How Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman Movie Changed the Dark Knight Forever

Blair Marnell
Movies Comics
Movies Comics

Thirty four years ago, comic book cinema was changed forever with the arrival of director Tim Burton’s Batman. This was the first live-action Batman adaptation since the Adam West days in the 1966 Batman TV series and Batman ‘89 was a pop culture phenomenon unlike any other that came before it. Even more so than the first Superman film, Batman ‘89 paved the way for the comic book movies of the ‘90s and early 2000s and the eventual superhero saturation that we currently have at the box office.

Michael Keaton headlined the film as Batman/Bruce Wayne, although Jack Nicholson got top billing on the first movie as the Joker. Of the two, only Keaton came back for the sequel, Batman Returns, before stepping aside from the role for over three decades. This week, Keaton is making his long-awaited return as Batman in The Flash, thanks to some multiverse and timeline shenanigans from Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen.

Keaton’s Batman comeback may be short, especially since his appearance in the canceled Batgirl movie may never see the light of day. Regardless, Keaton and Burton’s take on Batman had a lasting impact on the Caped Crusader, and contributed to his transformation into the Dark Knight in the minds of the general public.


The original Batmania accompanied the Batman TV series when it premiered in 1966, and then went dormant for decades after the show came to an end. But Batmania came back with a vengeance in the late ‘80s. And unless you lived through Batmania, you can’t appreciate just how big it really was. Because Batmania didn’t start in the summer of ‘89. It began when the Batman movie became closer and closer to actually happening. Comic book merchandising wasn’t new at the time, but Batmania was everywhere and the Bat symbol was on almost any product that you can think of. That’s why the Bat symbol became even more of a pop culture icon than it was before.

In a brilliant bit of marketing, many of the teaser posters and trailers didn’t use the word “Batman” at all. Instead, they featured the Batman logo and the June 23 release date. The trailers for Batman were also events unto themselves, and people actually bought tickets for films just to see the new previews before walking out ahead of the movie that they had paid to see.

Subsequent comic book movies haven’t quite reached peak Batmania again, although the excitement surrounding the trailers for Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: No Way Home came close. But for Batman, Batamania has never really ended. There’s still Batman merchandise as far as the eye can see, and it doesn’t even take a movie anymore to make that happen.

The Black Costume

Keaton’s costume in the film wasn’t exactly comic book accurate, yet it felt far more true to the spirit of Batman than anything in 1966’s Batman or the Batman serials from decades earlier. Giving Batman an all-black costume fits so well, that it’s easy to forget that the Batman in the comics at that time was still rocking a blue costume like this.

However, the influence of the film ensured that the comics went away from the blue Batman costume and before artists re-envisioned his outfit with much darker tones. The comics also did away with the underwear on the outside look that Batman had for decades, just as the movie had done before it.

The Music

Can you think about Batman ‘89 without hearing the stirring notes from Danny Elfman’s magnificent score? While subsequent Batman films have had great composers like Hans Zimmer and Michael Giacchino, it was Elfman’s Batman theme that really had staying power. Elfman’s music was reworked for the opening credits of Batman: The Animated Series, and composer Shirley Walker was clearly influenced by Elfman’s score on the show and in the animated film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

Although Joss Whedon’s cut of Justice League was widely derided, Elfman provided the score for that film as well and he revisited his Batman theme for Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight. Because Keaton is back in The Flash, Elfman’s Batman theme was featured in the trailer and in the final film itself.  It’s just a great piece of music, and it’s always going to be associated with Batman.

The Movie Stars

It’s taken for granted now that comic book movies are going to have A-list casts. That’s probably because two generations of fans didn’t live through an era where Matt Salinger starred in a Captain America movie. Superman: The Movie bucked that trend by casting Marlon Brando as Jor-El (in a relatively small role) and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. But Christopher Reeve was largely unknown before he was cast as Clark Kent/Superman and since then, Superman has tended to be played by lesser known actors.

But from the start, Batman ‘89 had two big movie stars at its center in Keaton and Nicholson, plus other notable stars like Kim Bassinger as Vicki Vale and Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent in supporting roles, alongside a cast that included Jack Palance as Carl Grissom, Robert Wuhl as Alexander Knox, and Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth.

