How Tim Burton’s Version of the Caped Crusader Put the Dark in Dark Knight and Gave Wings to the Superhero Movie Genre

'Batman' movie poster illustration by Andrey Stroganov


By Koraljka Suton

Exactly 30 years ago, in the summer of 1989, the world was swept off its feet by a creature of the night. Due to preliminary marketing and merchandising which gave rise to a large-scale Bat-Mania, it came as no surprise that the hyped feature-length movie about the comic book superhero would lure Batman fans and non-biased moviegoers alike into the darkness of movie theaters. The film had, in fact, become a hit before even being screened—a vast array of tie-in merchandise, T-shirts, toys, cereals and the like was put on the market to ensure that endgame. When the teaser was released, fans even went out of their way to pay the full price of a movie ticket just to see it, subsequently walking out before the beginning of the respective film, without demanding a refund. But if you asked Warner Bros., the unprecedented marketing campaign was very much needed, seeing as how Batman was receiving heavy backlash both before and during its production—fans of the Dark Knight were not entirely convinced when it was announced that the director’s chair would accommodate the man behind Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, idiosyncratic auteur Tim Burton, who had just released his second feature-length Beetlejuice, and they were even less on board with Burton’s decision to cast comedy star Michael Keaton as billionaire Bruce Wayne by day, Caped Crusader by night. Not even the studio was absolutely sure about its decision of placing Burton behind the steering wheel, and had, according to the director himself, waited to see if Beetlejuice would become a box office hit before officially hiring him, even though he had already been part of the production: “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

Fan outrage over Keaton, on the other hand, had reached surprisingly massive proportions, with Warner Bros. getting 50,000 letters protesting the seemingly unusual casting choice—an act which, if thought about, required much more invested time, energy and willpower than is needed in today’s digitalized world where flabbergasted fans have the chance to simply take to social media when wanting to voice their disapproval of and disagreement with a certain actor taking on the role of a beloved pre-existing character (in staying true to this article’s subject matter, we need not look further than the fans’ distrust of the late Heath Ledger when it was made public that he would be applying the Joker’s make-up in Nolan’s 2008 Batman rendition The Dark Knight or, even more recently, the disdain that came Robert Pattinson’s way just this month when it was confirmed that, in a new installment of the franchise, the vigilante’s cape would be his to put on). So, in light of the aforementioned uproar, the studio wanted to do everything it could to convince its target audience that Burton’s movie would be lightyears away from its presumed and prematurely frowned upon campiness (which was the trademark of the 1960s Batman TV series starring Adam West). And it worked.

Not only did Burton truly deliver when it came to putting the dark in Dark Knight, but the marketing frenzy also escalated to such a degree that Batman became the first movie to ever earn $100 million in its first ten days, the highest-grossing feature film in the history of Warner Bros. at the time (surpassing the record the studio set with The Exorcist in 1973 and being topped as late as 2001 by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), the biggest box office money-maker of the year 1989, as well as the industry’s highest-grossing superhero movie (taking down the record-holding Superman from 1978, only to be eclipsed by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002). And one of the main reasons Batman became such a hit, his enormous marketing campaign put aside, was very clearly the je ne sais quoi that both Burton and Keaton brought to the table, quickly appeasing fans and critics.

Keaton was extremely praised for his “edgy, tormented quality” which Burton and producer Jon Peters claimed he had, his performance and appearance ultimately managing to change the public’s perception of what a movie superhero should look and act like, thus paving the way for future unlikely casting choices such as Tobey Maguire (as Spider-Man), Mark Ruffalo (as the Hulk) and Robert Downey Jr. (as Iron Man). Keaton made it more than okay for a superhero to be uncharacteristically non-superheroy in build and overall appearance, as well as awkward and aloof character-wise, as a visible byproduct of childhood trauma. In Burton’s words: “I’d considered some very good square-jawed actors, but I couldn’t see them putting on a Batsuit. You look at Michael and you see all sorts of things going on inside.” This made the Bruce Wayne/Batman dichotomy stand out even more, emphasizing the two seemingly diametrically opposite, but at the same time perfectly co-existing sides of one individual’s personality. As Bruce Wayne, he could easily go unnoticed were it not for his billionaire-status, but as Batman, he exudes an air and a drive, as well as demonstrates a very particular set of skills, that clearly indicate this bat-person is not to be crossed–let alone overlooked.

