Synopsis: After a young boy witnesses his parents’ murder on the streets of Gotham City, he grows up to become the Batman, a mysterious figure in the eyes of Gotham’s citizens, who takes crime-fighting into his own hands. He first emerges out of the shadows when the Joker appears – a horribly disfigured individual who is out for revenge on his former employer and generally likes to have a good time, but the identity of the `bat’ is unknown. Perhaps millionaire Bruce Wayne and photographer Vicki Vale have a good chance of finding out?
Batman (1989) 7.75
eyelights: Jack Nicholson. its dark visual style.
eyesores: Bruce Wayne. Jack Palance.
“You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
Tim Burton + Michael Keaton = Batman?
Such was the unusual (and most controversial) formula that brought to the world one of the biggest box office smashes in history, 1989’s eponymous action epic, reinvigorating and forever altering the superhero genre in the process.
I didn’t even see it at the big screen at the time, but it’s as though I did: it was omnipresent; it was the movie of the summer. My friends were seeing it, though, and everyone was talking about it: Batman (and his iconic logo) was everywhere.
Strangely, what I remember most were the controversies:
- Michael Keaton as Batman: Countless fans protested (in a massive letter-writing campaign to Warner Bros.) the notion that ‘Mr. Mom‘ could be a superhero, and Adam West suggested that he wouldn’t take any role but the lead after rumours abounded that he’d have a cameo as Mr. Wayne; he was the only Batman, he was reported as saying.
- Prince vs. Danny Elfman: A soundtrack for ‘Batman’ was released with no music from Elfman’s motion picture score; it was basically a Prince album that was thematically-influenced by the picture. Granted some songs briefly show up in the film, but Burton was upset that Elfman wasn’t on the release (he would eventually get a separate release). This is the first time that I’ve heard a distinction made between a “soundtrack” and a “motion picture score”.
- Jack Nicholson’s paycheque: Not so much a controversy as a sensational development, we later discovered that Nicholson had taken a percentage of the gross high enough that he wound up with an estimated 60 million dollar bonus – minimum. And that’s on top of 6 million payday for playing the part. You could hear jaws dropping simultaneously all across North America when this story broke.
When I finally saw the picture, on home video at a friend’s place, I really enjoyed it. And, naturally, I ended up picking it up later on and watched it a few times more. While it wasn’t exactly perfect, it was a more compelling superhero film than most.
But how does it hold up now?
What interesting about ‘Batman’ is that, unlike most superhero films, it doesn’t begin with the hero’s origin; here, the Batman already exists. Instead, its initial focus is the origin of its main villain, The Joker.
And so we follow Jack Napier, one of Gotham’s most important criminals, as his ambitions get the best of him and he is set up for a downfall by his boss, crime lord Carl Grissom, who sends the police after him.
It’s a relatively smooth ride until then, but the picture suddenly gets messy:
- When Jack falls into a vat of chemicals, everyone assumes that he’s perished – but no one tries to retrieve his body. So he’s left behind to escape.
- Meanwhile, we are introduced to Bruce Wayne, a nebbish millionaire who moonlights as the Batman with the help of his butler, Alfred. Fine. But he has very little to do and ends up becoming just filler material.
For instance, why is Bruce there when The Joker makes his first public appearance? He actually has no reason to be at City Hall, but there he is, just standing there. Other than his presence, he contributes nothing to the scene.
- The Joker terrorizes the city by putting Smilex, a dangerous chemical, in random beauty products – it makes people laugh to death, leaving them grinning. Naturally, the Batman somehow figures out an antidote.
- In researching the Batman, his new enemy, The Joker sees a picture of Vicki Vale, a photojournalist who’s just hooked with Wayne. Smitten, The Joker decides that he wants to have her and decides to kidnap her.
He sends her a fake invitation to a dinner with Bruce Wayne name in the Gotham Museum of Art. It’s a silly scene that tries too hard to be fun, but isn’t, with Prince music on a boombox, lame dancing and vandalism.
