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Batman

Year: 1989
Studio: Warner Bros
Director: Tim Burton
Producer: Jon Peters/Peter Guber
Writer: Sam Hamm/Warren Skaaren
Cast: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Palance, Pat Hingle, Jerry Hall

Although not the first blockbuster in Hollywood history, this movie ushered in the new blockbuster, capitalising on the merchandising and licensing in a way studios had been trying to do ever since Star Wars taught them all a lesson. It was the first tentpole movie, where the box office almost didn't matter amid the money pouring in from lunchboxes, belt buckles and T shirts. Not that it didn't blitz the box office too, earning just over $251m from a $35m budget.

While far more credible than either Burton's muddy subsequent attempt in Batman Returns or Joel Schumacher's campy later efforts, it doesn't have the cultural cachet Chris Nolan would bring it until almost two decades later, and the reason is because of a disconnect between Burton and producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber that's talked about in Tom Shone's book Blockbuster.

The pair wanted a violent armed vigilante, a sort of cowled Charles Bronson. Burton hated guns. Guber and Peters wanted laughs and frenetic action (a wish they'd get their way with Schumacher) and Burton wanted tortured souls and murky morals. He mostly won, although is quoted as saying he found the experience of licensing people and IP lawyers looking over his shoulder the whole time 'horrible' and Shone went on to call Batman 'the right movie with the wrong director'.

Not all audiences got it, the dark tone unfamiliar after the laughy TV series most of us were used to. In fact Burton and screenwriters Skaaren and Hamm got their stylistic cues from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, which re-imagined the mythology in a dark, twisted light, The Joker a psychopathic killer instead of a prankster and Batman a miserable, misdirected basket case instead of a policeman in all but name, very much The Joker's mirror image.

Batman/Bruce Wayne is played by Keaton, a controversial casting choice at the time but one that works and agrees with Burton's intended tone. We meet him when Gotham City is reeling from reports and sightings of a six-foot bat fighting a vigilante war against the crime spiraling out of control. Reporter Knox (Wuhl) is on the case but can't get anywhere, and Gotham Mayor Borg has tasked incoming DA Harvey Dent (Williams) with cleaning up the city, the first order of business in which is cracking Carl Grissom's (Palance) syndicate.

When Grissom orders a crooked chemical plant cleaned out lest it sink the operation, he sends his right hand man, the psychotic Jack Napier (Nicholson) in, secretly tipping off the cops to take Jack out as Grissom's discovered Jack's seeing his girl (Hall) on the side. In the ensuing battle, Batman arrives to show the police how it's done, only just failing to save Jack from falling into a vat of acid that disfigures him, sends him even more insane and produces Gotham's most fearsome criminal mastermind, The Joker. With his private army, The Joker sets about razing Gotham City to the ground with chaos and crime, and there's only one guy in a bat suit that can stop him...

In hindsight, some of Batman's faults are plain. I don't remember ever being so excited about a movie before or since so I was biased, but it still has qualities in the characters and story that far outlive the blatant commerciality of the film.

It was also a departure to an extent from Burton's usually style. While the twisted spires and nightscapes he's famous for are there, he bought a 30s mobster chic to the costuming and prop work that gives the film another distinctive dimension.

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