In Retrospect – Batman (1989)

It’s difficult to overestimate just what a seismic impact Tim Burton’s reimagining of the Dark Knight’s on-screen persona had on the movie landscape.

Twenty five years on, the cracks and holes in Burton's first of many forays into blockbuster filmmaking are all-too glaring to miss

Twenty five years on, the cracks and holes in Burton’s first of many forays into blockbuster filmmaking are all-too glaring to miss

While Steven Spielberg had given birth to the Hollywood blockbuster with Jaws (1975) and George Lucas had taken it into the stratosphere in Star Wars (1977), ‘event’ cinema reached a whole new level with the arrival of Batman in 1989.

I was one of the many millions seduced by the carefully orchestrated marketing hype that became known as ‘Batmania’ and queued as a young lad with barely contained excitement on the opening day… before watching it again the following day.

At the time I recall thinking it was “ace”. However, 25 years on, the cracks and holes in Burton’s first of many forays into blockbuster filmmaking are all-too glaring to miss.

The Nosferatu-esque Batman hunts his prey in Tim Burton's Batman

The Nosferatu-esque Batman hunts his prey in Tim Burton’s Batman

Taking its lead from Alan Moore and Brian Boland’s classic graphic novel The Killing Joke, the film follows the early days of Batman’s war against crime in Gotham City, an urban cesspool riven by police corruption, terrified citizens, desperate politicians and mob rule.

An intervention by the Caped Crusader (Michael Keaton) at a chemical plant inadvertently leads to the ‘death’ of senior mob enforcer Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) and the ‘birth’ of the cackling, psychopathic Joker and soon Gotham turns into the playground in which these two opposing sides of a scarred coin go mano-a-mano. Dragged into the fray is star photo-journalist Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), who’s lured to Gotham by the fantastical news of a “winged freak” terrorising the city’s underground.

Gotham City, as depicted in Tim Burton's Batman

Gotham City, as depicted in Tim Burton’s Batman

The first thing that strikes you is Anton Furst’s astonishing vision of Gotham City; a mish-mash of conflicting architectural styles that’s brought to life so vividly it practically dwarfs everything else.

With such eye-opening visuals to contend with, Burton’s long-time collaborator Danny Elfman needed to bring his A-game for Batman‘s score and did just that. Elfman threw everything and the kitchen sink in, from the dark and sinister to screwball via operatic organs and the pulse-quickening march which memorably opens the movie.

The Joker (Jack Nicholson) hatches another dastardly plan in Batman

The Joker (Jack Nicholson) hatches another dastardly plan in Batman

However, a great score and production design do not a great film make. Despite several quotable lines – “Think about the future”; “I think I’ve got a live one here!”; “This town needs an enema!”; “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” – Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren’s screenplay is all over the place (Burton subsequently admitted that chunks of the script were improvised on the hoof).

Burton allows scenes to go on too long, usually to indulge Nicholson, while others are clunky or completely unnecessary, most notably the sequence in Gotham City Museum wherein the Joker and his henchmen bespoil a series of valuable artworks.

Batman (Michael Keaton) protects reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) in Batman

Batman (Michael Keaton) protects reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) in Batman

Elfman’s score is so memorable that the inclusion of Prince’s soundtrack feels jarring next to it. The decision to draft in Prince – one of the most popular musicians on the planet at the time – was savvy thinking on the part of the money men at Warner Bros, but the film has an awkward time crowbarring the tunes into the narrative.

Burton works hard to create a dark and brooding tone akin to a 1940s-era noir (everyone wears hats!), but counterbalances it with a series of cartoonish moments (Napier’s bleached white hand emerging from the chemical waste; Wayne caught hanging Bat-like upside down by Vale) that seek to remind us we’re watching a comic book superhero movie. The movie also nods not once, but twice, to Raiders Of The Lost Ark‘s swordsman scene.

