The Batman Films – Part 2 of 9: Batman (1989)
This is going to be a weird review for me to write. It isn’t going to be a positive review which is strange considering that this movie changed my life.
When I was a kid I loved this film. Yet as I grew older and further explored the world of Batman the cracks really began to show.
Gotham City’s criminals are running scared. A shadowy vigilante calling himself Batman has declared a one man war on crime.
Journalist Vicky Vale arrives in Gotham on assignment to investigate the story.
Hoodlum Jack Napier is robbing Axis Chemicals but the operation is a set up. As Commissioner Gordon and his team close in to apprehend Napier and his goons – Batman enters the fray. Napier is badly wounded in the battle and falls into a vat of strange goo. Somehow he survives but is badly disfigured. He becomes The Joker.
After murdering his former boss The Joker quickly rises to the top of the criminal underworld. His maniacal and twisted crimes bring him into direct conflict with Batman.
During the course of her investigation Vicky Vale meets billionaire Bruce Wayne and the two fall quickly in love. Yet when she inadvertently discovers a terrible tragedy that occurred in Wayne’s childhood – she will come to realise that he is in fact Batman.
With The Joker developing a sick infatuation with Vale – Batman must not only battle to save the city from the Crown Prince Of Crime but also the woman he loves. He’ll soon find out that his link to The Joker is stronger than he originally thought.
Director Tim Burton was hired to make this film because of the success of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. He hired Sam Hamm to write the screenplay – which Batman creator Bob Kane approved. After the success of Beetlejuice Warner Bros gave the project the green light.
In the first of many controversies – many objected to the casting of Michael Keaton in the title role. At the time he was mainly known as a comedic actor. Producer Jon Peters was adamant that Keaton was the right man for the part though having seen his bravura dramatic performance in Clean & Sober. Having worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, Burton agreed.
The decision to cast Jack Nicholson as The Joker was seen as a masterful bit of casting. He collected a record fee for the part.
Kim Basinger replaced Sean Young as Vicky Vale and Michael Gough and Pat Hingle were bought on as Batman legends Alfred Pennyworth and Commissioner Gordon.
Key to the movie’s success was it’s marketing campaign. Any concerns about Keaton’s casting were swiftly silenced by the release of an action packed teaser trailer. Then the film’s iconic poster began appearing. A gold engraved Batman logo on a black background. A simple yet striking image.
An aggressive merchandising campaign raised this movie’s profile to ridiculous levels. It was the film EVERYONE was talking about. The film EVERYONE wanted to see. It smashed box office records when it was released in July 1989.
The look of the film was praised and so was Danny Elfman’s gothic score. However – it was met with quite a lot of criticism. Many felt that Nicholson’s role as The Joker was overbearing in the movie. Then there was the baffling decision to feature nothing but Prince songs on the soundtrack.
The main thing it was criticised for was it’s violence. It led to the film making history in the United Kingdom. It was expected to receive a straight PG rating – but it was deemed to gruesome to be able to justify that rating. Fearing a public outcry if the film was given a 15 certificate – the BBFC (British Board Of Film Classification) was forced to create a new rating. Batman is still notorious today as the film for which the 12 rating was created for in Great Britain.
Then there was the controversy it created amongst comic book fans. Many disapproved of the plot twist where The Joker is revealed to have been responsible for the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. In the comic books they were murdered by a street thug called Joe Chill. The Joker had nothing to do with it.
In 1989 I was an eleven year old boy. I DESPERATELY wanted to see this film. The marketing for it was absolutely EVERYWHERE. I was so obsessed with it – I remember my brother buying me a Batman comic he saw on a market stall whilst he was out and about doing his thing.
That comic book was The Killing Joke. It was a second hand copy that only cost him 50p. Yet when he gave it to me and I excitedly ran upstairs to my room to read it – little did I know that what he’d actually stumbled upon was regarded as a comic book masterpiece. A classic of the medium. It was the first time I’d read anything by Alan Moore and the first time I’d seen art by Brian Bolland. Two absolute giants of the industry as I’m sure you all know.
When the film came out he went to see it with some friends and kindly allowed his annoying, snotty little brother (that would be me) to tag along. I remember waiting in the queue outside. I was only 11. Seven months younger than the film’s 12 rating. Would I get found out? I remember the adrenaline pumping through my veins – and the wave of euphoria that came over me when the usher allowed us in. I was a bit disappointed that usher didn’t give me at least a cursory inquisitive glance but then again I’ve always been tall for my age.
