Batman is a 1989 American superhero film directed by Tim Burton and produced by Jon Peters and Peter Guber, based on the DC Comics character of the same name. It is the first installment of Warner Bros.’ initial Batman film series. The film stars Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne / Batman, alongside Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough and Jack Palance. The film takes place early in the title character’s war on crime, and depicts a battle with his nemesis the Joker.
After Burton was hired as director in 1986, Steve Englehart and Julie Hickson wrote film treatments before Sam Hamm wrote the first screenplay. Batman was not greenlit until after the success of Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). Numerous A-list actors were considered for the role of Batman before Keaton was cast. Keaton’s casting caused a controversy since, by 1988, he had become typecast as a comedic actor and many observers doubted he could portray a serious role. Nicholson accepted the role of the Joker under strict conditions that dictated top billing, a high salary, a portion of the box office profits and his own shooting schedule.
The tone and themes of the film were influenced in part by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. The film primarily adapts the “Red Hood” origin story for the Joker, in which Batman creates the Joker by dropping him into Axis Chemical acid, resulting in his transformation into a psychopath, but it adds a unique twist in presenting him specifically as a gangster named Jack Napier. Filming took place at Pinewood Studios from October 1988 to January 1989. The budget escalated from $30 million to $48 million, while the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike forced Hamm to drop out. Warren Skaaren did rewrites. Additional uncredited drafts were done by Charles McKeown and Jonathan Gems.
Batman was a critical and financial success, earning over $400 million in box office totals. It was the fifth-highest-grossing film in history at the time of its release. The film received several Saturn Award nominations and a Golden Globe nomination, and won an Academy Award. It also inspired the equally successful Batman: The Animated Series, paving the way for the DC animated universe, and has influenced Hollywood’s modern marketing and development techniques of the superhero film genre. Three sequels, Batman Returns, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, were released on June 19, 1992, June 16, 1995, and June 20, 1997, respectively.
As Gotham City approaches its bicentennial, Mayor Borg orders district attorney Harvey Dent and police commissioner James Gordon to make the city safer. Meanwhile, reporter Alexander Knox and photojournalist Vicki Vale begin to investigate rumors of a vigilante nicknamed “Batman” who is targeting the city’s criminals.
Batman’s alter-ego is Bruce Wayne, a billionaire industrialist who, as a child, witnessed his parents’ murder at the hands of a psychotic mugger. At a fundraiser for the bicentennial in Wayne Manor, Bruce meets and falls for Vale, and the two begin a romantic relationship. However, the evening is cut short as Bruce is alerted to Commissioner Gordon’s sudden departure due to police business and leaves to investigate as Batman.
Mob boss Carl Grissom, who has already been targeted by Dent and Gordon, discovers his mistress Alicia is involved with his second-in-command Jack Napier. With the help of corrupt police lieutenant Max Eckhardt, Grissom engineers Napier’s death in a raid at Axis Chemicals. However, Grissom’s plan is foiled with the sudden arrival of Commissioner Gordon, who wants Napier captured alive. In the ensuing shootout, Napier, who has realized he was set up, kills Eckhardt. Batman arrives and, in a struggle, Napier is knocked into a vat of chemicals. Batman escapes and Napier is presumed dead.
Napier emerges from the vat, but is left disfigured with chalk white skin, emerald green hair, and a rictus grin. The sociopathic Napier is driven insane by the incident and begins calling himself “the Joker”. He kills Grissom and usurps authority over his criminal empire, and scars Alicia’s face to equal his disfigurement.
The Joker terrorizes Gotham City by lacing hygiene products with “Smylex”, a deadly chemical which causes victims to die laughing with the same maniacal grin as the Joker. As he searches for information on Batman (whom he blames for his disfigurement), the Joker also becomes obsessed with Vale. He lures her to the Gotham Museum of Art and his henchmen destroy the works of art. Batman arrives and rescues her. They escape in the Batmobile, pursued by the Joker’s men. Batman takes Vicki to the Batcave, where he gives her information from his research on Smylex that will allow the city’s residents to avoid exposure to the toxin.