Batman's coolest shot

Batman’s coolest shot

It’s difficult to believe that neither Vale nor fellow reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) would know why Bruce Wayne – Gotham City’s most well-known businessman after all – is an orphan. Furthermore, it stretches credulity that so many people fail to suspect the Joker (who, let’s not forget, had tried to kill the city’s citizens a short time earlier) has an ulterior motive when he announces he’ll be staging a night parade in which he’ll dish out millions in cash.

In a parallel with Gene Hackman’s casting of Lex Luthor in Superman, the film’s biggest name is its villain. Nicholson seemed like the most logical choice at the time and there are moments when he truly strikes the balance between humourous and homicidal. However, too often his performance feels like a big screen extension of Cesar Romero’s take in the 1960s camp TV show. Meanwhile, Keaton is better than you’d expect as Batman, although Wayne inevitably takes a back seat.

The Batmobile, as imagined in Tim Burton's Batman

The Batmobile, as imagined in Tim Burton’s Batman

The homage to Nosferatu when we first see the Dark Knight is nicely done, as is the nod to Batman creator Bob Kane (in spite of being refered to as a “dick” by Knox when he shows the young reporter a mock-up of what the Bat Man looks like). There’s also a cool moment when the Batwing flies in front of the moon. However, these moments are too few and far between to override the feeling that this is a film which has dated badly.

Burton himself summed up Batman better than any critic when he said on reflection: “I liked parts of it, but the whole movie is mainly boring to me. It’s OK, but it was more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie.”

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30 comments

  1. davecrewe · June 28, 2014

    Great write-up. Sums up a lot of problems with the film while accurately noting its merits.

  2. I agree. This movie does not hold up well at all. But I still remember like it was yesterday my anticipation and unbridled excitement and incredulity that such a movie was finally being made. Today, kids take for granted that all of their superheroes are on screen. For us, it was rare. And typically box office poison.

    >

    • Three Rows Back · June 29, 2014

      Nice to hear you agree Roy. Well said by the way; that’s exactly how I feel.

  3. cindybruchman · June 28, 2014

    What a thoughtful, accurate depiction of a film that had wonderful parts but put together was too clownish, too bizarre to suspend reality for me. Michael Keaton was a strange choice for Batman and to this day, I can’t decide if I liked his performance or not. Bypass Clooney, and then the newer run with Bale was modern and CGI-heavy to fit in with the other Marvel films competing with each other. Now I look back and am charmed with parts of it and embarrassed I liked it back then. It was the first. Your reference to Jack as Cesar Romero was good insight as well as Nosferatu poses.

    • Three Rows Back · June 29, 2014

      Ah, thank you Cindy, I really appreciate that. I do like Keaton’s performance, although he’s better in Batman Returns. Parts are certainly good and work well, but others simply don’t stand up.

  4. ckckred · June 28, 2014

    Nice review. I enjoyed Batman when I saw it as a kid, but it’s not a movie that’s held up in contemporary cinema. As I recall, the tone between sinister and cartoonish was too uneven and it feels pretty dated today. It’s difficult to deny its cultural influence though.

    • Three Rows Back · June 29, 2014

      It absolutely had a massive impact. Without Batman there would be no Marvel Universe movies. And, of course, no Nolan Batman movies.

  5. le0pard13 · June 28, 2014

    Fine piece and context for this film. It’s been influential, showed what the genre could do, but was not perfect.

  6. CMrok93 · June 28, 2014

    It’s a bit goofy at times, but that doesn’t bother me as much as it once did. Maybe time and age has something to do with that, but I still love the movie a whole lot. Good review.

    • Three Rows Back · June 29, 2014

      Thanks Dan. I loved it when it came out but it really didn’t stand up on this subsequent viewing I’m sorry to say.

  7. dirkmalcolm · June 28, 2014

    Great piece. I’d forgotten about The Killing Joke connection. It was a real cash cow for Warners and it set the trend for the future.

