“I’m Batman” – The Dark Knight Turns 85 and 35 at the Same Time

Only Batman is enigmatic and cool enough to turn 85 and 35 at the same time and not look a day over 25. 

In 1939, Batman debuted in 1939’s Detective Comics No. 27, published by DC Comics, the creation of the late Bob Kane and the late Bill Finger (who finally received a co-creator credit in 2015).

In 1989 – Batman’s 50th anniversary – Batman debuted June 23 after months and months of hype. Called “the movie of the decade,” it was 1989’s highest-grossing movie, raking in around $412 million at the box office on a $48 million budget. 

Batman’s origin is common knowledge: As a child, Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents gunned down before his eyes. In that moment, he vowed to rid Gotham City of crime and became Batman as an adult. 

Batman has no superpowers. He is one of the world’s greatest fighters, the world’s greatest detective, has a vast array of cool gadgets – including the Batmobile – and is a billionaire. He is aided by his loyal butler, Alfred, and a sidekick named Robin, as well as others. He and Superman are close allies and know each other’s secret identities.

Writer Paul Dini, one of the three primary architects who developed 1992-95’s Batman: The Animated Series, and New York Times best-selling novelist/University of Michigan alumnus Brad Meltzer gave their take on what gives this iconic character such staying power after 85 years. 

Batman is a potent fantasy about how an ordinary person – granted, with lots of training and money – can right wrongs and mete out justice without real life repercussions. Not only that, he gets to wear a cool costume and drive an awesome car while doing it. It’s a kid’s eye view of how we’d like the world to be when we grow up… As we get older, we realize there are things like due process and the court system that prevent a vigilante from operating in modern society. Not to mention the basic law of physics that pretty much ensures nobody, however supremely trained, can walk a tightrope on a stormy night while wearing an 8-foot long cape. Still, the fantasy endures, and people will dream about doing the things Batman does for another 85 years,” explained Dini. 

Meltzer has written Batman in DC’s Identity Crisis and Justice League of America, as well as I Am Batman as part of his children’s book series, Ordinary People Change the World.

“We all love Batman because of the cape, utility belt and all his wonderful toys, but the real reason he’s persisted as an icon comes from his mission,” said Meltzer. “Every day, Batman knows he’s going to lose. He’ll never stop crime in Gotham. He’ll never stop the death of his parents. But Batman’s going to try again tomorrow and again the night after that. He’ll fail every day. But Batman will never ever, ever give up. How can you not admire that?”

Although portrayed as a brooding, dark character, Batman went through a well-known campy phase. The 1966-68 Batman series featured the late Adam West as the eponymous character and Burt Ward as Robin with a campy style, upbeat theme song, and silly fight scenes with “POW!” super-imposed across the screen.

In the 1970s, comic creators distanced Batman from his campy trappings and returned him to his dark roots originated by Kane and Finger. Writer Steve Englehart focused on Batman as a pulp character and Bruce Wayne as an adult. Englehart even wrote a treatment for the 1989 movie. 

In 1986, writer/artist Frank Miler revolutionized the character further with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Miller’s take on Batman introduced an era of “grim and gritty” comics, demonstrating that it’s not just a children’s medium. It received mainstream media attention, something unheard of at the time. Miller followed up with 1987’s Batman: Year One (which was the basis for 2005’s Batman Begins).

Batman returning to his dark roots paved the way for 1989’s Batman, starring Oscar nominee Michael Keaton (2014’s Birdman) as Batman and Bruce Wayne and Oscar winner Jack Nicholson (1983’s Terms of Endearment) as the Joker. Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tim Burton – who worked with Keaton in 1988’s Beetlejuice – directed Batman.

Ann Arbor Public Schools film/media arts teacher Robert Fox was 12 when Batman debuted. It had quite an impact on him. 

“The film’s promotion in the months leading up to its release gave it a mythical feel. The yellow and black logo of the bat symbol was the only marketing they needed. I got the sense that this was something cool and hip and I also remember skater culture somehow being tied to the marketing of this film,” recalled Fox. “Also, the Prince soundtrack gave the movie another layer of coolness. For a 12-year-old who wasn’t cool, the hype around this movie and the movie itself certainly made me feel cool. And it still holds up so well! I recently re-watched it with my two children. I hadn’t seen it in years and enjoyed it just as much as I did way back in 1989.”

Batman also made Fox a comic book reader, something he was not prior.

“I collected multiple titles, including graphic novels like Batman: The Killing Joke for years following this movie,” he said. “I still have them all and recently showed my kids. I am still just as OCD about them now as I was then!”

Fox was impressed by Nicholson’s performance, which earned many accolades and nominations.

“One of the best villains,” he said. “Pure lunacy. I remember being equally creeped out and entertained. The best combination. Like Raisinets and popcorn.”

Fox remembered how fans were outraged when Burton – known primarily for comedy roles at the time, such as 1983’s Mr. Mom – cast Keaton. Dini, too.

“Most people raised an eyebrow at this casting,” said Fox. “But then once Keaton raised his patented eyebrows as Bruce Wayne, nobody could argue with this casting choice. As it turned out, Keaton was both a perfect Bruce Wayne AND Batman, which is essentially playing two roles in one.”