As an impressionable boy I was blown away by what I saw. It was dark it was violent and it was scary. It was beyond my expectations. It was NOTHING like Superman. It’s pretty fair to say that it became my favourite movie on that day (it isn’t now… boy is it NOT).
I felt like the coolest kid on the block for having seen this film. When the summer break ended and I went on to secondary school I became known quite quickly as the school Batman geek.
The following Christmas I got a Batman action figure that I took with me everywhere and on my 12th birthday my brother got me the movie on videocassette. I watched it over and over which no doubt annoyed the living crap out of my family.
28 years later I’m still a huge fan of the character of Batman but not of this movie. I have the movie to thank for giving me my love of the Caped Crusader – but now that’s probably one of the few good things I can really say about it.
I think it was when I was in my late teens or early twenties that I finally realised something. This movie was actually… kinda shit.
It has good points. Gotham City looks fantastic. The Batmobile is cool (if a little phallic looking) – and the nods to The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke were welcome.
I just pretty much hate the rest of it.
For a start they absolutely fucked up The Joker. By revealing a previous identity for him (the comics have never explicitly done that in canon) they rob his character of any mystery. Not knowing who he was is part of what made him so scary in the comics.
Then – shoehorning him into Batman’s origin. I mean… huh? Why do that? It’s a painfully lame thing to do. It’s not true to the legend and it’s not true to character. It changes Batman’s mission from one of justice to one of revenge. It leaves the film feeling like a rip off of a bad Death Wish sequel. Bruce Wayne is just Paul Kersey in a rubber suit and a cape. Anything profound this movie may have had to say is just completely lost.
I’m disappointed with Jack Nicholson’s performance in this movie. We don’t get Jack Nicholson the actor. We get Jack Nicholson the movie star. For a film like The Witches Of Eastwick that’s fine, but not here. Not for this character. It needed more than a movie star showboating. He struts through this movie like he owns it. Chewing the scenery at every turn. He really dominates the proceedings and it’s obvious he’s just there for the payday.
I would rather have seen the Jack Nicholson I love do the part. The Jack Nicholson from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, or my personal favourite – Chinatown. I would rather he would’ve bought something like that to The Joker. Something tangible. Some intensity. Just a slight re calibration in his performance could’ve helped the film probably be something more memorable. Such a shame.
Kim Basinger as Vicky Vale is the next big let down. All she seems to do is scream and after five minutes it gets annoying. Then it gets even MORE annoying when you look at the timer and realise there’s still about an hour and forty five fucking minutes of this movie to go. She’s so unlikable in this. Vicky Vale is just a horrible character. Self centred insensitive and cold. The way she treats poor Alexander Knox is just horrible. Very off putting. Hard to believe anyone would want to rescue her from anything.
Finally we get to Michael Keaton in the title role. Now when he’s Batman he’s pretty damn good. He looks great in the suit and has some cool action hero dialogue. He’s a fairly believable superhero tough guy.
One thing really BAFFLES me. About how he chose to deal with those two muggers at the start. Why did he just stand there and watch them mug that family? Shouldn’t he have stopped them BEFORE they did that? Doing it AFTER they’ve committed the crime makes NO sense!
If he swooped down and saved that family from the muggers – it could have led to a cool plot point where Vicky Vale interviews them as credible witnesses to this strange creature of the night. That could’ve worked!
Maybe we could have found out that the family were taking time off from their jobs as circus performers. That their surname was Grayson and the boy’s name was Dick…
See the WASTED opportunities here?
The problems with Keaton’s performance REALLY begin when he’s playing Bruce Wayne. Whilst he’s handsome enough (albeit in a quirky way) to be believable as a billionaire playboy… he doesn’t actually behave like a playboy. He plays Wayne like a reclusive Howard Hughes type. So therefore there isn’t really enough duality in the double role he’s playing. There’s not enough distance between personas.
In the comic books Bruce Wayne has been known to deliberately play up to the playboy stereotype in order to throw people off the scent that he might really be Batman. Keaton might have been able to do something really special with that. He has a unique live-wire intensity which could’ve been put to good use and given the movie some flavour. It’s a real shame that doesn’t really happen. Unless you count the “Let’s get nuts” scene – which is kind of funny – but too little too late.
It would be remiss to underestimate this movie’s influence. It did set a precedent for superhero movies to follow. That’s from it’s style though not it’s substance. There’s no real substance here to speak of.
It takes too many liberties with it’s source material. The story is a jumbled mess of tired cliches. It’s mean spirited, nihilistic and on the whole – just unpleasant to watch.
Batman is a bad movie.
The Man Who Saved Movies. Never rub another man’s rhubarb!