Dennis O’Neil: Tim Burton and the Bat

Film Director Tim Burton Portrait SessionAbout 25 years ago I was walking from a screening at a Third Avenue theater onto a bustling Manhattan street with a Time Warner executive. My companion thought the movie we’d just seen, a movie that would be opening in a few days, was too dark for a summer entertainment and so would probably fail. Later, another kind and generous exec told me that there had been a snafu in getting the comic book adaptation I’d written to market and that my royalties would probably be impacted by the screen version of the story beating the comics version to the public. He said he’d try to get me a little extra money to ease my loss. It was a very generous offer, but in the end, an unnecessary one. The royalties were quite satisfactory, thank you.

And the movie? A hit. A big, juicy and – okay, we’ll admit it – dark hit.

It was directed by Tim Burton, starred Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton and was eponymously titled Batman. Short, punchy. Fit on any marquee inn town.

It wasn’t Batman’s first venture into theaters. In the 40s there had been two serials, aimed at the Saturday matinee kid audience, and in 1966, a comedic take on the character adapted from a television show. I guess that those efforts did whatever they were supposed to do. But the 1989 Batman… that was something else. I don’t have the profit/loss statements – I guess those Warner folk misplaced my phone number, back then in the 80s – but I’ll happily guess that the BurtonBat exceeded box office expectations, maybe by a long stretch.

Why do you think that is? Batman wasn’t the first big production that took the superhero genre seriously. There had been the four Superman movies, with A-list directors and actors. And Supergirl. (I’m not counting Superman and the Mole Men, which sprung from yet another television program, nor the movies-of-the week, yet more television programming.)

But Burton’s stuff seemed to me to have been a game changer. Again, why? Maybe because it was a tipping point, which is defined by the excellent writer who popularized the term as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” The writer, Malcolm Gladwell, says that “…ideas and products and messages and behavior spreads like viruses do.”

So maybe the idea of superheroes as a legitimate genre, equal to westerns and crime drama and the rest of the generic amusements, had been seeping into our collective psyche for years. But the genre wasn’t quite validated until…voila – it was! Tim Burton and his collaborators delivered what audiences didn’t realize they were waiting for – a movie that had enough familiar elements to be acceptable as mass entertainment, but was also not quite like anything that those audiences had seen before, which made it a novelty.

It was a winning combination, one that’s unlikely ever to be repeated. And a bonus: I rewatched the movie last night and can report that is holds up well. After all these years, it still does the job. Does it darkly, but does it. Nice.