Batman. 1989. Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren; based on characters created by Bob Kane & Bill Finger.
Starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance, Jerry Hall, Tracey Walter, Lee Wallace, and William Hootkins. Warner Bros./The Guber-Peters Company/PolyGram Filmed Entertainment.
PG-13. 126 minutes.
Tim Burton is the sort of filmmaker people either love or hate, I think. There’s no real halfway marker between sentiments with Burton’s movies, which is fine. Personally I think he’s a great, innovative, and influential filmmaker. In essence, he’s an auteur. You can say he’s no good, or whatever, but at the end of the day you cannot deny he has a style that is VERY MUCH all his own; nobody else does dark and weird in the cartoonish sense like him. From Beetlejuice, to both the Batman movies, Edward Scissorhands, the incredibly strange and fun adaptation of Sleepy Hollow, to Ed Wood and Mars Attacks! (brilliant and overlooked), Big Fish, Corpse Bride – I think Burton has made enough films that are of a high calibre I’m able to count him among other great filmmakers of his generation.
While Burton himself has said his Batman is boring and that it’s more of a cultural phenomenon than anything, I feel he’s shortchanged himself. I’m a massive fan of the Batman character, have been for years. I’ve read comics, graphic novels, seen all the films – including the original television series and the movies of which I’m a big fan honestly for their campy style. So don’t hate on me for saying this, but at the base of all this Batman is still a superhero, and superheroes are a tiny bit silly. You’ve got to admit it. When David Cronenberg expressed his distaste for Nolan’s trilogy, or at least his “I don’t care” attitude about superhero movies, he wasn’t trying to be a dick: it’s the truth. While you can try to make a superhero film as gritty and realistic as possible, at the end of the day Batman – or any other comic book superhero – is still a guy running around dressed in tights, fighting zany, megalomaniac villains with their own equally foolish-looking getups. Again I repeat – I love Batman, in all forms. But I think the ultimate thing I love, above the darkness and the style and the wildness of so many moments from the Joker’s laughs and horror to the action scenes, is that Tim Burton treats his Batman in the way it’s meant to be treated: part serious and dark, part campy and fun. If you can’t recognize that, fine. But don’t say this is a bad adaptation, it’s just not. It is a classic and it helped lead the way for more action films to come in the 1990s and long after.
In Gotham City, the criminals have been running scared: rumour has it some giant, human-like bat has been roaming the streets and taking care of the underbelly of society. While reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) teams up with star journalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) to get to the bottom of the story, other things are brewing in the dark city.
Mob boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) has a bit of trouble with his… right hand man, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), who winds up in a bad spot all due to Carl’s backstabbing. Things get really bad when Napier runs into Batman during a shootout with police; Jack ends up disfigured after falling into a vat of chemicals. Remerging, after a bit of off the books surgery, Jack becomes the Joker. Hellbent on tearing Gotham to pieces, as well as rooting out Batman, Joker becomes a powerful force of terror in the hearts of the citizens and nobody is safe.
And Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) keeps on working hard, day and night, trying to conceal the biggest secret of all: he’s Batman.
The first time we actually see the Joker’s face in the shadows is actually creepy. Even before, not seeing his face was almost creepier, as he smashes the mirror, laughing, walking out of the basement leaving behind his terrified doctor. Numerous scenes involving the Joker, as well as his henchman in various shapes and forms, are incredibly dark. Which brings me to one of my major loves about this 1989 Batman as opposed to even the Christopher Nolan films (I’m a fan by the way).
All the darkness of Burton is present here. Even more than that, he keeps the cartoonish nature of the comic books and also brings the dark nature of Batman/Bruce Wayne himself into the mix. While Nolan’s films have a sort of dark side, it’s not near the same as what Burton presents. The plot of the film, everything happening with the story in this adaptation, isn’t even the best of it – Burton uses his auteur style in order to infuse this film with something spooky, something full of idiosyncrasy and madness and chaotic mayhem.
For instance, the scene where the Joker meets Vicki Vale at the museum and shows her his latest art project – living, breathing art created with nastiness, a young woman named Alicia with her face disfigured underneath a Phantom of the Opera-style mask. That part always creeps me out, right to pieces. Even the oddly chipper, upbeat commercial by the Joker for Joker Brand products, with all the women sporting a Joker face, it’s SO UNSETTLING! There’s a campy side to it, yes, there’s no denying that. Though, Burton has the talent to take those saccharine sweet looking visuals and lean them into the dark pit of the human heart. Again, it’s why I say he’s an auteur; only the best are able to make the darkness look and feel so utterly compelling.
“Y’ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
People will rail on and on about how Michael Keaton is no good as Batman.
Think what you will, I found him excellent. There’s even more to that sentiment in Batman Returns, as the darkness I love and crave so much in Bruce Wayne comes out further than it does here in the first (though I love this movie a tad more).
