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The Globe and Mail

In the beginning, there was just 'Batman', and the fans went nuts

Michael Keaton as Batman

Cinders McLeod/The Globe and Mail

From George Clooney's nipples to Heath Ledger's lipstick, the Batman franchise has had its highs and lows. The first in a series of appreciations this week by Dave McGinn, leading to Friday's opening of The Dark Knight Rises.

Batman (1989)
Directed by Tim Burton

Batfan rating: 9 out of 10

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I wore a Batman T-shirt to the opening night of Tim Burton's Batman in the summer of 1989. It's still popular today, the black one with the Bat symbol framed by a yellow oval. I was the least dressed up person in a line that was six-people wide and snaked down the block.

There were men in cowls. Cowls! Teenagers in Joker makeup. Homemade costumes everywhere. It was awesome.

When we got inside, the fandomonium couldn't be stopped. There was a standing ovation at the first sight of Michael Keaton as Batman. We gave a long, long standing ovation to the first appearance of the Batmobile. I think in all there were three or four standing O's, each one more enthusiastic than the next.

You have to remember that in 1989 comic book movies as we know them today didn't exist. The only movie based on a character from Marvel Comics (home of the X-Men, Spider-Man and The Avengers) made to that point was Howard the Duck, from 1986. It sucked just as much as you remember. There was also a Captain America movie, from 1944, which no one remembers.

It's worth noting that the genre was still so new, so far from being codified, that Burton didn't include an origin story, which today is an unquestioned prerequisite.

Sure, four Superman movies were released from 1978 to 1987. But their bright shiny triumphalism was far from capturing the national mood by the second half of the Reagan era. (Also, you knew it was the end of the line when Supes was flying around with a shrieking Richard Pryor in his arms).

Comics readers may have been happy with the Super Friends vibe of the 70s, but the next decade birthed what's known in comics history as the Dark Age: flawed, angry heroes who were often just an vengeful as the villains of old, scrapping their way through morally murky worlds.

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The defining comic of the era? Frank Miller's classic The Dark Knight Returns, in which Batman comes out of a long retirement to do battle against a gang called the Mutants who have taken over Gotham. Its canonical reading for Batfans, and a book Christopher Nolan looks to be heavily indebted to for The Dark Knight Rises.

Tim Burton proved to be a perfect choice to helm Batman, even if his track record left fans a little shaky.

Up to that point he had directed only two feature films: Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. (Casting Mr. Mom as Batman was also a gamble fans were far from sure would pay off).

But Burton understood something that his successor failed to remember, or never appreciated in the first place. You can lighten the mood with some humour here and there (Jack Nicholson wondering "Where does he get those wonderful toys?" is still the funniest line in comic movie history) but at its core, the Batman mythology is about darkness.

This is a character who only comes out at night, broods in a cave, designed his costume to make criminals quake in fear and wants to wipe out the scum of Gotham for murdering his parents when he was a child. This is a pretty twisted psychology we're talking about.

It's also a darkness fans loved long before Nolan's billion-dollar reboot.

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Burton's film would go on to become the highest grossing movie of 1989 in the U.S., beating Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade by a wide margin and guaranteeing a long line of superhero movies to follow.

Of all the praise I could heap on Batman, one point deserves special mention. Burton gave us the best Gotham City ever portrayed on film: Gothic, grimy, smoke seeping out of every sewer, filth everywhere you look, thugs lurking down every alley.

The movie isn't perfect. The Prince soundtrack is cheesy, and Kim Basinger is pretty useless. And it's doubtful you'll ever see another Batman movie where the bad guys dance down the street in a parade, all dressed in matching purple jackets.

It may seem quaint now, but at the time it was a revelation, and it has put its stamp on the genre the way Batman puts his fist in a bad guy's face. It deserved every standing ovation it got then and still deserves them today.

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