It is precisely this dichotomy that makes it plausible (dare I say slightly more realistic?) for Keaton’s Wayne to have to resort to putting on a costume and lurking around as a human-sized bat with the purpose of seeking out criminals in order to satiate his vigilante-urges, subconsciously hoping that such a course of action would facilitate the resolution of his unhealed trauma. In future Batman-installments, Bruce Wayne was portrayed as Batman hiding behind the mask of Bruce, but in Burton’s movie, the character of Bruce is running the show, with Batman being not merely a facade, but rather a fully-clothed manifestation of a tortured man’s highly-functional inner-twin. And that is what makes Keaton’s portrayal so visceral and captivating—the reason why audiences are drawn to superheroes is because they as people are (or at least should be) deeply flawed, and thus deeply relatable. If we manage to form a connection with the hero’s quirks and inner conflicts, which we do because they mirror quirks and inner conflicts of our own, then we can allow ourselves to also relate to the hero’s alter-ego and project onto him/her all the positively perceived character traits such as bravery, proactivity and nobility we often deny, reject or suppress within ourselves—and maybe get inspired to start re-owning those traits by realizing that we too can be powerful and heroic in our own right.

And while this is true for Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman, his nemesis’ becoming takes a slightly different route. Played by the fantastic Jack Nicholson who gets as much, if not even more screen time than the titular character, the Joker is a villain who was made by Batman himself. When we first encounter him, the Joker is merely a man who goes by the name Jack Napier—a criminal i.e. dangerous gangster to be sure, but not the ultimate supervillain. It is only after Batman interferes with Napier’s business that Jack suffers a trauma of his own, ultimately leading to him turning into the Joker—and embracing it fully. Unlike Bruce, he isn’t “split” and thereby resigned to living a double life, but rather becomes a fully integrated version of his true self or, better yet, a highly accentuated embodiment of Jack’s destructive potential. While he was just a man, Jack was an emotionally-driven individual gifted in the arts but was not shown applying his talents in his crime-career. After being reborn as the Clown Prince of Crime, the gangster fully embraces both his over-emphasized emotional drive and his artistic tendencies by using destruction as an art-form—he wreaks havoc on Gotham City and its inhabitants, all the while treating it as performance art, labeling himself “the world’s first fully functional homicidal artist.” Just like Batman, his actions are motivated by vengeance-fueling pain. But unlike Batman, he merged fully with his alter-ego, showing Bruce Wayne just how thin of a line it is between hero and villain and how close Wayne himself might come to crossing it.

Were it not for Nicholson’s flamboyant and wonderfully psychotic performance, it is questionable how well all of these nuances would have translated. Although the high-profile actor was the first choice for the iconic role, he was not the only one. Willem Dafoe, David Bowie, Robert De Niro, Brad Dourif were all taken into consideration. When offered the part, Nicholson was hesitant and then the studio reportedly reached out to Robin Williams (who gleefully accepted the offer), using him as a means of getting Nicholson to sign on, which he ultimately did, resulting in his performance going down in cinematic history. The lengths to which the studio went in order to secure Nicholson for the movie—apart from using Robin Williams as a pawn—is best described by an anecdote that involves Nicholson inviting Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen. When Burton found out there was horseback-riding involved, he told Guber he did not ride and the producer replied “You do today!”, leading to a “terrified” Burton riding a horse alongside Nicholson and sealing the deal.

As this story suggests, Burton is no stranger to trying out something new, even when the odds are seemingly stacked against him. The notion that an artistic director with a very specific point of view and only two feature-length movies under his belt would take on the story of one of the world’s most beloved superheroes was, at the time, even weirder than Burton himself. But as producer Jon Peters said: “He had humanness, lovingness, but he also seemed tough and strong. He had a passion for Batman and a desire to do something completely different with it.” And something different with it he did. In terms of imagery, Burton’s take on Batman remains true to the comic books, most notably Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke, empowering directors such as Matthew Vaughn (several X-Men movies) and Zack Snyder (Watchmen) to do the same later on. And as opposed to the realistic world of the previous Superman films, Burton’s Gotham City was created as a nuanced universe in its own right—a staggering combination of noir-steampunk aesthetic and Gothic architecture, enabling production designer Anton Furst (Full Metal Jacket) to win the film’s only Academy Award.

