Sunday, June 23, 2019

TL;DR: In 1989 I was 14, and I saw "Batman"

The kids are never going to know that there is, literally, in the public consciousness, a world before Tim Burton's Batman from back in '89, and a world that came into being after that movie.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Batman, the Michael Keaton/ Kim Basinger/ Jack Nicholson-starring gothic caricature that changed the public's perception of superheroes in general.  This isn't hyperbole - nothing was ever the same after this movie came out.  You don't get an Iron Man or Avengers without Batman.  You really don't get the idea out to the general public that comics have moved to a teens-and-up audience until you get breathless write-ups about the Batmania phenomenon.  You also don't have piles of merchandise for adults with a superhero logo on it until Batman, or comics movie-related toys flying off the shelf.

But, mostly, you finally got people to stop thinking "Bam! Whap! Pow!" when they thought about superheroes.

It's also possible that this movie spelled the beginning of the end for mere mortal action heroes as the dominant form of action film and mired us all in genre pictures for the next three decades.

I was one of the hundreds of thousands of kids reading Batman comics who was *primed* for anything that would look like or feel remotely like the comics we devoured.  For years prior to the release of the movie, Batman comics had been on an uptick, with good writers and artists on since the 1970's, and Dark Knight Returns upending comics a couple of years prior and Year One redefining Batman for a generation around this same time.  Other efforts were just as welcome, from The Killing Joke to Year Two to A Death in the Family, which seemed to give weight to the character and his world.

I'd first read about the movie in detail in the comics fanzine Comics Scene, a magazine that included development updates on a wide variety of comics characters to the big and small screens.  Writer Sam Hamm, in my opinion as a 13 year old, *got it*.  If they made anything like what he described, it was going to be exactly what I wanted to see.

Then they cast Michael Keaton - and that was... weird.  I mean, I didn't expect anyone in particular, but he wasn't my first choice.  I'd learn later that the 1980's version of entitled fanboys were writing the studio furious letters asking that Batman be recast, but I was so happy that anything was being made at all, I didn't care *that* much.  Beggars can't be choosers, and when you're just glad they're not making a comedy...  even a comedic actor getting cast is okay.  Meanwhile, poor Adam West was taking interviews and publicly asking "how can it be Batman if I'm not in it?" - something I would gain sympathy for in many ways in the coming years.

The first trailer hit well in advance of the film's release.  At the time, basic cable was trying new things and we had a channel that just showed movie trailers with a sort of MTV-like VJ talking about them.  I lost an afternoon one weekend when they announced the new Batman trailer would be shown "soon".  It was two hours later, but I watched it live and my brother thoughtfully set the VCR to record it.  And, man, now it doesn't look like all that much, we're used to the visual language of Anton Furst's design, but at the time, it was like staring into an actual comic book.

Prior to the film's arrival, I was wearing my Bat-shirts and preaching the good word of Batman, as any responsible 13 or 14 year old might do.  My Batmania was never in doubt, right to Spring of 89' in an 8th grade play called "Sounds of the 60's", I negotiated to get to sing/say "Batman" from the Adam West show as part of a word montage of pop cultural touchstones, and it got a (welcome) laugh from my schoolmates who saw the show.  After all, me and JAL were the two Bat-nerds of our middle school.

The week before the movie's release, I was at basketball camp and deeply stressed that, while I'd be home Friday and could go to the movie, the fact that my parents did not care about this movie at all (and hadn't really seen me in a few days) would mean I wouldn't see the movie that night.  Meanwhile, the video came out for Prince's "Batdance", which I saw in the cafeteria at camp, and which left me wondering "what, exactly, in the hell is this movie going to be?"

Friday afternoon, Peabo's mom picked us up from camp (it was in town) and announced - as we put bags in the car - that she'd already secured tickets for 7:00.

Well, I wasn't wrong about my parents' ambivalence to my Batmania, entirely.

After dropping my sweaty, smelly clothes in the laundry room I announced that we were going to the movie and my mom let me know "you haven't been home in a week and someone has to mow the lawn.  Your brother did it last week" and, inside, I died.  We had a large yard and it was a job that normally took over an hour to finish, which would mean I would not have time to shower and get down to Peabo's house (at the end of the street).  But, Batmania and the winds were with me that day, my friends, and - with the power of Batman with me - I refused to use the self-propelled mechanism on the lawn mower and follow its leisurely pace.  Instead I sprinted in lines up and down the yard, finishing in about half an hour, dashing past my family into the bathroom for a shower, and then out the door for Batman.