Bruce visits Vicki at her apartment, prepared to tell her about his alter-ego. The Joker interrupts their meeting, asking Bruce, “You ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight?” before shooting him. Bruce uses a bended serving tray as body armor and plays dead. He remembers that the mugger who killed his parents asked the same question, and realizes that Napier was his parents’ killer. Vicki is brought to the Batcave by Bruce’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth, who has been coaxing their relationship because Vicki brings out Bruce’s human side. After telling her that he cannot focus on their relationship with the Joker terrorizing Gotham, Bruce departs as Batman to destroy the Axis plant. Meanwhile, the Joker lures the citizens of Gotham to a parade with the promise of free money, but while throwing cash at the crowd as promised, also attacks them with Smylex gas released from his giant parade balloons. Batman arrives and tows the balloons above the clouds with the Batwing. The Joker shoots the Batwing using a long-barreled gun, causing it to crash, and takes Vicki to the top of a cathedral.
Batman, who survived the crash, fends off the Joker’s remaining men despite his injuries, and confronts the Joker. The two fight, with Joker eventually gaining the upper hand, leaving Batman and Vicki clinging onto an outcropping. The Joker tries to escape by helicopter, but Batman attaches a heavy granite gargoyle to the Joker’s leg with his grappling hook, causing him to lose his grip and fall to his death after it breaks off.
Commissioner Gordon announces that the police have arrested the Joker’s men and unveils the Bat-Signal. Harvey Dent reads a note from Batman, promising that he will defend Gotham whenever crime strikes again. Vicki is taken to Wayne Manor by Alfred, who tells her that Bruce will be a little late. She responds that she is not surprised, as Batman looks at the signal’s projection from a rooftop, standing watch over the city.
- Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman
- Jack Nicholson as Jack Napier/The Joker
- Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale
- Robert Wuhl as Alexander Knox
- Pat Hingle as Commissioner James Gordon
- Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent
- Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth
- Jack Palance as Carl Grissom
- Jerry Hall as Alicia Hunt
- Tracey Walter as Bob the Goon
- Lee Wallace as Mayor Borg
- William Hootkins as Lt. Max Eckhardt
- John Dair as Vinnie Ricorso
- Christopher Fairbank as Nic
- George Roth as Eddie
- Kit Hollerbach as Becky
- Hugo E. Blick as Young Jack Napier
- Charles Roskilly as Young Bruce Wayne
- David Baxt as Thomas Wayne
- Sharon Holm as Martha Wayne
- Liza Ross as Tourist Mom
- Garrick Hagon as Tourist Dad
- Adrian Meyers as Jimmy, Tourist Son
In the late 1970s, Batman’s popularity was waning. CBS was interested in producing a Batman in Outer Space film. Producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan purchased the film rights of Batman from DC Comics on October 3, 1979. It was Uslan’s wish “to make the definitive, dark, serious version of Batman, the way Bob Kane and Bill Finger had envisioned him in 1939. A creature of the night; stalking criminals in the shadows.” Richard Maibaum was approached to write a script with Guy Hamilton to direct, but the two turned down the offer. Uslan was unsuccessful with pitching Batman to various movie studios because they wanted the film to be similar to the campy 1960s TV series. Columbia Pictures and United Artists were among those to turn down the film.
A disappointed Uslan then wrote a script titled Return of the Batman to give the film industry a better idea of his vision for the film. Uslan later compared its dark tone to that of The Dark Knight Returns, which his script pre-dated by six years. In November 1979, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber joined the project. Melniker and Uslan became executive producers. The four felt it was best to pattern the film’s development after that of Superman (1978). Uslan, Melniker and Guber pitched Batman to Universal Pictures, but the studio turned it down. Though no movie studios were yet involved, the project was publicly announced with a budget of $15 million in July 1980 at the Comic Art Convention in New York. Warner Bros., the studio behind the successful Superman film franchise, decided to also accept and produce Batman.