The movie’s principal photography started on October 17th, 1988 and wrapped in less than three months’ time. But the birthing of the movie was a ten-year process. After finally landing the rights to Batman in 1979, executive producer Michael Uslan got Warner Bros. and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz on board. Mankiewicz’s original script included not only the Joker but also the Penguin, crime boss Rupert Thorne, a greater emphasis on Bruce Wayne’s origin story and the appearance of Robin. Although the script was eventually rejected, elements of it can be found in Batman Returns. Other directors were considered for the job before Burton was brought in, most notably Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) and Joe Dante (Gremlins). Burton then asked screenwriter Sam Hamm to do the screenplay, an offer this comic book fan could not refuse. This is when a new and darker approach to the characterization slowly started to emerge. “We had a great time together. I think Tim’s the first director out there to be filtering junk culture through an art-school sensibility. He’s also got a fairly strong morbid streak, but he’s too much of an ironist to take his own morbidity seriously,” Hamm said of his collaboration with Burton. Still, the two did clash on occasion, primarily because of certain ideas Burton wanted to implement that Hamm was hesitant about. Because of its deviation from the comic book canon, the movie twist in which it is revealed when and how Batman and the Joker truly crossed paths for the first time is one still disliked by many fans, but Hamm insisted that he was not to blame: “That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

And although a lot of the final film was ultimately based on Hamm’s script, a number of rewrites ensued, the most notable one being the showdown between Batman and the Joker in a clock tower. Robert Wuhl, who played Alexander Knox, said that the climax was inspired by a scene from a theater production of The Phantom of the Opera which Jack Nicholson and producer Jon Peters attended during filming. They reportedly concluded that a tower scene was what their movie needed and started writing the ending the very next day. And according to some sources, the reason why Batman’s love interest Vicki Vale was at all present during that scene was that the actress portraying her (Kim Basinger) thought her character should be in it. Another example of not staying true to the script can be found in a scene at the very beginning of the movie, when Batman “utters one of the most iconic lines in the history of superhero cinema” while threatening to throw a criminal off a roof. The “I’m Batman” one-liner that reverberates in pop-culture even today was actually not in the script. The punny “I am the night” line was what Keaton was originally meant to say, but he decided to wing it so as to keep it simple and efficient.

In retrospect, it really seems as though the stars had to align in every possible way for Burton’s Batman to turn out exactly how it did, leaving in its wake a legacy that seems overwhelming and at the same time unfathomable. When asked about his thoughts on how the superhero movie genre evolved, Burton told Davette See, reporter of Fandango, the following: “Well, it’s just weird, you know, because at the time it felt different. Now, it’s more like, ‘Well, let’s see, it’s Tuesday… what’s coming out now?’ You know? Let’s put it this way, I feel grateful. I feel like it’s something that you can remember. At the time, it was nice to have something that felt different. Do you know what I mean? It felt like it was new territory. So, that’s always exciting. So, you know, I guess it’s like any kind of genre, although it’s quite amazing that it just keeps gaining, you know, to where we have competing superhero movies on a daily basis.” But what Burton fails to acknowledge is that his darker and psychologically complex rendition of the Caped Crusader was the one that gave wings to what will soon become the superhero movie genre. Yes, Burton’s Batman was undeniably different. And ultimately, that ended up making—all the difference.

Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »


“We wanted to do a ‘dark’ Batman from the outset. Although we didn’t consciously model our version on a particular storyline from the comics, I would probably cite the Denny O’Neil stories from the early ’70s, like ‘The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge,’ as an important tonal influence. Denny was plainly trying to reclaim the mystery of Batman and the homicidal insanity of the Joker, and he had lots of help from Neal Adams, Jim Aparo, et al. Tim and I got along extremely well from day one. The question that intrigued us both was, ‘Why would an incredibly rich guy want to put on a weird suit and beat up petty crooks?’ I mean, he’d have to be crazy, right? We hashed out a loose storyline built around the notion that we would start with the Joker’s origin and treat Batman’s origin as a mystery to be solved (by Vicki) in the course of the story. What would happen to Batman if he met a girl and started to go… sane? After that, I’d go off to work for a couple of weeks, and then Tim would fly up to hang out in San Francisco and we’d pace around cooking up new sequences, solving problems, etc.” —Sam Hamm

Screenwriter must-read: Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren’s screenplay for Batman [PDF1, PDF1, PDF3, PDF4, PDF5]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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The following is an excerpt from the book Burton on Burton by Mark Salisbury.

