I have LOVED this movie since I first saw it. I know this was met with mixed reactions upon release, and it was not a real lucrative success in theatres. Frankly, I am baffled by this. The Shadow, to me, is a marvelous film that is perfect Russell Mulcahy style, second only to Highlander. It’s also a film that was never given its due justice on home video, but thanks to iTunes, I can now enjoy this film in beautiful high-definition widescreen! I believe The Shadow to be a solid piece of work in every aspect as well as an immensely enjoyable superhero action film.
In 1930’s China, Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) is known as Yin-Ko, a murderous opium warlord, who is reformed by a Tibetan mystic who teaches him how to use his keen mental powers to manipulate others. As penance for his past misdeeds, Cranston masquerades as a New York City playboy by day and secretly plays the heroic Shadow by night, staving off evildoers with a network of agents and a cab-driving sidekick (Peter Boyle). A greater challenge arrives when a new enemy presents himself in Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the final descendent of Genghis Khan, who has received training from the same Tibetan master who instructed Cranston. Khan desires to have the once savage Cranston join him in his conquest of the world through use of an atomic bomb, but finds only an adversary. Meanwhile, Cranston encounters the alluring and intriguing Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller) who also possesses unique psychic abilities that complicate his life, but soon, they join together to combat the powerful Shiwan Khan.
Mulcahy shrouds this whole film in this wonderful mystique and atmosphere that is perfect for this sort of character. The entire presentation of the Shadow reinforces the supernatural element of him – the smoke, illusions, and psychic perceptions. He’s enigmatic to a vibrantly fascinating degree bordering on frightening. I love the lighting trick of enveloping Cranston in shadow when he utilizes his psychic abilities. The mystical and surreal visions we get as we delve into his psyche are stunning. This film really envelopes an audience fully and deeply into Lamont Cranston’s mind which is endlessly fascinating, if not quite disturbing. It also doesn’t bog us down with a lengthy origin story. It’s quite succinct, telling us all we need to know, and even touching back upon it as the film goes on. This way, it can jump right into the meat of the story. While I’m sure something like a 120+ minute film could be made from this material, like a Batman Begins, walking us through Cranston’s change from the barbarous Yin-Ko to the heroic Shadow, I like the straight to the point mentality of this film.
I honestly believe Alec Baldwin was a dead-on perfect casting choice. He has the dapper charm and charisma for Lamont, but with a tinge of shadowy mystique at nearly all times. As Yin-Ko, he is a chilling, violent warlord who is hedonistic in his bloodletting. He never ceases to satiate his lust for barbarism. In the middle of Cranston and Yin-Ko, we find the Shadow where Lamont uses the darkness within to battle evil wherever it hides. I love that Baldwin embraces and envelopes himself in that darkness, and even adopts a bit deeper voice, at times, that is both haunting and unsettling. His eyes are also magnificently piercing with that intense, razor sharp stare. Overall, I think Alec Baldwin put together a stellar and dynamic package here with a darker tinged hero with charisma, charm, and an edginess. His performance here made me believed that Alec Baldwin could also have been a great Bruce Wayne / Batman. He takes a character of complex depth and grim history, and makes him a nearly larger than life entity of justice.
Baldwin has such great chemistry with Penelope Ann Miller forging a unique but very pleasing romantic, lively relationship. That Margo also possesses psychic abilities makes her an intriguing counterpart to Lamont Cranston. She’s not going to be manipulated by his powers, and she can see directly into his mind, picking up his thoughts. It forces them together, much to Lamont’s dismay, but this allows for a unique synergy between them. They never have a love scene, but their bond goes so deeply into their psyches that a love scene would seem almost unnecessary. Miller brings a great deal of spirit and assertion to Margo Lane making her both an elegant beauty and lovely character to invest your time in.
And oh, do I love John Lone as Shiwan Khan. He has such theatrical presence that commands every scene he appears in. He has such passion with his performance embodying Khan’s admiration for Yin-Ko, but also, the lust for violent conquest. He hungers at the thought of the power and the barbarism. He’s a perfect villain who reflects upon Lamont as the man he was and is still haunted by. Khan challenges Cranston as an equal tapping into the deepest, darkest parts of his being, and even being superior to him in certain ways. Shiwan Khan is an intelligent, calculating villain with patience and the merciless will to enact his plans of destruction. It is an immensely satisfying portrayal from a very talented actor.
