Since Tim Burton struck blockbuster gold with Batman in 1989, the character has had some fantastic ups and ridiculous downs, and, being rather fond of the fantastic and the ridiculous, I need to write about it. Because reasons.
So, here’s a new series!! Whooo!
The pre-Batman hype that surrounded this film was something of a roller coaster ride for the studio. News that Michael Keaton (who had largely done comedic roles up until that point) would be donning the cowl caused something of an uproar among fans who were worried that the film would be too campy a la Adam West’s incarnation. Remember that, at this time, Alan Moore and Frank Miller had brought Batman into a much darker place, and titles like The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns were a far cry from the happy Batman of the 40’s and 50’s.
To alleviate audience fears that this Batman would indeed be a more brooding character in line with the aesthetic of the comic book world in the 80’s, Warner Brothers released an early teaser that became so wildly popular that people would buy movie tickets for other films just to watch the trailer for this one (this was before the internet, of course).
When the movie eventually came out, it was a box office smash. Some critics, including Roger Ebert, felt it was too much style and not enough substance (a criticism which has plagued Burton throughout his career), and a few die hard fans took issue with a few changes to the character (such as Batman forgoing his no-killing rule, and Jack Napier being revealed to be the man who killed his parents) to the point that, as of today, Tim Burton is still banned from all Comic-Con events, but the bulk of audiences enjoyed it immensely and a new film franchise was born.
It’s easy to see why people loved it, even if it didn’t really fit into the universe of the comics in any sort of logical way. The characters are fantastic, the visual style is moody and richly realized, and the plot progresses exactly like a comic miniseries, with a number of smaller “issues” culminating in the final showdown between Batman and the Joker.
Jack Nicholson doesn’t necessarily look like the comic version of Joker (who has always had a more narrow Willem Dafoe-esque face, in my opinion), but he does a great job of wringing every ounce of mileage out of the character. His pre-transformation persona, Jack Napier (a character created specifically for this film) is quietly lethal and brooding, while the Joker is a scenery-chewing delight, driven to be the center of attention at all times. Fun fact, Willem Dafoe was actually considered to be the Joker in the pre-production phase. Why he hasn’t ever been asked to take on the role in other films is a completely mystery to me. Mr. Dafoe, if you’re out there, I’m still lobbying for you, buddy! I don’t care if you’re going to be in Aquaman.
I like how Joker’s discovery of his own limitless insanity is juxtaposed with Vicki Vale’s attempts to figure out who Bruce Wayne is.
And Bruce is actually one of my favorite things about this movie. It cracks me up that fans actually showered Warner Brothers with over twenty thousand letters protesting Michael Keaton’s casting in the months leading up to its release. Fans are wonderful but silly. Keaton hardly looks like a superhero, but his idiosyncratic take on the character is so layered and interesting, you find yourself wondering which of his two personas is actually the mask. Is it the gruffly confident and brutally single-minded Batman, who mows through bad guys like a human tank, or is it the twitchy scatterbrained billionaire who gets lost in his own mansion? My favorite thing about this version of Bruce Wayne is that you find yourself wondering just how sane he really is, and come to the conclusion that, in order to dress up like a bat, one must be at least a little crazy. Keaton (who will forever be MY Batman) finds a truly unique take on the character that goes a bit beyond, “My parents were killed and so I must fight for JUSTICE.” In that sense, I don’t mind the decision to have Joker kill Thomas and Martha Wayne because, in this alternate universe, the Joker and Batman are both responsible for each other’s creation and so become two sides of one coin with Batman fighting his insanity and the Joker embracing it. It works in this instance.
The rest of the cast is pretty good. I love Alexander Knox, the goofy reporter who still naively believes that, even in the corrupt Gotham, it’s the job of the press to pursue the capital T Truth. I’m a bit sad that he never ends up with Vicki Vale, but maybe he’ll be better off since she seems oddly drawn to unhinged guys and Knox is too much of a dependable good guy for her. I still like you, buddy!
Vicki herself is sort of a halfway developed character. She’s strong and driven…until confronted with anything vaguely alarming. Then she becomes a screaming, leg-kicking damsel who faints a lot.
Kim Basinger is lovely in the role, but she doesn’t try to find any sort of anchor for the character. She has a moment where you almost figure her out when she’s having that awkward dinner with Bruce in his million-mile long dining room, but then she becomes a needy highschooler who gets pouty when Bruce blows her off because he’s completely emotionally unavailable at that point (and she HAD to have realized that). Overall, I’m not a fan of the character.
However, I do have to give mad props to Michael Gough whose Alfred will forever be THE Alfred in my book. He’s well-mannered and stiffly cultured, but he has such a warmth about him that you just can’t help but adore him. I love the early scene which has him following Bruce around at a party, picking up discarded champagne flutes and silverware that Bruce leaves in his wake. I’m glad that he stayed with the franchise for four films. Even if the quality of said films fluctuated, Alfred was always a dependable pillar of the franchise. Gough had a marvelous career spanning film, stage, and television, but he will always be remembered as the best Alfred of all time. And, if the actor wasn’t cool enough, he starred in Doctor Who twice, playing a villain who faced off against the First Doctor and then later on as an ally of the Fifth Doctor.
Also, as an aside, I’m SUPER mad Billy Dee Williams didn’t return years later as Two Face. He’s so warm and likable as Harvey Dent, it would have been great to see his downfall after two films of him being a good guy. Alas…
In terms of the film’s visual style, it’s no shock that it took home the Oscar for Best Art Decoration and Set Design. The film has a brooding film noir aesthetic that, while over the top at times, really establishes Gotham as its own unique city. Burton’s use of miniatures and complex matte paintings (remember that this is pre-CGI) gives Gotham the rambly dark beauty of a decaying baroque cathedral. You really FEEL that Gotham is corrupt because the buildings themselves look like they’re about to tumble into a cloud of dust at any minute.
In recent years, especially since The Dark Knight, public opinion of this film has fallen quite a bit, with many fans forgetting that it was the highest grossing DC film for almost two decades and the inspiration for the legendary Batman: The Animated Series. Some criticisms are understandable, such as the vague climax where the Joker is leading Vicki Vale up to the top of a cathedral for…reasons? Apparently Jack Nicholson himself stopped while they were filming the scene and asked why they were even climbing all those stairs. It’s not the most coherent sequence. And, as I’ve said, Vicki Vale is grossly underdeveloped. And yes, it does play fast and loose with a lot of established Batman tenets. Tim Burton has said in interviews that he doesn’t really care for it because it became more of a producer’s film than a director’s movie. Though he admits that it was a big event film that was wildly successful, it never really felt like his own movie, especially since a lot of decisions, such as the inclusion of Prince’s songs, were done without his blessing.
But all that aside, I love this movie. The performances of Bruce and the Joker are fantastic, and the visual style of the film is just delightful. It’s a great blend of fun and serious, giving a shout-out to the character’s optimistic beginnings as well as embracing the gritty atmosphere of the 80’s. Reading up on the production history of the film, it could have easily been a very different movie (such as a Richard Donner film starring Mel Gibson, a Steven Spielberg film starring Dennis Quaid as Bruce and Harrison Ford as the Joker, or even what would have no doubt been a wonderfully twisted film directed by David Cronenberg, who was one of the first directors who was asked if they wanted the job). I’m glad we got the version we did.
So set aside your nerdy pretensions and give this another watch sometime. It’s iconic and a lot of fun.
Next week, things get weird as we look at Batman Returns!