Celluloid Heroes Part VI: In The Pale Moonlight

Summer always seems endless when you are younger and the first week of summer vacation was always my favorite. School was wrapped up for another year, and the memory of those hallways, those lockers, those desks lingered fresh in the mind as we embarked on what was two full months of freedom from pencils, books, and teachers’ dirty looks. Living in Brockville Ontario at that time was a definite advantage; being a river town swimming and boating on the St. Lawrence were the norm and I recall many afternoons spent piloting the small outboard boat we owned around the bays and inlets lining the Canadian side of the river (and occasionally the American side as well – you could do that pre-9/11).[1] Before July and the official start of the summer season began, that last week to handful of days remaining in June were an oasis of calm before summer “really” started, with its jobs, its family trips, its obligations, and with its hopeful leisure time.

Summers for me back then was also extra-special because that was when the best movies were released. Not “best” as in critically because they frequently were pretty mediocre or downright bad, but “best” as in “this is a movie where you munch popcorn and allow yourself to be transported”. Unlike now where a “summer movie” can be released in the dead of winter) back then Hollywood made us wait until the warm months to unleash a horde of summer-friendly cinematic fun upon us. They didn’t have to be all-time greats; they just had to be good enough to be a good time[2] and I, like so many others of my generation, were fortunate to have lived through the Golden Age of the Summer Movie: Jaws, Star Wars, Grease, The Empire Strikes Back, The Shining, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dragonslayer, Superman 2, Conan the Barbarian, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, The Thing, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Tron, Blade Runner … and that carries us up to only 1982.

By 1989 movies were very much at the forefront of my mind as well as I was very much focused on pursuing a career in the entertainment biz. But doing so back then was difficult verging on impossible when you were a kid in a small-town far from the bright lights big cities of New York, L.A. and Toronto. There wasn’t much in the way of opportunity for a Brockville teenager like there was one who hung his or her hat in Studio City, Van Nuys, or Santa Monica. There also wasn’t much opportunity to learn the ins and outs of moviemaking, in this pre-DVD behind the scenes and audio commentary world of 1989. Learning the ins and outs of the movies themselves meant going to the cinema, renting the VHS, or watching every movie-related program TV had to offer.

Thankfully I had two great lifelines courtesy of TVO – TV Ontario to those of you not from Ontario Canada. If you are from Ontario though, those three letters will signify something. TVO was and remains the province’s public broadcaster, airing special interest programming, news, multilingual documentaries, children’s programming, all of it funded from the public purse. It is, like PBS in the states, one of the finest examples of our tax dollars at work we can genuinely see and access. TVO was also producer of two informational TV shows I watched pretty religiously.

The first was Prisoners of Gravity, created and produced by Mark Askwith; a well-known comics luminary (who I would come to know quite well as my career took off) who later went on to become a segment producer at Canada’s Space: The Imagination Station – Canada’s answer to the Sci-Fi, later SyFy Channel. Along with host Rick Green (of the famous Canadian comedy troupe The Frantics), Prisoners of Gravity chronicled the happenings in the sci-fi community with an emphasis on literature and comic books. Interviews with luminaries like George Clayton Johnston, Robert F. Sawyer, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Julie Czerneda, Tanya Huff, William Gibson, Harlan Ellison and Spider Robinson. Prisoners of Gravity (or “PoG” as fans referred to it) aired weekly on TVO between 1989 and 1994 on Friday nights and I watched it any chance I got. PoG dug deep into the art of writing, of ideas, of crafting stories that genuinely provoked thought rather than just passive distraction. Outside of Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson I wasn’t a huge sci-fi and fantasy literature fan when I started down the PoG road, but by the end I was a full convert.

The second TVO show was actually a block of films that aired Saturday nights titled, appropriately, Saturday Night at the Movies, hosted by a kindly looking elderly bald man with glasses and a broad grin named Elwy Yost.

Elwy was what we would call one of the great ones; a man clearly in love with films, and whose love of them was infectious. The program for Saturday Night was simple; two films aired back to back, with an intermission comprised of interviews with the actors, filmmakers, and behind the scenes personalities behind those films. Hitchcock and Ford, Hawks and Curtiz, Donen and Wise were favorites of Elwy’s, but he also introduced me to the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Billy Wilder, and Francois Truffaut among others. Saturday Night excelled in introducing you to the movies that in some cases you couldn’t see elsewhere. While home video was certainly well-entrenched in the late 80s I would never had a chance to see 1968’s The Swimmer or 1964’s The Americanization of Emily without Saturday Night at the Movies.  

