I am so glad that I did see this animated feature in theatres twenty years ago. Being a major fan of the animated series, there was no way I couldn’t be excited for it, and it has become a very respected high mark in the DC Animated Universe. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm does tend to get lost in the mix when discussing the best Batman or even best superhero movies because it was an animated feature. The film didn’t perform well in theatres, likely do to a less than aggressive marketing campaign. Even professional film critics Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert did not see it in its theatrical run, but when they did eventually watch it, they indeed loved it. So, with this preface, I think it’s easy to deduce that this is a definite favorite of mine.
When Gotham City’s most feared gangsters are systematically eliminated, the Cape Crusader is blamed, but prowling the night is a shadowy new villain, the Phantasm, a sinister figure with a vengeful agenda. Meanwhile, Andrea Beaumont, the one time love of Bruce Wayne’s life, returns to Gotham City stirring up memories including those of how he almost didn’t become Batman. As all of this unfolds, and the Phantasm becomes a more imminent, lethal threat, the Joker is brought into the fold as a major wild card. Now, can the Dark Knight elude the police, capture the Phantasm and clear his name?
If you’re unfamiliar with the 1990’s animated series, you need not worry. This film works entirely as a standalone feature, but for those who were serious fans, there’s a great sense of expansion and increased depth that this film offers. This is a great story interweaving all threads into an excellent Batman origin, romance, and superhero action movie. The heart of it is the romantic and heartbreaking story between Bruce and Andrea. It starts with so much hope and passion, but as with many of Bruce’s loves, it ends in despair and some tragedy. It’s a beautifully crafted tale that does touch an audience’s heart, and truly shows the emotional depth and humanity of Bruce before and after he becomes Batman.
This film shows us the events leading directly up to Bruce Wayne actually becoming Batman. I love seeing his first outing as a crime-fighter. It’s just him in black street attire and a ski mask. He has the skills, but not the persona, yet. Batman hasn’t been born, and thus, the key essentially elements of intimidation and mystique aren’t in play. He’s not the haunting creature of the night that will frighten the criminal element, and afterwards, Bruce realizes that is what he’s missing. It’s a thrilling action scene as Bruce takes down a group of thieves, and then, hangs off the back of an open van during a police chase. Yet, the very moment where Bruce Wayne dons the cowl and becomes Batman for the first time is a quintessential moment in my Batman fandom. No other film has ever matched this moment for me. Done wholly in shadows, it is a purely simple scene, but perfectly effective and iconic in my eyes. When he turns to reveal himself to Alfred, the reaction from Bruce’s loyal and lifelong butler is pure shock and fear. That still sends chills all over my body.
Now, I absolutely love how the stories of Bruce and Andrea intertwine. The flashbacks to their hot and fast romance are beautiful and classy. You can see that Bruce is ready to give up the vigilante nightlife to be happy with Andrea forever, but the shady elements of her father, Carl Beaumont’s business dealings forge an inevitable wedge between Bruce and Andrea. Smartly, these elements are the core of the present day story between Batman and the Phantasm. It’s also a great turn that the Phantasm’s murders are framed on Batman simply by misidentification. This forces the Gotham Police to begin a manhunt against Batman, but strongly true to his character, Commissioner Gordon refuses to be apart of it. He knows that Batman doesn’t kill, and that little moment shows the bond of trust between Gordon and the Dark Knight. It’s only a shame that that is Gordon’s only scene in the film. Every aspect of this story flows organically and tightly. With a 76 minute runtime, it could move at no other or better pace.
By no doubt, Kevin Conroy has been the definitive voice of Batman for over two decades now for legions of fans. Whenever I read a Batman comic book, it is his voice that I hear as Bruce Wayne and Batman. Conroy reflects all the best qualities of the character from the upbeat playboy, the serious businessman, the dark, brooding man in the shadows, and the powerfully imposing Dark Knight. The most important thing is he brings life, depth, and intelligence to Batman. Producer Bruce Timm and co-writer Paul Dini perfectly understood the character, and throughout this DCAU from Batman: The Animated Series to Batman Beyond to Justice League Unlimited, they stayed true to the core of Batman. The ideals of justice, humanity, and undying determination have always thrived in this animated interpretation. Beyond anything else, we see the world’s greatest detective at work, which is something none of the live action films have ever fully embraced. Batman unravels the mystery of the Phantasm and these crime bosses with cunning and perceptive intelligence. Conroy embodies all of these subtle, inspiring, and engaging qualities of Batman with a lot of heart and care. It might only be voice work, but this still stands as the best adaptation of the character to date.
And I couldn’t discount Mark Hamill’s Joker. Much like with Conroy, he has been a definitive voice for the character to many fans for so long, but has had real competition from great actors in this role. I am a fan of all versions from Ceasar Romero to Jack Nicholson and beyond. With the Joker, there’s almost no wrong way to go with him because he is such a radically unpredictable character that he could be very Romero one day and very Ledger the next. What Hamill does is make the Joker this insane clown who will do whatever hits the biggest punchline in his own twisted mind. He will still likely kill you, but he’s going to laugh his ass off doing it. Hamill brings the jovial zaniness meshed with a lethal intimidation that forges a colorful maniac that is endlessly fun and entertaining while still being a major threat.
