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Gotham’s Finest – Five Ways Tim Burton Changed Comic Book Movies

With the week’s release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, I think it’s high time to honor the effects the director has had on comic-book movies. Burton’s career (which is currently the subject of a retrospective at MoMA, in New York) encompasses everything from comedy (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) to biopic (Ed Wood) to big-budget remake (Planet of the Apes). But few directors have had such influence on one genre as Burton has had on comic-book adaptations. Take, for example, his Batman films.

burtonbatman-125.jpgGotham City As a Character
The smartest move Burton made in Batman (besides casting Jack Nicholson) was to recruit the late production designer Anton Furst to create Gotham City. Furst’s Gotham — all menacing Germanic statues and noirish shadows — is still the most vivid depiction of the iconic city. It’s impossible to think of it now and not picture such creations as the Axis Chemical plant or the Flugelheim Museum (raided by the Joker in a memorable scene). Burton and Furst realized that Gotham was as important a character in the Batman mythos as Alfred or Commissioner Gordon.

batman-125.jpgSuperheroes With Issues
Before Burton, superheroes were a cheery bunch. Oh, sure, Superman got a little weepy over losing his powers, in Superman II. But in his Batman movies, Burton evoked the same psychological depth as he would in later works, like Sweeney Todd. Bruce Wayne, no longer the bon vivant of the campy ’60s TV show, is a troubled orphan with serious identity issues. Burton and his screenwriters drew from the work of comic-book greats like Denny O’Neil and Frank Miller. Is the Penguin of Batman Returns really all that different from fellow Burton outcast Edward Scissorhands?


Non-Traditional Casting That Pays Off
It seems silly now, but the announcement that Burton planned to cast Mr. Mom star Michael Keaton as Batman inspired plenty of backlash. (Had there been an Internet in 1988, it would have been abuzz with haters.) Burton choosing his offbeat Beetlejuice cohort flew in the face of conventional action-movie thinking, which, in those days, would have had Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dolph Lundgren slipping on the tights. His gamble payed off, and Keaton created a quirky, damaged Bruce Wayne that is many people’s favorite depiction of the character.

batmanjoker-125.jpgDanny Elfman Forever Scoring Every Comic-Book Movie
Danny Elfman’s score for Batman was instantly iconic: it set the soundtrack for almost every comic-book movie that followed. Over the next two decades, Elfman’s grand, darkly orchestral scores could be heard in everything from Dick Tracy to Spider-Man. No other composer is so closely associated with such movies. We have Burton to thank for that.

returns-125.jpgMore Villains, More Problems
Starting with Batman Returns, Burton inaugurated the era of multiple villains in comic-book flicks. Why have one (say, Lex Luthor, in Superman), when you can have two or three? Burton juggled Catwoman and Penguin nicely in Returns, but once Batman & Robin rolled around, the Caped Crusader was being muscled offscreen by Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, and Bane. Nowadays, sequels are packed with villains. For good or ill, Burton’s Batman movies kicked off the “more villains is better” trend.

Nick Nadel writes for places like HBO and and is the “geek” blogger for Follow the “Comic Book Movies” column on Twitter.

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