Batman (1989)

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.

8 comments to Batman (1989)

  • Good review Will. There’s some camp to this flick but it goes along perfectly with the overall mood and pace of Burton’s direction. Obviously Nicholson is the main stand-out in this flick, but it’s also Keaton who does an exceptional job as Batman/Bruce Wayne acting like a normal dude, who just dresses up like a bat and beats crooks up at-night. That Prince music is a little strange, though.

    • Thanks, Dan. The camp is definitely mixed in well, but I had just never really noticed it before. I always came at this first series of Batman films as being modern and serious and completely different than the ’60s Batman, but after just watching the ’60s Batman movie, the camp elements stuck out to me and it all became clear.

      Ah man, I love the Prince music! But I love Prince, so I’m biased. Although I loved it when I was a kid and I had no idea who Prince was, so I guess that should count for something.

  • Stephen

    I used to love this as a kid, and it has been a great many years since the last time I saw it. However, that last time had disappointed me. Somehow it just felt slow and bland to me. I think my biggest problem was Nicholson. I know a lot of people love him in this role, but I just wasn’t buying it. He didn’t really feel like the Joker to me.

    Heath Ledger was also different from the comic book Joker, honestly a lot more so, but Ledger’s intense mania managed to convince me even though I knew it wasn’t quite correct. For some reason Nicholson didn’t do it for me.

    I found myself trying to remember the music once you mentioned it, and all I could think of was the animated series. So I watched the trailer and realized why. The music is almost the same. Clearly the cartoon based it’s own soundtrack on the score from this movie, and I do have to say they couldn’t have picked a more appropriate Batman score. In fact, there was a lot of visual style and that questionable time placement you mentioned that this film inspired in the animated series, now that I think about it.

    I should probably give this one another chance some day. My tastes have shifted a bit in the past decade-ish since I last saw it, so maybe I would like it more now.

    • It is kinda slow, but there’s such a nostalgia in re-watching it for me that it never mattered much. Jack was great, I thought he made the Joker his own, while still retaining some of the comic elements. But I love Nicholson anyway, so I have that going for me.

      On the other hand, I felt that Ledger was the perfect Joker, and perfectly embodied a real world version of the comic book. I haven’t seen that one since I saw it in theaters, but I remember being very impressed that they nailed the insanity and overall character from the comics, even if the specifics weren’t necessarily perfect. I’m eagerly awaiting re-watching it.

      That’s cool to know how this influenced the animated series. I always thought they were unrelated, but apparently not. It’s also interesting to note that the Schumacher films have a completely different score and it works almost well to sell Batman.

      I’d definitely give it another shot; it’s a lot of fun if you don’t take it as a serious Batman movie, and I’m unsure how anyone could after the Nolan films.

      • Stephen

        The cartoon’s opening credits alone would be enough to tell, and I’m sure it’s easy to find on Youtube. Every day those credits got me pumped for another Batman adventure as a kid, even if it was a repeat.

        The Nolan films actually have some good Batman music, too.

        • Hahaha, you’re right. They seem to have taken the main themes of Elfman’s score and re-worked it a bit. Pretty neato. Reminds me of how they used the Star Trek: The Motion Picture theme music for the theme music of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

  • I remember being wowed by this when it first came out, yet over the years it’s gradually worn out its welcome with me – like many Burton films of this vintage (or earlier), you can see the seams starting to wear out. I appreciate the kid-factor in this film, and yes, Elfman’s score takes some beating (for me, Zimmer tops it if only for the cool techno-modern flavoring he gives it) but this wasn’t the Batman I’d read in comics as a kid. And it certainly wasn’t the Joker – damn, if Nicholson hadn’t overacted every scene in this he’d probably still be top of the Joker-heap… But he ruins it with cheap circus acting and a completely inane portrayal of one of comic’s greatest villains. I watched this flick again a few months ago (also in a kind of preparation for Dark Knight Rises – great minds think alike)and was struck by just how…. hokey it all felt. The studio-bound settings, the refusal to actually…. have sunlight… and Burton’s proclivity in making everything feel Gothic somehow (even when it’s not) make me lament the fact my appreciation for film is more mature and less accepting of films where the rust’s started to set in. I wish I could still love this film like you do Will, but I just can’t.

    And god, I hated that Prince crap they shoved in this movie. Did then, did now. Urgh.

    • Ah I was so sad to read your comment. I know the feeling, I had a similar experience in trying to re-watch Neverending Story a couple years ago, but it always makes me sad when we can’t appreciate one of our favorite childhood movies. I’ve never been a big Burton fan, as except for this movie and its sequel I only saw his stuff when I was an adult, so I sort of saw the seams on his stuff the first time around.

      I like Nicholson’s over-the-top performance and it fits the movie well. If you watch Cesar Romero’s portrayal of the character in the ’60s TV show and then this movie, you’ll see why Nicholson is the way he is (to some degree). Watching that Adam West Batman movie right before these really opened my eyes to how this series was an attempt to modernize the ’60s show.

      I gotta say, everyone keeps bringing up the awesome Hans Zimmer music for the new ones, but I don’t remember it at all. Looking forward to re-watching those!

      I won’t argue that the Prince music isn’t shoved in, it is, but Prince is awesome and his music enriches the whole film. Re-watch Batman Returns and you’ll see why Burton needed Prince to make a good Batman movie. Actually, don’t watch Batman Returns! If you think this one has seams, Returns has completely fallen apart.

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