Batman (1989) – Directed by Tim Burton – Starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, and Jack Palance.
And thus was born the modern superhero movie.
At least, that’s how history should have gone.
Tim Burton’s BATMAN is an artistic masterpiece and proved itself a tremendous financial success at the box office, but the only superhero films it seemed to spawn were other Batman movies. It would take eight years for a non-Batman DC-based hero to hit the big screen, when- well, why am I telling you. Of course you know I’m talking about Steel. It would take Marvel another year after that to get Blade to the theaters, only managing the direct-to-video Captain America and the unreleased Fantastic Four movie in the interim.
You can see the influence of BATMAN on the superhero genre once X-Men kicked off the true modern age of superhero cinema in 2000, but in truth I don’t think Burton’s movie has turned out to be anymore influential that Richard Donner’s Superman, and in double truth I don’t think any superhero movie in my lifetime will prove to be more influential than Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, which has set the template for how to successfully make a superhero film. I couldn’t tell you why BATMAN didn’t immediately spawn a host of superhero movies, except that Marvel was in no state to start churning out movies in 1989 and DC, it appears, either wasn’t interested or couldn’t get other projects off the ground.
For me, BATMAN is much more an artistic masterpiece than a superhero masterpiece; I’m much more impressed by the sets and costumes than I am by the Batman vs. Joker plot, and I honestly think Burton is more interested in them, too. There are parts of BATMAN where I’m kinda bored with the story but I’m never tired of looking at what’s on the screen. The plot of the movie is rather dull; Bruce Wayne/Batman (Michael Keaton) is arguably the third most important character in the film behind the Joker (Jack Nicholson) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). Maybe some of this has to do with star power, as I can’t think of another superhero film off the top of my head where the actor playing the villain got a higher billing than the actor playing the titular star. (Internet, I’m counting on you to correct me if I’m wrong. Which Percival has – check the comments. Thanks!)
While I love BATMAN, I don’t find it to be a particularly enlightening or insightful movie about the human condition. Jack Napier is a very bad guy who becomes psychotic as the Joker. Bruce Wayne is an introverted, emotionally crippled man who dresses up to kick people as a way of coping. Robert Wuhl plays a reporter who tenaciously dogs his story until the film needs him to go away. Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon are pointless. The only character who feels remotely insightful is Vicki Vale, the award-winning photographer who comes to Gotham to chase an urban legend because she’s missing something in her life.
Like most of his later movies, BATMAN is little more than an excuse for Burton to exploit the psychological failings of his characters. While I could watch this movie all day long, I don’t want to listen to it because it’s depressing. (Okay, I want to listen to a few of the Joker’s one-liners.) This Batman is a killer; while the film absolves him of the technicality of the Joker’s death, it’s Batman who punches him off the roof of a building, only to have the Joker catch himself just over the ledge. Tying their origins together (it’s Jack Napier who kills Bruce’s parents, and Bruce who causes Jack to fall into the vat of chemicals to become the Joker) doesn’t work for me because Bruce’s “breakthrough” when he realizes that it was Jack who killed mommy and daddy turns this into a straight revenge movie. It suggests that the lesson Bruce learned about his parents’ murder is that you kill before you are killed.
The movie opens by establishing Batman is a bad-ass. Then it becomes Alexander Knox’s story (Robert Wuhl), the reporter tracking down the Batman story no one else seems to believe. Then Vicki Vale enters and it becomes her movie. Then Jack Napier falls into a vat of chemicals and it’s his movie. Then sometimes Batman shows up to punch people, or Bruce Wayne shows up to stare pensively at the wall.
None of this makes BATMAN a bad movie, but I often find I’m less interested in the story than I am just absorbing how cool everything looks. Gotham City is as much a character as anyone else in the film; the city is dark and bleak, with towering, menacing buildings everywhere. When on the ground, the city is often broken and crumbling, but when characters look up Gotham becomes a jungle of steel and various architectural styles, and almost always shrouded in darkness. And the Batmobile is completely stunning; this is, by far, my favorite version of Bats’ car. The costume, too, is pretty darn stunning, and the whole feel of the film marks it as a transitional moment between Adam West’s camp and Chris Nolan’s realism.
The plot focuses on the birth of the Joker, and the machinations of the Joker, and the craziness of the Joker. It also focuses on Knox and Vale’s attempt to track the Batman story. And Batman … Batman just sort of reacts to things.
Burton’s conception of Batman and Bruce Wayne is that of a reclusive introvert, who prefers only to venture out at night and in costume. He does leave the mansion as Bruce on a couple of occasions, but there is no Wayne Industries for him to run. Instead, he ventures out to lay roses at the sight of his parents’ murder, or to apologize to Vicki. Bruce isn’t a playboy and he’s not a leading private citizen. Vicki and Knox can barely find any information on him, and at a party Vicki has to ask for help from people to even point Bruce out since she doesn’t even know what he looks like. Alfred is concerned for his introverted employer, too, pushing Bruce to develop a relationship with Vicki.
Michael Keaton is very good as Bruce and pretty good as Batman, but I still don’t feel we’ve seen the quintessential Batman on film. (Paging Daniel Craig …) Basinger and Wuhl are rather good, too, but the star of the film is Jack Nicholson. The Joker is ready-made to play to Nicholson’s excess and he takes full advantage, wonderfully hamming it up and delivering many of the film’s lines. Burton wastes other actors, though: Jack Palance, Pat Hingle, and Billy Dee Williams are almost unnecessary to the plot.
I like BATMAN for what it is and love it for what it was. I bought the poster and a t-shirt and thought Batmania was pretty cool to live through. After not watching this movie for probably a decade, BATMAN still holds up. Happily, the movie still looks as great as ever. Sadly, the movie still largely fails to move me.