Film Review: Batman (1989)
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren
Starring Jack Nicholson , Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Michael Gough
There have been two major recorded instances of "Batmania", a condition in which awareness and popularity of the Dark Knight reaches almost fever pitch amongst the general public. The first began in 1966, following the introduction of Adam West's campy Caped Crusader. The second was in 1989.
Over twenty years since his last big screen feature, the Batman returned to cinemas under the direction of Tim Burton who delivered a far darker version of the World Greatest Detective.
Following on from the changes in the comics, the new cinematic Batman was a mysterious figure of the night rather than a brightly clad and deputised agent of the law. The 1989 film revitalised popular interest in Batman, launched a four film franchise and was the inspiration for the fan favourite Batman: The Animated Series.
When casting the star roles a number of prominent names were considered; Bill Murray, Harrison Ford, Willem Dafoe and Mel Gibson were all considered for the role of Batman. In the end Michael Keaton got the job, and despite initial fan backlash (some things never change) he proved himself more than capable. Burton's Bruce Wayne was not the typical billionaire playboy; instead of the charming charismatic socialite we are given an awkward recluse, which Keaton pulls off with aplomb. It's an unusual choice, but Keaton plays him with a strong intelligence, and as Batman, there is a cold ferocity to his performance.
Despite being the titular character and a strong performance by Keaton, the focus of the film is The Clown Prince of Crown.
Really, this a Joker story.
They considered James Woods, Tim Curry and even David Bowie, but the role went to Jack Nicholson, who is both funny and menacing. He's helped by having the best lines in the film but Nicholson's deliver is what really sells them. The Joker is ruthless and eccentric. His crimes are wacky; defacing works of art and sabotaging beauty products, but there's a hard edge to him, a cruel fury that Nicholson has always been able to sell. The costume, the Joker Venom, extendable boxing gloves, acid spraying flower and electric hand buzzer were all straight out of the comics, it's no surprise many fans considered this a definitive Joker.
However, the origin story puts me off the interpretation, and the character’s in-story affectation for wearing flesh coloured makeup suggests Nicholson just couldn't be bothered wearing the white make-up much of the time.
The conflict between Batman and The Joker is one upon which many essays could be written, a battle between good and evil, logic and insanity, order and chaos. They are two great opposites, a mythic battle between two icons. However, that doesn't seem to be sufficient for the film. The writers felt it was necessary to artificially create conflict between them; first Batman is involved in The Jokers transformation, making revenge one of his motivations to kill Batman. Then The Joker coincidentally becomes enamoured with Vicky Vale, Bruce Wayne’s love interest. That's right, they're fighting over a girl.
Finally, it is revealed that it was The Joker who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents, turning the whole film and the very idea of Batman into a common-or-garden revenge story. From that point on Batman sets out to kill The Joker; he tries and fails on two occasions before finally murdering his foe. The whole thing demeans the very concept of Batman and begs the question of why all of this extra drama was required. A symptom it seems of a rather lazy and generic script, following a kind of writing template.
One of the great strengths of the film is the world it creates; Gotham City is truly gothic, playing to Burtons tastes, gloomy streets and steamy alleyways, towering arched buildings and police searchlights. The sets were extremely stylised, though some of the effects haven't aged well. The aesthetic, together with Danny Elfman’s score creates a strong atmosphere for the film.
However, in order to make their Gotham City, the movie was filmed almost entirely on purpose made sets inside movie studios. It created a cramped world in which the story could unfold, and hampered several scenes. The crowd scenes are very poorly attended, presumably because they simply couldn't fit many people on set. It also affected the action sequences which were rather lacklustre. Tim Burton is not a good action director. There's no real excitement, the fights are basic and the car chase just kind of plods along.
Didn't that seem to last forever?
What Burton does well, however, is establish a tone, mould an atmosphere and capture some very iconic shots. Batman slowly emerging behind his victims, caped raised. Batman rising again after being shot down by his foes and of course the Bat-plane creating the symbol against the Moon. There are a number of occasions where this reviewer, who is not particularly fond of the Burton style, has to commend on him on the photography. Several scenes feel almost like a horror film, as we watch Batman mysteriously appear and disappear, or slowly and silently approach a criminal who is completely unaware of his presence.
There is a lot to like about this film, particularly in terms of the cast, however it is let down by a simplistic and generic script. You'll find plenty of fans who adore this film, but I’m not one of them, not just because the take on Batman isn't to my tastes, but because the story had little to offer; it’s a largely formulaic approach to the Dark Knight.
It's rather astonishing, really, just how by the numbers it is, beyond the trappings of the Anton Furst set design.
It was enough, however, to provoke that second outbreak of "Batmania". The influence of Burton's Batman were felt across popular culture and shaped Batman for the coming decade.
And Jack Nicholson is funny in it. Keaton's decent, too.
That's about as kind as I can be to it.