Director Christopher Nolan would take the use of star power to the next level for The Dark Knight trilogy, with Christian Bale as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon. Nolan’s villains were also impeccably cast with Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul, Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Tom Hardy as Bane, and the late great Heath Ledger as the Joker.

Matt ReevesThe Batman also kept the tradition alive with a terrific cast of its own, including Robert Pattinson as Batman/Bruce Wayne, Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman, Paul Dano as Riddler, Jeffrey Wright as James Gordon, Andy Serkis as Alfred, and Colin Farrell as the Penguin. At this point, the big stars are always going to sign on for a stay in Gotham City.

The Grapple Gun

This may be a surprise to casual fans, but the Grapple Gun was not a regular part of Batman’s arsenal until the first Tim Burton film. Prior to that, Batman was usually using Batarangs and ropes to manually climb up walls and swing through the city. Once Batman ‘89 arrived, comic book writers and artists immediately wanted to incorporate the Grapple Gun in the comics.

Because Bruce Wayne doesn’t use guns, there was actually some resistance from DC Comics about giving him any kind of a gun, even if it was only a Grapple Gun. But over time, the innovation took hold and became an essential tool in Batman’s war on crime through all mediums, including their prevalent use in the Arkham Asylum game series. A version of the Grapple Gun has been in nearly every live-action Batman movie since its first appearance.

The (Onscreen) Death of the Waynes

Considering how important the murder of his parents is to Bruce Wayne’s origin, it’s surprising that Batman ‘89 was the first time that Thomas and Martha Wayne appeared in live-action. During a brief flashback sequence, Thomas (David Baxt) and Martha (Sharon Holm) meet their end in the infamous Crime Alley while their young son, Bruce (Charles Roskilly), was forced to watch.

This inadvertently led to clichés and tropes around Batman’s origin that keep showing up in almost every Batman reboot after it. That’s why we always see the shattered pearl necklace of Martha before Thomas dies while trying to protect his family. Some of that imagery had previously appeared in the comics, including Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, but Burton’s movie cemented the events in people’s minds. It’s gotten to the point where the death of the Waynes is almost unintentionally funny because the subsequent adaptations in film and TV have stayed a little too close to the template that was established in Batman ‘89.

Visit Sunny Corto Maltese

The fictional South American country, Corto Maltese, actually made its first appearance in Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in 1986. But while Batman ‘89 didn’t actually have any scenes set in Corto Maltese, it’s mentioned that Vicki Vale made her name as a reporter while covering a war in the region, as the country is prominently namedropped.

Since then, fueled by its use in the film, Corto Maltese has been a frequent go-to location for DC TV shows and films, including appearances in the Arrowverse before it was featured in a big way during The Suicide Squad. It’s a minor thing in the course of the film, but Batman ‘89 really did make Coto Maltese a key location in the DC universe.

“Let’s Get Nuts!”

Adam West was such a well-adjusted Batman that he only seemed silly in the Batsuit, rather than unbalanced or potentially crazy. Batman ‘89 went wildly in the other direction by depicting Keaton’s Bruce Wayne as somewhat disturbed. The movie took some nods from the comics by portraying Bruce as a haunted individual even out of costume. But that was the first time that general audiences had seen Bruce in that light.

It all came into focus when Bruce feigned being even crazier than he actually was during his out of costume face-to-face meeting with the Joker. That pulled the veneer of sanity away from Bruce, and it helped define his portrayal in subsequent adaptations. Although few other Batman seemed as wild as Keaton’s Bruce Wayne did in that scene. Burton and Keaton followed that thread in the sequel, Batman Returns, where Danny DeVito’s Penguin tells Batman “You’re just jealous because I’m a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask.” Bruce’s response was “You might be right.”

The Art of Gotham

Batman ‘89 had a massive influence on the comics and adaptations that followed even from a design perspective alone. The late Anton Furst’s designs for Gotham City itself were so instantly iconic that they were incorporated into DC’s comic book universe. Similarly, the look of the costumes, the Batmobile, and the Batwing played a large part in the visual development of Batman: The Animated Series, a show that was arguably even more influential than Burton’s Batman regarding the long term portrayal of the character and his universe.

Each new incarnation of Batman adds a little more to the mythology and design of everything that came before it. But the staying power of 1989’s Batman is impressive, and we’re looking forward to seeing Keaton’s return to the character in The Flash.

Blair Marnell
Freelance writer for almost every major geek outlet, including Fandom!