Beyond the fact that I do really adore Dana Delany, I believe she was a perfect choice to voice Andrea. She brings a touching beauty of heart and soul to the character. As the younger Andrea, she’s very optimistic and vibrant. She’s a young woman with everything to love and embrace in life. In the present day, she’s a little more heartbroken and tender. There’s a great emotional complexity to her by the end which is very sad and sympathetic. Delaney is a wonderful, charming actress, and she does a remarkable job voicing Andrea Beaumont.
The animation style of this feature film is definitely a solid step upwards from the series with more dramatic shading, and a bit more dynamic action sequences. The opening title sequence even features a beautiful CGI fly through of the Gotham City skyline. The entire series was heavily inspired by the classic Max Fleisher Superman cartoons, and that is very evident, especially with the great art deco designs. Adapting this style to Batman pushed everything into a great film noir realm that works stunningly for him.
The main theme from Danny Elfman for Tim Burton’s Batman movies lived on in this DC Animated Universe. They were reworked by the great, and now late, Shirley Walker. For this feature, she makes it even more gothic and haunting with a beautiful chorus. Yet, that’s only just the start of her stunning work. It’s a fantastic score that rouses an audience, and nails all over the wonderful emotional beats.
And there is plenty of thrilling action throughout this movie. The Phantasm’s stalking of mob bosses are dark, shadowy, and even a little scary. They have a looming, ominous presence. The film unfolds some rousing and even explosive moments at a regular interval, but they entirely flow from the progression of the plot. Nothing’s extraneous, and it really wastes no time crashing you headlong into the action and story. The climax with Batman and the Joker at the abandoned World’s Fair is pretty fun. It shows the Joker’s dangerous playfulness, and creates an escalating sense of peril as he has rigged the whole place to explode. Yet, the movie ends on the appropriate emotional beats remembering that the story is paramount, and it treats its character with due respect.
Unlike many live action movies, this animated feature was given a lot of creative freedom to its production team, and they were able to deliver a very well fleshed out, wonderfully balanced story. This is entirely reflective of the quality that was consistently on display with the animated series and its spin-offs and follow-ups. If you’ve never seen Batman: The Animated Series, this is a great introduction to it, and if you’ve watched and loved it, this is a gem that will satisfy your fandom. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is a delightful and amazing animated Batman adventure that is well worth your time.
This is the first Batman movie I saw theatrically, and at twelve years old, I loved it. I think it’s a much more polished movie than Tim Burton’s 1989 film with a number of charismatic, excellent performances. I’ve never perceived the film as weird or strange like many do. I just see it as a damn good movie that I highly enjoy. I think Batman Returns is far more of a Tim Burton style movie than the first, but in my opinion, that doesn’t make it a lesser Batman movie.
Gotham City calls upon its greatest hero, Batman, to combat its newest threats. From the sewers, the deformed and hideous Penguin (Danny DeVito), head of the criminal Red Triangle Circus Gang, forges a fiendish alliance with the corrupt business mogul Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). Penguin is discovered to be Oswald Cobblepot, the outcast son of a wealthy Gotham couple, and Shreck looks to set him up as the city’s Mayor to force his deceptive power plant upon the city. However, the Penguin has his own schemes to wreak havoc upon Gotham. Meanwhile, Max Shreck attempts to murder his frumpy secretary Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) after poking around too deeply into his shady business plans, but she is resurrected as the dangerous and sexy Catwoman who seeks revenge on him. Batman races into action to combat these villains, but as the caped crusader begins to put a dent in their plans, Penguin and Catwoman plot to discredit Batman, making him a criminal in the eyes of Gotham’s citizens. While the Bat and Cat are at odds, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle quickly become romantically involved which further strains Selina’s already fractured psyche. Batman must battle to stave off the treacherous, twisted plans of these eccentric villains before rampant destruction is inflicted upon Gotham City.
This is truly one of the very few superhero films that is able to balance out having multiple villains. The plotlines are all interconnected smartly through the Max Shreck character. The Penguin is the main villain while Catwoman is more of a subversive wild card, as she should be. Her motives are more passionate while his are particularly methodical, but do later delve into the maniacal. This film seems more character driven than the first, and has some stronger emotional context. Selina has a wild ride that takes her through a slew of emotional states. She is very conflicted between her vengeful psychotic side, and the one that is gradually falling in love with Bruce Wayne. Michelle Pfeiffer just does a stunning job in this role ultimately making Selina grossly sympathetic. The Penguin is fueled by spite for society for being rejected by it all his life, and goes through a character arc himself. First, wanting to be accepted as man instead of a monster, but later, embraces the monster he has become to wreak havoc upon Gotham City.
