Reflections on Tim Burton’s Batman and Its Impact on My Life
By David Baldwin
My wife thinks I am dramatic. She always has, even before we started dating. When I asked her to read my personal reflection on Batman in light of the 30th Anniversary of the film’s theatrical release, she immediately scoffed at my opening paragraph. Something about how ridiculous it was to read that I considered my identity intrinsically linked to the idea of Batman, and how no one would ever want to read something that starts off so outlandishly. So instead I will let her well intentioned criticism be the opening to something that has been stewing in my head for a few months now – or more realistically, a few years. Because I do not remember a time before Batman. The film and the character have always been present in my life. And yes, that may sound overly dramatic. But apparently, that is just me.
Let’s step back a bit.
When I was a very young child, I was captivated by two films: Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Tim Burton’s Batman. Questionable parenting aside (who lets their 3-year-old watch dark and gritty films about cartoon rabbits wanted for murder and costumed vigilantes beating up criminals because they never got over that time their parents get murdered in front of them?), I watched both of these films on VHS as often as physically possible. I am talking day in and day out. I destroyed both of the films’ outer cases and wore down the tapes themselves. I still have those VHS copies at my Mom’s house, and naturally I bought myself the DVD and Blu-ray versions. I cannot say for certain how many times I have watched either film, but would tend to think I am creeping up on more than 100 times each.
As I grew older, I stopped watching Roger Rabbit as often (though my crush on Jessica Rabbit never went away). But Batman…well, he stuck around. And while there were sequels, reboots and whatever Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ends up being unanimously referred to as years from now – I always circled back to Burton’s Batman as being the be-all and end-all of representations of the character. When the Internet cried foul about Ben Affleck’s version of the character murdering and torturing criminals, I was baffled. Yeah, the Christopher Nolan films really harped on that “one rule” bullshit that Batman broke multiple times, but in every other modern cinematic iteration he was a homicidal maniac. Don’t believe me? Re-watch Burton’s film and track how many nameless goons Batman blows up in the Axis Chemicals factory. Or how many innocent citizens he would have shot on the streets of Gotham had The Joker of all people not cleared everyone away from the parade.
Why did our opinions on Affleck’s version have to be different? Why did we crucify him, but more or less accept all the interpretations before his? How did an entire generation of Batman fans understand his personality differently than another? I digress, but you get the point of how passionate I am with the character.
I could go on about the toys I collected then and now (and the one specific early ‘90s Batman action figure I have bought or had bought for me at least 4 times over the past 30 years), the comics and graphic novels I have read, the video games I have played (the reason I bought a PS4 was specifically so I could play Batman: Arkham Knight), but I think it is best to zoom forward to the Summer of 2007. My parents had separated during the Winter, I had been spending more time with two new friends who really brought out my inner geek, and the marketing campaign for The Dark Knight was really starting to pick up. I hung on every word, every new cryptic piece of information. I had enjoyed Batman Begins immensely, and my nostalgia for Batman fighting The Joker was next level. To say I was excited was an understatement.
And then Heath Ledger died. I remember how genuinely heartbroken I felt when I heard the news. But being a gullible 20-something, I bought into all of the manufactured rumours and controversies the media started slinging in the immediate aftermath of his death. And all it did was continue fueling my anticipation for The Dark Knight. My enthusiasm for the film’s release became unbearable. I was hyped to the point of obsession. It was all I wanted to talk about. All I wanted to read about. All I needed to see. I lined up 8 hours in advance to see the Midnight show (remember when that was a thing?), and of course, I adored it – even with some of the vague spoilers I had found out in advance. I do not remember the first time I saw Burton’s Batman, but I remember the visceral, bone shaking feeling I felt watching The Dark Knight for the first time. I do not think I have been accurately able to replicate it ever since. And I remember the awe I felt seeing it again in IMAX a month later – my first IMAX screening, which set off another new fascination that continues to this day.
