Twenty five years and one week ago today my brother Ed returned home from Germany. He had been in the U.S. Army stationed outside of Frankfurt, West Germany, back when we still had to specify East or West Germany. Ed was a lifelong fan of comic books and science fiction, and had played a major role in my interest in the same. His honorable discharge could not have come at a better time, because twenty five years ago today, Ed & I stood in a 3 hour line for the most hotly anticipated film of 1989: Tim Burton’s BATMAN.
If you clicked this article seeking movie trivia or comic trivia readily available via IMDb and numerous other sites, you might be in the wrong place. I’m operating on the assumption that you have already seen this film, that you are aware of its significance as the highest grossing film of 1989. This is about a longstanding relationship between Ed & I and one of our favorite heroes. We grew up on Adam West as Batman on TV and Neal Adams‘ interpretation in the comics, and Olan Soule as the voice of Batman on Saturday mornings. Ed was welcomed home by Burton’s Batman as played by Michael Keaton. Ed visited me in Los Angeles following the opening weekend of BATMAN BEGINS to see The Tumbler Batmobile in front of the Chinese Theater before we ventured inside to see yet another revision of our childhood hero on the most massive screen available. A new incarnation of Batman is an event that never fails to unite Ed & me.
Tim Burton’s version opened way before online ticket sales existed, even before Moviefone had ventured outside of New York and Los Angeles. On the morning of June 22nd, 1989, I drove east from our home in Acton, MA and took the Red Line “T” train from Alewife Station to my summer classes at Emerson College in Boston. Prince‘s Batman cassette, released 72 hours earlier, played for probably its dozenth time on our Chevy S-10 Blazer’s radio during my morning commute and joined me in my Sony Walkman on the train. I got off the train at Harvard Square to pick up 2 tickets for a Thursday night midnight show at the Harvard Square Cinema in Cambridge, MA. I couldn’t wait until later to let Ed know that we were all set, so I called home before I got back on the train bound for school. My Mom answered. She told Ed that I was successful, and I could hear him in the background laughing and generally being as thrilled as I was.
After classes I met Ed in Harvard Square. We made what would soon become traditional as a weekly pilgrimage to The Million Year Picnic for our pickup of that week’s new issues. By shortly after 9pm, we were about 20 people back in line outside the Loews Harvard Sq. The ’round the block movie line is a phenomena to which there is a vague equivalent these days, but no true equal; when STAR WARS 7 opens there will be lines, but everyone will already have their tickets in hand. While Moviefone would eventually diminish the necessity to queue up like cattle, that modern convenience would have unintentionally deprived Ed & me of some unforgettable experiences. Ten years before this evening, my dad The Fats stood in line with Ed & me for the first STAR TREK film hours before the box office opened. Standing in the snow with fellow Trekkies who had awaited this day since Star Trek went off the air ten years earlier was a moment as memorable in our upbringing as most people’s recounting of birthdays, anniversaries, and other family events. The Batman line on Church Street that threatened to turn into a Bat Block Party and the movie that followed were similarly auspicious occasions.
While Ed & I waited in that line, we had a lot of time for conversations that might have not taken place anywhere else. Ed was not only fresh out of the regimented and orderly Army and facing the prospect of enrolling in the intentionally unregimented and half-assed organized experience of a liberal arts school like Emerson College, he was also fresh from the Cold War and now living in the state over a thousand miles from where he left when he enlisted. When Ed had joined the Army, my family lived in Cleveland, OH. He came home to a neighborhood he didn’t recognize, and did his best to adjust to the significant differences in time for the Fall semester. An awful lot was going on in Ed’s world, and waiting in line for BATMAN gave him more time to process that than any other time in the previous week. Any time that he felt like pausing that processing, we had a legion of similarly minded nerds around us to remind him that not only was he home, he was amongst friends. We also had one hilarious usher who looked like Hyde on THAT 70’S SHOW who worked the line with snarky swagger. Hyde the usher admonishedthe crowd to “get the fuck out of the street! Get your ass on the sidewalk! I don’t care who you are, I don’t care who your friends are, if you’re not against the bricks you’re not in line, and you’re not seeing fuckin’ Batman tonight! No, there are no tickets, we’ve been sold out since this afternoon!”
For most people, family events mark the time: weddings, funerals, anniversaries, births, birthdays, and other assorted reunions. For Ed & me, most of our growing up took place far away from both The Fats’ & Mom’s extended families. Even when we were near them, I was younger than most of our cousins, and didn’t grow up with that close kinship that many families share. Different events marked Ed’s & my time: opening weekends of movies, comic conventions, Tuesday afternoons when comic shops had the new issues and record stores had the latest movie soundtracks, and of course anytime we got a new dog.