I also love the plot of the villains launching an elaborate smear campaign against Batman. They frame him for murder and more to position Cobblepot as the new face of hope for the city. It makes for a more dire and interesting circumstance for Batman to deal with, but Bruce decides turnabout is fair play. It’s all an excellently crafted story progression. Daniel Waters and Sam Hamm really conjured up a great story that takes plenty of twists and turns that maintain excitement and interest in the characters. It’s not just some colorful madman terrorizing the city, it’s more complex and involved than that. There are numerous motivations at play with the main characters that create a more personal set of conflicts. The Penguin does provide the larger scale threat near the end, but it’s still perfectly in line with his agenda. He reaches a boiling point, and decides to let loose upon this city that has turned on him. Everything builds up to him becoming that monster, and I believe it’s all greatly executed. In general, the film is amazingly well paced always keeping a consistent energetic rhythm going. At no point does the film feel like it drags. There’s always something developing because of the multiple main characters and interwoven plots. It never gets confusing either. It’s all competently and tightly strung together.
I love the subtle detective aspects in Michael Keaton’s Batman. While everyone else is very much buying the altruistic façade of the Penguin, he sees something that just doesn’t fit right. Something nags at that inquisitive mind of his, and that is extremely faithful to the psychology of Batman. He hardly needs to vocalize his intellect. What is said is conveyed very succinctly as Keaton did a lot of trimming down of dialogue to keep Batman’s words sharp and telling. The film also shows a little technical prowess with Bruce both having the forethought to record the Penguin’s rantings to cleverly use against him later, and showing Bruce attempting to repair the damaged Batmobile. They are just subtle things which show that Bruce has these diverse skills.
This time out, Michael Keaton was given a wider canvas to stretch his talent across. He still executes Batman amazingly well. He is able to convey so much just through those intense eyes, and that sells the demeanor and intimidation of Batman so powerfully. Of course, with the Catwoman dynamic, Keaton has more chemistry to strike up under the mask, and a few appropriate humorous exchanges while fighting with her. Keaton has rich chemistry with the whole cast, and is able to offer up more as Bruce Wayne as well as Batman. His relationship with Michael Gough’s Alfred is a little more light hearted and open. One has to love the little jab about Alfred letting Vicky Vale into the Batcave. Opposite Christopher Walken, Keaton holds up quite well, but Walken never makes it easy for anyone to stand up to his charisma. Still, there’s a nice contrast in Keaton’s more grounded, respectable businessman to Walken’s wheeler and dealer type who definitely has skeletons in his closet. What really shines, though, is that Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer have electric chemistry both in costume and out. The romantic relationship is perfectly complicated as Batman and Catwoman are supposed to be. There’s always some ethical or moral divide between them that cuts the pinnacle of their love short. You can feel the affection Keaton puts into the performance to have the emotions strike deep within Bruce’s soul, and create the powerful connection Bruce and Selina are meant to have. Even as Batman, Keaton shows that sparkle of fascination and intrigue for this seductive and dangerous Catwoman. She, figuratively, hits him very close to the heart, and he sees someone possibly cut from the same jagged mold that he was. There is much less of a sense of the brooding lone man in Batman Returns, but with the stronger love interest aspect and the story ties with Max Shreck, it naturally pushes Bruce Wayne out of the shadows and into a more active situation. He no longer feels like the recluse he seemed to be in the first film. He feels both like a real executive businessman and a human being here. Bruce Wayne does have that dark shadow on his soul, but he has loved many woman in the comics and has been a responsible and quite public businessman. So, it’s all perfectly in line with the source material, and Keaton, nor anyone else, could have done it better.
Danny DeVito is fantastic in this grotesque version of the Penguin. In the comics, he’s just a short, stout crime boss dressed in a tuxedo and top hat with an affinity for birds. Here, he’s made into a freakish man in both appearance and psychology. DeVito just throws all of himself into this role making Penguin a disgusting, crude villain full of gross rage and despicable deceitfulness. It seems like he purely enveloped himself in the character, and had the time of his life with it. He puts on a sinister performance of a man who revels in his own vile intentions, and it couldn’t be better. DeVito is immensely entertaining and charismatic. The make-up design of the character is equally excellent creating a look that can be effectively unsettling. Still, DeVito is easily able to show the wide range of subtle and verbose emotions of the character through the prosthetics. It’s a masterful execution all around.
