Home > Reviews > Review: “Batman” (1989)

Review: “Batman” (1989)

Directed by: Tim Burton
Produced by: Peter Guber, Jon Peters, Benjamin Melniker, Michael Uslan
Written by: Sam Hamm (screenplay, story), Warren Skarren (screenplay)
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Michael Gough, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Tracey Walter, Jack Palance
Music by: Danny Elfman, Prince (songs)
Year: 1989

 

Many may be aware of the fact that Batman hasn’t always been the Dark Knight we know and love today. The Adam West portrayal of the character is quite well known to even younger fans who may not have even seen an episode of the show. But what many may not know about this incarnation of the character was just how pervasive it was in the public’s eye well into the 1980s, and unless you were a fan of comic books, the general public didn’t catch on to the character’s grimmer revamps that started in the 70s thanks to the show’s continuation in TV syndication.

Starting in 1986, however, one comic in particular set into motion the replacement of this image in the public’s eye. That comic was the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, written by Frank Miller. Though it was a non-canon story, set apart from the mainstream comics series, The Dark Knight Returns was a culmination of all the darkness and maturity that could be found in the character and hte world he inhabited. It was a vision of Gotham as a pit of a city overrun with corruption and evil and where the forces of good were still colored with a smattering of gray.

Two years later, Batman: The Killing Joke was published, establishing a fleshed out backstory for the Joker in parallel with his quest to turn Commissioner Gordon mad by crippling his daughter Barbara, a.k.a. Batgirl. If that weren’t enough, fans themselves seemed to take a turn for the sadistic when they voted to have the second Robin, Jason Todd, killed off at the hands of Joker, as well. In retrospect, it was a pretty logical time to have the Dark Knight image go mainstream.

Plans for what would become Tim Burton’s Batman began in the early 1980s and went through several revisions, including versions where Dick Grayson, the first and most famous Robin, made varying degrees of appearances before he was ultimately axed from the script himself. (No wonder Batman’s sidekicks have such hard lives — they can’t even catch breaks in the real world!) The film that was ultimately released was heavily influenced by both The Dark Knight Rises and The Killing Joke.

It may not seem like it now, but the choice of director and star for the film wasn’t always so obvious. Tim Burton, a former Disney animator who made it big with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, was not nearly as well known for his darker, moodier films at that time, and fans had feared that he would harken back to the days of camp. Further troubling matters was the decision to cast the decidedly short and funny-looking Michael Keaton in the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Moreso than Burton, Keaton was known for his offbeat comic persona and was generally better recognized for his role in films like Mr. Mom (co-starring Teri Garr, who would go on to portray a future Batman’s mother in Batman Beyond), Nightshift, and the aforementioned Beetlejuice. Futher doubt over the film’s quality likely wasn’t helped when the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike resulted in some last minute changes. Several other issues, such as a rising budget and Jack Nicholson’s diva-esque contract with the filmmakers, likely spelled doom for the film.

"We believe in Harvey Dent... just not the actor we cast as him the first time. Quick, get me Tommy Lee Jones!" - Warner Bros. Exec

And yet, here we are, 24 years and a massive, well-received reboot to the film franchise later, and Tim Burton’s film is still considered a classic and is largely credited with kickstarting the modern era of superhero films, even more so than the relatively isolated Superman in the 70s. Though the film made several critical changes to the character’s story and personification, including the all-black rubber costume and the fact that not only did the Joker kill Batman’s parents but that, unlike any other portrayal of the character, Batman in this film is totally willing to kill, the characters and the story in this film ultimately remain true to the spirit of the darker comics.

The story gracefully explains away the origin of Batman without delving too far into telling the familiar tale. Instead, it begins at a time when “the Bat-man” is still just a scary urban legend to Gotham City’s police and criminals alike. In doing so, the film is able to focus a lot of attention on the intertwining themes of how Batman and the Joker’s lives and actions parallel one another.

The substitution of Joe Chill for a pre-Joker Jack Napier as the killer of Bruce’s parents was and is a controversial one, but coupled with the scuffle between Batman and Jack ultimately resulting in his falling into the vat of chemicals that turned him into the Joker, the change ultimately works in the context of this self-contained story that exists outside of ongoing comics or television shows. Both characters are ultimately outlaws operating on the fringes of law and normal society and, thus, ultimately work on their own terms and seek out their own personal vendettas against their nemeses.

Tim Burton explained the main theme of the film as a “duel of the freaks… a fight between two disturbed people.” What’s even more intriguing is that instead of condemning both for their complete disregard for the law, Gotham, as a whole, ultimately chose to put their scoiety into the hands of one man and embrace the one lunatic that, unbeknownst to them, was also masquerading as one of their own during the day, all in the name of keeping safe. It’s no wonder, then, that this is the same city that would later beget the likes of Penguin, Two-Face, and Catwoman, among others!

