Superhero movies have been around for nearly as long as the movie industry itself (the first superhero movie, Mandrake the Magician, was released in 1939), but one franchise, in particular, helped defined the superhero movie genre before its explosion in the 21st century. And those movies are finally streaming once again on HBO Max.
As of February 1, the Tim Burton-Joel Schumacher Batman movies made up of Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995), and yes, Batman & Robin (1997) are streaming again on HBO Max. With a new era of Batman on the way in 2022's The Batman, now is as good a time as any to journey through a time when the DC icon truly became the Dark Knight — only to transform back into a camp figure that set up his rebirth in the 21st century.
The story of '80s/'90s Batman starts in 1972. Michael Uslan, a die-hard comic book geek from New Jersey, was in his junior year at Indiana University when he found himself in orbit of Sol Harrison, vice president of DC Comics.
At the time, Uslan was teaching an accredited course on comic books, the first of its kind. Uslan was offered a job at DC Comics around the same time it was acquired by giant Warners Communications, a subdivision of Warner Publishing.
The company, to Uslan's view, seemed annoyed to even have comic books. As Uslan put it in a 2019 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “The Warner Publishing brass ... were not a bunch of happy campers that they owned a comic book company.” Of the DC Universe, the only character with any value was Superman. But Uslan thought there was potential in Superman's colleague, Batman. After Uslan graduated law school, Uslan acquired the rights to Batman from DC Comics. But not without pushback from Uslan's "apoplectic" mentor at DC, Sol Harrison.
"He said 'Michael for God’s sake don't do this. I don't want to see you lose all your money,'" Uslan recalls.
The 1966 Batman television series is beloved today as an important piece of pop culture, but in the '70s and '80s, it was a hideous black mark on the Caped Crusader and his aging readership who swore to people that Batman was cool, actually. Uslan remembers Harrison telling him, "Nobody's interested in Batman anymore."
But something funny happened after Batman went off the air. In comics, Batman underwent a significant transformation. Writers like Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams, Frank Miller, and Jim Starlin collectively modernized the Caped Crusade with visually-arresting stories that emphasized Batman's gothic aesthetics, bleak psychological underpinnings, and personal losses that made him a vengeful crusader.
But no one besides comic readers knew how dark the Dark Knight had become, a wrong Uslan sought to make right. On October 3, 1979, Uslan and former MGM executive Benjamin Melniker acquired the movie rights to Batman. The terms of Uslan's deal has never been publicly disclosed, but you can find Uslan's name in the producer credits on every Batman movie, including the upcoming The Batman.
With a release year of 1985 penciled in by Warner, a long scripting process followed. Tom Mankiewicz, who'd written James Bond and Superman movies, turned in a script that was influenced by the Batman comics of the time and stuffed with characters like Joker, Penguin, Robin, and a love interest, Silver St. Cloud. The climax took place at an art exhibit with an oversized typewriter. It was dark, and not at all like Superman.
While Mankiewicz tried to tell executives why Batman and Superman were different, Warner struggled to find a director. When Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) declined, Warner turned to a young Tim Burton, whose first film Pee-wee's Big Adventure was a surprise hit.
Burton had an insight into Batman that even a fan like Mankiewicz lacked in his script: Batman was an outsider. After another round of drafts, a script by Burton and writer Sam Hamm was finished. They took pointers from Frank Miller's now iconic The Dark Knight Returns, which NPR's Glen Weldon wrote in his 2016 book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture:
On Burton's urging, Hamm followed Frank Miller's example and doubled down on the idea that Batman existed as a physical manifestation of Bruce Wayne's psychopathology. His Wayne is a true split personality, psychologically addicted to donning the Batsuit ... To them, he dresses up like a bat because he's psychotic.
After a troubled production that frustrated everyone including Burton, who would later deem filming Batman "the worst period" of his life, Batman was a hit. It was the first Hollywood movie to pass the then-incredible $100 million mark in just ten days after opening and would rake in a total of $411 million to make it the highest-grossing movie of 1989. Reviews were mostly positive; the late, great critic Roger Ebert remarked that the movie was "a triumph of design over story, style over substance."
Regardless of how even Burton felt about his own movie, Batman, which starred Michael Keaton — himself a point of tension as fans were livid the star of Mr. Mom was cast as the Dark Knight — was the first of a major film franchise in a time where so few existed. The movie cemented for the late 20th century how stylish and cool superheroes could actually be.
After 1992's Batman Returns, Burton left the franchise, as did Keaton. Former fashion designer Joel Schumacher, director of movies like St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys, replaced Burton and brought a new Batman with him in the form of Val Kilmer. Infused in his 1995 feature Batman Forever was an unusual pop art-meets-baroque style that was still lucrative ($336 million worldwide) but continued to polarize audiences.
1997's Batman & Robin, in the fourth and final film in the series (and again with a new Batman in George Clooney), had Schumacher crank up his personal signatures into a camp feature that is credited with killing the franchise. For decades, the film was ridiculed by fans and even casual observers. (Though it was in Batman Forever first, Batman & Robin attracted the most venom for "Bat-Nipples.")
While Batman & Robin is a structurally clunky movie, its criticisms online were and still are rooted in a deep-rooted homophobia of the time. Before his death in 2020, Schumacher gave an interview to Vulture in 2019 where he observed, “If I wasn’t gay, they would never say those things." In the same interview, Schumacher admits Batman & Robin was little more than a paycheck, which is reflected in its unflattering legacy. "I shouldn’t have made a sequel, and that’s all there is to it. I learned that sequels are only made for one reason," he said.
In 2005, with distance to Batman & Robin, Warner Bros. rebooted Batman with British director Christopher Nolan. A now celebrated auteur whose movies are a paradox of ultra-realism and surreal premises, Nolan's Batman Begins was not only a major box office success ($373 million worldwide) but a blueprint for the "gritty reboot" wave of the 2000s that is still ongoing.
But as new interpretations of Batman owe a debt to Nolan's trilogy, so too does that era owe to the '89-'97 run of Batman. The movies zigged and zagged in its encompassing the totality of Batman's tonal spectrum. All in less than a single decade of movies.
Watching them today, it's unavoidable how different they are from the massive superhero complex dominated by both the Marvel and DC cinematic universes. The costumes are impractical, the fight choreography is non-existent, and the performances are broad and loud. But it was the dawn of a new era, and it is always darkest before the dawn.