side of a familiar character.
Like Richard Donner did with Superman: The Movie, Burton respects the mythology of Batman by trying to take the concept of a man fighting crime dressed like a giant bat as seriously as possible. The movie’s opening scene where the audience sees Batman ambushing two criminals on the roof of a building is almost shot like a horror movie, with Batman shot out-of-focus in the background as he silently glides into frame. The melodramatic way he sweeps open his cape when he makes his presence known is reminiscent of a vampire preparing to strike. His characterization is established entirely through his body language, but it gives the audience a point of reference for the type of superhero Batman is and how he uses fear as a weapon against criminals.
Burton’s gloomy interpretation of Gotham became the most recognized version of the city for years, with derivative renditions appearing in sequel films Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997), as well as comics. His movie served as the inspiration for groundbreaking Emmy-award winning series, Batman: The Animated Series, released only a few years later in 1992. Other films attempted to copy Batman’s visual style and mature tone, like The Crow (dir. Alex Proyas, 1994) and Dick Tracy (dir. Warren Beatty, 1990). But most importantly, Burton’s film laid the groundwork for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy by bringing Batman back into the public eye and setting Burton’s angsty Dark Knight as the bar all future ones would be measured by.
Batman’s massive financial and critical success inspired notable changes across the film industry. Firstly, its marketing strategy became the standard for Hollywood. Today we wouldn’t blink twice at the superhero movie-themed merchandise movies get like toys, shirts, cereal and video games, but in 1989, it was unprecedented. There was Batman merchandise for everyone: mugs, jackets, watches, model kits, the list was endless. You name it, there was probably a Batman logo on it. Batmania swept over June of ‘89. McDonalds partnered with Warner Bros. for a Happy Meal tie-in. People were shaving the Batman logo on the back of their heads. Prince’s soundtrack for Batman sold 11 million copies and tied with Purple Rain as his bestselling album. Even the film’s poster was a hot commodity. In the wake of Batman’s success, other films looking for a piece of the box office pie would attempt to imitate its marketing right down to trying to copy the poster’s minimalist style.
Batman’s home video release was also groundbreaking. Why? It was released in the fall of 1989, less than five months after it premiered in theaters. On average, it took a minimum of six months for a movie to make it from the theaters to home video. Wanting to make sure that Batman would be in stores before Christmas, Warner Bros. rushed it onto video as soon as possible. Additionally, Batman only cost $24.99 on VHS, which was astoundingly cheap when VHS tapes ranged anywhere from $70 to $90. Nowadays, it’s unheard of for a movie to run for half as long in theaters, and with the variety of promotions retail outlets and studios offer for home video releases, owning a film is more affordable than it’s ever been.
Batman did more than change the game: it created it. No superhero movie has quite matched its ambitions and creative freedom, save for perhaps the ones that were inspired by it. Even touchstones of the MCU like The Avengers: Endgame (dir. Joe and Anthony Russo, 2019) can’t quite match its impact. With Disney bankrolling Marvel, their movies are similar in hype and marketing, but their impact on the genre — and on the industry as a whole — are incomparable. The Avengers is simply taking the groundwork Batman left behind and building upon it.
In other words, the Avengers may have had their time in the sun, but Batman will always own the night.