This is all to say I spent many a Saturday night at home, watching Elwy and TVO when other teenagers were out cruising the strip, getting drunk, and getting laid. It wasn’t uncommon to make up some excuse to friends as to why I couldn’t go out on a particular Saturday, just so I could stay home and watch Matewan with an accompanying interview with its director John Sayles, or Jason and the Argonauts because Elwy’s guest that night in conversation was none other than fellow Canadian James Cameron, who himself looked as delighted to be talking with Elwy as Elwy was with him.

The films aired without commercials and uncut, and my home library of video tapes back then included many episodes of Saturday Night at the Movies. I could have just set the VCR to record and gone out but for me watching them in the moment was a lot more satisfying, in the same way see in a film in the theater always is. It was the immediacy, the “blink and you’ll miss it” element that to this day has me leave my phone locked in the car or left on the dresser at home when going to a show.

In the list all-time Legendary Summers of my lifetime, three from the 1980s stand out. 1982 gave us Star Trek II, The Thing, E.T., Poltergeist, Blade Runner, Conan the Barbarian, and Tron. 1984 had Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ghostbusters, The Last Starfighter, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Purple Rain, and The Terminator.[4] 1985, with Back to the Future, The Goonies, and Cocoon seems almost quaint by comparison. The trajectory by then was well-established, and movie critics would groan collectively as Hollywood dumped its biggest releases into the summer months, and pine for the relatively calmer, saner, “better” films of autumn.

But the Summer of 1989 was different and everyone recognized those differences in the moment. Dubbed “The Summer of the Sequel” we had Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Ghostbusters II, The Karate Kid Part III, License to Kill and Lethal Weapon 2 among the pickings, along with Honey I Shrunk The Kids, The Abyss, When Harry Met Sally and Uncle Buck.[5]

But to look at 1989 and the Summer Film in general, we have to look at the third film from a quirky filmmaker who, after Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988) was handed the reigns of a comic book character best known to audiences as the star of his very campy 1960s TV show. And while Tim Burton’s Batman, released to theaters 35 years ago this day of publication, is campy in numerous ways, it ably demonstrated especially to me the role a director played in turning the everyday into the extraordinary, in those rare cases when the right director meets the material best suited for him. Simply put: Batman 1989 would have been a very different film if it had been directed by anyone other than Burton.

Now let me add a quick little 2024 aside: I love Batman. I love the character, I love Gotham City and its Rogue Gallery of Villains. Heck, the wallpaper of my iPad is, you guessed it …

But in 1988-1989 Batman was kind of hokey to me. My prevailing memory of watching the old 60s Batman TV show likely dominated this belief, as did the old Superfriends cartoon series. And while friends in Brockville had talked up The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One, and Batman: The Killing Joke as being dark, adult stories, I had yet to be converted.

Burton’s film would change all this.

Like many of us, Burton was the weird kid. Growing up in sunny suburban Burbank California, he was obsessed with Universal horror, Vincent Price, Edmund Gorey, German Expressionism, and monster movies on TV. Graduating from Cal Arts he became an animator at Disney before branching out into directing. His unique visual style was his calling-card, and crossing paths with comedian Paul Reubens, Burton’s star would climb when Reubens picked him to direct Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. He followed that with Beetlejuice; a truly odd film that proved to be a big hit, and introducing Gen X to one of its seminal poster girls (and personal movie crush); Winona Ryder. I saw Beetlejuice with a group of kids from school, and could hear the girls we were with unimpressed by Winona’s Goth Lydia Deetz, calling her gross and weird and creepy but those preppy teenage girls just didn’t understand the appeal of being strange and unusual.

