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Today in Movie History: June 23

A brutally full day in movie history always seems to be followed by a nearly empty one. Fortunately, today’s single entry — while a deeply flawed film in many ways — also ranks as one of the most fascinating in history. Tim Burton’s Batman arrived in an era when superhero films began and ended with Christopher Reeve, and initially, no one knew how it would shake out. Most people still knew the character through the Adam West show, which comic book “purists” at the time rejected as too campy. The Batman comics of the era reflected a much darker vision — with the likes of Alan Moore and Frank Miller delving deep into the shadows of Bruce Wayne’s soul — and early word suggested that the movie adaptation would be a disaster.

It ended up defying all expectations: embracing a literal comic book universe that seemed quite dark for the late 80s, but owing its allegiance to no other vision. The story and structure were a dreadful mess (and it wouldn’t be the last Burton film with those problems), and the film sometimes seemed less interested in Bruce Wayne than in dull supporting figures like Vicki Vale and Alexander Knox. But the director’s unique imagination still found fertile ground to grow: turning him into a household name and the film into a box-office juggernaut. Anton Furst’s Oscar-winning production design captured a noir Gotham born out of pure imagination, punctuated by Danny Elfman’s magnificently brooding score and a pair of singular performances from Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader and Jack Nicholson as his cackling nemesis. Its success opened the door for countless future artists to deliver their own takes on the character (including the legendary Animated Series, greenlit specifically to capitalize on the success of the Burton films), and it’s safe to say that our current superhero movie Shangri-La wouldn’t have happened without it. It opened today in 1989.

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