However, the absolutely stunning standout in this cast is definitely Michelle Pfeiffer. She passionately embodies all phases and mental states of Selina Kyle. From the meek and mousy secretary that awkwardly blends into the background to the bolder, more aggressive and seductive woman to the playful, sultry Catwoman to the ultimately fractured person whose emotions are strained between the love she has found with Bruce and the bloodthirsty vengeance she is driven towards with Shreck. When she is that more lowly woman at the start, there is such a timid, oppressed quality about the character that you can’t help but feel bad for her. Nothing seems to go right for Selina, and she couldn’t be more undeserving of Max Shreck’s intimidating and belittling treatment of her. Then, when that nervous breakdown occurs, Pfeiffer turns on a truly manic performance that shows the traumatic transformation Selina has now gone through. It’s the character violently breaking free of the restraints she’s had all this time, and out the other end of it comes this confident, aggressive woman. This is a Catwoman that excites. Beyond just the sizzling hot sexual aspects, she is electrifyingly dangerous between her ferocious fighting skills, the razor sharp claws, and the leather whip. Pfeiffer slinks very smoothly into being Catwoman lusciously embodying her feline grace. As Selina herself, she shows an amazing ability to subtly shift tone from humorous or casual to just plain dark and unsettling. That venomous dark side seeps through beautifully. Michelle Pfeiffer brings out such intense emotional pain and conflict which forges together an immensely fascinating and sympathetic character. There’s so much subtle texture and emotional range in her performance that one could go on all day detailing it all. Simply said, she put in a remarkably diverse and emotionally intense performance here, and greatly enhances the depth of the film. From what she did in this role, you can definitely see why Selina Kyle had such a strong emotional impact on Bruce Wayne by the film’s end. Pfeiffer absolutely left me wanting more in absolutely every good way imaginable.
Of course, you can never go wrong with casting Christopher Walken, and in Batman Returns, he’s definitely at his best. He has fierce charisma that forces the character of Max Shreck vibrantly into the meat of the film. He never gets lost or brushed aside in favor for the more fantastical villains. There’s just too much weight and excitement in what Walken brings to the role for an audience not to welcome his presence. Walken is massively intimidating when threatening Selina just before attempting to kill her. You feel like Max Shreck is a powerhouse heavy. He’s masterfully manipulative with a mesmerizing skill of twisting people’s minds with his words. Walken just has such a fascinating delivery of lines that is a signature for him, but I think he adds something specially dynamic to this role. He could carry this whole movie as the main villain if it had called for it. Shreck is not damaged goods like Batman, Catwoman, or the Penguin, and that probably makes him the most condemnable villain of the film. He’s a corrupt, deceitful, murderous human being wrapped up in the guise of a respectable businessman. He’s an unethical vacuum of morality that will go to any crooked lengths to further his agendas and strengthen his legacy in Gotham. He’s cutthroat to no end, and Walken embraces the unsettling, shrewd nature of the character powerfully.
Again, the look of Batman Returns is much more polished than the 1989 movie. There is not as much grit in the visuals, and instead, has a stronger contrast. Blacks are thick and rich. They maintain a striking appearance as the shadows are nicely balanced with the light. Burton and his Edward Scissorhands director of photography Stefan Czapsky give this movie its own visual identity. I very much like the blue tones seen throughout which offer up a very complementary tone. Batman Returns certainly doesn’t have quite as much iconic imagery as its predecessor, but it surely has its dramatic moments that are beautifully captured. The snowy appearance of the film was a gorgeous choice as it further adds to the visual contrast and beauty. It’s strange that while the subject matter is definitely darker than the first, Batman Returns actually doesn’t look nearly as dark as the 1989 movie. It appears to be generally brighter and more inviting. It has plenty of moody visuals, but moves away from the muted color schemes and grim aesthetics. It’s definitely a pleasant experience for the eyes.
The production design is much sleeker, and that is reflected in the redesigned Bat suit. It has a cleaner, more art deco armored design which makes sense. Batman would likely evolve his suit into something generally more durable. From a production standpoint, it just looks more refined and streamlined. Gotham City looks more updated with a generally more modern feeling, but still showcasing an gothic industrial look as well as some 1930s or 1940s artistic mentalities. It’s a beautiful city no longer tainted by grime and trash, but still has its darker qualities. Even the Batcave gets a fine upgrade with more up-to-date technology and refined lighting schemes. Plus, the Bat-Ski boat is a sleek addition which gives the film a little extra something near the climax. The wardrobe is just wonderful all around. The gorgeous pinstriped suits of Max Shreck have an excellent 1900s turn of the century class to them. They make him feel like an iconic captain of industry, and the full grey head of hair was a nice touch to his look. The Catwoman outfit could not be sleeker or more sexually charged. It’s absolutely perfect for a character of this slinky nature, but also, reflects her fractured psyche with the stitched together look. Even Penguin’s more upscale outfits, somewhat reflective of Shreck’s style, still have a grungy feel to them. It creates a nice texture and contrast for the character. Penguin’s lair is exceptionally moody, decrepit, and dank perfectly reflecting the striking image of the character.
Danny Elfman really broadens the musical landscape of the franchise with this film. With more main characters come some very distinctive and marvelous themes that richly reflect the complicated natures of these characters. Catwoman’s theme is so wonderfully complex representing the chaotic and unbalanced nature of the character, and throwing in a dash of sorrow and sympathy here and there. Elfman adds a chorus into the score to enhance the operatic sense of everything, and the slight rearrangement of the main title march is very pleasing. It is a heavily and finely textured score that is vibrant and epic. The Christmas season setting of the film truly weaves its way into the score every so often, and makes for a very colorful and haunting listen. While I’ve never seen A Nightmare Before Christmas, I have to imagine there’s some correlation between those musical styles from Elfman.