Tim Curry does a wonderfully pleasant job as the weasely Farley Claymore. He embraces this sleazy, cowardly, power hungry character with great zeal. He’s loving every minute of it, and he creates this great second foil that an audience can’t wait to see get what’s coming to him. Curry is always just so much fun to watch in whatever he does, and this is no exception at all.
This film makes gorgeous use of both digital and optical effects. For one, the filmmakers do an amazing job seamlessly recreating 1930’s New York with various matte paintings, back lots, miniatures, and more. This creates a fully enveloping reality for the film’s setting that has the feel of something made in that time period of cinema. The visual effects used to cloak the Shadow in various instances, and even to morph Baldwin’s face from Cranston to the Shadow are simply fantastic. I can’t really recall any film marrying optical and digital effects. It was either one or the other all the way, but I think Mulcahy saw the value in both technologies utilizing each to their best results. Even Jurassic Park only used CGI dinosaurs when it was necessary, and relying on animatronics for the rest. Here, it all comes together for a stunning and masterful visual experience.
The production design on The Shadow is simply astounding. It has rich, detailed art direction and production values fashioning an elegant 1930’s look. Everything feels authentic to the time with beautifully dressed sets. Khan’s majestic room at the top of the hotel is gorgeously draped with bold Asian designs in fabric, and the Cobalt Club is so elegantly realized. The costumes are excellent, especially those for Penelope Ann Miller who looks classy and gorgeous in those dresses. The look of the Shadow is awesome with the long brimmed fedora, black cloak, overcoat, red scarf, and the twin shoulder holsters. It’s a solid, yet simple iconic look that makes a striking impression. I love how the cloak flows giving the Shadow a floating quality that reinforces the wraith-like glimpses we occasionally get of him. Even the atomic bomb has a great art deco design. This art department really did an amazing job here leaving no detail unpolished.
While the story is rather typical of a superhero film, bad guy wants to conquer the world, it’s really the characters and their motivations that make it different. I always wonder what exactly a villain would do once they’ve taken over the world. What’s left to do when everyone is your enslaved servant? For Shiwan Khan, it’s not about being the ruler of the world, but indulging in the barbarism that comes with that power. He doesn’t want to sit back and enjoy himself. He wants to see the world tear itself apart in savagery and war. He wants to strike terror into humanity, and see it descend into fear and butchery as he pits one army against another army. The added dynamic between Khan and Cranston makes the story all the more compelling to me. When you’ve got a hero and villain so tightly interwoven and connected like this, it creates a great sense of depth and intrigue. Lamont must battle an adversary who is his superior, but gradually, must grow his abilities to eventually match those of Khan.
The film also features some smart, timely, and appropriate humor. Mulcahy balances the darker atmosphere and peril with some quirky moments that never take you out of the vibe he’s running with. The rhythm and chemistry between Baldwin and Miller creates plenty of levity, and there are even a few jovial bits with the now late Jonathan Winters, who portrays Lamont’s Police Commission uncle. Mulcahy keeps the movie fun while still delivering thrills and intrigue on a grand tapestry.
The climax is just stunning from when the Shadow enters the Monolith Hotel to when he and Khan finally clash. It’s a visually awesome sequence with some great effects shots. All the shattering glass creates an amazing dramatically intense impact. There’s a great sense of triumph for Lamont here as he is now taking the fight directly to Khan instead of lagging behind him, and the touches of character growth are excellent. Alongside that, you’ve got some fun yet perilous moments with Margo and her scientist father, portrayed by Ian McKellan, trying to chase down and disarm the ticking time bomb that will nuke the city. It’s fun stuff that still maintains tension in this solid climactic sequence.