What does one do when they are in an unfamiliar situation? One seeks commonality, one seeks something familiar, common ground on which to build a new home. Movies in general and BATMAN specifically were that common ground, as much for Ed as for me. I recall pointing out while we waited in line that the movie summer he had returned home to was similar to one before he left. Ed had graduated high school in suburban Cleveland in 1984, and he had taken me to every movie a kid would want to see that year. We saw GHOSTBUSTERS, INDIANA JONES & THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, STAR TREK III: The Search For Spock, THE KARATE KID, POLICE ACADEMY, and the first of Jason Voorhees’ multiple deaths in FRIDAY THE 13TH IV: The Final Chapter.
In the summer of 1989 we would see 1984 rematches with GHOSTBUSTERS 2, INDIANA JONES & THE LAST CRUSADE, STAR TREK V: The Final Frontier, KARATE KID III, POLICE ACADEMY 6: City Under Siege (ok, we didn’t pay for that, we waited for HBO) and FRIDAY THE 13TH Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (we saw that in Boston’s grindhouse classic venue: the Beacon Hill Cinema, wherein we could hear the Green Line T trains entering Government Center literally feet behind the underground screen). None of these films would match the degree of anticipation with with Ed & I awaited BATMAN, which had been building in us since 1983. Ed had scored one of Warner Bros earlier attempts at a Batman feature script in our then local Norwalk, CT comic shop. We didn’t know what we were in for tonight, but we were thankful that it was not that earlier script. It was a moderately amusing continuation of the vibe from late 1960’s campy Adam West show. This script featured Batman & Robin versus The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin, and The Riddler. Someone clearly wasn’t thinking about building a franchise! That story culminated in a heroes vs. villains brawl in a museum exhibition that included a gigantic walk-in typewriter as an action set-piece.
I don’t know about you, but I can still vividly recall the first time I witnessed the opening sequence of Tim Burton’s newer, darker version of the hero who had come in the 1980’s to be known as The Dark Knight. I remember the sweep down into the canyons of what would eventually be realized as the bat symbol, the swells of applause at the names of Burton, Nicholson, Keaton, and the half-assed nerdy catcalling when Kim Basinger‘s name emerged on screen and the thunder of Danny Elfman‘s score. I recall the 5:1 ratio of applause to Booos when Prince’s name appeared, and that I actually rose from my seat to make sure my rampant approval was noted by whomever was taking minutes of this meeting of BatFansUnited. The credits sequence alone was transformative. Ed & I were exactly in the world in which we wanted to be.
Sure, many diehard comics fan has their problems with this film, chief among which was the tying up of Bruce Wayne’s parental vengeance by shifting who had been responsible for the murder of his parents. Secondarily, the fact that Basinger’s character is nearly as close to Silver St. Cloud as she is Vicki Vale caused a little consternation from old school fans. Y’know what? I don’t give a rat’s ass, and I don’t think Ed did either. My brother was home, and while my folks & I sometimes come up short in what he needed to make the shift from the Army to liberal arts school, Batman did his job. All he had to do was show up and be Batman, and Michael Keaton nailed that to a T, way more than many folks who only knew him as Beetlejuice thought possible.
Burton was said to have cast Michael Keaton because he thought Keaton would make the best Bruce Wayne. This unusual way of approaching the nucleus of the story still sets Burton’s Batfilms apart from all others. Fans have debated and argued for years and will for years to come, who is the coolest Batman; just as we do with the coolest James Bond. You very rarely hear a debate about who played Bruce Wayne best. This aspect almost creates a photo negative companion to Richard Donner‘s SUPERMAN. Donner took a pretty normal approach to Metropolis and most of the supporting characters, envisioning a location as recognizable as New York via Sidney Lumet, and then inserted two fantastical elements: Superman & Lex Luthor. Burton’s Bruce Wayne is comparatively normal in an over the top fantastical rust and wrought iron hellscape of a city. If situations in Gotham City require an extraordinary response, then the low key millionaire transforms himself to meet the challenge. It takes a director as well-versed in classic horror films to so lucidly draw out the Jekyll & Hyde aspect of Bruce Wayne & Batman. It also takes a director as enamored with the macabre to maintain that the Mr. Hyde of his story is the hero!
Today is the 25th Anniversary of one incarnation of BATMAN, the version that American culture demanded in response to the decade that had preceded it. The past decade has given us another version, and the next decade will give us yet another. Every one of these incarnations has its merits. The best of them, whether it’s BATMAN or STAR TREK or SHERLOCK HOLMES or 007 or any other recurring and enduring character, will stand the test of time with us. Thanks heroes, for keeping fandom alive. Thanks fandom, for keeping heroes alive. Thanks Batman & Tim Burton for marking a significant era in my brother’s and my life, and for contributing to the enduring legacy of The Batman!