I was never a giant comic book fan, but I’ve always loved the image of Batman and The Joker. The reason I’ve never been a comic book fan—and I think it started when I was a child—is because I could never tell which box I was supposed to read. That’s why I loved The Killing Joke, because for the first time I could tell which one to read. It’s my favourite. It’s the first comic I’ve ever loved. And the success of those graphic novels made our ideas more acceptable. So, while I was never a big comic book fan, I loved Batman, the split personality, the hidden person. It’s a character I could relate to. Having those two sides, a light side and a dark one, and not being able to resolve them—that’s a feeling that’s not uncommon. So while I can see it’s got a lot of Michael Keaton in it because he’s actually doing it, I also see certain aspects of myself in the character. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I mean, this whole split personality thing is so much a part of every person that it’s just amazing to me that more people don’t consciously understand it. Everybody has several sides to their personality, no one is one thing. Especially in America, people often present themselves as one thing, but are really something else. Which is symbolic of the Batman character.

There’s no such thing as a bible. I always react against the single-mindedness that you find in Hollywood a lot. You can’t think about it. I thought about being true to what I loved about the original idea, and I think in the spirit of it, it’s close to Bob Kane. If you look at Michael, he’s got all those wheels and that wild energy in his eyes which would compel him to put on a bat-suit. It’s like, if he had gotten therapy he wouldn’t be putting on a bat-suit. He didn’t, so this is his therapy. But there was no way to satisfy everybody. What you just had to hope for was that you were true to the spirit. And luckily comic books had gone through a phase where they had become much more acceptable. They had made things darker. They had taken Batman into the psychological domain. To me it was very clear: the TV series was campy; the regeneration, the new comics, were totally rebelling against that. I just had to be true to the spirit of it and what I got out of it: the absurdity of it.

To do a big movie you either do it in LA or you do it in London, due basically to the facilities. I mean, the dollar wasn’t even great at the time, but at Pinewood there was nothing going on and it had a big outdoor area which we could build on. So it made sense. The characters were so extreme that I felt we had to set them somewhere that was designed for them. Because Superman had been filmed on New York locations, I don’t think it captured the right comic book feel. I was very happy we did it at Pinewood, just to get away from all that stuff with the casting and the hype and the pressure. The British press were intense too, but that didn’t bother me as much. I liked being there, I liked working there, I liked a lot of the people, a lot of great artists; I made some friends and it was nice. Design is very important to me and there are very few designers that I get excited about. Anton was a great designer. I had liked The Company of Wolves, and I thought he was one of the most individual ones around. I had met him before Beetlejuice and tried to get him to work on that, but he was working on something else. Because of my background, design is the one area I’m very critical about. Working with someone like Anton, who had a real talent, is a luxury. It excites me and it has always been important for me to like designers as friends. For Gotham City we looked at pictures of New York. Blade Runner had come out, and any time there’s a movie like that, that’s such a trend setter, you’re in danger. We had said early on that any city we were going to do was going to get the inevitable Blade Runner comparison. So we decided there was nothing we could do about it. We just said, This is what’s happening to New York at the moment.

We started out with a script that everyone liked, although we recognized it needed a little work. Everyone thought the script was great, but they still thought it needed a total rewrite. Obviously it was a big movie, and it represented an enormous investment by Warners, so I understood why we had to make it right. But what made the situation worse was that there was all this fuss about making the script better and suddenly we were shooting. There were so many changes and fixes that it was like unravelling a ball of yarn. It gets to a point where you’re not helping it any more. We were shooting a scene leading up to the bell-tower and Jack’s walking up the steps, but we didn’t know why. He said to me that day, ‘Why am I going up the steps?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, we’ll talk about it when you get up the top.’ You’re always working on something, you’re always trying to make it better, that happens all the way through, but in this case I felt I wasn’t making it better.

We tried to put Robin in, to make that relationship work in a real way. In the TV series he’s just there. We tried a slightly more psychological approach, but I felt unless you’re going to focus on that and give it its due, it’s like ‘Who is this guy?’ Sam and I spent a lot of time going over that, anguishing over it. It’s a good thing we didn’t do it, because it would have cost a lot, and when we were getting ready to shoot the movie it was the easiest lift. Again, I just went back to the psychology of a man who dresses up as a bat; he’s a very singular, lonely character, and putting him with somebody just didn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense in the next one either; we tried it there too. But it’s just too much. There’s too much material with these characters.

The interesting thing about hype is that everyone thought the studio was creating it, when in fact you can’t create hype; it’s a phenomenon that’s beyond a studio, it has a life of its own. The most negative thing to me was working on something that gained so much hype, because I’m the type of person—and there is a percentage of the population out there like myself—who if I hear too much about something gets turned off by it. And it was odd to be working on something that, if I was a normal person, I’d have gone, ‘Shut the fuck up. I’m sick of hearing about this thing. I won’t go see it, ’cos I’ve heard too much about it.’ That was the most disturbing thing. But there was no way to control it. And then you get the inevitable backlash to that. My main concern was that the movie be judged on its own merits and not become this thing. But there’s nothing you can do about it. It helped being in England, even with the press attention there, because it wasn’t my country, and so I just focused on making the movie and didn’t think too much about anything else.

