The more I think about the current Batman ’89 miniseries, the odder it seems.
Tim Burton’s Bat-movies don’t fit easily into any one category. Weird as they are, they’re not full-on “Tim Burton” movies, because they’re beholden to at least a nominal amount of source-material lore. That weirdness also sets them apart from other action-movie blockbusters. Today, after a decade or two of superhero movies becoming more faithful to the comics, Burton’s efforts seem almost primitive, with a dreamlike quality – far from the hard edge of Christopher Nolan’s urban crime stories or the DCEU’s CGI-enabled spectacle.
However, Batman ’89 – written by Sam Hamm, drawn by Joe Quinones, and colored by Leonardo Ito – isn’t really interested in translating Tim Burton to comics. Although writer Sam Hamm penned the Burton movies’ original drafts, both were revised to varying degrees by subsequent writers, especially Daniel Waters on Batman Returns.
Indeed, Hamm’s version of Batman was more practical, and sometimes more outright DIY, than what made it to the big screen. For example, a scene in Batman ’89 #2 – recalling a sequence from Hamm’s original drafts – shows how Bruce Wayne hides some rudimentary Bat-gear in his briefcase so he can take out punks without having to suit up.
Hamm’s Batman is only half the equation, as it were. The other star of Batman ’89 (which takes place after Batman Returns) is Harvey Dent, played by Billy Dee Williams in the first movie. Since this version of Harvey is Black, Hamm and Quinones use that difference to explore some very contemporary concerns. As issue #2 begins, Bruce blames himself for not being able to save an innocent Black teenager. Meanwhile, Harvey Dent is finding himself attacked both by his Black constituents (who see his crusade against Batman as benefitting only Gotham’s upper-class power structure) and his mostly-White campaign contributors (who think he’s sold out to the Black community). Later, Bruce is moved to set up a new charity after hearing Harvey speak about “two Gothams.” I have to say, this presents a whole new perspective on Harvey’s inevitable fall from grace, and it almost makes up for Billy Dee Williams’ glorified cameo – not to mention the cartoonish Tommy Lee Jones Two-Face that moviegoers eventually saw.
That doesn’t leave much room in the issue for Batman, but ironically, I’m not sure how much Bat-action fans would accept from a Caped Crusader whose cowl famously wouldn’t let him move his neck. (For the record, the sequence on pages 1 and 2 ignores that restriction.) Thus, Quinones’ Batman is not so nimble that he’ll make you forget Norm Breyfogle or Scott McDaniel. Nevertheless, he moves like you expect Batman to move.
There are also nods to the larger Bat-world. So far Batman ’89 has introduced Barbara Gordon, a giant penny, and cameos from Harvey Bullock and Harleen Quinzel. That’s quite a bit more than the two Burton movies attempted. Additionally, Commissioner Gordon gets a lot more to do than Pat Hingle did in four movies. Quinones makes sure that everyone looks like their on-screen counterparts, while harmonizing the new creations – including a new Robin – with the first two movies’ Burton-guided aesthetic.
While the result is entertaining on its own terms, it’s not what I was expecting from this miniseries. Batman ’89 is a continuation of a couple of movies which themselves were (in hindsight) fairly loose adaptations of the Batman mythology – a translation of a translation, if you will. The good news is, it’s not content to just be that.