A film review by Craig J. Koban June, 2004

 

BATMAN jjj
½ 

15th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1989, PG-13, 126 mins.

The Joker/Jack Napier: Jack Nicholson / Batman/Bruce Wayne: Michael Keaton / Vicki Vale: Kim Basinger / Alexander Knox: Robert Wuhl / Police Commissioner Gordon: Pat Hingle / District Attorney Harvey Dent: Billy Dee Williams / Alfred: Michael Gough / Alicia: Jerry Hall / Carl Grissom: Jack Palance

Directed by Tim Burton /  Screenplay by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren

Batman Mini Poster

Was there ever a comic book film adaptation that was more controversial than 1989’s BATMAN? 

I still can’t think of another bit of casting that inspired more anger, resentment, and overall confusion and puzzlement than director Tim Burton’s choice of Michael Keaton to play the Caped Crusader.  Fan outrage would be a tremendous understatement when defining the casting.  Clearly, the only other exposure that the general public had with Batman was with the hugely popular 1960’s TV series, whose campy, tongue-in-cheek style was the complete antithesis of what the Batman character was really envisioned as by creator Bob Kane.  

Kane himself even had huge concerns about Keaton, as he explained in his autobiography BATMAN AND ME, “Whereas my hero was muscular and 6’2’’ tall and granite jawed, Keaton was…far from the classically handsome and debonair image…I had envisioned for Bruce Wayne and Batman.”  With even the creator expressing serious misgivings, the film, even as it was in pre-production, was garnering tons of free publicity.  Everyone knew there was a Batman film on the way, and were ever-so-curious as to whether a former stand-up comedian who starred in films like MR. MOM, NIGHT SHIFT, and GUNG HO could do justice to Kane’s creations and appease the public everywhere. 

In short, BATMAN was one of the gutsiest cinematic gambles in recent memory. 

The film did have a long history coming to the screen even before the controversy was a glint in anyone’s eye.  In the wake of the enormous success of the first SUPERMAN film in 1978, that film’s co-writer Tom Mankiewicz wrote an early draft of the BATMAN screenplay in 1980.  It told the story of Batman and Robin's origins and included the villains the Joker and Penguin.  It was going to be released in 1985 with a proposed budget of $20 million (high for a mid-eighties film).  When the producers of that venture were booted off of the production, the script lay dormant for years.  Several years later, producer Jon Peters picked it up and began fresh.  Unfortunately, he did not like the script.  He would need a new writer and a director.  His choice was (at the time) a little known director named Tim Burton.  He seemed like an odd choice himself to make a Batman film, having only one film (PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE) on his resume.  But Peters saw in Burton a director with a unique vision and sense of style; a man who placed a certain emphasis on being creative, bizarre, and darkly funny.  He seemed like a director with the chops to pull off the gritty film noir melodrama that was Batman.  Burton hired a new screenwriter (Sam Hamm) and began to hammer out the new script.  Hamm would prove to be the unsung hero of BATMAN, being a comic fan all his life, and this would help transcend itself to fully realizing the film adaptation.   

Then came the announcement of the casting of Mr. Mom. 

Burton stood his ground with the press, and validated his concept of Batman as a real person with complexity at his heart; someone that tries to do good, but inevitably fights with his own inner neurosis.  Batman was not an invincible superhero, but one with flaws and problems who has an arsenal at his disposal to become a super hero. 

Keaton’s casting, in retrospect, was a real coup. 

BATMAN was announced for release in the summer of 1989, perfectly in synch with the character’s 50th anniversary of first appearing in Detective Comics.  The pre-release controversy and anticipation reached heights unheard of at the time.  A new wave of Batmania was ushered in.  BATMAN was not just a film; it was an event in the making.  The media, both national and international, was ballooning up the hype from the moment the production started in England’s Pinewood Studios.  Months before the film opened, Batman merchandise was everywhere…absolutely everywhere. This type of merchandising frenzy had not been seen since RETURN OF THE JEDI opened four years earlier.   

BATMAN - which was the most anticipated film of the 1980’s, and probably second behind THE PHANTOM MENACE as being one of the most hyped and eagerly awaited films of the last quarter of a century - finally opened in June of 1989.  It was the first major summer smash in years, and became the first film to make $100 million dollars in ten days.  Box office success aside, was BATMAN any good and how does it hold up now, fifteen years later?  The truly good news was (and still is) that the film gloriously evoked the spirit, tone, and mood of the original Bob Kane comic strips.  Sure, the film was not completely faithful to the comic books, but it felt faithful in its themes and look.  Burton had always promised that the film would be played straight and would owe more to the dark melodramas of the thirties and forties than the silly TV show.  He did not fail in anyway on his promise.  For the first time in nearly a decade, there was a living, breathing comic character occupying the silver screen, and in mostly successful fashion. 

BATMAN is a dark, haunting, poetic, and action packed noir of a film, and a magnificent vision come to life.  From the very first shots of Gotham City - envisioned by designer Anton Furst (who would later win an Oscar) as New York from hell - the viewer soon realizes that this is not the light hearted and bright world that Superman or Spider-Man occupy.  Burton’s Gotham is a city of urban decay where around all of its gothic architecture emerges the seediest of humanity.  It’s a powerful jolt to the senses, and Gotham in BATMAN is one of the most unique film environments I've ever seen, a place that draws you in until it becomes more real, in some sort of weird, abstract way.  BATMAN is surely a triumph of art direction, and its Oscar win in that category was much deserved. 

