Batman reinvigorates the Batman mythos with a new, dark interpretation.
Thief: Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me, man! Don’t kill me!
Batman: I’m not going to kill you. I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me.
Thief: What are you?
Batman: I’m Batman.
Since the release of the Batman TV series (1966-1968), the show has received a mixed reception. Many people appreciate the lighthearted tone of the series, while others criticize it for not portraying Batman in the appropriate light.
The 60s TV show depicted Batman as an optimistic hero, as well as incorporated slapstick humor to keep things from getting dark. Years later, the quintessential Batman graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, was released in 1986, showing readers a somber interpretation of Batman. Even though the well-received graphic novel appealed to a lot of people, it was still literature, not a live-action version of Batman. However, when the year 1989 came about, a new movie featuring the caped crusader was released—and this time, Batman was very different from his other live-action counterpart.
In Batman (1989), Gotham City has become a dangerous place for people to live. There are many thieves, prostitutes, gangs, and thugs who roam and corrupt the city. Tired of the city’s degradation, Mayor Borg (Lee Wallace) orders District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) and Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) to increase police activity to eliminate crime on the streets, especially due to city’s bicentennial coming up. The police then go after a gang, headed by mob boss Carl Grissom. Grissom becomes concerned that the cops will link his affairs with a chemical plant called Axis Chemicals. During a meeting with his gang of mobsters, he tasks Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) to lead a group of his men to retrieve all the important files from the plant. Unbeknownst to Napier, Grissom knows about Napier’s affair with his girlfriend/wife, and because of the infidelity, sets him up to be taken down by the cops—which ends with a near-fatal incident that leads to Jack Napier’s transformation into the Joker. Meanwhile, a mysterious vigilante appears in Gotham and is taking down criminals. Only some people believe he exists, including the dedicated reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). Vale and Knox work together to find any information on the masked vigilante. To their luck, the vigilante appears whenever crime occurs in the city, and now they know that the vigilante, known as Batman, exists and is in Gotham to save the city.
Written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren and directed by Tim Burton, Batman reinvigorated the Batman mythos with a new, dark interpretation. Instead of replicating the campy tone from the 60s TV show, Burton gave the film a dark tone, which is more fitting for the character of Batman.
The creative team behind the film do impressive work in creating the dark setting for Gotham city. Burton and cinematographer Roger Pratt capture quick, but effective shots of the people and the surroundings. The camera captures thugs who are hanging out on the street, prostitutes who are trying to catch the attention of passerby’s, and homeless people trying to take shelter on the streets. Furthermore, steam arises out of the steel grates, which envelope the scene. With this steam effect, Burton and his team pay homage to the film noir genre. Film noir was a popular film genre in the 50s, and the directors would convey the darkness of the setting by shooting at night and blowing steam into the shot to give off an eerie feel. Burton paints an eerie feel in Batman to show how dark the city can be, even during the daytime. With all the work the creative team put into the movie, they successfully portray Gotham as a gloomy, dangerous city to live in. With the chaos building up within Gotham, only one hero can save the day.
Speaking of heroes, Michael Keaton, who plays Batman in the movie, received a lot of backlash when he signed on for the role. Keaton was known for his comedic roles in Mr. Mom (1983), and Beetlejuice(1988), before playing Batman. Since people only saw Keaton as a comedic actor, they didn’t think he could portray the complex billionaire/hero. As part of the outrage, many people sent letters to Warner Bros, explaining their disdain for Keaton’s casting as Batman. Thankfully Warner Bros ignored the letters and continued with the production. On June 23, 1989, the movie came out, and many people saw the film—resulting in people’s perspectives changing when they saw the good performance from Michael Keaton.
To this day, Michael Keaton is one of the greatest Batman actors. Keaton manages to portray both sides of the character very well. As Bruce Wayne, Keaton nails the character by revealing the pain Wayne is experiencing, without saying words. As Batman, Keaton changes his voice just enough to sound intimidating, but not ridiculous (hmm hmm Christian Bale). He also uses body language to reveal Batman’s stoic nature and glaring scowl. When Batman steps into the scene, he poses a physical threat to everyone who is around him. But, Batman’s physicality in the film is exaggerated a little too much.