Top all of this with a fantastic Jerry Goldsmith score, and I personally believe you’ve got a great, fun film on your hands. I have never had any criticism for this film as I enjoy and love it thoroughly. It’s a solid superhero film with a retro feel that is realized with vibrant vision by Russell Mulcahy. He was the right choice for The Shadow bringing his great eye for cinematography and fantasy with an air of mystique to this very mysterious and fascinating character. Anyone who has not seen this film is someone I strongly urge to do so. I don’t understand where the negativity came from over this. I think it’s a grand example of Mulcahy’s best work, and what made him the filmmaker that I love. He gets great performances out of everyone in this cast, and just hit the style, tone, and atmosphere just perfect as far as I’m concerned. The Shadow feels like a film that should have been a surefire hit, and be held in great admiration to this day. Instead, it has merely a cult following, and has been saddled with a full screen DVD release. Fortunately, it will finally receive a widescreen Blu Ray release this June. Until then, you can rent it from iTunes or Amazon Instant Video.
This is an overlooked gem in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s filmography, in my opinion. It’s an action film that I’ve loved for many, many years back to when I bought the widescreen VHS in a nice clamshell case. Today, I’ve got the bare bones DVD which still presents the film beautifully. I had intended to devote January to being a Schwarzenegger month with a slew of reviews of his films, but let’s say I’ll be getting around to those throughout the year. Today, it’s a fun look at Raw Deal!
A Chicago Mafia is violently doing away with witnesses who were to incriminate them in court, making it clear to the FBI that they have a leak of information in their ranks. Mark Kaminsky (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is an ex-FBI Agent, a former FBI agent forced to resign from the Bureau due to excessive violence, is now a small town sheriff. FBI Chief Harry Shannon (Darren McGavin), whose son has been killed by a mobster named Petrovita (Sam Wanamaker), enlists Kaminsky in a personal vendetta with a promise of reinstatement into the FBI if Patrovita is taken down. Kaminsky eagerly accepts the challenge and is prepared to infiltrate and tear apart the Patrovita machine without the consent, knowledge, or protection of any law enforcement agency. But once he’s in, he can’t get out and when a gorgeous mole is paid off to betray him, he becomes trapped in a deadly game where loyalty means nothing and there is only one person he can trust. Using his own brand of justice, he begins an action-packed journey into the murderous world of the mob and will stop at nothing until he has successfully completed his mission.
This is definitely a bit of a different story than you would usually find Arnold in. Something about corruption in law enforcement and mobsters warring on the streets of Chicago is a little different than secret agents, commandos, or ass kicking cops. However, Arnold fits comfortably and sharply into this context. We usually see him in more straight up action roles, but Raw Deal required Schwarzenegger to be more slick and smart in how his character operates. That classic Arnold charm is what really propels him through most of it. A confident, smooth manner is what takes care of the rest. There’s enough wit and smarts in his performance to maintain that sly sensibility to keep Kaminsky likable and entertaining. Yet, Arnold is able to bring out the tough bad ass competently and effectively. As is no surprise, he’s excellent in every action scene with plenty of physical combat to get his hands dirty.
There are a lot of great one-liners from Arnold that I’ve considered solid classics. It’s smart, fun writing that makes Kaminsky an enjoyable hero while never damaging the dramatic qualities of the film. It’s a nice balance handled by director John Irvin. Without these moments, the film could get a little dry, but we get nice dashes of that charm and wit to liven it up where need be.
Schwarzenegger strikes up some great chemistry with Kathryn Harrold’s classy, yet assertive Monique. What’s nice about this film is that while it does have multiple plot threads and character relationships going on, both friendly and adversarial, it never gets complicated. This is well reflected between these two characters. It has its sweetness as well as its conflicts. They build an enjoyable relationship between affectionate charm and some heated disagreements, but ultimately, it’s a simple romantic storyline that allows Kaminsky to regularly show his humanity and compassion.
There’s also a fine performance by Darren McGavin who mixes the conviction of a man needing justice with that of a heartfelt friend and father. He pops in and out of the film, but his scenes have substance that hold the underlying plot together. Joe Regalbuto creates a nice counterbalance playing up the bureaucratic, slightly snide mentality of Special Prosecutor Baxter, the man who forced Kaminsky out of the FBI. We soon see that he is justifiably despicable, but also, surely lacking in backbone when things got hot.