There is also a vast improvement in visual effects work here. Before watching the featurettes on the Special Edition DVD, I never knew that the opening title sequence was entirely done with miniatures and effects work. It always looked entirely natural to me. Matte paintings are still great, but have a little more life to them with some extra color and integrated motion. Since digital effects had progressed into the forefront, we definitely get the benefit of that higher end work here. Being released in 1992, it was sandwiched right between 1991’s Terminator 2 and 1993’s Jurassic Park. While the digital effects are not used on a massive scale, they are very seamless with both something like the armored shields on the Batmobile, and more so with the digital replication of the penguin soldiers late in the film. Overall, it’s a very fine accomplishment from the visual effects department. Stan Winston also provided his studio’s talent with creating numerous animatronic penguins that seamlessly blend in with the real life ones.
Tim Burton continues to show a great sense of action in this sequel. Every single action sequence is choreographed and shot amazingly well. They are smartly scripted making sure each one is organically different without forcing it. With the eccentric nature of the Red Triangle Circus Gang, Batman has plenty of gimmickry to combat from the sword swallower to the fire breather and many more. He handles each one with originality packed with some ironic entertainment value. Igniting the Batmobile’s flaming turbine engine upon the fire breather is just too priceless. Then, things get more interesting when Batman combats Catwoman. She’s immensely skilled and agile making for a dynamically dangerous adversary that gets some stinging shots in. Mixing that in with the sensuous aspects of their peculiar relationship, it creates a great twisting psychological unpredictability to their confrontations. The climax of the film just blows me away. There’s so much slam bang awesomeness packed into it which Burton handles with so much competency and balance. The race to halt the Penguin’s missile attack on the city creates the fast paced excitement with the Bat Ski boat rocketing to its desination. The explosive and poignant conclusions to the Penguin’s storyline are nicely balanced on either side of Selina Kyle’s own emotionally charged climax. This entire sequence is tightly paced, and hits all the plot and character beats perfectly on the mark. Everything is powerfully wrapped up to a highly satisfying degree. Many superhero films with so many villains usually end up in a mess, but Batman Returns handles all of them exceptionally well all the way through to the end.
The film certainly has more impact upon Bruce Wayne than Batman, but it all ties in very nicely. The parallels of Batman and Catwoman versus Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle was an excellent idea. How both are tied into one is exceptionally strong. Just a simple unassuming line of dialogue is what triggers the revelation to them both, and injects a much stronger emotional element into the climax. It also does create a fine arc for Bruce Wayne / Batman. Seeing him connect with this woman that is very much like him, and how he ultimately wants to be able to save her from the vengeance that’s eating her alive is wonderfully done. The Batman / Catwoman relationship has always been one of the most fascinating and complex ones in comics, and I believe Tim Burton and his screenwriters did an excellent job bringing that to the screen while Keaton and Pfeiffer made it exceed any expectations.
After watching Batman Returns again, I think this might be my new favorite Batman movie. While it’s not really faithful to all the characters as, in the comics, Catwoman is just a cat burglar with no mystical type powers or psychological unbalances, and Penguin is just a sort of quirky, non-freakish crime boss, I really like what was done with these characters, and all the concepts were executed with depth and intelligence. If it was all done poorly or just fell short of its potential, I would surely have some gripes with it all, but everyone involved just couldn’t have done a better job. The tight pace is really what excites me about the movie. It’s constantly moving somewhere with one character or another, and they are all logically and organically tied in together instead of some slap dashed plot to force multiple villains into the same movie. It’s this tightly wrapped sordid web of interconnected characters and plotlines that are smartly interwoven. I will say that there was a slight missed opportunity by Batman not having to really deal with being framed for murder by Penguin and Catwoman. It is an unresolved plot point that is brushed aside rather effortlessly, and it’s a shame too. It’s a storyline that could be very fascinating to explore, but the film just didn’t have room to resolve it. Any such resolution can only be implied, likely through Batman’s rescue of the children from the Red Triangle Circus Gang. However, for the trade off we get for it, I can generally overlook this issue. I enjoy Batman Returns thoroughly now, and I think it’s gotten some bad press over the years. People seem to act like 1989’s Batman was this bright, happy, fun adventure film for the whole family in comparison, but like I said in that review, at nine years old, my parents did not let me see it in the theatre. It was a dark movie that could be unsettling to a young audience. Batman Returns at least has a bit more levity via light, appropriate humor and great chemistry to balance out the dark characters and subject matter. I would venture to say that this sequel is more fun and more exciting than the first movie. I just find this more satisfying on numerous levels. It has a stronger, more layered story with more rousing action, and a tighter rhythm and pace held together by an incredible cast. I believe Batman Returns is an amazing movie, and a great sequel. I won’t say it’s perfect, or that it will give you everything you want from a Batman movie, but it’s a damn good one, regardless. I know it almost certainly will never happen, but I would be very interested in seeing Tim Burton and Michael Keaton return to the franchise with a proper sequel to their Batman movies. I think they could still do a great job if collaborating with the right creative talents, and Burton could likely use a change of talents these days.