It was shortly after seeing Beetlejuice in the theater in 1988 that a friend mentioned that Burton was directing the upcoming Batman movie. That Michael “Beetlejuice” Keaton would be playing Bruce Wayne, with Jack Nicholson taking on the role of the Joker. At first I thought this friend was having me on, but an issue of Starlog confirmed it all later that month. In that pre-internet age news traveled slowly; movie news particularly so. It wasn’t uncommon to learn a movie even existed until you plopped down in a theater seat and saw the trailer pop up on the big screen. This was the case when in early 1989 when going to see a movie whose title escapes me now, seeing the trailer for Batman. You can still find it on YouTube and it’s quite a stark difference from the slickly produced trailers of today (and to be fair even back then). There was no music, basic production sound, no narrative. Just clips from the film which looked like nothing any of us had seen before. It looked dark, gothic, expressionistic, seeming to straddle multiple eras all at once, with the duster coats and fedoras of the criminal gangs contrasted with the Batman’s hi-tech gadgets and car:

Bat-mania developed slowly over the first months of 1989. We all knew the Batman movie was coming, but so too were the returns of the Enterprise Crew hot off the smash success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and the Ghostbusters were back as well. Even Indiana Jones had his Last Crusade, indicating this third film would be the final entry in the Indiana Jones series.[6] So yes, Batman; but would it be a hit? Would audiences who grew up on Adam West and Burt Ward and the notion that comic books were kid’s stuff respond?

In that sense, the decision to have Prince record songs for the movie, and be so enamored with the Batman mythos the Purple One recorded a whole damn album of songs was a masterstroke. Prince’s Batman album is widely derided now and even was so on its release, but you cannot deny it helped usher people – particularly the teens who made MTV, Much Music, and CBC’s Video Hits a staple of afterschool viewing. The “Batdance” video in particular was a real banger in that regard, with Prince appearing as himself, as a character calling himself “Gemini”, with dancing Batmen and Jokers and Vicki Vale’s cavorting about an obvious soundstage while music punctuated by audio clips from the movie. It’s one of those “only in the 80s would this work” moments in pop culture that burned itself into the memories of every GenX kid who watched it. It also made every school-age kid who saw it want to see Batman.[7]

I was looking forward to Batman like most summer filmgoers, but more so because by 1989 I was a big comic book fan. I had been one since 1984 when I discovered the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero comic series but my tastes had matured though by 1987 as I discovered books like Hellblazer, The Shadow, and Sandman. Brockville’s first comic book shop, The Comic Cave, opened in 1988 and I spent many hours there browsing the racks discovering a new favorite book almost every week. A friend finally convinced me Batman was cool when lending me his paperback editions of Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, and most particularly The Killing Joke. That book was what made me most interested to see Batman, especially when in an interview in Starlog Burton made mention of it being an influence. It’s no surprise the version of Batman occupying my brain was a much different beast from the one we got. 

I actually didn’t see Batman opening day despite it actually arriving at the Parkedale Cinema in Brockville on day of release, because opening day and night were spent at my friend Casey’s lakeside cottage outside the city. Being teenage boys being boys the “sleep-over” became a “let’s stay up all night and play poker and burn shit in the camp-fire” so by the Saturday afternoon when I and my buddy Mark visiting from Toronto staggered back to my house to crash, we somehow decided seeing Batman that night was the much more prudent course of action than, you know, sleeping. But movies were important back then. They were cool back then. And back then you had to see it on opening weekend so you could say you had seen it. And so, after a hasty dinner of pizza the two very bleary-eyed of us staggered to the Parkedale to stand in line for tickets and crowd into the sold-out theater to take our seats and try to get through Batman without nodding off.  

Doing anything while sleep-deprived is a challenge. Seeing a movie while sleep-deprived makes for a wholly different experience. And I noticed it from the beginning as the Warner Brothers logo transitioned to a gloomy landscape as the credits rolled and Danny Elfman’s now legendary score played over what would eventually be revealed to be the Bat-symbol. The movie was dark, and it was dim, and while I was attentive to it, in its most gothic moments – the opening in Crime Alley, the raid on Axis Chemicals and the (re)birth of the Joker, all the way to the operatic showdown atop Gotham City Cathedral, I couldn’t be sure I was in the theater watching Batman, or having a dream about being in a theater watching Batman. As I recall afterward Mark felt the same way, and on the way home we quizzed each other (“Did the Joker really pull a massive gun from his pants and shoot down the BatWing?”) to confirm that yes we had actually seen Batman and hadn’t been dreaming the entire thing.

So I’d seen Batman. But did I like it? To be honest I couldn’t be sure, so I saw it again a second time in a state of full waking to make sure what I’d seen the first time was what I’d seen. And at the time I was kind of mixed. It certainly had atmosphere to spare, but the story was thin, the action clunky (Burton is many things but a director of action is not one of them). That’s not to say it wasn’t good because deep down it did what every film should do which is to transport you to a time and a place where you do not exist. Where you are just some silent presence observing the trials and tribulations of these characters and their world.

