After the Superman franchise had killed itself with a string of cheap, boring sequels (Quest for Peace, anyone?), audiences were not as excited for superhero films the way they would become a couple of decades later. Who would’ve thought that the man behind Beetlejuice and the star of Mr. Mom would be the dynamic duo to entice people with superheroes once again?
Following the film’s success (thanks to a smart marketing campaign and good word-of-mouth) a string of sequels would turn out the same results of the big blue boy scout’s film franchise a decade later–causing Warner Bros. to reboot the caped crusader in 2005 with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and the rest as we know, is history.
But where did Batman’s popularity begin? The 60’s, actually (Adam West), but what about the way we know and love Batman today? The knight cloaked in black whose logo is as iconic as his silhouette? The top-grossing film of 1989.
This is Batman.
Batman stars Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Birdman) in the title role as a now experienced crime fighter who must face his toughest (and most iconic) nemesis yet found in Jack Napier aka The Joker played by Jack Nicholson (The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). But things aren’t so cut-and-dry for our hero as Bruce Wayne has just met Vicki Vale, a reporter for the paper.
Violence – The Joker stabs a victim in the throat, and electrocutes another. Shootings and fight scenes (punching, throwing). Bruce Wayne recalls the murder of his parents.
Sex – Implied sex between our hero and Vicki Vale.
Language – “B—–d”, “s—t” every now and then.
The story is quite simple–and where Batman’s strength lies, is in the way we see the various characters encounter each other. Instead of the hero facing off against the villain solely in his costume, gadgets and all, here we see many interesting ways that the characters could encounter one another.
There’s a scene where Bruce Wayne meets the Joker, where Batman faces Jack Napier, and finally, Batman vs. The Joker. This gives the film some complexity, despite its straightforward script. These characters are no longer cardboard cutouts of what we saw with simple antiheroes on television like The Lone Ranger or Zorro, but instead are three dimensional, with feelings and motivations beyond “I’m the hero! I must save! I’m the villain! Time to die!”
Keeping in line with the various ways we see the characters interact, the best part of Tim Burton’s Gotham vision is his actors–specifically his two leads. Michael Keaton is great in the role of Bruce Wayne, as at the time many fans scoffed once it was announced he would be starring. The reason this works is because Bruce Wayne, despite his wealth and “playboy” reputation, is a introverted man, marked by the haunting of his parent’s death. So it makes sense to cast someone who you would least suspect to put on the cape and cowl.
Keaton is very subtle, giving a performance that is fun to watch. He’s always thinking, always paying attention. But thankfully, Keaton is equally as enjoyable in the costume, mysterious, utilizing fear and word-of-mouth from those he intimidates. However, there are a few moments where this Batman is–passive? In his opening scene, he waits for some crooks to mug a couple before he goes in to take them down.
The true star, however, of Batman is Jack Nicholson. Nicholson creates a dynamic, and truly entertaining villain in his portrayal of the Joker. The film focuses on the origin of the Joker, which one would think would create sympathy for the clown prince of crime. But that’s simply not the case! Nicholson’s Joker is maniacal, with a wickedly nasty sense of humor. His schemes aren’t anything unique, but for fans of the Batman comic, this won’t be bothersome.
Burton likes to sit and let Nicholson go crazy (Did you see the films I credited him with? I would too if I was directing) and it’s a blast to watch. For those who slave only to Heath Ledger’s (The Dark Knight) Joker, you may find yourself asking Nicholson’s to quit laughing so much, but if you love watching films about psychopaths, or nonsensical humor, this Joker will put a smile on your face (these puns write themselves).
While the two leads are quite good, the supporting cast isn’t very memorable. Vicki Vale played by Kim Basinger (LA Confidential) does a serviceable job at best. She does the role, but brings nothing new or interesting to it. This would be fine if not for the rest of the film bringing up new and interesting ideas about the titular character. Commissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent, and Alfred, they’re all here, but they’re not the focus of the film, resulting in characters that aren’t bad, per se, but aren’t memorable either.
Roger Pratt’s cinematography is quite impressive here. Burton utilized map paintings and beautiful sets to create a city that not only feels real, but that feels specifically like Gotham. Burton is known for his visual flair, and this film is no different. You notice the design of the film, and if you’re like me, you dig every moment of it.
The sets only benefit the film’s stunts, which are well done. While Batman isn’t the most action-packed of superhero films, the action is here to do what any proper action scene should: to serve the story. At times you can spot a map painting that looks slightly off compared to the rest of the shot, but for the most part this is a beautiful film, full of good lighting and memorable design.
Not quite finished praising the film. Batman’s greatest feature is Danny Elfman’s now legendary score. This is the music of Batman. Elfman (who later on would help Sony by giving Spider-Man a great theme as well) utilizes trumpets to create a pulsating anthem, designed to get your blood pumping for an epic story.
When the opening credits begin, and you hear the Batman theme, you’ll know you’re in for a treat. This is one of the greatest scores of all time, full of true character and charm all in service of the film’s story. A question I ask myself for iconic themes is, Can I hum the theme even if I haven’t seen the film in awhile? (while I did watch Batman for this review). Elfman’s music for Batman has found its way into my head many times in my life, and is easily one of the greatest superhero themes ever put in a motion picture.
A mixed bag with some slow moments, Batman is still a great film to watch for those curious about the character’s on-screen origins or for fans of the character in general. Tim Burton’s Batman was the force that brought the dark, gritty Batman into the mainstream.
Frank Miller changed the game with The Dark Knight Returns on the page in 1986, but graphic novels did not have the mass appeal of mainstream movies, and Batman ended up becoming the highest-grossing film of 1989, resulting in not only a successful reimagining of the character, but a successful film that reached a wide audience. Batman was no longer the silly “Bam!” “Oof!” “Wahp!” slapstick character the public saw him as via Adam West, but instead was a grim, harsh, knight of justice, running across the rooftops of a city in need of saving.
Oh, and the Batmobile is still the best batmobile I’ve ever seen.
You can check out Batman on Blu-Ray & DVD
+ Beautifully realized Gotham + Michael Keaton + Jack Nicholson + Danny Elfman’s score
- Slow moments that drag - Lackluster love interest - Boring supporting characters
The Bottom Line
For fans of the character, Tim Burton’s Batman presents a satisfyingly gritty interpretation of the character, thanks to strong lead performances and a beautiful visual design.