The summer of 1989 was one of the biggest with blockbusters like Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, The Abyss, When Harry Met Sally, and Licence To Kill, but none were bigger than Tim Burton’s Batman. This was the summer of DC Comic’s caped crusader. The merchandising was inescapable. I have two posters from this film one with Keaton in the Bat suit and another of the Batmobile with all the vehicle’s specs on it, and I used to have a Batman cap until it got burned up in a small fire. Unfortunately, because of the film’s dark nature and PG-13 rating, my parents did not allow me to see it theatrically. I had to wait until Christmas for the VHS, and I still have that VHS twenty-three years later. Batman is my all time favorite superhero, and I have seen every Batman feature film theatrically from Batman Returns onwards. Unfortunately, ever since the Christopher Nolan films, I’ve found it hard to go back to these earlier movies because they just don’t fully satisfy what I want from Batman, anymore, but that doesn’t mean Tim Burton’s 1989 mega-blockbuster is not a good film. It’s an undeniable classic that stills holds up well nearly a quarter century later.
Gotham City is a grim urban landscape of economic downfall plagued with crime. Heading up the city’s organized crime is the powerful Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), and his “number one” is an egotistical psychotic named Jack Napier who, after falling into a vat of chemicals during a police bust setup by Grissom, is deformed into the maniacal Joker (Jack Nicholson). However, out of the shadows of this hopeless city is a creature of the night, the mythic crime-fighter known as the Batman (Michael Keaton). Secretly, he is millionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne who witnessed his own parents’ murder as a child, and that drove him to strike out into the night in this fearsome persona. The Joker’s reign of terror begins to engulf Gotham as his toxic chemicals, which are hidden in ordinary products, claim innocent lives. Meanwhile, photojournalist Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) teams with newspaper reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) to uncover the mystery that is Batman. However, Vale quickly falls in love with Bruce Wayne, and soon finds herself caught in between the clashing Batman and Joker while Gotham City’s fate and hope remain at stake.
As a lifelong fan of the character, I have seen numerous versions of him from Adam West to Super Friends to Batman: The Animated Series and beyond. It ranges a wide spectrum from colorful and campy to fun and exciting to dark and gritty. What Burton gives us here is a very gothic inspired Dark Knight. His intention was for Bruce Wayne to be a man who presents Batman as a frightening urban myth. Something that truly appears supernatural through the use of theatrics and nightmarish imagery. The Nolan films took a more ninja-like approach whereas Burton truly wraps the character up in horror ideals. He’s not frequently using quick vanishing techniques to be just a vague idea. Instead, he wants his prey to see him prominently in order to be scared out of their minds at the thought of him. He builds up his own myth with the regular street trash while eyeing the organized crime players of Gotham City, and does it with artistic mastery.
There was a lot of uproar over the casting of Michael Keaton in the title role. Physically, I can see what they were all worried about. At 5’9”, Keaton is not physically imposing, and not the athletic specimen you think of as a superhero. However, Burton’s thought was that a guy of Keaton’s build and ability would need to dress up as a terrifying figure to compensate for his physical shortcomings, and I think that works in this film’s approach. Michael Keaton is an awesome actor, and I’d love to see more of him in front of the camera, again. He has a certain manic charisma where you can believe Bruce Wayne is a bit psychologically unbalanced, and could snap at a moment’s notice. He engulfs himself in a dark, brooding aura that could destroy a lesser man, but because he has a purpose he is dedicated to, Bruce Wayne is able to focus that psyche into something positive. As just Bruce Wayne, Keaton has a light-hearted charisma and charm. He has smooth chemistry with Michael Gough’s Alfred and Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale. Keaton and Basinger might not have the most exciting or interesting relationship of all the Batman movies, but it’s nicely understated and casual. For most of the film, it’s Vicky dealing with Bruce as Bruce. It’s not until late in the film that she has to knowingly deal with his alter ego. As Batman, Keaton is electrifying and powerful. The persona entirely works. You get to see the dichotomy of the man where he does desire a sense of normalcy and happiness, but is driven towards the shadows as Batman. Keaton allows you to feel the character’s somber sense that impacts both sides of his personality. Michael Keaton is amazing.
One thing that I have come to find odd is that the wealthiest man in Gotham City is hardly recognizable by most people. Neither Vicky Vale or Alexander Knox, both professional news people, seem to recognize Bruce Wayne, and the Joker and his henchman Bob barely seem to know his name. The idea almost seems to be that Bruce Wayne is a recluse, but reclusive people don’t often hold large fundraiser parties in their own mansions. This doesn’t seem to be carried over much into the sequel Batman Returns, thankfully.