Keaton is solid. So what he’s not jacked? That’s honestly, basically, the opinion of some: his physique isn’t particularly muscular enough to portray Batman. Why does someone have to be huge in order to be a good fighter or intimidating? Was Bruce Lee huge? Nope, yet I’d have been mortified to have to fight the man. The whole point to Bruce is that he learned to fight and combat villains in the way of a ninja, so it’s not like he has to be this massive man. For those purposes, the suit does its work, and looks great.
Above all, I love the way this Batman – and in part this is due to the writing and Burton’s presentation of the material – not only fights crime, he actually wants to scare the criminals. Yes, Nolan goes for that in his newest trilogy. Not in this way, though. There’s something extra creepy to the opening sequence where those two robbers sit atop the building, counting their cash, while also talking about the supposed Bat Man lurking about Gotham – how Batman slips in behind them, frightening them, terrorizing. It’s very dark and grim. The way the movie started out always creeped me to the bones when I was a kid. I’ve been watching this movie since I was like 6 years old, probably about two years after the original release, and one of the parts I always found myself fascinated with was the very beginning because it has this ominous, terrifying feel, but in the most excellent sense. Works wonder for the tone of the film. Also, a big part of this is in the way Keaton plays Batman with a quiet, calculated performance in the right moments.
It’s the rawness of Wayne which comes out of Keaton. He has an awesome presence as Batman, particularly aided I think by the fact he couldn’t hear much of anything (if anything at all) while in the suit. I love what Bale did with the Batman voice, regardless of how anyone else might feel to the contrary – I think there’s a necessity to the voice, you’d have to disguise it or else someone would absolutely make the connection between Bruce and Batman. But more subtlety in the voice comes in Keaton’s performance. He doesn’t go to the length Bale does, which again I thought was good, yet there’s a slight change in his voice here when you listen to him carefully from one scene to the next, Bruce to Batman; it’s a good touch. Plus, there’s just an introverted quality all around to Keaton as Bruce: from the moment he pretends not to be Bruce Wayne when Vicki Vale asks about him at the party near the film’s beginning, to the solitary (and obligatory) Bruce moments brooding in the Bat Cave. I’ve always loved this aspect to Bruce Wayne, and while Christian Bale does a splendid job in the Nolan trilogy, I honestly have to give my vote to Keaton as best. Simply because there’s a real strangeness, a dark and at times weird side to his Bruce Wayne, which you’re likely never to see again. Ever. Nobody else will bring that out the way Keaton does. Maybe part of that is the fact it is a Burton film, as well as the sequel, in which Keaton is another odd element. But I like to think it’s all a part of Keaton as an actor; someone I’ve always liked, not just a bandwagoner after Birdman. Ever see Ron Howard’s Night Shift? Do yourself a solid, watch it.
Jack Nicholson.. oh my. What can I say that hasn’t been said? He’s a brilliant actor whom I’ve enjoyed over and over throughout my 30 years. There’s a cartoon quality in his performance, just as there is in Burton’s aesthetic throughout the film. Still, Nicholson adds a truly gritty and horrific sensibility to the Joker. Yes: he definitely hams it up. Yes: there are over-the-top moments. But again, this is a guy whose face has been warped into a permanent smile; the chemicals messed him up and the doctor somehow moulded his face to look like a kind of demonically happy plasticine doll. So, c’mon – you have to expect a bit of ham and cheese! You’re not being honest with yourself or watching this film honestly by trying to say he should have gone for more realism. If it’s an attempt at realism (though again: superhero films aren’t realistic from the get-go) you want then try Nolan, I guess. But this Burton version of the Joker is magnificent and macabre; one half of that comes from the writing/Burton, the other and the heftiest portion from Nicholson and his brilliance.
Finally, if I haven’t stressed it enough it’s Burton who makes this film what is it – above the story, above the performances from Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton, it’s the aesthetic of the film, it’s atmosphere, the tone, which really boost this above any other comic book film especially. I don’t care what you say, this is what a comic book movie should be like and I’ll always feel that way! There’s no amount of realism you can try to instil in a movie based on a graphic novel or comic book which can take the story where it needs to go because THAT IS NOT THE SPIRIT OF THE COMICS. Be your own judge, tastemaker. But these are my feelings.
This is a 5 star film. Hands down. The one which started the whole trend proper. Tim Burton does a fascinating job with this comic book adaptation, giving it enough campy fun to satisfy those yearning for a return to the Adam West-led Batman and retaining all the darkness of the original character and some of what Frank Miller threw in with his graphic novels. Above all else, there’s a great look and feel to every scene, Burton dripping from the shots like sticky candy, as well as the fact Keaton and Nicholson act their chops off with their mix of seriousness and silly charm. Add in fun music from the soundtrack (I don’t care what you say Tim Burton: I love the way Prince is used!) and compositions from Danny Elfman, and this is one slick adventure.
Seen it? Tell me what you think. If not, what the fuck are you waiting for? Batman Day 2015 has come and gone, but it’s never too late, or too early, to start diving into the legacy of the Dark Knight on film. Go forth to Gotham and find yourself lost in its beautiful, grim shadows.