1989 • 126 Minutes • 1.85:1 • United States
Color • English • Warner Bros.
Cast: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance
Screenplay: Sam Hamm, Warren Skaaren
Producers: Peter Gruber, Jon Peters
Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Awards & Honors
Winner: Best Art Direction/Set Decoration
American Film Institute
AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains: The Joker – #45 Villain
AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains: Batman – #46 Hero
Nominated: Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical) – Jack Nicholson
“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
A dark and shadowy vigilante roams the rooftops of Gotham City, preying on the criminal scum that stalk its streets. He is the Batman… and he must stop the psychotic rampage of the villainous Joker before he poisons all of Gotham.
Originally divisive amongst hardcore comic book fans, this film has earned back its reputation and appreciation for it has grown over the years. Not that it wasn’t appreciated in its original release, after all it was one of the biggest movies of all time. It broke box office records as well as pioneered new territory in terms of viral marketing. The famous Bat symbol was seen every where for months before the film’s release… even before the trailer.
Tim Burton ended up being the perfect choice to direct this fantasy superhero film. As his pre- and post- Batman work has reflected, he is at home with dark, brooding characters in fantasy settings (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow). At the time, Burton had yet to direct a big budget blockbuster action film, but he pulled it off well. The film was full of action and memorable scenes and he still managed to put his signature Burton-esque touch to the film (before we all got sick of it.)
There was much controversy over the choice to cast Michael Keaton as the title hero. Keaton at the time was known mostly for comedies like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice. Comic book fans were aghast at the casting decision, fearing it would turn into a retread of the 1960s Adam West television show. Instead, Keaton brought a great deal of dramatic weight to the role. As Batman, he disappeared behind the cowl. He was intimidating, he had a presence and was able to do the “voice” without slipping into the ludicrous (unfortunately like Christian Bale did later.) As Bruce Wayne he was even better… bringing a “tortured soul” quality to the role.
There is much debate as to who the best Joker is. Modern viewers will default to Heath Ledger. Hardcore comic book fans like Mark Hammill’s voice work in The Animated Series. And even some favor Caesar Romero’s campiness. Jack Nicholson remains many people’s favorite. It’s hard to argue. Nicholson managed to perfectly blend evil and camp into one character. He was completely over-the-top, but the role required him to be. He could be funny at times, but the character was never treated like a joke… he was always someone the audience took seriously. Is he the best Joker? Yes… for his movie, this performance was perfect. It wouldn’t have fit in the “Nolan-verse” or the Adam West show. Each Joker, whether it be Hammil, Romero or Ledger was perfect for his particular universe. Nicholson is no different.
The rest of the cast filled out the film nicely. Basinger, an 80s pop culture sex symbol, was perfect as the love interest. Attractive and a capable actress… exactly what the role required. Michael Gough’s portrayal of Alfred was much more submissive than the comic books or later incarnations of the character, but for a significant portion of this author’s childhood he WAS Alfred. Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent was fine, but had nothing to do. My only gripe is Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon. Gordon is a major force in the Batman universe, and in the Burton films he is reduced to a minor, bumbling side character.
The script is fine. It doesn’t break boundaries in terms of storytelling, but it sets up all the main characters perfectly and the action beats are well positioned. The story of The Joker poisoning Gotham City with his Joker toxin and Batman racing to stop him is standard comic book villain fare. Much controversy surrounded the decision to turn Jack Napier into Bruce Wayne’s parents’ killer. Comic book fans generally hate this plot development as it is not true to the source material, but for the story the film is trying to tell it works. After all, Batman accidentally drops Napier into a vat of chemicals turning him into The Joker, so the “I made you, you made me first” line has weight and significance later in the film.
For those expecting the same level of storytelling you get from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy… look elsewhere. The Tim Burton Batman films are not about storytelling. They are about spectacle. Nolan’s films try for realism. Burton’s films don’t. In fact, they emphasize the fantasy aspects of the character. The costume is dynamic and dramatic. The Batmobile is sleek and intimidating, but probably not very practical. Gotham City’s set design is very art deco and gothic (appropriate). Burton succeeds in bringing a comic book to life.
And before we end, let’s not forget about the music. Danny Elfman’s Batman score is just as iconic as John Williams’ Superman score. The opening title march blaring over the opening credits as we “fly through” the Bat symbol almost tells you how the movie is going to play out. Batman is one of the most perfectly scored films of all time.
In the end, are you going to get the gritty realism of Nolan’s trilogy? No. Is the film completely faithful to the comics? No. But that doesn’t matter… as a film and as an entry in the Batman mythology, this is essential viewing.
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