I certainly wasn’t less interested in Batman, it’s just that he is who he is, and The Joker is who he is. Right or wrong, I sort of let these things play themselves out. Some people got it, some people understood that. Obviously, a lot of people thought The Joker was the thing, but a lot of people found Michael to be more compelling because of that. He captured a certain subtle sadness in his character. It was as if he was thinking, ‘Look at this guy. He gets to go out there and jump around and be a clown, and I have to remain in the shadows.’ And there was a pent-up, bottled-up feeling to him which I think works with the Batman character. It’s funny, that whole dark and light thing. In fact, I’ve gotten more confused by it in a way. It was so weird on the second Batman because I would do those big press junkets where you’re seeing a zillion people—every six minutes somebody new—and it became like a joke.


Among the shadows in the deadly streets, a grim detective faces the clown prince of crime.


Jack Nicholson may be a brilliant actor, but it takes more than performing talent to assume the killing Joker grin. Turning the charismatic Nicholson into Batman’s ever-smiling nemesis required makeup man Nick Dudman to use the art of prosthetics, a special technique that involves attaching pliable, shaped pieces to the actor’s skin. These pieces are then moved by the actor’s muscles, creating an appearance far more realistic than traditional monster suits or makeup techniques.



We’re going with tonal separation, lighting it as if it were black and white but shooting in color. And we’re using a Kodak film stock that enables us to shoot in very low light while retaining bright effects. But the key is using sets of a single tone against which the Joker just pops out. —Roger Pratt


“This article from the December 1989 issue of American Cinematographer magazine sheds some light on the many special effects that went into making Batman. Reading this reminds me how much I miss practical effects. Sure, CGI makes everything a lot easier… but it doesn’t necessarily make it better.” —


“This special ‘Double Issue’ of Cinefantastique offered a lot of bang for a Batman ’89 fan’s buck. Not only did the magazine showcase an in-depth look at the making of the film, but it also featured side articles on director Tim Burton, screenwriter Sam Hamm, makeup effects guru Nick Dudman, designer Anton Furst, and much more! Seriously, even if you read the scans below of all the pertinent Bat-pages from the issue, no ’89 fan should be without this book. Truly, one of the best of the magazines focused on the film available.” —


Starburst magazine devoted quite a bit of coverage to Batman during the summer of ’89. This September issue features the initial installment of a 2-part Tim Burton interview.” —


“The July issue of 20/20 offered a little different flavor than the standard promotional magazine fluff of the time. The cover features an absolutely brutal pic of Keaton’s Batman, and the interior article stands as one of the most unique reads as well; shining light on Burton’s worries over what the studio would do to ‘his Batman’ after he handed it in. Oh… and we even get a bit of foreshadowing here, with Burton commenting on the tabloid rumor of a possible Batman 2 starring Danny DeVito as Penguin! Good stuff!” —


Here’s a fantastic (and lengthy) article from Issue Number 41 of Cinefex magazine.


“Much like the recently posted Video Press Kit, the 1988 Warner Brothers Batman Preview is a long-buried treasure created during the production of Batman. The origins of the special are a bit murky, and the few that have seen it over the years remain unclear on what purpose the film initially served.” —


“A rare gem posted for Batman‘s 25th anniversary, The Two Masks of the Caped Crusader, was an interview special produced back in 1989 for the Family Channel. Featuring a lone Bob Kane seated at his art table, the special gives us the Batman co-creator’s insight on the Bat-phenomenon, with a strong focus on Tim Burton’s film.” —


This 30-minute documentary, shot during filming, reminds us all how ground-breaking the movie was.



In the early stages Burton was trying to connect the classic Batman with the Dark Knight. It did seem that he wasn’t very familiar with the character. Burton is not a particularly adept storyteller, but his visual signature is truly amazing. From the outset, Tim wanted Batman to be a very dark film. I started out designing in pencil, then black, but Tim kept wanting an even darker style, of imagery, so at the very end of my assignment, I switched to white pencil and black paper. —David Russell


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Tim Burton’s Batman. Photographed by Murray Close © Warner Bros., The Guber-Peters Company, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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