Okay, so the film is relatively complex for an action film. “What else is there to it besides two nutcases pitting themselves against each other?” you ask? How about some awesome performances from the two guys playing the nutcases? Despite the 1989 reaction to Michael Keaton (and the fact that he looks a bit too short for the character, even in those thick boots), the general consensus over the years, and I would have to agree, is that Keaton was pretty darn great as both the charming (if a bit odd) Bruce Wayne and his deranged alter ego. Keaton doesn’t have the pretty-boy looks that one would expect when you hear “billionaire playboy,” but he makes up for it by portraying Bruce as having an undercurrent of anger and madness that’s covered up by a facade of banality.

Though he was probably a pain to work with due to his demands, Nicholson was worth every penny in my eyes. Heath Ledger was brilliant in The Dark Knight when he portrayed Christopher Nolan’s anarchist Joker and completely deserves his accolades, but Nicholson was just as brilliant at playing the character as a crazed lunatic, and his performance shouldn’t be eclipsed in the shadow of what has come after. Nicholson arguably steals the film away from everybody else (which would become an unfortunately increasing trend moving into the sequels). Nicholson moves from grim monologues to physical comedy and gleefully morbid jokes with ease and makes this version of the Joker a very evil but very fun character to watch.

We do get a love interest, of course, in Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale. She starts off strongly but ultimately devolves into a plot device that screams, but it’s hardly the fault of Basinger herself and really has more to do with the script. Michael Gough, who was one of but two actors to continue across all four of the Burton/Schumacher films, is perfect as Alfred. (Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon was the other, but he hardly ever factored into a single film in any important role that couldn’t have easily been filled by another character, unfortunately, making him essentially there because the character should.) Gough lends his character the sophisticated, quick-witted, wise, and caring qualities that the Alfred character truly deserves, and you’d even buy the idea that this Alfred was once a great soldier before he settled into a calmer life as a loyal butler, too. Michael Caine was a great bit of casting, the late Michael Gough remains the default Alfred in my mind.

I know this has been a long review, but I felt that I had a lot to say a lot about this film in reviewing it, and I feel as though I would be doing it a disservice if I didn’t mention the film’s set designs and score. It’s a cliche to say that these elements become characters in themselves, but in Batman, this is the absolute truth, as the Gothic atmosphere of both lend so much to the atmosphere and character of the film. Gotham looks to have been caught in a timewarp where a very grim variant of art deco remained in use, while Danny Elfman’s theme for the Batman character is a perfect musical personification of the Dark Knight, conveying both a heroic quality and also that all important darkness that lies inside that was so critical in selling the film to an audience that was increasingly demanding a return to form.

Batman isn’t a perfect interpretation of the character and his world, and some were rather put off by Warner Bros.’ insistence of incorporating the songs of Prince and the decision to have Batman to kill even the randomest of thugs, but audiences were ultimately thrilled by the film and made it the first blockbuster to surpass the $100 million mark within its first ten days, making back over double the amount of its bloated $48 million budget easily.

Even if you aren’t a fan of the film’s deranged tone in the hands of Tim Burton, you still have this film to thank for the resurgence of superheroes in the public’s eye. Though the subsequent sequels that followed would increasingly ruin and nearly destroy the genre that this film reinvigorated, Batman was a high mark for films like X-MenSpider-Man, and Batman Begins to aim for in when they were in development.

As a film, it is still a serviceable interpretation of the character at worst, and at best, it is a fantastic, atmospheric character study. If you’re somehow not familiar with the film after all these years of superhero dominance at the box office, I’d definitely encourage you to go out, find a copy, and watch Batman begin again for the first time.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5

  1. March 30, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    BATMAN ’89 Is My 2ND Favorite BATMAN Flick.
    My Fave Fave Has Always Been BATMAN RETURNS hehehe
    Sadly, I’m In The Company Of FEW With That Selection ;)
    -BRAD

  2. CJ Stewart
    March 31, 2012 at 2:44 am

    I’ll always have a soft spot for the Burton films. I waver between this and Returns as my favorite of the two, but they’re awesome fantastical renditions of Batman that I think should provide a guideline to a future franchise after The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan’s films are arguably better and remain my favorites, but these two have a special place in my heart. lol Returns is actually associated with my earliest memory of going to the theatre. That film’s review is absolutely coming soon!

  3. Anonymous
    April 11, 2014 at 11:31 am

    i looooooooooove batman (:

    • Anonymous
      April 11, 2014 at 11:32 am

      really?

  4. Anonymous
    April 11, 2014 at 11:32 am

    andrew is weird (: but awseome <3

  1. April 6, 2012 at 2:53 am
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