Part 1 of 2 on the reliance of Frank Miller’s work in many of Batman’s cinematic iterations: This blog post contains spoilers for Batman (1989)
‘Around the time that Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns came out in ’86, that really charged up Batman’s look and really redefined the character as a dark and gritty character, once movie producers saw that they said: yes that’s the Batman we want to return too.. that’s something the audience hasn’t seen’
– Paul Dini Writer/Producer of Batman Animated Series.
The above quote from Dini, taken from part one of the documentary series Shadow of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight (2005), notes the decision made in the pre-production phase of the 1989 Batman film to utilise the more contemporary, darker iteration of the character seen in Frank Miller’s seminal comic books The Dark Knight Returns (1986), and Batman: Year One (1987). The decision to do so had a number of benefits, it shifted the character away from his previous live action counterpart, the intentionally camp and comedic Batman (1966) TV show starring Adam West, it created a clear contrast to Warner Brothers other successful comic to film adaptation, Richard Donner’s Superman and its sequels, and, as Dini rightly states, offered a new lease on a character who at the time had already nearly 50 years of comic book history behind him.
Since the massive success of the 1989 film, Batman has appeared in live action a further seven times, and, including Batman, Miller’s work has exerted varying degrees of influence in arguably six of these cinematic outings. Yet with the recent release of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), influence becomes, in some instances, frame for frame adaptation, with Snyder utilizing iconic imagery and lifting lines verbatim from The Dark Knight Returns. But why does Miller’s work hold such sway over filmmakers, and with the latest incarnation of Batman (and Superman) leaning heavier than ever before on his works, is it time for a change?
Within Tim Burton’s two Batman films (Batman in 1989 and Batman Returns in 1992), Miller’s work perhaps wielded the most influence tonally. As noted by Dini in the opening quote, Miller’s work allowed the filmmakers and producers to anchor the tone of a film and character who, up until that point, had been most successful as a borderline parody in the aforementioned Adam West series. The darker, Miller inspired iteration of the character first seen in Batman (1989) was revealed to fans in a hastily cut together teaser trailer, put out to alleviate fan concern over the casting of Michael Keaton, an actor known mainly for his comedic roles at the time.
The production design and thematic sentiments created in these films is undeniably that of Burton’s, particularly in the gothic fairytale styling’s of Batman Returns. Yet in regards to the character of Batman, the brutalist, borderline murderous take on the character as played by Keaton in both films is straight off Miller’s page. For one, Keaton’s Batman is certainly not averse to guns, be it blowing up a factory full of goons with the Batmobile or attempting to reign bullets down on the Joker in the Batwing, this Batman, like Miller’s, will gladly use a firearm to take down his enemies. This brutal streak doesn’t end with guns either, Batman throws Joker’s henchmen down a bell-tower, intentionally kills the Joker at the first film’s climax and, perhaps most shockingly of all, smiles whilst he shoves a bomb down the trousers of a henchmen, before then throwing him down an open manhole in Batman Returns. Burton and Keaton’s borderline psychotic Batman certainly owes a debt to Frank Miller’s take on the character, with Batman Returns, even darker and more violent than its predecessor, proving arguably too much for producers and younger audiences alike.
Batman Returns saw Burton allowed more creative freedom, but the result saw fans and producers isolated by the resulting film. Fast food outlet McDonald’s were ‘gearing up to promote a pair of fun-for-the-family tie-ins’ (from the 1992 Entertainment Weekly Article ‘Unhappy Returns’) until quickly pulling the plug when they saw the movie. The film grossed a comparably weak 160 million dollars domestically to Batman’s $250 million, and, even after only two months on release, Entertainment Weekly noted that ‘word is they intend to make sure that Batman 3 and its progeny showcase a much less dark Dark Knight’ (‘Unhappy Returns’, July 1992).
This lighter approach to the material came in the form of the one-two punch of Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin in 1997. A decidedly lighter shift in tone in the commercially successful Batman Forever resulted in a kid-friendly campness in Batman and Robin that would have made Adam West wince. Batman and Robin proved a new low critically and a massive disappointment financially. The franchise was forced into a hiatus for eight years, whilst producers and filmmakers looked for a new take on the popular comic book hero, but who would they turn to for inspiration?
Mr. Miller, step forward once again.