June 23 will mark 30 years since Tim Burton's Batman debuted in cinemas. Starring Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, the film was a box office sensation, raking in over $411 million worldwide and then becoming the fifth highest-grossing film of all time, for the time.
It wasn't all smooth sailing, though, as fans initially raged against the casting of Keaton as the Dark Knight (sound familiar?). In the late '80s, the Pennsylvania-born actor was renowned largely for his work in comedies like Beetlejuice and Mr. Mom, plus he didn't exactly possess the traditional, handsome leading man looks expected of Bruce Wayne. There was a genuine fear that the film would end up as campy and silly as the '60s series starring Adam West.
Warner Bros. received 50,000 complaints from angry fans, with even the likes of The Wall Street Journal predicting the film would suffer as a result of this casting. Burton stuck to his guns and didn't give attention to all the noise, stating that Keaton was his guy and it was final.
In fact, he dug his heels in and pulled off another risky move by introducing the Joker as Jack Napier and having him be the one who gunned down Thomas and Martha Wayne. A merry, non-canonical twist such as this one would probably implode Twitter if it happened nowadays.
In the end, Batman walked the walk and spoke for itself. Sanity and common sense prevailed as fans were mesmerized by the world and magic that Burton created. All the complaints vanished into thin air and geekdom celebrated this marvelous achievement of a movie. Not only did it become the hottest blockbuster of 1989, but it also defined the character for the next decade. From Batman: The Animated Series to film sequels and comic books, Burton's aesthetic was littered all over the Dark Knight and impacted everyone who has worked on the hero since.
In terms of Keaton, though, he made his haters eat a big slice of humble pie as he continues to be lauded for his performances in Batman and Batman Returns to this very day. It's his career-defining role, and many fans still pray that he'll reprise the part in a live-action Batman Beyond movie at some point in the future.
The odd thing is, from a filmmaking perspective, it can be argued that Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy is technically and artistically better than Burton's film ever was. Of course, Nolan had the luxury of modern technology and a bigger budget at his disposal, but it's fair to say that The Dark Knight is both an important landmark in the comic book movie genre and cinematic history, whereas Burton's Batman didn't receive the same acclaim.
What Nolan's films lack, though, is the aura of Batman. It was more than just a film; it was an experience, a ripple in time that'll never be repeated. A legend was born on screen in much the same way Richard Donner's Superman crystallized our perception of the Man of Steel. It wasn't just a hero for a generation, but an archetype for the rest of time.
Still, to this day, no actor has come close to reaching the same level of immortality that Keaton's Batman holds. Val Kilmer struggled to hit the sweet spot in Batman Forever, while George Clooney laughs and apologizes for his own performance in Batman & Robin.
Years later, Christian Bale captured the duality of Bruce Wayne and the Dark Knight, yet the trilogy became more about the villains than the hero. And, recently, Ben Affleck's Caped Crusader received praise for looking extremely comic book-accurate, but he got lost in the corporate chaos of the DC Extended Universe.
Keaton still says "I'm Batman" and it's difficult to argue with him on that point. Perhaps the secret to his legacy is the sheer love that he still harbors for the role. While the other actors have experienced mixed feelings about their respective time in the cape and cowl, Keaton has nothing but praise for his time as Gotham's savior.
Speaking at a Birdman panel in 2014, Keaton reaffirmed his feelings for the character. "Having played Batman and being very proud of playing Batman, I never back off that. The idea was bold, interesting, and cool when Tim [Burton] made it," he said.
As fans await the official news of who'll play the new Dark Knight in Matt Reeves' The Batman, it'll be intriguing to see how things pan out in the long term. For the past 30 years, Warner Bros. and DC have rebooted the popular hero to various degrees of success.
There's a hope with each actor that he'll be the one to define the character in a way that'll live on forever. Until then, Keaton remains the greatest of all time and Burton's Batman is the benchmark for everyone else.