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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”