While Tim Burton’s Batman project had its fair share of hurdles before it even began filming, one of the biggest challenges on the set was the idea of turning Michael Keaton into Batman…physically. The actor may have had the presence and charisma to sell the idea of him being Bruce Wayne, but he wasn’t exactly a massive muscular specimen like the action heroes of the time.
Dressing Keaton up in a leotard and giving him circus trunks to wear on the outside would have ruined the illusion of the dark and Gothic world that Tim Burton was looking to create, forcing the director and his crew to come up with a more imaginative take on the idea of Batman that didn’t just look good on camera, but also made sense within the context of that world.
“He’s a real person and he’s trying to intimidate and frighten, it’s part of his modus operandi,” Burton said in an interview several years after filming had wrapped up.
From the beginning, it just felt like he was black, there was no question about it. Not blue or dark grey or whatever. Obviously the leotard is ridiculous.
“The persona he had was an ordinary man, he put on the suit and the suit gave him his special persona,” producer Peter Gruber added.
The suit allowed those unique powers to emerge, both internally and externally.
So what kind of suit would work best for Keaton? One that transformed him into a walking tank, a nightmare in rubber and was mostly all black. The effect worked brilliantly on the screen, turning Keaton into a mythic figure of the night thanks to the efforts of the costume department who worked day and night for months on the Batsuit before filming began. “I worked on a number of projects with Bob Ringwood through the eighties, he’s one of a handful of very clever costume designers in the world,” Assistant Costume Designer Graham Churchyard said.
He met Tim Burton and got the job, and then we started what seemed at the time a very long prep, 24 weeks we had without realising the monumental task that was ahead of us in creating the batsuit. We had all the comics, and Tim and Bob from the outset were not going to put a guy wearing his underpants over a suit of tights. We were never ever going to do that look.
Creating the Batsuit itself was a Herculean task, one that required a lifecasting of Keaton, plenty of ingenuity and resulted in a suit that was amazing to see in person and incredibly uncomfortable to actually wear. “Bob was very keen on bringing other elements in which helped develop it into something other than just a muscle suit,” Costume Effects Supervisor Vin Burnham said.
We started off with a lifecast of Michael (Keaton) and basically scultped the Batman elements over it, leaving all the spaces for him to bend his arms, legs and all the joints had to be kept mobile. Once the shape worked, we had to take moulds of it and then the moulds had to have foam cast into them. All the pieces had to be glued on to the undersuit and all of that and the cowl had to be joined onto the cape which had to be joined onto his body because the cape was very heavy.
Key to the cinematic success of the suit? A thick and heavy latex cape, which had several iterations designed for the role it needed to play on the big screen. It was a beast of its own in some scenes that could swish about Keaton to create an atmospheric effect and a shrieking monster that would unfurl in other scenes when Batman took flight.
“The whole idea of making that cape just came to Bob, we were at lunch one day and we were sitting at a restaurant and it may have been a circular table and it just hit him that if we used a table as a mold and sprayed that with latex, we could make a big circular cape as big as we wanted,” Churchyard said.
It had a kind of bat-skin texture to it, we were experimenting , the latex was probably a couple of inches thick in places so you’re dealing with something that’s very hot and uncomfortable to wear.
“We worked on several different weights of the cape, easier flow in the breeze, more heavier to give it a weight to it, more wingspan, just whatever we could do to give him the persona that he was trying to project,” Burton added.
I put on the thing, I put on the cape, I wanted to get a feel of it for Michael because I knew it was a weird thing for him to deal with. You couldn’t hear in that thing, it was really heavy depending on which cape you were wearing. So I did try things on because I did want to know what he was up against.
Fun fact: The Batsuit has some trendy fashion as part of its design, only you’d never notice it at first glance…unless you looked down, as Churchyard explained:
“Jon Peters came to me one day and said “Warner have this thing going with Nike, can you use any of their sportswear?”. And I talked to Bob and he said “80s sportswear is not going to fit in with our 1940s look.” And then it just came to us: Why don’t they make the bat boots? They made the bat boots from scratch, based on one of their cross trainers at the time.
Michael and the stunt guys absolutely loved them, they were a really comfortable and supportive boot.
The end result was a costume which was iconic. It paid homage to its source material, transformed the actor inside of it into a dark knight and even managed to find itself adopted by various Batman comic books as the caped crusader’s defining look for years to come. Or as Jack Nicholson would say in the film itself:
Want more? Wait until you get a load of the first part of our Batman 1989 retrospective, right here!
- Batman 1989 thirty years later – How Michael Keaton’s casting created a firestorm of controversy
- Batman 1989 thirty years later – How Jack Nicholson’s casting as the Joker elevated the superhero film genre
Last Updated: June 5, 2019