In Batman’s case the world is Gotham City, and what a dingy, dreary world it is; possibly the best representation of the city outside of Matt Reeves’ The Batman in 2022. Bolstered by Anton Furst’s gothic production design, the Gotham of Batman is very much that “third main character” after Nicholson’s Joker and Keaton’s Dark Knight.

As for the plot, well, there really is none. It’s an origin story. For the Joker. For Batman. And for the dominant form of blockbuster moviemaking that would really kick into gear in the late 1990s with Blade, the X-Men series, and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, all of which paved the way for 2008’s Iron Man; a modest hit that ended up kicking off a cinematic universe to spread across screens big and small over the following fifteen years.

It’s surprising looking back even now to consider just why Burton’s Batman hit so hard because it’s so damn weird. Not weird like Batman Returns would be in 1992, not weird as in the “what the hell were they thinking” weird of Batman and Robin of 1997. Batman is a loose, almost plot-less film carried along by its stunning production design, moody cinematography by Brazil‘s Roger Pratt, loopy score by Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman, snazzy costumes by Bob Ringwood, and diametrically opposed performances by Keaton’s brooding, slightly off-kilter Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jack Nicholson’s very off-kilter Jack Napier/Joker. The premise of Batman – Batman must stop the Joker from poisoning the citizens of Gotham City – is pretty much the plot. The vibes are funhouse mirror though, with Nicholson chewing scenery and camping it up to the hilt while the normally just as loopy Keaton in the straight role of “man who dresses as bat”

Batman is an exercise in style and in mood. It is a brooding, shadowy nightmare of dark alleys, Lovecraftian architecture, and gothic styling. More than any movie I’d seen up until that point, Batman made me truly understand and appreciate what a director brought to the table. A Batman film by Tim Burton is diametrically opposed to one from Joel Schumacher, Christopher Nolan, Zach Snyder, or Matt Reeves. And while all of the latter films are very much their own things all of them owe some of their vision to Burton’s first film. We certainly see shades of it in Batman Begins’ expressionist jumble of tenement slums and in The Batman’s nightmare version of Gotham. We even see it in 2023’s box-office bomb The Flash, which resurrected Keaton’s Caped Crusader for an extended cameo and did absolutely nothing interesting with him.

Batman 1989 was also quite campy, becoming more so as the Joker begins his campaign of terror. Like he’s hijacking the narrative, tearing away the brooding noirish atmosphere of the film’s first act and giving it a dose of his Smylex gas. Street mimes become Tommy-gun-blasting maniacs. Trenchoat-and-fedora goons get makeovers with snazzy leather jackets bearing a Joker logo. Gotham’s mayor, police chief, and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) break the fourth wall and look to the Joker on his TV screen as he interrupts their TV-screened press conference. The criticism of Batman from its fans; the heavy use of Bat-machine guns, Bat-bombs, Bat-missiles would seem to fly in the face of the legacy of a character who never used a gun, but this isn’t the comic book Batman; this is Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman is a Tim Burton movie.

In the wake of Batman’s extraordinary success, what was truly surprising though was the lack of any films Batman inspired. We really didn’t get any other “comic book movies”; no new Superman, Flash or Wonder Woman, no Spider-Man, Captain America, or X-Men either (Marvel’s finances were in a general shambles throughout much of the 1990s). Instead what we got were movies starring characters whose origins were pulled from the same Great Depression era as Batman and Superman. 1990 saw Dick Tracy, 1991 gave us the retro throwback The Rocketeer, 1994 gave us The Shadow, 1996 The Phantom. It was as though Batman’s enormous success somehow convinced studio execs that the movies the kids of the 1990s were desperate to see were the characters their grandparents grew up with back in the 1930s while listening to their exploits on the radio. None of these Batman-inspired follow-ups hit in the way Burton’s film did (and most of them bombed outright). What was even more surprising was that Batman didn’t inspire that wave of comic book movies; all the 90s brought us outside of modest hits like 1994’s The Mask and outright flops like Barb Wire were three more Batman movies.[8]

As to why it was such a hit though, I wouldn’t point to comic book fans, which even then were not a major force in a box office success. I would suggest instead that because so many of that summer’s movies were sequels audiences were just looking for something new even when “new” in this case meant a character first created in 1939 who’d been a recognizable piece of pop culture for the intervening fifty years. The Bat-Logo was hip. It was cool. Using it as the principal marketing hook was a master-stroke, and one that you can credit producer Jon Peters with; he alone may be the one most responsible for changing how movies were marketed and you can see the simplicity of Batman’s logo poster throughout the next thirty-five years of film. All throughout that summer and well into fall a Batman logo t-shirt was considered to be a “cool” fashion choice, even among the girls. Batman may not have been a great film, but it was a fun one, and one that just happened to be the right film at the right time for it to take flight.

