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Film Recommendations vol. 1
Some Stories Behind the Scenes of Batman

If Batman hadn’t come out in 1989, the current boom for comic-book movies likely never would have happened. You can’t overstate the impact Batman had on later films developed from comics. There were hit comic-based movies before it, like “Superman” in 1978, but as Tim Burton put it,
“I thought Superman was well done as a movie, but I don’t think it captured the unique feel of a comic book.”

The Batman movie project started in 1979, at a time when memories of the Adam West Batman television series (1966-68) were still fresh in peoples’ minds. But producer Michael E. Uslan, an avid comic book collector since childhood, had different ideas. He was always dissatisfied with the poppy, comical nature of the sixties television series. “I wanted to portray a hero who operated at night, like Bob Kane envisioned.

As he originally appeared in the 1939 “Detective Comics,” Batman was a mystery figure, with a dark sensibility. Tom’s script portrayed Batman’s origin story, with the Joker as his antagonist. Upon reading the script, Burton said,

“It was basically the same as Superman, only different in name. The story, from Bruce Wayne’s childhood to his rise as a crimefighter, was very light in tone. It didn’t recognize any of the grotesquery of the Batman character.”

But Uslan had yet to find anyone who shared his image of Batman as a hero of the shadows. It’s hard to imagine today, when comic-book movies have true mass appeal, but at the time there was only the 1980 Superman film. There was simply no precedent for a mainstream comic-book movie starring a dark hero.

By 1985, six years had passed since Batman started development, but there was still no director attached, nor a firm script. Joe Dante (Gremlins, 1984) and Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters, 1984) were raised as potential directors, but nothing came of it. The script remained unclear, with numerous approaches being suggested. At one point, Uslan was even forced to compromise his stance of distancing himself from the comical sixties TV series and suggested the comedian Bill Murray play Batman. The project was at a stalemate – or even at the brink of failure.

In 1986, the artist Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns revived the image of Batman as a dark character, breathing new life into the film production. This was the moment that the director Tim Burton, fresh off his feature-film debut Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, entered the picture.

Burton immediately set about rewriting the story with screenwriter Sam Hamm. But he wouldn’t get a greenlight until his second feature film, Beetlejuice, became a hit.

After Beetlejuice, movie fans expected Burton’s Batman would resemble that movie, like a more gorgeous version of the sixties TV series with dark pop sensibilities. But Burton was determined to do something different. “I grew up on the TV series and loved it. And looking at my history to that point you might think I’d want to make a film like that, but in fact I didn’t.”

Burton wasn’t a comic book fan per se, but was attracted to the idea of a Batman of the shadows, of portraying a person with two sides to them. Like Uslan and his vision of the early comics, Burton too wanted to make a film with a dark atmosphere. When he began working on his film, he took inspiration from Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke.


Crazy Eyes

Once Burton was attached as director, the production took off on a manic pace. The first choice for Joker, Jack Nicholson, readily agreed to join the cast after seeing Burton’s Beetlejuice.

However, there was great difficulty in selecting an actor for the role of Batman. Burton met with numerous candidates, but they were all, as Burton put it, healthy, square-jawed hero types. They made Burton think: why would a macho guy go out of his way to dress up like a bat? That Bruce Wayne became Batman wasn’t because he was healthy; it was because he needed to be Batman. In the guise of a bat, he could unleash his ferocious nature on the criminals of the city. There was only one actor who fit the bill, thought Burton. Michael Keaton, who’d played the titular off-kilter ghost in Beetlejuice.

“He didn’t look like a hero. That’s why he needed the bat get-up.”
Burton was also interested in Keaton’s eyes. “They’ve got this mix of wisdom and strength with an undercurrent of insanity. When Batman suits up, the eyes are all-important.”

Keaton’s selection stirred quite a bit of doubt. He had earned a reputation for playing comedy roles in Night Shift (1982) and Mister Mom (1983), and his most recent role as Beetlejuice was about as far from Bruce Wayne as anyone could imagine. Warner Brothers was inundated with 50,000 letters from angry fans demanding his dismissal. Even Batman’s creator Bob Kane was against the casting at first. But Burton stood firm. He believed Keaton was made for the role. Keaton, for his part, had faith in Burton as well.
“I never would have taken the role had Tim not been directing.”


The Bat Suit

When I learned of the movie version of Batman in the late eighties, I was excited to see what technology of the day would do for his suit. I thought they’d use a hard material for the mask, but go with Superman-esque tights, like Christopher Reeves wore. It couldn’t be helped; that was the cutting edge of the era. The only comic-book movies back then were the sequels to Superman, and the 1984 Supergirl film.

In this “ice age” for comic-hero movies, the Bat-suit as it appeared in Batman was beyond any of our expectations, utterly unlike anything that had come before, perfectly capturing his dark energy. It turns out that it wasn’t easy bringing this costume to life.

The suit was designed by Bob Ringwood, who had served as costume designer on the 1984 Dune film. He wasn’t a comic book fan, so he read 400 issues of Batman to prepare. They raised a major question in his mind. Was it really necessary to clothe the hero in tights? Burton struggled with the same issue. It was Ringwood who had the breakthrough.

“Bruce Wayne doesn’t seem particularly heroic; there’s no way him wearing tights would scare criminals. We have to put him in a more powerful-looking suit.”

Burton agreed. The result was a rubberized suit with exaggerated musculature. Based on the idea of it needing to “scare criminals,” the color was changed from the comic book’s gray to black. And to further strike fear into evildoers, the cape was finished to resemble the skin of a bat’s wings.

The idea for the cape came from a table Bob was eating lunch at one day. The tabletop was covered in latex. He used a tabletop as a mold, coating it with latex. He produced numerous capes for different shooting situation, from thick versions to ones thin enough to wave in a breeze. For the boots, he customized a pair of shoes provided by Nike. After much trial and error, a Bat-suit arrived that pleased Burton, particularly the bone-like structure in the wings.

The suit was complete, but one problem remained. When the mask was fitted on Keaton’s head, the skin around his eyes was visible, which looked strange. To de-emphasize the fact he was wearing a mask, black makeup around his eyes. But this also had the effect of accentuating Keaton’s trademark eyes all the more. Until that moment the technique had only been used to turn an actor into a creature or a monster, but now it was being used on a hero. Ever since the 1989 Batman, the actors playing masked heroes tend to sport black makeup around their eyes.
The finished film set box office records around the world. Batman forged a new path for films based on comic books. Even more, its revolutionary success re-defined what a major motion picture could be. The movies would never be the same.


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