Tom Mankiewicz completed a script titled The Batman in June 1983, focusing on Batman and Dick Grayson’s origins, with the Joker and Rupert Thorne as villains, and Silver St. Cloud as the romantic interest. Mankiewicz took inspiration from the limited series Batman: Strange Apparitions, written by Steve Englehart. Comic book artist Marshall Rogers, who worked with Englehart on Strange Apparitions, was hired for concept art.
The Batman was then announced in late 1983 for a mid-1985 release date on a budget of $20 million. Originally, Mankiewicz had wanted an unknown actor for Batman, William Holden for James Gordon, David Niven as Alfred Pennyworth, and Peter O’Toole as the Penguin, whom Mankiewicz wanted to portray as a mobster with low body temperature. Holden died in 1981 and Niven in 1983, so this would never come to pass. A number of filmmakers were attached to Mankiewicz’ script, including Ivan Reitman and Joe Dante. Reitman wanted to cast Bill Murray as Batman and Eddie Murphy as Robin. Nine rewrites were performed by nine separate writers. Most of them were based on Strange Apparitions. However, it was Mankiewicz’s script that was still being used to guide the project.
After the financial success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Warner Bros. hired Tim Burton to direct Batman. Burton had then-girlfriend Julie Hickson write a new 30-page film treatment, feeling the previous script by Mankiewicz was campy. The success of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: The Killing Joke rekindled Warner Bros.’ interest in a film adaptation. Burton was initially not a comic book fan, but he was impressed by the dark and serious tone found in both The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke. Warner Bros. enlisted the aid of Englehart to write a new treatment in March 1986. Like Mankiewicz’s script, it was based on his own Strange Apparitions, and included Silver St. Cloud, Dick Grayson, the Joker and Rupert Thorne, as well as a cameo appearance by the Penguin. Warner Bros. was impressed, but Englehart felt there were too many characters. He removed the Penguin and Dick Grayson in his second treatment, finishing in May 1986.
Burton approached Sam Hamm, a comic book fan, to write the screenplay. Hamm decided not to use an origin story, feeling that flashbacks would be more suitable and that “unlocking the mystery” would become part of the storyline. He reasoned, “You totally destroy your credibility if you show the literal process by which Bruce Wayne becomes Batman.” Hamm replaced Silver St. Cloud with Vicki Vale and Rupert Thorne with his own creation, Carl Grissom. He completed his script in October 1986, which demoted Dick Grayson to a cameo rather than a supporting character. One scene in Hamm’s script had a young James Gordon on duty the night of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. When Hamm’s script was rewritten, the scene was deleted, reducing it to a photo in the Gotham Globe newspaper seen in the film.
Warner Bros. was less willing to move forward on development, despite their enthusiasm for Hamm’s script, which Batman co-creator Bob Kane greeted with positive feedback. Hamm’s script was then bootlegged at various comic book stores in the United States. Batman was finally given the greenlight to commence pre-production in April 1988, after the success of Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). When comic book fans found out about Burton directing the film with Michael Keaton starring in the lead role, controversy arose over the tone and direction Batman was going in. Hamm explained, “They hear Tim Burton’s name and they think of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. They hear Keaton’s name and they think of any number of Michael Keaton comedies. You think of the 1960s version of Batman, and it was the complete opposite of our film. We tried to market it with a typical dark and serious tone, but the fans didn’t believe us.” To combat negative reports on the film’s production, Kane was hired as creative consultant.
Parallel to the Superman casting, a who’s who of Hollywood top stars were considered for the role of Batman, including Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, Tom Selleck, Bill Murray, Harrison Ford and Dennis Quaid. Burton was pressured by Warner Bros. to cast an obvious action movie star, and had approached Pierce Brosnan, but he had no interest in playing a comic book character. Burton was originally interested in casting an unknown actor, and offered Ray Liotta a chance to audition after having completed Something Wild, but Liotta declined, a decision he regrets. Willem Dafoe, who was falsely reported to be considered for the Joker, had actually been considered for Batman early in development. Producer Jon Peters suggested Michael Keaton, arguing he had the right “edgy, tormented quality” after having seen his dramatic performance in Clean and Sober. Having directed Keaton in Beetlejuice, Burton agreed.
