Tim Burton's Batman (1989)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Based on: A long-running comic book character; directorial creativity; moral ambiguity; watching Batman beat up the Joker to Prince music.
Media | Batman (1989)
Article by Cortbassist89 | October 7, 2007
The summer before my birth wasn't merely fun and games; it was home to an Academy Award-winning film based on Batman, which is really sort of crazy when you stop and think about it. Nearly everyone in America has seen Burton's Batman. (Or as I like to call it, Batman '89. What, you prefer Burtman or something? That's what I thought.) On the off chance you somehow haven't watched this film, that means you either don't have cable or you don't like Batman. The former is excusable, while the latter... Well, the latter doesn't matter because you don't exist.
Hate to tell you, Generation X, but despite all your rosy nostalgia over Batman '89, it's not actually particularly great. The claims that it is are made by two kinds of people: Those who haven't watched it in its entirety since 1989, and a secret underground society (possibly gnomes) plotting to take over the world by making people endure poor acting.
So sit down, grab some popcorn, and let's chat awhile about Batman '89. I'm watching it so you don't have to. Because I'm just that nice, and also a glutton for punishment. It's a win-win situation for us all.
For the sake of comparing the movie to Batman canon, we'll use Frank Miller's seminal comic Batman: Year One as a reference point, even though it came out in 1987, which, as your advanced mathematical smartiness will tell you, is a mere two years before Batman '89. Now, Batman comes in a wide variety of flavors and continuities, as with most comic book superheroes, and discussing backstory quickly becomes impossibly complex and convoluted. So for the sake of simplicity, we'll just stick to Year One and leave the character history to Batman: Yesterday, Today and Beyond.
Now, you can't really say that Burton's Batman is a bad movie; it's a damn fine piece of entertainment. But it's just that: Burton's Batman, and it shares little in common with the canonical Batman. (Post-Crisis version, OK? None of this silly "Bat-Mite" nonsense.) Burton's Batman is void of hope; he is a ruthless vigilante who does not fight crime to rid the world of it as the traditional Batman does, but rather to ease his secret pain and suffering. Batman doesn't come off as threatening, and his Bruce Wayne alter ego doesn't come off as a tortured soul who uses the guise of a playboy to fool the world. Rather, he seems like a reclusive billionaire with a peculiarly large collection of ancient deadly weapons.
The plot isn't horrible, but it's certainly not great, either. It's fairly original in that it is not a straight adaptation of any one Batman comic; in fact, it's relatively above-average as far as comic book films go. We find Batman in the early days of his vigilantism, in one of the most barren, dirty, and downright depressing places you'll ever see: Gotham City. The city's widespread violence and excess of baroque architecture has Gotham experiencing one of the worst depressions in recent history, because no one wants to go near this death trap. As in Miller's Year One, mobsters are running Gotham into the ground, flooding it with drugs, crime, and poverty.
The film also covers the Joker's origin, respecting his original acid-bath birth while adding a mobster backstory, a history of insanity, and a name on top of that. This pretty much means that while the canon Joker went insane after one bad day and a dip in some chemicals, Burton's Joker, Jack Napier, was insane and committing crime long before his chemical peel. More than that, Burton changed Bruce Wayne's origin to add tension between Batman and the Joker: in Batman '89, it was the pre-Joker Napier who killed Bruce's parents.
This of course completely eclipses the fact that the canon Joker and Batman already had tension between them. The Joker was Batman's archnemesis, the one criminal who consistently pushed his wits and brawn to the limits. This was all accented more by the fact that The Joker truly wasn't all that different from The Batman. Both were, to an extent, sociopathic (see 1989's graphic novel Arkham Asylum). Plus, both had become who they were due solely to one bad day (as in 1988's graphic novel The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore).
Of course, fidelity to the source is barely half of what is important in a film adaptation. The other half is how the rest of it plays out. That's where the movie's good; not excellent, not amazing, just good. Casting, for the most part, is not too bad. Kim Basinger delivers a perfectly acceptable performance as Vicki Vale, and Michael Gough's Alfred is adequate considering the amount of screen time he receives. Billy Dee Williams's talent is wasted here, as his role as District Attorney Harvey Dent is small, and poorly utilized.
As with any movie, the meat is really in the leads, and that's where Batman '89 somewhat fails. Jack Nicholson's performance as the Joker is a great one -- not much of a stretch from Nicholson's previous film roles, but still a great performance. Nicholson is simply one of those actors that's just plain fun to watch; that remains true here too.
Unfortunately, Michael Keaton's performance as Batman/Bruce Wayne is disappointing; He fails to emote in nearly every scene, leaving us with the impression of Bruce Wayne as a psychotic recluse, not the angst-filled vigilante we all know and love. Michael Keaton is a fine actor, so it is beyond me why here he chose to read lines rather than act; it's a big difference, and certainly a noticeable one.
But taken by another standard, Batman '89 is in truth a decent and sometimes even great action flick. Fidelity and acting aren't important to everyone; as a big, dumb action flick, Batman '89 excels: The fighting is top notch, the storyline cleverly combines the campy and the macabre, Kim Basinger isn't too hard on the eyes, and outside of the leading man, the acting is mostly passable and occasionally exceptional. Plus, words can't begin to describe the pure bliss of watching Michael Keaton beat up Jack Nicholson to Prince music.
So is it a bad film? No way -- to call it that would be a grave injustice. Seldom does a genuinely bad movie become the highest grossing film of the year. I would also be doing it an injustice if I failed to recognize Batman '89's importance to the Batman franchise as a whole: Along with Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, it helped returned Batman to his darker roots from which the character had strayed since before the debut of campy '60s television series starring Adam West.
Yes, indeed, Batman '89 is a good superhero film, whose only real flaw is not sticking close enough to the source material, and that flaw only matters if it bothers you. And it only bothers you if you utterly lack a sense of perspective.
And while Batman '89 may have had enough commercial tie-ins and licensed products to make you sick, including the crazy-popular NES? game, at least it wasn't a complete directorial perversion of the Batman name. That came with Burton's next effort...
Images courtesy of Batman Unmasked