by Steve Habrat
One of the most important films from my childhood is without question Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, the first big screen adaptation of the Caped Crusader that dared to remain buried in the shadows. With Batman, Burton proved to Hollywood that audiences would eat up a deliciously dark and violent superhero movie and they wouldn’t even bat an eyebrow. Burton’s Batman, along with the campy Adam West television series, is what shaped me into the diehard Bat-fan (and collector) that I am today. Yet Burton’s original film had two aspects that I have never been able to really get over and one is the fact that the story is told mostly from the Joker’s point of view. Bruce Wayne/Batman is almost a secondary character to Jack Nicholson’s cackling madman. To make things even more infuriating for this Bat-fan, Burton reshaped Batman’s origin by having the Joker be the one who gunned down Batman’s parents in that dark and damp alley. Despite these flaws that are a BIG no-no to me, Batman is still an awesomely gothic vision of the DC Comics vigilante created by Bob Kane (who gets an awesome cameo here). I firmly believe that Burton was put on this earth to convert Kane’s winged vigilante into movie material and replace the campy tone of the 60’s television series with a freakishly haunting mood that you won’t soon forget.
Batman begins on the dangerous streets of Gotham City, a gothic metropolis that is plagued with decay and filth. Despite efforts from the newly elected district attorney Harvey Dent (Played by Billy Dee Williams) and police commissioner Jim Gordon (Played by Pat Hingle), the city is still controlled by mob boss Carl Grissom (Played by Jack Palance), who rules the streets at night. The real terror is Grissom’s right hand man Jack Napier (Played by Jack Nicholson), who gets a kick out of murder and carries on a hushed affair with Grissom’s gorgeous galpal. Gotham City is also rampant with rumors about a masked vigilante who prowls the rooftops, seeking out the criminals who terrorize the innocent citizens. This vigilante happens to be billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Played by Michael Keaton), who vowed to wage a war on crime the night his parents were murdered in cold blood. One evening, Napier is sent by Grissom to raid the chemical company Axis Chemicals, but once he arrives, he realizes that Grissom has set him up to be taken down by Gotham City police. As the standoff intensifies, the masked vigilante known as Batman reveals himself to both the mobsters and the police. In the midst of the chaos, Batman, who is trying to detain Napier peacefully, accidentally drops him into a vat of chemicals that horribly disfigures him, turning him in to the giggling Clown Prince of Crime known as the Joker.
There is no question that Batman belongs to Nicholson’s roaring manic, which is a blessing and a curse. He rips through the movie delivering line after line of iconic dialogue that you will be quoting for days with your buddies. Burton eases Nicholson onto the path of a deadly buffoon who gets a kick out of practical jokes and jabs aimed at the Caped Crusader. The downside of all of this is that his sinister nature is saturated with scenes where he parades around with his goons listening to Prince. They shimmy and shake through the most bizarre art museum you have ever seen, defacing classic pieces with spray paint while belting out “Party Man” at the top of their lungs. This was the type of stuff that really bothered me about Batman. It feels like Burton was pressured into lightening the mood just a little bit so the studio could grab a younger audience. He repeats this at the end with a parade sequence that, once again, is blaring Prince at us (If you weren’t aware, Prince contributed a number of songs to the soundtrack). It’s another party anthem that is meant to get you rocking and drown out the idea that the Joker is about to commit mass murder. Luckily, Burton doesn’t let it completely overtake the scene and we do get the ultimate taste of how evil the Joker truly is.
The emphasis on Nicholson overshadows Keaton’s magnificent performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Keaton gives a grade-A performance as Bruce Wayne and in my eyes, he is still the second best movie Batman. He really isn’t given very much time in the spotlight but what little he gets is perfectly brooding. The scenes he gets with Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale, a photographer eager to nab a photo of the crime fighter, are delicately structured and distantly aching. Bruce so desperately longs for a normal existence but his work overshadows his love life. He brushes over the longing with a dismissive attitude, the cold face of a billionaire playboy who can have any woman he wants. Basinger is a lovesick puppy who wants into Bruce’s heart, but as she discovers more and more about the man and the demons he conceals, the more she views her task as hopeless. He is too removed and distant to ever allow someone to get close. Keaton’s best scenes, however, come when he confides in his trusted butler Alfred (Played by Michael Gough), who is the acting father figure in his life. Gough is, was, and ever shall be the best Alfred ever put on film, at least to me. He is so affectionate and strong with Bruce, acting as both the push Bruce needs to continue on as Batman as well as the stern voice of reason that he searches for.
There is plenty of action to thrill over in Burton’s Batman, all leading to an epic fistfight between the Joker and Batman at the very top of a dilapidated cathedral (Would you expect anything less from Burton?). The opening moments of the film still give me goosebumps, the Batman emerging from the shadows to clobber a duo of thugs who swap rumors they have heard about this winged demon with a taste for blood. The eerie confrontation ends with the thug squealing, “Who are you”, with Batman tugging him a little closer and whispering the iconic answer, “I’m Batman.” Burton is only wetting our appetite with the scene and he carefully places a number of money shot moments throughout his film that will drive any Batman fan wild with delight. The “I’m melting!” scene is a personal favorite of this Batman fan and I still can’t help but smile over how the scene plays out. It is wildly demented with Batman swooping in at just the right moment. All these teases really amp up with a street showdown between the Joker and Batman that hasn’t aged a day. I am still filled with awe during the Batwing battle that leaves the Joker stammering, “Why didn’t anyone tell me he had one of those…. THINGS!” The effects are timeless and the fights are bare-knuckle bloody, which is exactly how they should be. Bravo, Burton!
Throughout this review, I have put my inner fanboy on hold and left a few of my gripes with the movie on the backburner. While I think the image of the Batwing covering the moon is neat, I think it is a bit ridiculous. There are hundreds of people dying below and I hardly doubt Batman would stop to cover the moon up with the Batwing. I also seethe over how Burton wastes the characters of Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent. I always loved the relationship between Batman and Gordon and I get none of that here. He is such a spectacular ally for the Dark Knight and sadly, Burton gives him absolutely nothing to do. I still get worked up over the fact that Batman can’t turn his neck, something I have always loathed in these early Batman movies. How is he supposed to fight crime if he can’t even look left or right? Still, Batman has plenty of style and atmosphere, which fits well in this interpretation of the character. Burton’s Gotham City is filled with menace and can really be an intimidating place when the sun goes down. The galloping score from Danny Elfman, who conjures up an iconic theme to for our triumphant hero, compliments all of this gothic tension Burton musters. Grand, exciting, and featuring some of the best performances in a comic book movie, Batman is a flawed but undeniably fun classic that never gets old. A total crowd pleaser for both the diehard Batman fans like myself and the average movie-going public.
Batman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.