Even before Tim Burton took the director's chair of Batman in 1986, the movie seemed troubled, if not just outright unlikely to ever happen. A Batman movie had been in development since 1980, following the success of Richard Donner's Superman The Movie and Superman II, with various writers - including comic writer Steve Englehart - and directors (amongst them, Ghostbusters' Ivan Reitman) attached at different times. It took Burton's arrival, following the success of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure as well as Frank Miller's gamechanging The Dark Knight Returns comic series, to galvanize a coherent direction for the movie, but even then, it would take another two years - and Burton's Beetlejuice becoming a hit - to get the movie greenlit by Warner Bros.
If Burton as director was seen as a risky move because of resume up until that point, his casting of Michael Keaton as the lead character was assumed by many to just be outright suicide. It also wasn't just the comic fans who were scared about the idea of someone known more as a comedic actor taking on the role (50,000 letters of complaint were apparently sent to Warner Bros as a result), as executive producer Jon Peters recalls:
One of the most powerful men in Hollywood went as far as to call Warners' chairman Steve Ross and tell him casting Michael was such a horrible idea it would bring Warners to its knees... The entire studio would crash. Heaven's Gate revisited.
(I have to wonder what the response would have been if Bill Murray, another of the actors under consideration for the role alongside more traditional candidates like Mel Gibson, Pierce Brosnan and Kevin Costner, had been cast.)
The casting of Jack Nicholson as the Joker, however, met with much less anger (Other actors considered included Robin Williams, James Woods and, in what could have been either awesome or the worst decision ever, David Bowie), even if many - including screenwriter Sam Hamm - disliked the retcon that revealed that Jack Napier, the young Joker, was the man that killed Bruce Wayne's parents; that change in the story happened during shooting, when the 1988 WGA Writers Strike prevented Hamm from working on rewrites himself.
(Here's the first production draft of the script and, for fun comparison, Hamm's original 1986 draft.)
The production was troubled, to say the least. As well as the Writers Strike, the four month shoot - described later by Burton as "[t]he worst period of my life" - also saw producers change the end of the movie without telling Burton, the budget spiral out of control - it was rumored to end up more than 50% higher than it was when it started - and footage stolen from the set, as the press fought to be the first to have pictures from the secretive set. Even in the movie's pre-release publicity, the stress was clear as this Time Magazine story demonstrates:
As in all megaprojects, the Batman people were just happy to have survived. "Tim is a pale guy," his friend Keaton says. "Put him in England and add the demands of the shoot, and he becomes transparent." But Burton soldiered on, and now offers a cautious commendation of his own work: "Given the scale, the number of people involved and how quickly we did it, it still has a personality, which big movies often lose. It doesn't feel like a cardboard clone."
Early reviews for the movie were mixed; while some enjoyed the dark tone, others felt as if the darkness overwhelmed everything else. Roger Ebert, for example:
[D]id I care about the relationship between these two caricatures? Did either one have the depth of even a comic book character? Not really. And there was something off-putting about the anger beneath the movie's violence. This is a hostile, mean-spirited movie about ugly, evil people, and it doesn't generate the liberating euphoria of the Superman or Indiana Jones pictures... The movie's problem is that no one seemed to have any fun making it, and it's hard to have much fun watching it. It's a depressing experience.
Time Magazine's take was similarly damning:
Batman's style is both daunting and lurching; it has trouble deciding which of its antagonists should set the tone. It can be as manic as the Joker, straining to hear the applause of outrage; it can be as implosive as Batman-Bruce, who seems crushed by the burden of his schizoid eminence. This tension nearly exhausts the viewer and the film.
Nonetheless, the film was a runaway success, much moreso than Warners had anticipated - its opening broke box office records (It was the first movie to earn more than $100 million in its first ten days), and by the end of the year, it had become the sixth most successful movie of all time. The moral of this story? Perhaps, to let Tim Burton do whatever he wants - unless that happens to be remaking Planet of the Apes.