The Joker has also had numerous interpretations over the decades, and I have found many of them enjoyable. Cesar Romero was always infectiously fun as the exuberant campy character, and Mark Hamill’s voice work as the Joker in the DC Animated Universe has been stunning. What Jack Nicholson gives us is something with shades of something dark and troubling as well as fun and hammy. He makes the Joker a larger than life villain, almost a twisted live action cartoon in a good way. He definitely throws himself fully into the role making him disturbingly funny. He’s truly psychotic, and really electrifies the screen with his vibrant presence. With this version of the character, I couldn’t see anyone else doing a bolder, more charismatic job. Unlike a lot of comic book characters, there’s rarely a wrong interpretation of the Joker as the character is so completely out of his mind that he can easily adopt a new personality depending on his disposition from day-to-day. When Christopher Nolan brought the Joker back to the big screen for The Dark Knight, it was a great iteration that worked phenomenally for the story being told, and the world of his films. For Tim Burton’s movie, Nicholson’s Joker was dead-on perfect.
Kim Basinger portrays Vicky Vale with a wonderful depth of class, but the character has just never done anything for me. Her fascination with the Batman legend helps to drive her part of the story forward, and it is a fine low key romantic relationship between Vale and Wayne. In concept, the two things being intertwined is good, but the script hardly plays with that at all. Later films did a more satisfying job playing up those conflicted dynamics. None of this is a failure of Basinger as she does all she can with the role, and she does it well. I just don’t think the character was given enough substance to be what the script seemed to want her to be.
The supporting cast is entertaining and nicely cast. Robert Wuhl adds a little bit of heart and humor to the picture as the upbeat journalist Alexander Knox. He’s got a nice counter-balance chemistry to Kim Basinger, and allows for a few moments of levity in what’s generally a dark, heavy toned film. Michael Gough, as the butler Alfred, also offers up a sense of family and heart opposite Keaton providing Bruce Wayne a fine confidant. Carl Grissom becomes an excellent heavyweight crime boss in the hands of Jack Palance. You would need someone of Palance’s imposing dramatic ability to rival Nicholson. Now, it would’ve been nice to see more of Billy Dee Williams’ charismatic and charming Harvey Dent beyond this film. The Christopher Walken character in Batman Returns was originally supposed to be Dent, and have the electrocution by Catwoman give birth to Two-Face. I’ll never oppose the inclusion of Christopher Walken into a movie, but there was definite further intent with the Dent character in Burton’s hands that Williams was game to dive into.
On the down side, I’ve never been too pleased with this version of Commissioner Gordon. Making him such an older gentleman with a more uptight sensibility took away the rich relationship Batman and Jim Gordon tend to have in the comics. There is usually a strong sense of respect and close friendship between the two. In this franchise of Batman films, that relationship is never developed, and I think that’s a definite negative mark against these films. We never see how Batman truly earns the trust and respect of the Gotham City police because he hardly ever interacts with them. Jim Gordon has been shown to be a great, rich character to explore, but this franchise just seems to include him because he’s supposed to be there. This is not a hit against Pat Hingle, who does a fine job with the character as written, I just know that it was a wasted opportunity by not developing or truly utilizing the character at all.
Back on the positive side, Batman certainly has a 1930s retro production design while still maintaining a modern sensibility. It gives the film an interesting appeal that avoids visually dating itself. The color palette is nicely toned down so that the Joker’s vibrant outfits truly pop out on screen. The overall artistic design of Batman is rather elegant at times while still integrating industrial aspects. The Bat Cave reflects the very depths of the industrial design making it a totally utilitarian environment for Batman to work in. It’s all just a striking achievement. Building off of that artistry is how Burton creates dramatic introductions for the film’s iconography. Batman enters the film with that powerful mythic and frightening style ambushing those muggers on the rooftop. The Joker theatrically reveals himself just before gunning down his boss. Even the Batmobile has an awesome reveal during the escape from the museum. This is what gives the film such an iconic status. Incredible moments are peppered throughout the movie to burn them deeply into an audience’s psyche. There are quotable lines all throughout the film which further strengthened its place in pop culture.
I really love the mystique the film builds around Batman. Tim Burton creates a sense of Batman being more than just a man in a suit capable of extraordinary things. He maintains a shadowy air of mystery around him so that others can still perceive him as an unkillable supernatural being. The leather and rubber suit gives a more black fleshy appearance to him, and the Batmobile is an imposing, fierce vehicle with a lot of muscle. It looks absolutely awesome barreling down a darkened road. It’s all carefully crafted to enhance the persona. Batman never gives away enough of his personality and methods for anyone to really figure him out. He is truly enigmatic.
The way the film is shot, with a lot of noir style lighting, strongly emphasizes that mystique. It definitely looks like a Tim Burton film with its dark visual aesthetic, and it is beautifully done. He worked with an excellent cinematographer in Roger Pratt who has also worked with the also off-beat Terry Gilliam on a few occasions. So, you know this is a director of photography who knows how to realize a unique vision with amazing results. I like the occasional Dutch angled shots to give the film a little bit of that comic book composition here and there. The look of this film really sparked off a whole dark, gothic visual style for the next several years, and was probably best and most beautifully showcased in The Crow. Batman itself has its own beauty and striking cinematic qualities thanks to Burton’s vision and Pratt’s artistry.
