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.