You have to keep in mind, this was 1989 - and to adults, including my parents, comics and Batman were still deeply problematic - an indication your kid was a moron or pervert.  No self-respecting adult read or talked about comics, and Batman as a pop cultural figure was part of what was considered a cultural trash fire, whether someone had made a movie about him or not.  We'd already fought the "I'm a gonna read comics and ain't no one stoppin' me" war in 1987, but there were still bruised feelings on both sides.

And, if I'm being honest, my mom both probably wanted me to want to stay home, and felt it was "just a movie" (it was and is, but, you know).  To 14-year-old-me, the notion that Batman was something I could just go see another time was way less true than "I am pretty sure all you people will be here when I get home from seeing what is sure to be the greatest thing in the history of humanity".  Anyway - I ditched my fam for Bruce Wayne and friends.

The theater (which no longer exists) was decked out in hand-made signs that read "Bam! Whap! Pow!".  I quietly judged the living hell out of the theater owners for NOT GETTING IT, but I was *nervous* - a thing that still happens to me when I'm waiting for a movie to start and I want it to be good - like, not in a way that I will singularly enjoy, but which will justify my belief in that thing to other people.  Most recently I recall that feeling before both Black Panther and Infinity War, but my feelings of caution and concern that materialized in much the same way felt pretty justified after Superman Returns and Man of Steel, neither of which were what I wanted to see, exactly, out of a Superman movie.

I needn't have worried.

Of course, I @#$%ing loved Batman.

It was the weirdest looking movie I'd seen to date that wasn't a Star War, but it was also superheroics I could enjoy even if I never really felt like the Alan Grant written comics or the lean, dynamically muscled figures of a Jim Aparo comic had made it off the page.  It was *like* Batman, but it wasn't Batman.  But it was closer than I had ever seen (it would be later this same year I'd re-watch Superman: The Movie for the first time as a not-little-kid and be like "oh... you can just straight do this.").

The Batman I knew had just lost a Robin, was further along, wore tights and not a rubber suit.  He didn't have a Vicki Vale (I wasn't complaining about Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, I just... wasn't familiar with), and his Joker wasn't older than my dad.  But... you know, it was amazing and I saw it six times in the theater as it ran all summer long, with lines forming around the block as word of mouth spread and the film made an astonishing amount of money for a movie in late 1980's terms.

What I was in no way prepared for - but which has caught up with me with a vengeance a few times since - is the sudden and enthusiastic explosion of interest in a thing that had sorta been just the domain of me and few friends suddenly becoming a thing everyone knows, loves and bought the t-shirt.

At first I was thrilled by the merchandise.  I bought that Prince soundtrack.  It was 1989, so I also bought a neon green and yellow Batman cycling cap I wore everywhere.  Soon I saw Batman Chuck Taylor All-Stars.  Batman posters at Spencer's gifts.  Backpacks.  Whatever.  Everything Bat.  I bought a Batman cereal that was not good, but came with a plastic bank in the shape of a bust of Batman, complete with Michael Keaton's masked face on a sticker.

I am sugar, I am corn starch, I am BATMAN (cereal)!

When I ran into kids all summer long they made sure to let me know "Hey, I saw 'Batman'.  It was awesome."  I didn't disagree.  I'm genuinely surprised I didn't get territorial about it - instead I kept going to see the movie with different configurations of friends.  I guess part of me was still in the mode of "whatever, I know waaaaay more about Batman than you do" and moved on.

If I latched onto anything in particular from the film that became my "favorite" version of the very, very wide mythos and multiverse of Batmans... yeah, I love Furst's design work - it's ground breaking and oft-imitated and I'm glad they pulled that into the comics.  But I loved that Batmobile as much as the 1966 Batmobile - and the 1966 Batmobile is...  it's weird to talk about how much you love a car, right?

just look at this impractical, insane thing

I know the movie had some action figures and toys associated with it, but I didn't buy them.  And, in fact, sorta of stopped wearing the shirts and stan'ing Batman.  In a very real way, I felt like whatever Batman promoting I'd done to convince people to see the movie was no longer necessary.  We could all now agree on Batman.  (edit:  I'm not saying *I* convinced the world to love Batman, but I am saying - it sure didn't need me out there telling them about Batman anymore by late July 1989.  Sometimes you can hang up your guns without firing a shot.).

