Batman (1989)

Director: Tim Burton

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance

Twenty-six summers ago, I wonder if anyone could have envisioned the explosion of comic book/superhero films we see today. Every couple of months or so, either DC or (more likely) Marvel is churning out another one. Back in 1989, however, the now mile-long list of films from this genre was limited to mere inches. Of the few that were in existence, most hadn’t made an exceptionally big splash. In 1986, “Howard the Duck” crashed and burned, and its ashes were doused in urine. It was so bad that Marvel didn’t really get back into the game until more than a decade later. Up to this point, only Superman had really grabbed anyone’s attention at the movies for DC Comics. Any prior big-screen experience for Superman’s Justice League partner had been the 1966 big-screen adaptation of the Adam West “Batman” TV series. Rather than anger fans of that show, I’ll say simply that I like Batman best when he’s not being played for comedy. Finally, in 1989, director Tim Burton would draw not upon the farcical 1960’s, but rather a mix of the Bob Kane/Bill Finger days of the 1940’s and the then-recent Frank Miller Batman stories (as well as Burton’s own brand of surrealism) to give both Batman and superheroes in general a wider audience than they had ever known before.

The orphaned son of Thomas and Martha Wayne, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) has not been left without the means to carry on nor the motivation to ensure that fewer people in Gotham City should have to live with the horror he has experienced in his life. Having witnessed the murder of his parents when he was just a child, Bruce now patrols the streets of Gotham at night dressed as his alter ego, Batman. Perceived as a mythical figure by the police officers and criminals who’ve yet to cross his path, Batman’s true identity is known only by Bruce’s butler and surrogate father, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough). Even reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), who wishes to get close enough to Bruce to know his heart and close enough to Batman to get a career-making story, has not a clue that the two are one and the same.

The leading source of organized crime in Gotham City is a gang led by Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). His top lieutenant, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), had been carrying on an affair with his boss’s mistress. What Jack didn’t know was that Grissom had already discovered the indiscretion and made plans to remove him from the gang’s future business… permanently. Unfortunately for Grissom… and for Gotham… his plans lead not to Jack’s demise, but to his transformation into the Joker. The man known as Jack Napier displayed aptitude in science, chemistry and art, demonstrating a high level of intelligence, but this was countered by an erratic mental state which gave him homicidal tendencies. As the Joker, this instability becomes amplified (nerve toxins are now his main weapon of choice). His insanity leads him into a love triangle between himself, Vicky Vale, and Bruce Wayne. When Bruce learns of Jack’s role in the death of his parents, as Batman, his vendetta against the Joker becomes about more than just saving innocent lives.

Seeing this movie theatrically with my father at age 7, “Batman” acted as my introduction to all of the film’s major players: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman. The only familiarity I had going in was with singer Prince, who provided most of the film’s other music not attributed to Elfman. It is this incredible collection of talent and not the film’s simplified story which makes it special in my eyes (that and, of course, the nostalgia factor).

“Batman” would simply not have been what it was with lesser actors. As Vicky Vale (a character which has yet to reappear in any subsequent Batman film), Kim Basinger shows us some of the talent which would eventually win her a Best Supporting Actress award (in 1997, for “L.A. Confidential”). Admittedly, a more recent incarnation of the Joker has caused me to look back and see Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the character for what it is. Rather than slip into the persona of the Joker, Nicholson is more or less playing himself AS the Joker. Doesn’t mean he isn’t fantastic as always. As much of a legend and as much of a scene-stealer as Nicholson is, the real coup in the casting department was in giving the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne to Michael Keaton. At the time, it seemed an unlikely hire, as Keaton was known best for the title role in Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” That character would lead one to think of Keaton then as being a more likely candidate for the Joker. Thank goodness we were wrong because, after all of the films in the series featuring the Caped Crusader (both the good and the bad) that have followed, Keaton remains the definitive Bruce Wayne/Batman. Almost as synomymous with the character is Danny Elfman’s main theme, much in the same way that the John Williams “Superman” theme is.

In addition to being one of the first truly successful films based on a comic book, “Batman” also did its part in the creation of the blockbuster. Oh, it’s true that there were a number of movies that had come before which made a ton of money for their studio. But it wasn’t really until after the summer of 1989 that we started seeing movies making $200 million, $300 million, and now sometimes $400-$600 million on a more annual basis. You can attribute this to inflated ticket prices if you must… but the numbers speak for themselves, regardless.

If I had to rely on just the story, there are ways in which I could pick “Batman” apart if I tried hard enough. Particularly in the climax, there are some small things which bug me, such as how the Joker can know he was “a kid” when he killed the Batman’s parents since he doesn’t even know who Batman really is, or how it is that Joker’s thugs could anticipate that their boss would choose the bell tower of the church when running from Batman. It’s also somewhat strange that more of an emphasis is placed on the Joker’s origins than Batman’s, but whatever. Overall, it’s still a lot of fun, and worth sharing the experience with our children as our parents did for our generation.

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    A really thoughtful and well done review!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s