For example, Batman and Napier encounter each other at Axis Chemicals. Batman catches Napier off guard and manages to pick him up off the ground. This is a little unbelievable due to Keaton’s physical stature. Keaton stands at 5’9 and is under 190 pounds. If Keaton was taller and bigger, it would have been more believable for the character to pick up people. Despite the exaggerated strength of Batman, Keaton still plays a convincing Batman.
Jack Nicholson, as Jack Napier/Joker, is the standout of the film. Keaton and Nicholson both give great performances, but viewers will remember Nicholson’s dynamic performance more, for his talent of portraying the Joker’s quirks and homicidal tendencies. In every scene Joker is in, he makes his presence known and steals away the attention from the other characters. Joker is such a magnetic presence due to his unpredictable nature. He kills without remorse and doesn’t allow anyone to stand in his way. Nicholson’s Joker share similar qualities with Cesar Romero’s Joker by how both characters display over-the-top actions to hurt or kill people. While both characters make their mark on history, it is Nicholson’s Joker who stands out because of his darker interpretation of the character. It is truly a remarkable performance and ranks among (or close to) Heath Ledger’s great performance as the Joker.
Kim Basinger, as Vicki Vale, manages to portray Vale more as a well-developed character, instead of just a one-note damsel-in-distress character. Basinger captures the ambitious and curious qualities of Vale, displaying Vale as a committed reporter who wants to find the truth about Batman. When Vale gets involved with Wayne, the romance doesn’t feel fake. Their romance meshes with the main storyline, which also adds more enlightening information about Wayne’s conflicted personality. Basinger is the perfect actress to play Vale, not only because of her beauty, but also because of her great onscreen chemistry with Keaton. While many scenes display Vale’s good qualities, other scenes linger on too much to display her bad (or slightly annoying) qualities. Whenever Vale is in some sort of trouble, she screams when she’s frightened. Her screams do in a way incite suspense into the scene, but the frequent use of screams becomes distracting after a while. Still, Basinger is a great Vicki Vale, and she proves that she deserves to be onscreen with established actors Nicholson and Keaton.
Other supporting actors give good performances, which results in the movie being a well-acted superhero movie. Robert Wuhl plays Alexander Knox, who is the only reporter convinced that Batman exists—that is until Vicki Vale comes into town. Wuhl makes sure he isn’t just a forgettable character by portraying Knox as an everyman who wants to find the truth and wants to do his job effectively. On the other side, actors Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon), Billy Dee Williams (Harvey Dent), and Michael Gough (Alfred Pennyworth) aren’t given enough screen time, but do well with what they have.
On the musical side of things, the film’s composer Danny Elfman, blends the right music with the right scenes. Elfman knows when to use music to inject suspense into the scene, and to put in music to elevate the drama. One important sequence in the film is when Wayne visits the place where his parents were killed. When Wayne places the flowers on the ground, the music gets steadily louder. The music doesn’t overpower the scene, but rises just enough to make viewers somehow feel the turmoil Bruce Wayne is feeling. This is truly a powerful scene, and with Elfman’s score added in, it sticks out as one of the best scenes of the film.
While there are many good scenes in Batman, some scenes don’t mesh well with the others. Firstly, in a scene later in the film, Joker takes control over the broadcasting system and displays himself on TV. Joker has many powerful connections, but it is never explained how he could control what people could see on TV. Secondly, the result of the Napier and Batman fight in the chemical plant is left with an ambiguous note. As a viewer, I was expecting for an explanation later in the film, but it never comes. Other than these scenes, viewers will have no problem being entertained by this film.
Batman (1989) is a good re-interpretation of the Caped Crusader, and is buoyed by great performances from Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton.
Rating: 4 out of 5
- First image from Film School Rejects
- Second image from Psychobabble
- Third image from Nate D Sanders
- Fourth image from Cody’s Film, TV, and Video Game Blog
- Fifth image from Batman Wiki
- Sixth image from Geek Twins
- Seventh image from ComicsAlliance