Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Jack Palance
Directed by: Tim Burton
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
“Only one will claim the night.”
Cast your mind back to 1989. If you can’t because you weren’t there, it’s ok, neither was I. So imagine it’s 1989, no internet, no smartphones, limited television niche programs, and the main events of the summer season are blockbuster films.
Something even more horrifying than the lack of smartphones and internet may be that previous to Tim Burton’s Batman release, the common perception of Batman was not a grim fellow who stalked rooftops ever vigilant for criminal activity, nor was it the muscle-bound near psychotic God-like character we know today. No, prior to all of this the average Joe who wasn’t well read in the comic superhero genre thought of a campy, slightly goofy, ever resourceful Adam West Batman boogying down in the swinging sixties. It’s hard to picture a world without the darker interpretation of the caped crusader.
Gotham City is a cesspool awash with crime and vice. At the head of the serpent is crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) and his right-hand man Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). Gotham has little to no defense aside from a lone caped vigilante known as Batman. Batman battles crime on the streets at night while juggling his daytime alter-ego as billionaire Bruce Wayne, During a set-up at the Ace Chemicals Plant, Jack comes face to face with Batman. During the confrontation, Jack falls into a vat of chemicals which leaves him scarred physically and mentally, giving birth to the psychotic Joker.
Tim Burton (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas) directs the first outing of the dark knight since 1968. Batman starred Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Jackie Brown, Birdman) in the title role. As most Tim Burton Film’s go there is always a sense of style over substance, Batman is one of the rare few films that have only minimal touches of Burtonesque aesthetics. The film has a hard and aggressive opening as the camera shoots and glides through the Batman symbol with composer Danny Elfman’s (Wanted, Justice League) thundering theme giving more proof that what follows is going to be big and bombastic. Props have to be given to Elfman for making a theme so iconic that it became synonymous with the character throughout the nineties. The film’s opening scene is dark and gritty to the absolute extreme that a PG-13 rating will allow with a restrained introduction to the main character. Prior to seeing Batman himself, the backdrops and use of miniatures lend a gothic, almost unholy vibe to the streets of Gotham. The environments throughout the film tell their own tales and almost become a character in themselves. The art deco aesthetic blends beautifully with Burton’s own style and his placement of characters in dramatic angle’s. The use of shadow is some of the most sustainably well-used contrast in almost any film ever made.
After a brief dramatic introduction to Batman, we waste no time getting into Bruce Wayne’s character. The meat of Keaton’s performances is in the Bruce Wayne role. He plays Wayne as a somewhat shy and unsure persona. Whether that’s down to direction or the pressure of the role and lack of confidence on Keaton’s part is unknown. Either way, this makes the character a lot more interesting to watch on screen and adds an aura of mystery and unwellness to an otherwise likable man.
Every character in this movie seems intended for use within the plot. No single person doesn’t have a role to play, but with that comes the odd addition of photojournalist Vikki Vale (Kim Basinger). Her introduction has us seeing her legs first then her face and shortly after that we realize she’s in town for the big scoop on the Batman. The character of a photojournalist starts off well. She is focused on getting her story and photograph of Batman, but eventually, she falls into the typical trope of being a damsel in distress, atop the high tower with a villain wishing her ill will.
One excellent example of these actors performing well in their roles is a scene between Vikki and Wayne. They have an “awkward date” that has either person sitting at the end of a long table eating dinner and struggling to hear each other. This eventually prompts Vikki to ask if Bruce even likes this room? to which he retorts “Love it…” after which he shorty confesses “…I actually don’t think I’ve ever been in here”. Inspiring both to leave the luxurious dining hall and move into the more cozy kitchen where the butler Alfred (Michael Gough) regals Vikki with stories of Bruce’s youth. This is a surprisingly nice scene of levity and genuine romance that both actors pull off well.
The introduction of the Joker may be one of cinema’s greatest moments. After being scarred, Jack Napier is in a beautifully atmospheric back alley surgery theater, thick with grit and grease. After ripping bandages off his surgically repaired face, Jack demands a mirror and this is followed promptly by The Joker’s manic laughter. However, this is not when the audience sees his face. The next scene with The Joker he starts off shrouded in shadow (which looks amazing) before he reveals his ghostly visage to his former boss and the viewing audience. This emphasizes the darker angle of Burton’s interpretation before doing a complete 180 to campy dance routines that make Nicholson’s performance so memorable and iconic. The Joker steals the show in every moment he has, turning a scene that’s pregnant with malice to a jovial psychotic song and dance and then to psychotic comedy which made the character genuinely scary. More often than not, Nicholson’s acting upstages any other actor on screen and this makes Keaton’s Batman underwhelming at times.
This film isn’t without its fair share of faults, Keaton’s rigid Batman can be unintentionally comedic at times, and the plot is somewhat paper thin with no real reasoning to why Batman does what he does other than he wants to beat the living hell out of some “bad guys” and that guy dressed as a clown should probably be locked away somewhere. A particular scene involving the Lieutenant Eckhardt (William Hootkins) character is borderline painful to watch as he chews the scenery for far too long and answers in his groveling mumbling tone. Another notable problem is the intervention of producer Jon Peters (Superman returns, Wild Wild West) who gave us the most mind-boggling scene in the film; the cringe-inducing “Let’s get nuts!” moment. A former hair stylist, turned producer, turned Hollywood hard man, Peters has been an over-possessive producer in many of his films and his hand has wrought many many terrible moments in movies. When so clearly someone else’s fingerprints are on your art it can clearly be seen why Burton refused to work with the man again.
Batman is without a doubt an instant classic that inspired not only every following Batman film but added a formula for the character and the aesthetic of Gotham itself. Occasional references and easter eggs such as the “Corto Maltese piece” by Vikki Vale callback to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns are well placed and non-intrusive.
Not only did this film bring about one of Nicholson’s greatest performances, but also kick-started the career of famed composer Danny Elfman, and brought an iconic character back into the mainstream film industry. This movie is the best jumping off point for anyone looking to try the superhero genre but is too intimidated by 70 plus years of lore and plots spanning multiple films.
For a movie that is almost 30 years old, Tim Burton’s Batman is a confident entry into movie history. It blends great acting, design, and strong emotion tightly weaved into its narrative. Unfortunately, the overarching story is very hit and miss and certain elements haven’t aged well – including scenes with the Prince soundtrack. Adding levity can also take away from the gothic feel and atmosphere. However, a solid entry to Batman and movie history respectfully.
There’s a reason why this Batman inspired the style and mood of Batman for decades: It’s the definitive version of the characters and Gotham City! Nicholson’s Joker is terrifyingly psychotic rather than just a terrorist like other iterations. Elfman’s score is the superior Batman music. Hands down, Keaton is the quintessential Batman! This is unquestionably the best Batman film!
“Holy big shoes to fill Batman!” *SMACK!* That’s enough out of you! No campy Robin in this Batman film. Just a gothic, dark, and brooding vigilante with a drive to dole out justice. The bar was set high for future Batman films with the birth of this one (and a few missed that bar by a lot). Always a good time sitting on your couch and watching this movie.