- Batman rescues her and they escapes with the Batmobile – a cool-looking, but slow, unwieldy, and ineffectual piece of crap. After a brief, pointless chase, they run away from the Joker’s men, leaving the car behind.
- After getting rid of the henchmen, Bats returns to his Batcave. Interestingly, no one follows him, even though his car attracts so much attention that it would be easy to track. And that’s not accounting for his tyre tracks.
- Then Vicki Vale somehow shows up at the Batcave to confront him about their relationship, which puts his secret identity at risk. The scene is awkward, stiff and rife with terrible dialogues. It’s not romantic at all.
- The Joker holds an awkward parade (it was clearly not filmed to Prince’s song “Trust”; the beats are off.) in which he’s throwing 20 million dollars around. The crowds are conspicuously thin but eventually grow.
And then he releases Smilex into the air!
- The Batwing crashes the party. But, for all his equipment and weapons, Batman misses the Joker, who returns the favour by pulling out a long-barreled revolver from his pants and, in one shot, shoots down the plane.
- The finale is in a large cathedral, in the bell tower, where The Joker escapes with Vicky. Somehow, he falls over the roof, but when Batman and Vicki look for him he can reach over with both hands and pull them down too.
- A chopper comes for him, but the Batman attaches a gargoyle to his leg while he’s getting away. Somehow, his grip and the rope ladder are strong enough to uproot the gargoyle from its perch. Only then does he plummet to his death.
So… um… who thought that killing off a major character right off the bat (pun intended!) was a good idea? And who decided to give the Batman and The Joker a shared romantic subplot? Was that really necessary?
Um… evidently not, judging by Vale’s pertinence in the picture. Or maybe she served as a catalyst for Batman to leave the Batcave – otherwise he might just sit and brood for weeks, if not months on end.
In the beginning of the picture, the Batman is just a rumour of the underworld; no one’s seen him except the punks that he’s busted. The cops certainly don’t believe that he exists.
- When we meet him, we discover that he’s just some dude walking around, spreading his Batcape à la Bela Lugosi. He can barely move, so he relies on gadgets to get the job done.
Thankfully, he’s armoured – ’cause he absolutely can’t dodge bullets.
- Sometimes he mysteriously floats/flies down, but we don’t know how he does that. Is he on ropes? Or a jetpack? And how can he disappear so quickly, given that he’s virtually immobile?
- Why he’s only been active for such a short period and how he selects when he’ll hit the streets is unclear. I mean, crime doesn’t sleep, so how can he take time out to sex up Vicki Vale all night?
In any event, Keaton’s portrayal of Batman is perfectly fine. He’s not the Batman that we know (he lacks the brains and athleticism), but this iteration is perfectly fine. And he does it well.
However, Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is less successful: while he’s supposed to be a playboy millionaire, which suggests intelligence, charisma and decisiveness, here he a bit clutzy, distracted, a lightweight.
Thankfully, he’s got Alfred there to pick up behind him.
Furthermore, he’s not enough of a big shot to be instantly recognizable to some of his guests – even those who come from Gotham. And he’s not even alert enough to notice when Vale follows him around.
Keaton does a great job of playing an everyman, but Bruce Wayne is anything but. So this iteration of Bruce Wayne just fizzles out – right from the start. In this case, fans were right to be concerned.
Whereas the comics have always kept The Joker’s origin and motivation nebulous, thereby making him all the more threatening (the unknown feels far more dangerous than the familiar), the ‘Batman’ filmmakers decided to flesh out both.
So not only is The Joker given a name, Jack Napier, he’s given a history and origin – the worst part of which is the notion that he was the man responsible for the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Can you say “Holy coincidence, Batman!”?
This version of The Joker is clearly demented, if only mildly, and he’s been given all these terrifically psychotic lines that are so twisted one can’t help but laugh. But the impression one gets is that he’s just being playful. Deadly, but playful.
It’s only towards the end that he acts all karayzay, having finally lost his marbles once and for all. Until then, he looks more like a middle aged dude trying too hard to have a good time and coming off as campy if not tacky and trite.
