- Directed by Tim Burton
- June 19, 1989 (Westwood, Los Angeles) / June 23, 1989 (US)
Batman begins his war on crime in Gotham and comes face to face against The Joker.
Batman is a classic! I, like many others, had my doubts about this movie when it came out. Tim Burden directing a superhero film? Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne? Burton in particular I would say was firmly identified with weird movies but not action or anything that would lend you to thinking he could do this. Michael Keaton was, well, Beetlejuice. Neither were obvious choices to bring to life a character that even at this point was darker than most.
Keaton is absolutely brilliant as Bruce Wayne/Batman. His Wayne is damaged but not so damaged as you wonder how he’s even functional. I find myself often trying to figure out why Batman as Wayne or Wayne as Batman is not popping meds by the fistful to stay functional. That seems to be a more modern interpretation of the character. Despite not being dark haired or blue eyed or chiseled, Keaton is dashing and charming as Wayne and very threatening as Batman.
Keaton and Burton were not the only unusual choices here. Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent? I’m not sure if Lando Calrissian and Colt 45 pitchman would’ve been my first pick then or now but having watched his brief little bit here I am very curious how he would’ve done with the eventual turn of his character into Two-Face. The change to Tommy Lee Jones was probably one of the worst decisions in filmmaking. Jones is a great actor, but his Two-Face was all goof but then again the films by that time were all goof.
I have never been big on Kim Basinger. I don’t hate her. I have just never seen her in anything that really impressed me. However as Vicky vale she is probably one of the better Batgirls (that’s what some were calling the women of the Batman films of the time). She is the general damsel in distress but as a personality she is as strong as Keaton’s Bruce Wayne. And her banter with fellow reporter and partner Knox (Robert Wuhl) is reminiscent of a pairing from the 40s.
Jack Nicholson was probably the only casting choice that didn’t give me any concern or just generally bother me. Nicholson was a well regarded performer by this point so I felt whatever he would do would be good. Nicholson’s name then and still does equal quality.
Nicholson absolutely killed it here as Jack Napier/ The Joker! I admit his Joker is largely inspired by Cesar Romero’s iteration of the character, but he took much of that and made it all very serious. And playing the character straight in that context made him one of the most unnerving psychotic murderers ever put to the screen. His Joker is truly terrifying and dangerously insane. He is the antithesis of the Batman just as The Joker should be.
And his lines were amazing. “Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?” “Wait’ll they get a load of me.” Perhaps some of the best villain catchphrases ever uttered in a movie. And delivered in a way only Jack Nicholson could.
The story is absolutely brilliant. Our two heroes are in a fateful dance shortly from the start. Events prior the film connected them, but events of the film draw them into a final confrontation. The finale with The Joker lying dead in the streets and the sounds from the laugh bag are just so just very effective and sell the darkness of the film.
Batman is visually stunning. It perfectly captures dark and brooding in a decaying city. It has a feel and look all its own. Unlike many superhero movies today. It is a distinct vision. Like a good comic book, it has a feel all its own from the opening moments.
But more importantly Batman feels just like a comic book. At least a comic book from the time. That is the only way that it really can be put. There is something different about the comics of the time as a whole. They weren’t as self-serious as they are now. Yes, they were serious but not nearly as self-important. You had great visuals and cool covers and I think this emulates that feel of the era.
The environment here is just so rich and so different. Batman is unlike many other films of this genre. You were genuinely brought into a different world. Gotham City is portrayed as a decaying urban area. It is all Gothic architecture with evil lurking around every corner. And this was accomplished largely on sets rather than finding random spots around the world to photograph but quite literally built much of their universe. That is one heck of an undertaking for back then. Today with advances in technology it is much easier to do a unique environment and I’m wondering why more movies don’t try it today.
This movie seems to have started the trend of superhero films where the climactic confrontation between the two sides ends with the death of the villain. While it worked here very perfectly, more often than not it is not effective. Here the confrontation between the two sides rose during the course of the story to the point there was no other finale that could come. Both sides were far too entrenched in being the victor for the other to survive. The Joker was not going to concede to Batman and Batman was not going to let The Joker get away. Not every battle though gets to that.
Batman made Danny Elfman a film legend. He had a good body of work prior but what he did here was so unique and elevated the story to ‘epic.’ Without his work this movie would not have been as good.
Batman is a classic not only of cinema and of the superhero genre but of all the Batman films. It’s a standard that those that followed could not equal. I cannot recommend this classic enough!