Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 6 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance & Jerry Hall
In terms of summer blockbusters, BATMAN was a game-changer. Before this film, the only notable theatrical superhero movies were the SUPERMAN series and a campy BATMAN from the 60’s (along with serials from the 40’s). Burton’s BATMAN opened the door for bigger comic book adaptations down the line. This vision of Gotham City was grim. This Joker was vile, scary and did horrible things with a sick sense of humor. Batman was portrayed as a tragic figure with serious motivations behind his crime-fighting. Though it’s not without some flaws, 1989’s BATMAN is a superhero classic that has mostly held up well over time.
Gotham City is a grimy hell hole, populated by down-on-their-luck citizens and plenty of criminals. Only a miracle could turn things around and that miracle comes in the form of a “giant bat.” This masked Batman is secretly Gotham’s wealthiest citizen Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) dishing out vigilante justice on a nightly basis. Crime seems to be slowly diminishing and Batman’s reputation is being spread, but a new threat is rising. A crazed clown, known as “The Joker” (Jack Nicholson), has taken control of the city’s gangs and is enacting a terrifying act of terrorism. Soon enough, Batman and Joker will face off and the battleground will be all of Gotham. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne attempts to stoke a relationship with photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), which becomes dangerous when Joker makes her a prime target.
BATMAN has a simple plot. It’s a basic good vs. evil tale, but the film goes into deeper places with Bruce Wayne’s tragic past. Though most modern moviegoers already know about Batman’s past, director Tim Burton slowly unveiled it to audiences in the 80’s who weren’t as familiar with the character’s origin story. From grim visuals to a gothic atmosphere, you can tell that Burton directed this movie…though he was allowed much more creative freedom on BATMAN RETURNS. The mood is further elevated by Danny Elfman’s unforgettable music and also slightly diminished by Prince’s songs that seem drastically out-of-place.
Though the film’s title may suggest that the story mainly focuses on the titular hero, an equal amount of screen time is given to both the caped crusader and the clown prince of crime. We see Batman’s origin already in progress at the start of this movie (he’s merely an urban legend to Commissioner Gordon) as well as the Joker’s creation (Burton clearly took inspiration from acclaimed graphic novel THE KILLING JOKE). While Michael Keaton seems slightly stiff as Bruce Wayne, I took that to be part of his mysterious character. This isn’t the charismatic Wayne from Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy, but instead, a damaged man trying to clean up his city.
Stealing almost every scene away from Keaton’s Batman is Jack Nicholson as the Joker. The character of Jack starts off as a strong-headed gangster with sadistic violent tendencies before he even becomes the iconic killer clown. All that’s changed when he’s dyed white is that his insanity is allowed to go further and more over-the-top than anyone could have anticipated. Joker’s storyline is almost like a rise-to-power gangster tale that happens to be about a psycho clown battling a masked superhero. The constant shifts between Batman and Joker’s storylines keep things mostly interesting, even if the pacing occasionally lags in a few spots.
One character that feels totally unnecessary and useless is the annoying Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl). This goofy journalist only seems to exist as an excuse for Vicki Vale to enter Gotham and then to gather information for her. Speaking of which, Kim Basinger is a mixed bag as Bruce Wayne’s love-interest, Batman’s damsel-in-distress, and Joker’s obsession. She has a couple of decent moments, but is mostly bland and delivers the most forgettable performance in the entire film. Someone who’s not forgettable is Michael Gough as Wayne’s sarcastic butler Alfred. Though Michael Caine and Jeremy Irons would take up later incarnations of this character, Michael Gough was consistently entertaining, funny, and charming in the ’89-’97 series.
1989’s BATMAN suffers from two bland side characters and uneven pacing, but remains a fun time capsule of what the dark knight used to be. Burton’s BATMAN is a major reason why we even have the sheer amount of superhero movies that we do today. This film showed studios that the superhero genre could be something more than pure camp and cheese. Tim Burton injected a combination of darkness, humor, and big screen excitement into a well-received, highly successful superhero film. 1989’s BATMAN is a great piece of summer entertainment that holds up remarkably well over two decades later.