Added Dini: “Years ago, when I first heard the actor from Beetlejuice was cast as Batman, I thought what a lot of people might have been thinking: ‘Oh, cool. Alec Baldwin. Yeah, he’ll make a great Bruce Wayne.’ But that’s Burton – he’s always going to surprise you. He had a vision of Batman’s character and Keaton fit it perfectly. Keaton’s Batman and Bruce Wayne were both grim, disturbed, funny when they had to be, and proof of the basic rule of Batman: Anyone can be the Dark Knight if they are driven enough.”  

Burton and Keaton reunited for 1992’s Batman Returns. Despite its success (it grossed $266.8 million), Warner Bros. executives deemed Batman Returns too dark for children and named the late Joel Schumacher (1987’s The Lost Boys) director of 1995’s more family-friendly Batman Forever.

  Since Burton was no longer directing, Keaton bowed out and was replaced by Val Kilmer (1993’s Tombstone). However, Kilmer felt his Batman was overshadowed by the villains and didn’t return for 1997’s Batman & Robin. Instead, Oscar winner George Clooney (2005’s Syriana) replaced Kilmer in a film that received negative reviews across the spectrum. It was criticized for being too campy, too commercialized and even for having homosexual innuendo. It won a Worst Picture Razzie Award and is considered one of the worst superhero movies ever made. Box office revenue dropped 63% its second week of release.

In 2005, Oscar-winning director Christopher Nolan (2023’s Oppenheimer) gave the franchise a much-needed shot in the arm with Batman Begins, co-written by Ann Arbor native David Goyer, starring Oscar winner Christian Bale (2011’s The Fighter) as Batman. Oscar-winning actor/director Ben Affleck (Argo) replaced Bale as Batman with 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (filmed in Michigan) and, most recently, 2023’s The Flash (with Keaton and Clooney making cameos as their respective versions of Batman). Twilight actor Robert Pattinson portrayed Batman in 2022’s The Batman and is slated to reprise it in 2025.

“There would be no modern-day Batman franchise without Burton’s ‘Batman,’” said Dini. “When (filmmaker) Michael Uslan acquired the film rights to the character in the late 1970s, he had a 10-year struggle to get the character taken seriously again in Hollywood after the 1960s Batman series. Thanks to the reinvention of Batman in the comics by (many renowned creators), Batman started to become cool again to fans. It took Hollywood a while to catch up, but Burton bringing his dark and skewed touch to Batman was just what was needed to play off where the comics were going at that time and redefine the image of the character for a mass audience who only knew the Caped Crusader from his earlier campier TV incarnation.” 

There are definite nods to Burton’s Batman movies in the early seasons of Batman: TAS, according to Dini. He, along with fellow producers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, wanted to do a dark, noir version of Batman’s world. It is considered the definitive cartoon starring Batman.

“When Warner Animation President Jean MacCurdy put (Batman: TAS) into production, she (hired creators) who really wanted to create Batman stories,” said Dini. “It was not just another animation job coming down the pike, it was more akin to being handed the character by DC and being told, ‘So you want to do Batman graphic novels? Fine, do your best.’ Though there were the usual constraints that every TV production has in regard to violence, we had remarkable leeway and encouragement to develop the characters and stories the way we wanted. That allowed us to take more chances with the tone of the series and create more involving stories. I think that has been something that really resonated with our original audience and every one that has discovered the series since.” 

The late Kevin Conroy, a renowned voice actor, played Batman and Bruce Wayne, while Mark Hamill (Star Wars) played the Joker. 

“Working with Kevin and Mark, whether together or separately, ah man…  When you’re in the middle of it, at first you might not realize fate has granted you the sort of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of something that is going to endure a long time. Mark has often said he and Kevin were a team, like Laurel and Hardy. I think I’d go with (Paul) Newman and (Robert) Redford, or whatever that translates to in animation terms. They had a tremendous amount of affection for the characters, the series, and each other. Every time those two were together, it was a gift for the audience and for me as a writer. You brought your A+ game for Kevin and Mark. I loved writing for them,” Dini fondly recalled. 

Both Dini and Fox agreed Batman is the grandfather of the myriad of superhero movies that have become so prevalent in the 21st century, particularly the Marvel Cinematic Universe that began with 2008’s Iron Man. In fact, Dini stated Batman is more of a precursor to the MCU than 1978’s Superman, starring the late Christopher Reeve as the titular character. 

“It’s a fun movie and very well done, but for all that, Clark Kent, Lois Lane and even Superman himself remain somewhat caricatures of their comic book versions. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne had serious emotional problems that Clark Kent could never have,” said Dini. “That paved the way for more emotionally complex characters like Tony Stark (alias Iron Man), Peter Parker (alias Spider-Man)… and so many others when the MCU came into being.”  

“Burton’s Batman ushered in our modern superhero era – but, most notably, demonstrated that superheroes don’t have to be just for children,” said Fox. “Burton’s vision of a dark, grim Gotham, combined with the dark portrayal of both Batman and the Joker, gave the genre real pathos. Furthermore, it showed that the superhero genre could be gritty and artfully done, opening the door for the (2002-07) Spider-Man movies, and then the age of Marvel that kicked off with Iron Man. Though we are currently experiencing superhero fatigue in part due to some recent lackluster Marvel films post-(2019’s) Avengers: Endgame, 1989’s Batman is a reminder that superheroes and art can mix!”

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