I remain a Bat-Fan to this day. I have a massive Lego Bat-Wing mounted on my office wall. I have a collection of Lego Batmobiles spanning the Adam West-Burt Ward TV series through Robert Pattinson’s incarnation. I even grabbed a Michael Keaton as Batman circa 1989 from McFarlane toys just to have him on my shelf of 70s-80s movie-inspired action figures. To me Batman is the most malleable of the superhero figures comic books gave us. He can be dark and brooding, he can feature in a horror or action or romantic storyline, he can do “the Batusi” and appear in Lego form but always, always be that same character. His rogues gallery of villains are the best rotating cast of n’er do wells in fiction bar none, from The Joker and Penguin and Catwoman to The Riddler, Two-Face, Clayface, Mr. Freeze, R’as Al Guhl, Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, and Bane. The Gotham of Batman, like the Metropolis of Superman, is a fictional city everybody knows about and has probably visited at one time or another. There is quite literally a Batman for every occasion and inclination.

My Lego Batwing, hanging on the Bat-wall

I also remain a Burton fan, though when looking at the overall scope of his work, his most essential years to me remain his early ones, from 1985 and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure through 1994 and his biopic Ed Wood. Many believe he lost his touch after Ed Wood’s box office failure but I feel Burton has always been Burton; it was just in that decade or so stretch comprising Pee-Wee, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Wood found his eccentricities in sync with the movie going public and the cultural shift as GenX took the wheel. It’s no big stretch to see a similarity between Beetlejuice and Scissorhands with David Lynch briefly entering the mainstream with Twin Peaks, and the Alternative Rock generation moving to the forefront. Strange and unusual was “in” for a time and then it wasn’t, and while there is a lot in Burton’s subsequent work to admire, notably Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish, and Sweeney Todd which feel more fully realized than his Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice In Wonderland, and Dumbo. Tim Burton just became what all successful filmmakers do at some point; he became Tim Burton, Incorporated; a filmmaker with a certain style and language and outlook that becomes the selling point over what he’s actually selling.[9]

Lego Batmobile and minifig collection. Thank the pandemic for my Lego obsessions

1989 was the Summer of the Bat. It announced that the 1990s would be a much different decade than the 80s. A decade where the formerly weird suburban kids like Tim Burton would be handed the keys to the kingdom and both shape and be shaped by a cultural shift that would change everything that came before. As for me it was the summer my movie obsession and career path resultant really kicked itself into high gear. The next three years would be some of my most stressful but also my most happy even as my home life would take a turn for the worse. But, like Bruce Wayne, I would find reason to fly.

Just a portion of my 80s movie and TV figure shelf. You have to grow up but you don’t have to grow old.

[1] And occasionally the American one as well; the border was a lot more open back then compared to now.

[2] And if not? It was still two hours in an air-conditioned theater when the temperature outside hit 90 degrees.

[3] Contrast that with 2023, where we seem to ge a “summer” movie every month.

[4] 1981, with Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Road Warrior, and Escape From New York was no slouch either.

[5] None of these were as anticipated by me as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing but owing to its R rating and not making it to theaters in Eastern Ontario I had to wait for it to hit video before watching it multiple times.

[6] Unfortunately, and your mileage with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Dial of Destiny may vary, it was not.

[7] And became a great punchline in Edgar Wright’s 2004 film Shaun of the Dead in the process. The “gag” which I won’t spoil wouldn’t work nearly as well if it had been any album but Prince’s Batman one.

[8] 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a hit but one still in production when Batman was released.

[9] He shares that similarity with Michael Bay of all people, whose more interesting films like Pain and Gain, 13 Hours, and the terrific Ambulance are lost in the shuffle of five (!) Transformers films.