Batman has had a love/hate relationship with the world of film. He made his debut on the big screen in old serials that used to play in movie houses in the 40’s. It wasn’t until 1966 that he got his first shot at a true feature length movie. Based on the popular television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward, it was a silly take on the caped crusader. For those of us who grew up on the 1990’s animated series, the film and television show do not come across as authentic, but Batman had a pretty light tone in the comic book world then.
Frank Miller is often credited with bringing Batman back to the shadows with his graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. Other stories would soon follow, such as Death in the Family and The Killing Joke, all serving to steer Batman in a more serious direction.
It is no surprise that Batman’s return to the big screen in 1989 would follow the same path in terms of tone and visuals. Audiences were ready to put the days of Adam West behind them and embrace Batman in a new way. The super hero genre was mostly stagnant at the time and a lot of obstacles were present for Batman, but the project went ahead. While the critical response was mixed, the film proved to be a box office hit for Warner Bros.
Tim Burton was an odd choice at the time, and even in hindsight, still looks like an
odd choice for the director of a Batman film. Burton’s biggest hits at the time were Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, two movies that contained extraordinary visuals but hardly the type associated with Batman. If movie goers were puzzled by this choice they were even more weary of the studio’s choice to sport the cape and cowl. That honor fell to comedic actor Michael Keaton who had worked with Burton before playing the starring role in Beetlejuice. In hindsight, it’s amusing how much controversy existed over this casting decision given how much fans missed Keaton when he left the franchise.
To pull off the role, the costume designers outfitted Keaton with a rubber batsuit featuring sculpted muscles to give him an imposing look. The camera is also kept in close on Batman and rarely is he shown in full. This helps to disguise the actor’s average height which proves to be a good move. In the few scenes where Batman is shown in full frame he does look less imposing, particularly when running along side co-star Kim Basinger.
For the most part, once people saw what Keaton looked like in costume they soon realized the only quality a Batman actor needed to possess was a good jaw. Keaton’s Batman ended up being a man of few words. When he spoke it was barely above a whisper and direct. During the film’s climax we do see a more emotional Batman which comes across well and helps add to the scene’s impact.
Keaton also plays Batman’s alter ego in a similar fashion to how most productions, past and present, have. Which is to say he tries to distinguish the two in terms of behavior and even vocal tone. Keaton is able to do so with subtlety and never resorts to playing Wayne in an over the top, playboy, manner. Keaton’s Wayne is charming with a mostly light demeanor when around company. In his scenes with Basinger’s Viki Vale, he does let on that there’s a dark side to him.
Keaton is partly able to portray Bruce Wayne this way because in this world Wayne is an unseen force. The people of Gotham know his name but not his face and the film doesn’t reveal much about Bruce Wayne’s business life. Early on in the film a party is held at Wayne Manor that is attended by most of the film’s secondary characters, including one of Gotham’s most notable journalists, Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl). In one of the film’s more comedic scenes, Knox and Vale are walking around Wayne’s art exhibits and cracking jokes about the trust fund baby. When Keaton’s Wayne saunters into the room and joins the conversation both reporters are unaware of who he even is. The scene ends with an awkward introduction and a seemingly aloof Wayne promises to get Knox a grant for his research.
Of course, Batman wouldn’t be much of a hero if he didn’t have a foil to make him
look good. Enter Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Nicholson was the big name hired to give the movie instant credibility. He was also a favorite for the role by Batman co-creator Bob Kane, much to the disappointment of Joker-hopeful, Robin Williams. Nicholson’s Joker comes across as a hybrid of Cesar Romero’s Joker from the 1966 series and the comic book character’s more sinister takes. He is a bit more menacing and focused in the film and he’s given a back story as mob underling Jack Napier. We’re shown his transformation in one of the film’s earlier scenes, which Batman is given a hand in. The Joker in the comics is famous for not having a true back story so this was a bit of a surprise. Napier is also later revealed to be the gunman responsible for the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne giving Batman and the Joker an interesting dynamic as both are responsible for the other’s existence.