    • Three Rows Back · June 29, 2014

      Muchis gracias my friend. ‘Cash cow’ is the correct phrase. And we’re seeing that now with the upcoming Bats vs Supes movie.

  8. Tom · June 29, 2014

    Standard review for Mark again, ladies and gentleman.

    Of course, I’d just like to make it known that the standard over here is ‘Fucking Excellent.’ So, basically what I’m saying is, excellent review man. You’ve brought this film back to life for me, even though I think I’ve only seen parts of it and many many many many years back. If anything, watching these again serve to show how far Christopher Nolan came with his revitalization.

    • Three Rows Back · June 29, 2014

      Ha ha! Thank you Tom!! I see Batman as the platform between the camp 60s TV series we all know and (kinda) love and the Nolan Batman movies which I think won’t be topped any time soon.

  9. chris2508 · June 29, 2014

    I actually watched this recently and I think the Burton quote and your review sums up my feelings towards it. The score and the production were outstanding and I actually like Keaton as Batman. I don’t mind that Burton indulged Nicholson in some scenes considering just how brilliant of an actor he is. Great review.

    • Three Rows Back · June 29, 2014

      Thanks buddy. Nicholson is a great actor for sure, although he only intermittently worked for me in the part.

  10. Dan · June 29, 2014

    I certainly prefer Nolan’s taken on the character but I still feel Batman has merit. I think Jack Nicholson is great in it – one of the better superhero film villains.

    • Three Rows Back · June 29, 2014

      He’s memorable that’s for sure. Thanks for the feedback buddy.

  11. Wendell · June 29, 2014

    You make some valid points, but I still think it is among the better superhero movies. Perhaps I’m being nostalgic, but I still have a lot of fun watching it.

    • Three Rows Back · June 29, 2014

      Thanks mate. It’s a touchstone movie certainly. I have some affection for it, but I still feel like it’s not a patch on Nolan’s films.

  12. ruth · June 30, 2014

    Great reflection here Mark. I quite like Michael Keaton as Batman but the movie is far too circus-y for my taste (though not as terrible as Batman & Robin obviously). I was listening to Danny Elfman’s score though and boy it’s still amazing!

    • Three Rows Back · July 1, 2014

      Thank you Ruth! Elfman’s score rocks doesn’t it? I’m not sure *any* film is as terrible as Batman and Robin.

      • ruth · July 1, 2014

        Well I think we have a contender now Mark, Transformers: Age of Extinction. I seriously think that one is worse as at least Batman & Robin still has a sense of humor!

      • Three Rows Back · July 1, 2014

        Wow, that is terrible!

  13. Ted S. · June 30, 2014

    I’m with you on this, I was very young when the movie came out, yet I still remember the hype machine. I didn’t get to see it on the big screen and begged my parents to buy it on VHS when it came out on video that year. I’ve watched the cassette till wore out, that’s when I know Batman is my favorite superhero. But watching it again a few years ago as a grown man, it doesn’t hold up well at all, especially compare to Nolan’s superior Dark Knight flicks. It comes off as too campy and the cheap effects definitely makes the film looks very dated. I still can’t accept Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman though, seeing a short guy in a bat suite just looks silly to me. But you can’t deny the impact it had on the cinemas.

    • Three Rows Back · July 1, 2014

      Thanks for the feedback. I intentionally avoided the Nolan comparison as I wanted to treat it on its own terms. You’re right; it’s impact is still being felt today.

  14. Stu · July 3, 2014

    Interesting stuff Mark. I haven’t seen it for a long, long time but I was actually surprised to hear it doesn’t hold up all that well today. Some very interesting points though. I also remember queuing at the cinema to see it and all the hype surrounding it (pretty incredible even by today’s standards). The cinema I saw it in had no air-con and was sold out, and I spent half the film wondering if I was actually going to pass out!

    • Three Rows Back · July 5, 2014

      Ha ha, the good old days! Thanks man. I really hoped this would be as good as I remembered. Alas…

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