Thankfully, Nicholson makes up for it: His make-up is awful (especially when he’s not in whiteface) but his performance is pure gold; he completely earned his paycheque. Sure, he’s cartoony, but not too much, and he has a great laugh.
My favourite part is when, at one point, The Joker impersonates Carl, and Nicholson does a terrific over-the-top Jack Palance. Brilliant! That’s why Jack was perfect for this. He injected a little fun into a scene that felt forced, that tried too hard.
So he’s a great Joker, even if this Joker isn’t exactly The Joker.
The Secondary Cast
Jack Palance plays Carl Grissom, the head of the Gotham underworld, in the world’s most over-the-top performance. OMG… it’s so outrageous: he nearly pauses between every syllable.
Lando Calrissian is Harvey Dent (i.e. who, strangely enough, never becomes Two-Face). He insists that he’ll clean up the streets, but he’s just a side character with very little screen time or impact.
Kim Basinger plays Vicky Vale, who lands a dinner with Wayne. They fall for each other immediately. Of course. Otherwise, she does nothing of any significance – she only exists to give Batman an Achilles Heel. Basinger screams well, which is all that’s really expected of her.
Let’s be honest: ‘Batman’ looks impressive – and given the period, it’s stunning to think they built all of that (there was, after all, very little CGI back then). I mean, it looks like a set much of the time, but it has a grittiness to it that was uncommon at the time.
And there’s something to be said for Batman’s costume, cumbersome though it may be: it’s très cool and it makes an impression each time. And The Joker could have come off looking like a spazz, but they muted his flamboyance enough to make it work.
The Batmobile and Batwing also look amazing, given that we’re talking late-’80s. Granted, neither are very effective in the film, but design-wise, they’re rather memorable. As is the Batcave, which is pretty much what you’d expect from Burton in this context.
Where the film drops the ball is in some of the crowded scenes – in some instances, it’s like the film ran out of money for extras! And then some of the optical effects suck – you can totally tell when the city has been enhanced by paintings by matte paintings.
But, given that the set design is ostentatious and that there’s only so much money they could pump into the film, this is the best that could do. It was, after all, the pre-CGI era. So the film’s ambitions may not have been fully realized, but it’s pretty darn good.
Oh, how I long for the days when themes were hooky and distinctive. I mean, seriously, try to hum Danny Elfman’s ‘Batman’ theme. When I try, I get the ‘Darkman‘ theme instead (they’re not that far off: Elfman used a very similar palette for both).
It’s not to take anything away from Elfman: he did realize Burton’s vision. But I like having a more exciting, more distinctive score for my superhero films, and the best you can say for the ‘Batman’ one is that it’s moody. But at least it wasn’t “Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah… Batman!”.
As for Prince’s songs… well, they simply don’t fit properly anywhere at any point in the movie. They were clearly wedged in in post-production: when characters are supposed to be moving to the music they’re totally off the beat. It’s nothing against Prince: I love the soundtrack.
But WTF is he doing in this picture?
I’ll give the filmmakers kudos for one thing: setting the tone. It starts with a brooding theme by Danny Elfman, and a very sombre opening in which we follow the contours of a granite surface. By the time that this reveals Batman’s insignia, we know it’s not going to be a campy picture.
Good job. Thankfully, it didn’t put off audiences of the day, because the rest of the picture has a similar vibe: most of it takes place at night and in shadows, which is utterly appropriate, but it could have backfired. Personally, I think it’s pitch perfect, and The Joker brings balance.
So, all told, ‘Batman’ is a fairly entertaining motion picture. Its key strengths is its style, its visuals, however, but given some of the performances we can get beyond its lack of depth and the gaping holes in logic. It is, after all, merely a superhero movie.
But, as far as superhero movies go, it’s a decent one. Yes, it’s flawed, and it looks dated now, but it’s got enough going for it that it remains watchable to this day. At the very least, it must credited for setting the stage for the superhero movie of the future.
A much darker future.
After all, bright tights and camp were never going to attract the masses.
Date of viewing: April 8, 2016