The Joker here is over the top, as any Joker would be. He is obsessed with his own disfigured appearance and fancies himself an artist, an interesting but in the end irrelevant aspect of his personality. He’s equipped with joke-type weapons; an acid spitting flower, electro-shock joy buzzer, and an absurdly long barreled revolver. His main mode of attack is reminiscent of some of his comic exploits with Joker gas. Here he’s poisoned all of the city’s cosmetics with his Joker poison that will leave it’s users disfigured, much like himself. This is, of course, preceded by a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
Since Gotham’s police force is riddled with corruption and incompetence, it falls on Batman to deduce who the Joker is, what his ultimate goal is, and just how to stop him. It’s an okay plot and serves to please casual audiences. For the Batman die-hards, having Joker cast as the murderer of Batman’s parents was an unwelcome turn. Nicholson’s Joker ends up being the dominant personality in the film, almost forcing Batman to the rank of supporting character (Nicholson did receive top-billing at the box office, though that has more to do with his star power and contract than anything). The film also ends with Batman getting his revenge and the Joker finished. Considering that Batman and the Joker have always been intertwined in the comics, this also was not welcome as it removed the Joker as a possible villain for all future films. Batman was also portrayed as a killer, something most of the comic books tried to avoid. Considering that The Dark Knight Returns was the primary source of inspiration though, this wasn’t that hard to accept.
Visually speaking, dark was the theme. Few scenes occur in broad daylight and most of the interior shots are shadowed, particularly the ones taking place in Wayne Manor. Some duality is used as Viki Vale’s apartment is bathed in light with a white theme. When Bruce and Viki change rooms during the dinner scene at Wayne Manor, they move from a dark dining hall to a cozy and warmly lit kitchen, drawing a parallel between the Bruce Wayne most assume and the one he truly is. The Batcave is portrayed as just that, a cave, and Gotham is given a gothic theme. This approach often leads to the film being classified as a noir, though some critics (most notably Roger Ebert) disagree with the label.
Batman is outfitted with an array of gadgets (a fact captured so well in the film’s
most memorable line) and vehicles. The Batmobile is jet-black and armored. It’s also voice activated and apparently perfectly capable of driving itself. Batman’s suit is also entirely black and armored, the only dash of color are the yellow/gold of his symbol and utility belt. He has an assortment of bombs, grappling hooks, and batarangs that he uses throughout the film, though he’s not afraid to engage in straight-up fisticuffs when the situation calls for it. He saves his biggest toy for the end when he brings out the Bat Wing, or Bat Plane as some call it. Designed to look like his logo, the Bat Wing is a stealth plane he uses to take out the Joker’s gas-filled parade balloons. Strangely, it is felled by a single shot from Joker’s elongated .38.
Prince was brought in to craft the film’s soundtrack and the results are mixed at best. Prince’s blend of funk and pop work in contrast to the film’s dark mood. His songs are mostly reserved for scenes involving the Joker so it isn’t as noticeable, though it still comes across as unnecessary Hollywood indulgence. Danny Elfman is given the score and produces arguably his most iconic work. The Batman theme was an instant hit and was carried over into the television product that would follow.
The film ends up coming together fairly well. There are definitely some aspects that work better than others, but the cast is competent and the directing effective. This a film full of personalities that could have lead to Burton over playing his hand but he keeps most everything in check. The film’s most glaring weaknesses reside fully in its screen play and plot. Ultimately, Batman needed more Batman and less Joker. The romantic angle served as an okay subplot, so the seemingly happily ever after ending felt odd and was made even more odd when the sequel rolled around and Viki Vale was no where to be found. Batman works best as a loner, and perhaps a noble break-up would have worked better (something Nolan would attempt with Batman Begins).
Ultimately, I decided to make this entry because I do feel that this film has been over-shadowed by the recent Batman films. In truth, the newest films are the best Batman movies created, and I would even rank the animated feature Mask of the Phantasm ahead of the Burton films. I do think there are things this film did better than the recent ones though, most notably the Batman voice and Bruce Wayne character. In this film, since the origin of Batman was revealed through sporadic flashbacks, we’re allowed to see how quietly disturbed Bruce Wayne is without him having to come out and say it. In many ways, Michael Keaton is still the best Batman even if Christian Bale’s Batman possesses a more believable look. Burton also doesn’t waste time trying to explain to the audience how Batman acquired his talents or where his money is coming from which helps keep the film from becoming too bloated. Some things need no explanation.
This Batman, like really all of the other Batmans, exists in his own world separate
from every other one. Films based on well established properties do best when they do not seek to simply mirror the original medium. Here the audience is given the tone of The Dark Knight Returns, but not the plot. The plot is, for better or worse, a unique one among Batman stories and this Batman is different in attitude from other Batman portrayals. When taken at face value, this is an interesting and enjoyable take on the character. The sequel, Batman Returns, would contain even less Batman and as a result is an inferior film. The two that followed that one were so abysmal they’re not even worth discussing.
As production is about to begin on the third film in the latest Batman franchise, it’s a good time to go back and revisit what the past has given us. 1989’s Batman is not a perfect movie or the caped crusader’s best, but for a long time it was the best live action Batman on film and should not be forgotten.