After the film opens with its disturbing look at Gotham, the film settles more or less into its narrative.  Gotham approaches its 200th-birthday celebration and is in the grip of a brutal crime wave, orchestrated mob boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) and his head henchman, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson).  Napier is a flamboyant and dashing crook who secretly sleeps with the boss’s wife on the side.  Things then go dangerously south for Napier.  Grissom eventually sets him up and tips off the police of an impending raid at Axis Chemicals (another wonderfully realized set piece).  That is, of course, until Batman steps in.  Yet, unintentionally, the Dark Knight gives birth to this main nemesis for the rest of the film when he drops Napier into a vat of toxic chemicals.  He thinks he’s dead, but Napier survives and emerges scared for life and as crazy as ever.  He dubs himself (hilariously) as “the world’s first fully functional homicidal artist” and "The Joker" is born, a deliciously evil psychopath who kills for nothing more than for the indiscriminate pleasure out of it all.   

The Joker takes a huge amount of personal pride in the chaos and corruption that he leaves in his wake, and Nicholson portrays him as a singing and prancing serial killer.  Nicholson is terrifically and absolutely bonkers in the film, and every scene he’s in shines with his manic energy as he brings such a dangerous and caged intensity to his hijinks.  Oftentimes, you're left wondering whether to laugh at him or be scared at him.  You laugh at him when he gleefully destroys works of priceless art in a Gotham art gallery (in a scene that’s funny and macabre at the same time), but you may not like him after you see what he does to a mob boss with his trick joy buzzer.  Nicholson’s Joker makes an effective comic foil to not only the brooding character of Batman, but also to the world he occupies as well.  How Nicholson was not nominated for an Oscar is sheer lunacy in itself. 

As for Keaton?  He may not have been (and still is not to many) everyone’s idea of a super hero, but he all but redeems himself with his dual performance and essentially, in the process, silenced many of his critics (and there were many).  The Joker may be the maniacal energy of the film, but its Keaton’s cool, collected, and underplayed performance that keeps the film working on its levels.  Burton never loses sight on the fact that beneath the supernatural aura that is the Batman character is a meager man that wears glasses, has trouble with women, and is more neurotic that he’ll ever admit.  As Bruce Wayne, Keaton is nearly a schizophrenic man with deeply imbedded personal scars caused by watching his parents gunned down as a child.  He’s a complex alter ego who has no real idea of what he does or why he does it.  He’s one of the more internally conflicted heroes, and Keaton portrays it smoothly.  When he becomes Batman, all in black and covered in body armor, he becomes a true dark “knight”.  Some criticized Keaton for not being more charismatic and emotional.  Far from it, he’s playing a character of detachment and ever-forceful vigilance.  He’s not for “truth, justice, and the American way” like his Kryptonioan cousin.  Conversely, Batman's prime directive is to achieve reciprocity for his deep emotional wounds.  His first appearance in the film spells this out perfectly. 

Burton directs the film with a sure-fire grasp of the material and never looks back.  He was aided in this process by the terrifically realized art direction and costumes.  The film’s look is highly stylized, often combining elements of 1930’s fashions and styles with a sort of a post-modern, BLADE RUNNER feel.  It simultaneously feels old and futuristic, and it’s these timeless qualities that have allowed the film to age so well over the last fifteen years.  The film also boasts a brilliantly realized score by Danny Elfman that rivals John William’s work in SUPERMAN.  His brooding, edgy, gothic, and operatic style embellishes the world of Batman beautifully, and consistently maintains the film’s tone. 

BATMAN is not a complete success.  The film’s narrative has an energy and spunk  and is well paced, but its punctuated by a few scenes that seem perfunctory and redundant (many which feature the Joker).  Whereas Keaton and Nicholson are great, the rest of the characters are inconsistently realized.  Michael Gough as Wayne’s butler and surrogate father – Alfred – is quietly played with a light, sarcastic charm, but the characters of Vicki Vale (Kim Bassinger) and Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) are weak entries.  Vale has beauty and charm, but she does not have the spunk and energy that, say, Margot Kidder's Lois Lane has, and emerges as more of an obligatory and screaming damsel figure in the film.  Gordon is also painfully underwritten, and as one of the more integral figures in the Batman mythos, he’s terribly underdeveloped. 

Overall, BATMAN is a film that holds up magnificently and is a small masterpiece of gritty, dark film noir storytelling and style.  Looking back, with all of the anticipation eliminated, BATMAN still remains one of the better comic book film adaptations.  It’s more of a violent urban fairy tale with firmly planted archetypal roots than an enlightening super hero film.  Nevertheless, BATMAN remains an impressive achievement.  Its influence also can’t be contested and it arguably lead to the super hero film boom we now see it (SPIDER-MAN achieved its success in BATMAN’s wake).  BATMAN did spawn three sequels (the inferior BATMAN RETURNS, the overstuffed BATMAN FOREVER, and the cinematic rape of the senses that was BATMAN & ROBIN).  Yet, there really is no question that the first film remains the best and most defining film of one pop culture's most enduring figures.  Ironically, it is Keaton and not his successors that remains the best Batman.

 

CrAiGeR's

other

REVIEWS:

 

BATMAN BEGINS  jjjj

THE DARK KNIGHT jjjj

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES  jjj1/2

BATMAN: THE MOVIE - 40th Anniversary Retrospective Review jjj1/2

 

And, for what it's worth, CrAiGeR's ranking of the BATMAN films:

 

1. THE DARK KNIGHT  (2008)  jjjj

2. BATMAN BEGINS (2005) jjjj

3. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) jjj1/2

4. BATMAN (1989)  jjj1/2

5. BATMAN: THE MOVIE (1966)  jjj 1/2

6. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)  jjj

7. BATMAN FOREVER (1995)  jj1/2

8. BATMAN & ROBIN (1997)  j1/2

 

 

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