Batman debuted 30 years ago on June 23, 1989, and no film has had a bigger, more indelible impact on movies since.
When you look at the superhero dominated landscape of movies today, sure, it’s Marvel that you can thank (or blame). But what Marvel’s been able to achieve never would’ve been possible without Tim Burton’s Batman. With the MCU, at least, it wasn’t difficult to conceive that superhero franchises could be successful. It was simply a matter if a studio could figure out the right creative approach to a given character or franchise.
Before Batman, however, people simply couldn’t imagine a superhero movie being anything other than corny or campy – and perhaps Batman especially, which was still entirely defined in pop culture by the loopy TV satire of the 1960s.
Starting with the idea of a “serious, dark” Batman itself to the casting of funnyman Michael Keaton to bring that to life, fans and film pundits had serious doubts, even with the perfect casting of Jack Nicholson as the Joker.
But once that first trailer dropped, audiences finally started to catch a glimpse of Tim Burton’s dark, ambitious vision that would entirely redefine the genre for the movies. The film’s subsequent success would redefine the movies themselves.
Sure, that took awhile, which is a testament itself to how revolutionary Batman was; even with the success right there in front of people’s faces, Batman continued to challenge conventional Hollywood wisdom for years to come, in part because of how something so dark and edgy (even twisted, at times) could have such a mass appeal. Over the 1990s, the only hugely popular superhero movies were the Batman sequels; well, two of them anyway, until the embarrassing Batman & Robin killed that once and for all.
It took the long-awaited launch (and success) of 2002’s Spider-Man to course-correct what the fourth Batman film had derailed, but even Sam Raimi‘s approach took its cue from what made Batman work: stay true to the character’s original concept rather than some bastardized or simplified variation that had popped over the decades. That, plus getting Batman composer Danny Elfman to do the Spider-Man score proved just how much people still looked to the 1989 juggernaut as the template to follow.
And what a juggernaut it was. Just three weeks prior to its release, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade broke box office records with a 3-day weekend record gross of $39 million (and $47 million total for the 4-day Memorial holiday haul). It also became the fastest film to $100 million dollars, reaching that mark in 19 days.
In less than a month, Batman would utterly destroy that second record.
Earning $42.7 million in its opening weekend (including a then-unheard of Thursday night preview screening), Burton’s gamble was slightly ahead of the pace that had been set by Indy 3, but Batman was such a sensation that nothing could stop it. It would go on to reach $100 million in nearly half the time of Last Crusade‘s still-new record, setting a then-unimaginable mark of achieving the coveted milestone in just 10 days.
Batman was making money at a clip that no one had previously thought possible. It was truly a global phenomenon, complete with a Prince-adjacent concept album. All of this from a movie that was a creative risk at its core, and one that took multiple risks (Keaton most notably) on its path to redefining an entire industry.
And as a recent, brief 30th Anniversary theatrical re-release proved, Batman still holds up, not just as an entertainment but, even more so, as a singular creative vision and a major studio gamble that had no precedent.
If Batman had never been made, or if it had failed, it’s genuinely hard to imagine – for good, for bad, or for both – where the movie industry would be today.
(To learn more about the making-of history of this singular history-maker, watch the three-part documentary “Shadows of the Bat” on the blu-ray, and also read the recent article “The Battle to Make Tim Burton’s Batman” from The Hollywood Reporter.)