That obsession with The Dark Knight led me to writing about the cinematic interpretations of Batman in my fourth-year university thesis paper. Somehow I managed the obscene feat of writing nearly 25,000 words on the subject (many of which were devoted to his being a psychopath no better than the criminals he is fighting against, before that trend received mainstream notice). But it has been just over 10 years since I wrote this treatise and in all of that time, I have been unable to re-read more than a few pages. It brings back too many painful memories of long nights of writing, longer nights of reading and quote grabbing (including the outrageously pretentious act of quoting myself – who does that?!) and all but completely pushing away everyone who cared about me. It consumed every fibre of my being, to the point where I could not take jokes and could barely communicate with other people. I was laser focused on writing the single biggest paper of my life. I did not have time for anything else. I all but became a shell of a human being. The thesis was even cited as one of the reasons why my girlfriend at that time broke up with me. Do you remember in the Harry Potter series when they talk about Voldemort and how he split off pieces of his soul into otherwise trivial objects called horcruxes? Well, one of my horcruxes was that paper. And I have yet to retrieve that part of my soul back.
Nor have I been able to get back the amount of time I spent re-watching Batman & Robin, looking for elements and quotes I could use for my paper. As you might expect, there was not much.
I say all of this in a slightly manic, slightly “I need to write this all out because if I don’t, I never will” kind of way because it all stems back to Burton’s Batman. I can recite it virtually line by line and sound by sound from muscle memory. I can describe the Oscar-winning production design with relative perfection. I listen to Danny Elfman’s incredible genre-defining score on Spotify often (just slightly more often than I listen to Prince’s own Batman album) and can visualize the scenes perfectly, right down to the specific sound effects. When they announced that the recent 4K Blu-ray had a brand-new sound mix, it terrified me. I cannot fathom watching the film and not being able to pinpoint the specific sound of gun shots clanging off concrete beams, the sound of the Batmobile’s engine roaring to life or the sounds Burton recycled from the likes of James Cameron’s Aliens because his budget was running low (which is one of the main reasons why he re-did the sound mix all these years later).
After a few sessions, a psychotherapist once accurately predicted Batman was my favourite superhero and The Joker my favourite supervillain. She knew exactly why and explained it to me – and for the life of me, I cannot remember what she said. And part of me does not really want to know either. But in writing this, I did need to know how and why my fascination with Batman started. I asked my Mom, and while she was hazy on some details and vividly detailed on others, she told me that I first watched with my Dad after he purchased it on VHS. She had suggested it was inappropriate for a 3-year-old to watch but he disagreed and thought it was fine (tell that to my younger brother who was terrified of clowns for years). Apparently I did not love it at first, but grew to enjoy it rather quickly – and would request to specifically watch it with my Dad. A man who I idolized and wanted to spend time and bond with. A man who put me through so much emotional turmoil and irreparable harm for years afterwards that I have practically blocked whole years, events and details out of my memory for fear of needing to relive them again.
I lived in the shadow of my Dad for so long. And still kind of do. I have been to therapy to resolve the PTSD and anger issues that still crop up far too often for their own good, but the wounds are still very much present in my day-to-day life. In many ways, I feel like I have let him down with who I have become. And even though he is still around and I still see him every few months, any great memories I have of him are long dead, gone and buried – much like Bruce Wayne’s parents are well before he becomes Batman. And he too, lives in the shadow of his Dad and likely feels that he would be letting him down with who he became. But we are also talking about a Dad who should have known better than to cut down a side street with his family called “Crime Alley”. And I am talking about a Dad who should have known better than to show a 3-year-old a movie about a grown man dressing up as a bat to work out his emotional trauma.
And while I have excised a few skeletons writing this reflection – and hope you enjoyed this peek inside the Batcave of my life – I cannot begin to even consider closing the door on Batman and the seismic impact he and Burton’s film have had on me. There is too much history there. There is too much excitement, joy and vicarious musings. If I ever meet Burton or my life long hero Michael Keaton, I hope I will be able to tell them how much the film means to me and how much of an impact it has had on my life. And when I watch the movie again today, on the 30th Anniversary of its wide release, I will remember that all at once it represents who I am, who I want to be and who I will become.
And maybe, just maybe, I’ll get some closure on whatever the hell “I’m of a mind to make some mookie” means.