The curious side-effect was that in those articles about the movie where adults scratched their heads about why this movie wasn't the stupid farce they were expecting - even if they weren't ready to take it seriously, exactly - or in the articles written by the hipper journos who payed attention to the press packets and maybe used the movie as a reason to ask comic shops what was actually happening in comics - word sort of started to get out that "hey, comics aren't just for kids anymore".  Those articles contained descriptions of Dark Knight Returns and Year One (thank God they didn't pick up as much on The Killing Joke).  The phrase "graphic novel" made its way into the cultural lexicon.

Of course Tim Burton himself was showing up on talk shows and disavowing the comics, as were anyone associated with the film - it was a re-imagining where they'd removed all those embarrassing bits.  It was okay - I didn't really expect anyone to take this stuff seriously or admit to liking it - that would have been entirely novel in my universe.

Earlier this year I wrote at length about the path of superhero live-action media to get to Avengers: Endgame, and I won't repeat that here, but go nuts reading that post (or re-reading, it's really, super good).  But Batman and it's hundreds of millions of dollars in take when that was a LOT of money for a movie was absolutely a massive catalyst for that first wave of movies afterward, and the jackpot comic movie after comic movie tried to hit, and that opened the door for an insane number of tries, eventually getting us to Iron Man and the Avengers films.  But, along the way, we wound up with Green Lantern, Catwoman and so, so many more mistakes.

Fall of 1989, I entered high school, and the Batshirts didn't really come with me.  I hadn't outgrown them physically or metaphorically - I just didn't wear them all that often.  One Sunday while I was studying, my mom popped open my bedroom door and tossed a newly purchased VHS copy of Batman onto my bed.  It was honestly one of the best things she ever gave me.

The Bat-merchandise, weirdly, just never really let up.  I genuinely feel like there has just been Batman stuff everywhere in a steady stream since 1989.  1988, dude couldn't get arrested in this town, and by July 1989, all-things-Bat became available forever.

In truth, it meant I've never been much of a Batman collector - because, honestly, where do you even stop and start when you can get Batman toothpaste?  I've always just found it overwhelming.  I'm not sure I even own a Batman shirt here in 2019.

By the time Batman Returns came out, I was driving and had sort of a girlfriend.  It came out when I was at a 7-week-long drama camp, but it was also during a lull in my comics reading before I really found Sandman and stuff that got me back into comics.  But I did see it 2 weeks after it came out in a mostly sold out theater.  I think it's better than Batman these days, but no one is asking.  And, of course, was absolutely crushed by what they did in the non-Burton sequels.

If there was a downside, it was that Batman as a character and concept was put on a pedestal.  This was the start of the "Batman is so complex!  No other character in comics is complex!" line that started appearing in think-pieces by writers who didn't bother to do any actual homework or think about this notion critically - something now taken as common knowledge among a lot of people my age and older - mistaking half-remembered notions and a bad movie or three for the only way something could be presented.  And, of course, leading to missteps like The New 52 and Snyder's initial DCEU thrust.  It took Marvel bringing Captain America and a talking tree to the screen to get people to start thinking maybe there's more than one way to skin a bat.

But, yeah.  In 1989, I was fourteen.  I saw the movie six times before it left the theater.  It was never exactly what I wanted, but that was fine.  It was more than fine.  I expected to see something I'd love, but I didn't expect the world of entertainment to change thanks to this movie - or how people would begin to pivot their thinking around Batman, and, eventually, superheroes in general.  That comics maybe wouldn't take off again like they had in the 1940's, but that when they took what was there and served it up to movie and TV screens, it would find an audience.  And, in enough corners, those comics would be taken seriously enough as narratives worth noting.


mcsteans said...

"...honestly, where do you even stop and start when you can get Batman toothpaste?"

Says the man who literally owns Superman toothpaste.


The League said...

You've seen this house. You know how that question gets answered.