This film is filled with some great action sequences, and are all exceptionally well executed. While the intent is that Bruce Wayne does not have amazing athletic ability, Batman is still shown to have sharp prowess in hand-to-hand combat. He dispatches with thugs quite quickly and easily. He throws kicks and punches with a nice dash of martial arts talent, but keeps it straight and to the point. He’s very capable of holding his own opposite all styles of opponents with both physical capability and intellect. The more explosive scenes are excellently paced and give the film more bombast. It livens up the movie exactly when it needs a strong shot of adrenalin. The climax is very well done with Batman fighting through a couple of henchmen working his way to confronting the Joker. Although, I can’t say that making Jack Napier / the Joker the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents was particularly necessary. Yes, it does add a more personal, passionate purpose to Batman’s fight with him, but it’s only a minor part of the climax. Batman and the Joker have been passionately battling one another perfectly well in comics for decades without the aid of this element. It doesn’t bother me all that much now that Christopher Nolan has given us a more faithful adaptation of that event, but it’s not something that the filmmakers needed to do here.
Of course, one has to praise Danny Elfman’s iconic score. The theme he composed for Batman ranks right up there with John Williams’ Superman theme. Elfman’s work here is operatic with a gothic feel, and I’ve even heard it said that it’s very evocative of Christopher Young’s score for Hellbound: Hellraiser II. I surely cannot deny the similarities in the musical styles with the big, grand swells with the ominous, dark overtones, but I will never take away what Elfman achieved with Batman. I will also never downgrade the work of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard on the Nolan films, but Elfman’s theme is near impossible to overshadow. And yes, I am a fan of Prince. He does some fine work here composing numerous original songs for the film that suit the tone overall. They give the film some vibrancy in a few of the Joker’s most outlandish scenes, and help enhance some of the darker toned scenes as well. It’s definitely not Prince’s best work, but it is quite notable amongst his body of work to have done this soundtrack. Of course, even some of Prince’s lesser work is exceedingly better than some artists’ very best.
The story is very straight forward for a superhero film, but it does seem to lean more heavily on the Joker than Batman. You get to see a full character arc for Jack Napier as he goes from this dangerous gangster to a fully psychotic deformed madman with an objectionable conclusion. I generally don’t like killing off a villain at the end of the movie. They’ve existed in comics for decades with countless stories told about them, and then, a filmmaker essentially says that they’re only good for one story in movies. So, they dispose of them promptly at the end. For one, it goes against Batman’s ideals to outright kill someone. He stands for justice, and wishes to bring hope and balance back to his city. If he starts killing them, he ultimately becomes no better than those he is trying to combat. This became an ill trend in superhero movies, and I think it’s generally a bad idea in most cases. I don’t mind it in a Punisher movie, or even the Blade movies. It suits those characters to off their villains by the end, but not for Batman. Of course, over time, I have mellowed towards Tim Burton’s Batman movies, and while I still don’t think it was a good idea what was done to the Joker, it doesn’t greatly annoy me. Part of Jack Nicholson’s deal to star in the film was to get top billing, and it’s almost appropriate since the Joker is the one with far more back story and development put into him. Batman is just Batman throughout the movie, and really doesn’t go through much of an arc at all. The character remains fascinating and captivating, but he’s essentially the same guy at the end of the film that he was at the start. It’s only peoples’ perceptions of Batman that change, not the character himself. So, I would have to levy some criticism upon that aspect of the film. It’s a Batman film that’s not really all that much about Batman.
The visual effects can come off as dated. This was still in the optical composition, matte painting, and rear screen projection days. I have a fondness for some of those days, but regardless, these effects don’t have a fine polish to them to make them all that seamless or timeless. They do entirely fit Tim Burton’s filmmaking style of the time, and they serve the film’s visual aesthetics greatly. Still, anyone that’s first seeing this in the twenty-first century would likely not take to them too well. Thankfully, this is not a visual effects heavy film, and with these elements mostly being integrated into the final act of the movie, it can allow a modern audience member to comfortably adjust to this film’s style by then. For the late 1980s, these were still rather high quality opticals that gave Batman some admirable production quality on top of the marvelously designed sets.
Again, this movie was a phenomenon back in 1989. Everywhere you looked, there was that Bat symbol. Hell, you can see it in Times Square in Friday The 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan and the music video for The Cult’s “Edie (Ciao Baby).” You couldn’t avoid it if you wanted to, and in 1989, I’m sure this lived up to the hype and exceeded expectations. In retrospect, it is still a very good movie, and a greatly admirable true theatrical debut for Batman. It creates an engrossing mystique for the character in a dark, gothic industrial world where he blends in beautifully. There are amazing performances throughout the cast, but there are a few creative decisions that the film could’ve easily done without. And while Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger have nice chemistry, the Bruce Wayne / Vicky Vale relationship wasn’t all that stimulating or interesting. Personally, I do prefer Batman Returns over Batman. It has some stronger plotlines and better character dynamics to make a more entertaining and exciting movie, in my view. Regardless, Tim Burton’s 1989 film will always stand as a bonafide, respected classic which cemented Batman in our modern popular culture.