Starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance, Jerry Hall, Tracey Walter, Lee Wallace, William Hootkins
Directed by Tim Burton
Expectations: High. This was THE movie when I was a kid.
Like Alien, Tim Burton’s Batman is a film I saw a lot as a kid. I will be unable to truly critique it objectively, but I’ll do my best to make the review something more than an adult reminiscing about his faded childhood years. I haven’t seen this one in many years, as I’ve always been somewhat afraid to do so, fearing that its ability to completely enthrall me would be lost. This is definitely not the case, though, as Batman continues to be a solid piece of superhero cinema. This isn’t the gritty world of Christopher Nolan, nor is it the wholly comic style of Adam West’s era, instead it is something of a middle-ground between them both. It works like a charm, and still remains one of film’s best examples of the superhero genre. Superman may have kicked off the genre in earnest, but Batman took that shit to the next level. I was a tender 8-year-old boy when I walked into the local cinema to view Batman for the first time, and I emerged with a new outlook on the world. The comics that I loved so dearly were up on the big screen; it was a glorious thing to watch two great loves of mine join forces. Tim Burton’s Batman has its share of flaws and missed opportunities, but it was the perfect film of my youth.
Watching the film today, I instantly noticed what was so great — and refreshing — about Batman. Where every first film in a series nowadays spends most of its time devoted to the character’s origin story, Batman just jumps into Batman being Batman right from the first scene. As Vicki Vale becomes more interested in Batman and Bruce Wayne, she eventually explores his past and some of the moments that made Wayne become Batman are revealed. Burton doesn’t spend too much time on these; Batman’s origin is nothing more than another of the film’s running sub-plots to be explored in the down moments. If only another superhero movie would have the balls to do something like this. As I write this the newest Spider-Man film has just been released. We’ve had three Spider-Man movies over the course of the last 10 years or so, not to mention 50 years of comics and general mainstream awareness of the character. But yet we are still faced with a Spider-Man movie that insists on re-telling the origin story. This is a big reason why I don’t care to see it in the slightest. Maybe I’ll come around to the sequel after all the bullshit is done.
Okay, okay, Batman! Another thing I love about this Batman film is the unclear time period for the film’s setting. The journalists dress as if it’s the ’40s, with typewriters and old fans all around their offices. Vicki Vale’s apartment is pure art deco. The Joker’s got an ’80s boombox with Prince blasting out of it, and the cars look to be a mixture of ’70s and ’80s models. I love films that can successfully pull this off, making you question the design choices while still being engaged with the story, and Batman does it flawlessly. It feels like the idea was to create the mysterious — and fictitious — Gotham City as a melting pot of all times; just as Batman is our realized fantasy, so is the city he resides in. All that praise aside, has anyone else noticed that in this movie just about everything in Gotham City happens outside City Hall or the Monarch Theater? At least they got their money’s worth out of those awesome sets they built!
The cast is an interesting one, and one that you wouldn’t necessarily lean towards initially. Michael Keaton looks like a million bat-bucks in that suit, but as Bruce Wayne he seems a bit aloof for my taste. I love him in the role, but coming at this as an adult, I don’t think I would have ever picked him out of a line-up to play the caped crusader. This leads me to think of other stars from the late ’80s that theoretically could have donned the costume, but I’m at something of a loss to come up with a suitable, plausible replacement. My mind only wants to imagine Sylvester Stallone (envision that gnarled mouth in the suit!), Jean-Claude Van Damme (c’mon, you know you want to see Batman doing the splits between two buildings… and the jump kicks, the amazing jump kicks!) or Arnold Schwarzenegger (just think of all the incredible one-liners this would have sprinkled into pop culture) in the role.
A lot of Batman‘s strength comes from the stunning portrayal of The Joker by Jack Nicholson. As Keaton spends more time as Bruce Wayne than Batman, Nicholson is left to hold up most of the movie with his wild antics and crazy demeanor. He does it with style, creating a haunting and hilarious version of the villain that will forever be remembered even in a post-Dark Knight world. The supporting cast is equally good all around, with Billy Dee Williams criminally underused as Harvey Dent. I wonder if he was supposed to become Two-Face in later installments. I would have loved to see that.
Tim Burton’s Batman is still a wonderful, thrilling superhero film. It’s got a dope Bat-suit, dope Bat-gadgets, the dopest Batmobile, a dope tangentially related Prince album, some incredibly dope models and motion control camera work, and what is probably the dopest and most iconic superhero score of all-time. That fucking Batman theme is too cool for words, and I defy anyone to listen to that shit and not feel like a complete and total badass crime fighter on the heels of another evildoer. 1989’s Batman is definitely still worth your time.