Batman (1989)

Batman (1989) – Well given my reviews of all the Spider-Man movies a few weeks ago it should really be no surprise that with The Dark Knight Rises being all anyone’s talking about lately that I would go back to the start of the Batman franchise. Okay, technically not all the way back to the start. Technically that would be the 1943 serials. I started watching them actually but they’re just so full of cheapness and anti-Japanese racism that I didn’t feel like fully committing. So naturally I also skipped the 1949 serial Batman and Robin. Then of course there’s the 1966 movie with Adam West but that’s just an extension of the TV show and I wasn’t about to watch an entire TV show (and if I was I would clearly go with Batman: The Animated Series). So that brings us to Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster starring Michael Keaton as the Caped Crusader. Everyone loved it back then (including a five-year-old me) but in a day when us comic book geeks get frustrated over anything less than total fidelity to the source material some aspects (the connection between Batman and the Joker) have drawn ire… Still others, even in the wake of the Christopher Nolan trilogy, look back on this as their favorite Batman movie. So what to think after twenty-three years…

Interestingly enough the main character of this movie is not Batman. If you somehow didn’t know that Batman was really orphaned billionaire Bruce Wayne (uh… spoiler?), it would be a legitimate plot twist (albeit a REALLY obvious one with them both being played by Keaton and all). The movie mostly splits its focus between two characters. The first is photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). She is new to Gotham City and is intrigued by the stories of the Batman, as reported by Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl). The other character of focus is Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), a high-level thug for mob boss Carl Grissom (Jack Pallance). Of course he’s also nailing Grissom’s girlfriend Alicia (Jerry Hall). His first run-in with Batman at Axis Chemicals has some lasting effects, leaving jack with green hair, bright red lips, and deathly white skin. Jack, not a very stable guy to begin with, decides to embrace his clown-like visage and become the madman the Joker. After the Joker takes the mob over from Grissom, it’s up to Batman to stop him.

In Batman’s very first appearance in Detective Comics #27 (back in 1939) the revelation that Batman was in fact billionaire Bruce Wayne was a surprise left for the end of the issue, so Burton’s less Batman-centric approach to the material isn’t exactly new. There are some very notable differences with the comics. For starts Batman has no qualms about throwing Joker’s goons to their deaths in the climax. This movie came out a couple years after DC published Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns so I guess they were going for that darker tone. Also instead of criminal Joe Chill killing Thomas and Martha Wayne and never being caught, this time it’s a younger version of the Joker. That’s a bad adaptation, sure, but it works for the movie. In comic books, each story is set in a multiverse. (Actually many scientists are beginning to think we really might be living in one, albeit a less costume-centric one.) If they want to tell a story about Batman or whoever but not be constrained by the traditional canon, they set it in one of the parallel universes. (The current release Batman: Earth One is an example of this.) I view all the movies this way. It’s playing with the familiar, but not everything is going to be the same. I can live with this. Yeah I know Joe Chill killed Bruce’s parents, but if the movie wants to up the stakes by having it be the Joker, why not? Hell, it’s already veered off into new territory by giving the Joker a real name anyway.

The look of the movie is fantastic. Production designer Anton Furst has built a Gotham City that seems somehow both appropriate to the time the movie was made (the 80s) but also somehow timeless, like a throwback to the 1940s when Batman achieved popularity. He won an Oscar for it, and rightfully so. It doesn’t even feel dated (design-wise) now in 2012. Danny Elfman’s score for the film is almost as iconic as Batman himself. The same can’t be said about the Prince soundtrack. I dig Prince, but the songs in this movie do not represent his best work. The casting of Michael Keaton kicked up a bit of a stir at the time, since Keaton was mostly known for comedies at that point. The Wall Street Journal even had a front page article about how Warner Brothers was blowing a really expensive movie by casting Keaton. Keaton pulls it off really well though and nowadays if you ask what role he’s best known for I think most people would say Batman. Basinger does well enough in the female lead (who shares some traits of other comic book Batman love interests like Silver St. Cloud with namesake Vicki Vale) but can’t help but be upstaged. She’s kind of useless in the action scenes but then again why would a photojournalist be an ass-kicker? The standout is Jack Nicholson as the Joker. He turns on all the Nicholson charm while still being the batshit crazy Jack he was in The Shining. He’s unpredictable, dangerous, and funny. Before 2008, I wouldn’t have thought he’d ever be topped. Anyway, for its strengths and weaknesses, Batman is a damn entertaining movie that’s worth seeing. Nolan make have taken his trilogy to some deeper places but that doesn’t mean Burton’s movies are worth writing off. The idea behind myths and legends is that they’re told again and again. The story changes with the storyteller. Not every Batman story is going to be worthwhile but they should always keep making them. Sometimes they’ll strike out (more on that later) but with character this cool, it’ll be hard. If you haven’t already (and really who hasn’t?), check this one out.

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