Keaton’s casting caused a controversy among comic book fans, with 50,000 protest letters sent to Warner Bros. offices. Bob Kane, Sam Hamm and Michael Uslan also heavily questioned the casting. “Obviously there was a negative response from the comic book people. I think they thought we were going to make it like the 1960s TV series, and make it campy, because they thought of Michael Keaton from Mr. Mom and Night Shift and stuff like that.” Keaton studied The Dark Knight Returns for inspiration.
Brad Dourif, Tim Curry, David Bowie, John Lithgow and James Woods were considered for the Joker. Lithgow, during his audition, attempted to talk Burton out of casting him, a decision he would later publicly regret, stating, “I didn’t realize it was such a big deal.” Burton wanted to cast Dourif, but the studio refused. Robin Williams lobbied hard for the part. Jack Nicholson had been producer Michael Uslan’s and Bob Kane’s choice since 1980. Peters approached Nicholson as far back as 1986, during filming of The Witches of Eastwick. Nicholson had what was known as an “off-the-clock” agreement. His contract specified the number of hours he was entitled to have off each day, from the time he left the set to the time he reported back for filming, as well as being off for Los Angeles Lakers home games. Nicholson demanded top billing as well as to have all of his scenes shot in a three-week block, but the schedule lapsed into 106 days. He received a $6 million salary, as well as a large percentage of the box office gross estimated between $60 million to $90 million.
Sean Young was originally cast as Vicki Vale, but was injured in a horse-riding accident prior to commencement of filming. Young’s departure necessitated an urgent search for an actress who, besides being right for the part, could commit to the film at very short notice. Peters suggested Kim Basinger: she was able to join the production immediately and was cast. As a fan of Michael Gough’s work in various Hammer Film Productions, Burton cast Gough as Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Robert Wuhl was cast as reporter Alexander Knox. His character was originally supposed to die by the Joker’s poison gas in the climax, but the filmmakers “liked [my] character so much,” Wuhl said, “that they decided to let me live.” Burton chose Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent because he wanted to include the villain Two-Face in a future film using the concept of an African-American Two-Face for the black and white concept, but Tommy Lee Jones was later cast in the role for Batman Forever, which disappointed Williams. Nicholson convinced the filmmakers to cast his close friend Tracey Walter as the Joker’s henchman, Bob. Kiefer Sutherland was considered as Robin before the character was deleted from the shooting script. The rest of the cast included Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, Jerry Hall as Alicia Hunt, Lee Wallace as Mayor Borg, William Hootkins as Lt. Max Eckhardt, and Jack Palance as crime boss Carl Grissom.
Batman grossed $2.2 million in late night previews on June 22, 1989 on 1,215 screens and grossed $40.49 million in 2,194 theaters during its opening weekend. This broke the opening weekend record, set by Ghostbusters II one week earlier, with $29.4 million. Batman became the fastest film to earn $100 million, reaching it in 11 days (10 days plus late night previews). The film closed on December 14, 1989, with a final gross $251.2 million in North America and $160.15 million internationally, totaling $411.35 million. and was the highest grossing film based on a DC comic book until 2008’s The Dark Knight. The film’s gross is the 66th highest ever in North American ranks. Although Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade made the most money worldwide in 1989, Batman was able to beat The Last Crusade in North America, and made a further $150 million in home video sales. Box Office Mojo estimates that the film sold more than 60 million tickets in the US.
Batman has been released on various formats, including VHS, Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray. In an unprecedented move at the time, it was made available to buy on VHS in the US on November 15, less than six months after its theatrical release, at a suggested retail price of only $24.95 although most sellers sold it for less. The 2005 Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology 1989-1997 included 2-disc special edition DVDs of the film and all three of its sequels. The anthology was also released as a 4-disc Blu-ray set in 2009, with each film and its previous extras contained on a single disc. Other Blu-ray reissues include a “30th Anniversary” Digibook with 50-page booklet, and a steelcase edition; both also include a Digital Copy. Most recently the “35th Anniversary” reissue contained the same disc as before and on a second disc, a new 25-minute featurette: “Batman: The Birth of the Modern Blockbuster”.