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35 years ago, Tim Burton's Batman was the movie that teased a pop culture future owned by Marvel Studios

Little did we know back then...

Image credit: Warner Bros Pictures

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This week marked, somewhat shockingly, the 35th anniversary of the release of Tim Burton’s first Batman movie — titled, helpfully, Batman. I say “shockingly,” because I remember seeing the movie in the theater on its initial release, not entirely sure what I was sitting down for but grateful for the air conditioning in the theater no matter what. The kid I was back then wasn’t entirely sure of the movie at the time; I loved a lot of it, but wasn’t sold on the thing as a whole, as I seem to remember at the time. I might be wrong, but I think I didn’t really like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, of all things…? What can I say? I was, apparently, not the smartest kid.

The World That Was before 1989's Batman

Image credit: Warner Bros Pictures

I mention the above not to demonstrate how old I am — my aged, wizened face does that all too well, I’m afraid — but because I remember distinctly at the time that the actual movie felt like just the smallest piece of the Batsummer of 1989, a season that was utterly bedecked by Bat-themed everythings, both in the form of official merchandise including everything from clothes to trading cards, action figures to beach towels, and themed make-up to Prince’s soundtrack album that was loosely “inspired” by the movie and all the better for the looseness. (And that’s to say nothing about the insane amount of bootleg merch created for a fast buck!) Sure, Burton’s Batman was at the center of the whole thing, trailed by a marketing campaign that featured just the Batman chest symbol and nothing else and creating an inescapable pop culture moment as a result, but the hype surrounding the idea of Batman was so loud that somehow the movie became part of the moment, rather than the center of it. The summer of 1989, basically, belonged to the Batman, and as a nascent comic book fan, I was here for it.

You have to remember; this was literally two decades before the MCU debuted, and more than a decade before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Bryan Singer’s X-Men reintroduced the idea of superhero movies as something that audiences actually might want to see on a regular basis. Batman arrived on June 23, 1989 as a risky move on the part of Warner Bros., because the last superhero movie before that — 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace — had not been either a hit or even a particularly good movie. The idea that audiences were really going to turn out for a grim-and-gritty reboot of a character still best-known of the camp joys of the 1960s TV series (and a reboot that had comedic actor Michael Keaton in the leading role, a big deal at the time) was far-fetched during the movie’s production, even to comic book fans; that just wasn’t what happened.

The World That’s Coming after 1989's Batman

By the time the movie actually hit theaters, however, Batman’s success felt entirely inevitable. Something about the marketing campaign and the impact that it had — transforming Batman from a comic book obscurity and pop culture nostalgia moment into something entirely omnipresent — made the very concept that the movie wouldn’t be a hit laughable. Of course you were going to go see it; otherwise, how would you be able to hold your head high in public and know what everyone else was talking about?

Looking back, Batman’s success perhaps also owed something to the critical mass that comics as a medium were gaining around the same time; books like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and (in an entirely different way) Art Spiegelman’s Maus were bailed hailed by serious critics and news organizations as evolutions in the form that gave comics new credibility, priming mainstream audiences who hadn’t read comics in years to think, hey, maybe there’s something to this Batman guy after all. Or, perhaps, there was something about the urban vigilante myth that Batman feeds off that resonated; this was also the time of movies like Die Hard (1988) and Lethal Weapon (1987), after all. Who knows?

Image credit: Warner Bros Pictures

Whatever the reason, the success of Batman — and not just that it was a success, but that it was such a success that it transcended movies and seemingly took over the world for a couple of months, with Batman everywhere you could look, and so many different forms that it felt as if there was a Batman for everyone —feels like a shifting point for popular culture as a whole, the more we look back at it. Without the wild, uncontrolled success of 1989’s Batman, we wouldn’t have gotten Marvel Studios, nor the stranglehold that the MCU had on culture between, say, 2008 and 2019. Without Batman, it’s unlikely there would have been a comics boom in the early 1990s that then transformed into a bust for the industry, the effects of which are still felt today inside the comics field. Without Batman, no-one would have had the chance to see Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze.

Okay, maybe that last one’s a little too on-the-nose.

My point, though, is a serious one, if a circuitous one. The way that 1989’s Batman was such a hit across pop culture was a premonition of what superheroes, and specifically superhero movies, would do years later; as exciting as it was at the time, because it was so unexpected and different and novel, it’s something that looks very different in retrospect. In many ways, I wish I could go back and tell the kid I was at the time, wishing that things would be like that forever to keep it down, before introducing him to the concept of the monkey’s paw.

Happy 35th birthday, Batman (the movie). This is the world you made for us.

He is vengeance, he is the night, he is... one of Popverse's favorite subjects. Learn how to do a Dark Knight movie marathon right with our Batman movie guide, and for the true World's Greatest Detectives out there, dive deep into the heart of Gotham City by getting to know Batman with Popverse.

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Graeme McMillan avatar
Graeme McMillan: Popverse Editor Graeme McMillan (he/him) has been writing about comics, culture, and comics culture on the internet for close to two decades at this point, which is terrifying to admit. He completely understands if you have problems understanding his accent.
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