Batman (1989)


Although I would never want to return to a time without it there were advantages of not having the internet.  One was that, except when it made headlines, a person had to dig for information on movies that were in production.  If it wasn't in a magazine or other publication, good luck on confirming rumors until official announcements were made.  Even without it the outcry over casting Michael Keaton, a decidedly not square-jawed actor known mainly for comedic roles, reached a fever pitch.  So did stories of Tim Burton's live-action version of Batman, the first such since the series starring Adam West in the 1960s, running overbudget and having disaster after disaster.  Although quite aware of what was going on with the movie Burton, filming at Pinewood Studios in England, he was literally hearing none of it, since all this scuttlebutt was in the American press.  He was just busy trying to make his first big-budget film.

It was a bit of a risk.  Burton's biggest film to date had been Beetlejuice, which also featured Keaton in the title roll.  The budget for Batman was already massive, with Gotham itself being a huge set built from scratch at Pinewood.  Super hero films weren't really a thing - the first two Superman movies had been hits, but the third and fourth not so much - so there wasn't necessarily a built-in audience.  Not even those who were fans of the comic were a shoe-in, as they were upset about Keaton, and for the general public it was the campy '60s television show that came to mind.  Early on it was announced that Robin would not be in the movie, and that the movie would in no way have the same tone as the show, so the nostalgia factor was out.

What it did promise, however, was Jack Nicholson as the Joker.  It also had Nicholson, who considers the Joker one of his best roles, selling the heck out of the movie to anyone who would listen.  He had faith in it, to the point where he accepted a reduced salary for a promise of the returns.  It was a smart move, as Batman became the highest grossing movie in the United States in 1989, and second worldwide only to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  

Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) is the new attorney general for Gotham City, and as the 200th anniversary of the city approaches he has declared his intention to work with Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) to clean up the city, which is a crime-filled nightmare run by Carl Grissom (Jack Palance).  Jack Napier (Nicholson) is Grissom's right-hand man, but he has been getting a bit too friendly with Grissom's girlfriend Alicia (Jerry Hall).  Thus, when a number of documents sensitive to Grissom need to be destroyed, he puts Napier in charge of the job with the intention that he never comes back.  However, he does, transformed by a fall into a vat of chemical waste, as the Joker, and he takes over the operation. 

There is another new factor in Gotham as well - a vigilante that dresses as a bat and calls himself Batman.  Intrigued by a story in the Gotham Globe by Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), famous photographer Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) arrives in Gotham to get a picture of Batman.  Her efforts lead her to millionaire recluse Bruce Wayne (Keaton), with whom she quickly falls in love.  Wayne, of course, is Batman, and he is determined to bring the Joker down - first for the good of Gotham, and later for personal reasons. 

This version of Batman is the only movie, besides the first sequel, that seems to exist in its comic book world.  Nolan's trilogy filmed largely around Chicago and tried to integrate Batman and his foes into a real-world setting, Joker took inspiration from late '70s and early '80s New York and The Batman also tried to bring the setting down to reality.  While the latter did give Gotham City a similar feeling to how it is in this movie, the art-deco buildings and mix of fashion styles and technology sets Tim Burton's movie on its own.  The '40s influence also extends to the Gotham Globe, with both Knox and Vale working hard to get a scoop like they were in an old fashioned caper film. 

Within a few minutes of the action starting it is also apparent that all concerns about Keaton being able to pull off Batman were for nothing.  He's remembered fondly enough in the role that he's being brought back for The Flash, and I although I liked Robert Pattinson's portrayal of Bruce Wayne when not in the Batman costume, Keaton is even better.  His whole life has been shaped by one event, and pretty much any emotional attachment beyond that for his butler Alfred (Michael Gough) is alien and frightening.  While Pattinson played it as frenetic, Keaton plays Wayne as withdrawn and lowkey, with a bubbling rage that occasionally surfaces even outside the costume. 

While Keaton is great in the role it was Jack Nicholson, having the time of his life as the Joker, that makes this stand out for me.  While I know Batman Returns has become the big cult favorite, the Penguin in that film feels too much like the stylized villains in Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy.  The Joker has a specific look and tone, and Nicholson nails it.  He was also the only one of the main actors that was a fan of the comics, so he pretty much knew what he was going for.  I had not seen this movie since the early 1990s, if I had seen it at all since 1989, and Nicholson's performance is the reason so many of the current DC and Marvel villains fall short.  Many like Batman because he has no real superpowers other than his mind, which allows him to build the things he needs.  The Joker is one of the best villains for the same reason; he has a look and a style, and enough charisma and wealth to have a loyal team, but otherwise he's just human, not some sci-fi concept like Mr. Freeze or racial stereotype like Egg Fu.  

I'm not the biggest Kim Basinger fan, but she's decent here, although the answer to where she suddenly pulls a camera from at one point may lose the movie its PG-13 rating.  Considering things that don't work, the set itself, beautiful as it is, does not lend itself well to a car chase.  The Batmobile in this film is great, but when fire is coming out of the back of a vehicle one expects a chase to go above 25 miles per hour.  It is one of those times when Nolan's decision to film in real locations was a better one, as it allowed for a truly exciting chase in The Dark Knight rather than just showing off a cool car.  In contrast, once Batman is out of the car and Vicky safely out of reach, the fight sequence with the Joker's thugs is a lot of fun.

Considering that parts of the script were written as the movie went along and the movie went severely over budget, things could have been much worse.  It could have been to the level of The Last Action Hero.  Tim Burton managed to pull it off and also make a sequel, meanwhile establishing himself as a major film director in the process.  

Batman (1989)
Time: 126 minutes
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle
Director: Tim Burton 



 

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