The supporting cast has plenty of solid talents. Robert Davi is great as the somewhat blunt instrument of an enforcer in Patrovita’s organization. Davi always does top notch work, and he adds a good rough, arrogant quality to Max playing opposite Schwarzenegger’s smoother undercover persona of Joseph Brenner. Everyone from Sam Wanamaker to Steven Hill put in very authentic performances as Chicago mobsters. They have that refined, high class, yet detestably corrupt quality which Chicago residents are all too familiar with. Ed Lauter is damn good as Federal Agent Baker who showcases some wit, charisma, and levity to make him quite engaging and memorable. Overall, Raw Deal doesn’t have a single weak link amongst its highly talented cast.
The score has some nice qualities to it. The action scenes have a strong driving rock sound to them that really kicks some ass, and adds more punch to each sequence. The dramatic scenes are more subtle keeping them generally low key but decently effective. In one instance, where Kaminsky and Monique are indulging in some campaign, we are treated to a nicely elegant saxophone as it becomes a lightly sexy moment with a humorous beat at the end.
I also think Raw Deal is very well shot making fine use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. John Irvin and his cinematographer utilize very good camera movement and solid angles and compositions. These are good, intelligent filmmaker who know how to dramatically stage a scene with smart camera work and very good lighting. They show off some fine 1980’s elegant production design, and also give us some punch in a night club scene with vibrant colors. For whatever reason, Chicago in the 1980s and early 90s looks quite different on film than it does today. A good deal has changed since then with more development all over the place, and it’s kind of intriguing to look back on a film like this that shows off some good landmarks of the city. There’s an entire car chase that runs through Navy Pier, which is essentially a big amusement park area with a Ferris wheel, concert venue, attractions, and a movie theatre today. Here, it’s dead empty.
But yes, indeed, this film features some solid action scenes. As I mentioned, Arnold is great getting hands-on in the fight scenes, and that car chase is really damn good with mobsters trading gunfire at high speeds. There’s enough action to satisfy right from the beginning with a mobster raid on a safe house where a witness is executed. I also love Arnold plowing a truck through the front business of Lamansky’s casino. But for me, the absolute BEST action scene comes when Kaminsky assaults the quarry where he provides his own soundtrack by putting a cassette tape of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” on the convertible car’s stereo and blasting it as he drives around picking off bad guys. There’s just putting a cool song added onto the soundtrack, and then, there’s the character himself providing his own action scene soundtrack. That’s purely priceless and it is one of my favorite moments in a Schwarzenegger film. It’s just awesome! This scene even starts out with the standard “arming up” scene where Kaminsky unfurls his arsenal of high-powered firearms and dons a slick leather jacket.
Following this up is the real big climax where Kaminsky goes for broke and unleashes a barrage of gunfire upon his enemies. There’s a great catalyst to all of this from the undercover operation to pure action revenge onslaught involving Harry. While it essentially negates all the attempted undercover manipulation and deception, it’s ultimately what you are waiting for. This is what makes it a Schwarzenegger action movie. Him spraying automatic gunfire in a stellar action climax that is awesomely shot, edited, and executed. Arnold goes into full bad ass mode taking something like the police station massacre in The Terminator and upping the action hero intensity with motivations of revenge and vindication. And it still has great, clever moments. It’s just an excellent climax to a rather fun film.
I will certainly say that Arnold has many greater movies than Raw Deal, but even then, it’s far from being a bad film. There are solid performances all around with a good, well put together plot that keeps it simple and straight forward while delivering plenty of entertainment value. It surely had enough plot potential to be a bigger, more complex and involved film than it was, but it sort of wisely avoids doing that knowing this is a Schwarzenegger vehicle. It’ll give you a good plot, but it’s going to keep it nicely focused on his character and maintain a good dosage of action. The film did fairly well upon release, but surely has been one of Arnold’s lesser regarded films. I think it’s fun while still providing some good dramatic and romantic qualities. Arnold himself does a fine job where he clearly was having a fun time. Like I said, it’s not entirely typical of his films with it’s more slick, dramatic tone and some sentimental qualities near the end, but it’s an enjoyable 104 minute action flick. It’s got enough entertainment value between everything Schwarzenegger is doing in this role and the solid action sequences delivered by director John Irvin. As something from De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, I think this nicely meets those expectations. I definitely recommend it for a fun time.
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.