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Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Bob Kane (Batman characters), Sam Hamm (story), Warren Skaaren (screenplay)
Stars: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger
Release Date: June 23, 1989
Run time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
This review contains spoilers. Proceed accordingly.
Reporter Alexander Knox and photojournalist Vicki Vale investigate sightings of the “Batman“, a masked vigilante targeting Gotham City‘s criminals. Both attend a fundraiser hosted by billionaire Bruce Wayne, who is secretly Batman, having chosen this path after witnessing a mugger murder his parents when he was a child. During the event, Wayne becomes infatuated with Vale.
Meanwhile, mob boss Carl Grissom sends his sociopathic second-in-command Jack Napier to raid Axis Chemicals and retrieve incriminating evidence. However, this is secretly a ploy to have Napier murdered for sleeping with Grissom’s mistress Alicia Hunt. Corrupt lieutenant Max Eckhardt arranges the hit on Napier by conducting an unauthorized police operation. However, Commissioner Jim Gordon arrives, takes command, and orders the officers to capture Napier alive. Batman also appears, while Napier kills Eckhardt as revenge for the double-crossing. During a scuffle with Batman, Napier topples off a catwalk and falls into a vat of chemicals. Although presumed dead, Napier survives with various disfigurements including chalk white skin and emerald green hair and nails. He undergoes surgery to repair the damage, but ends up with a rictus grin. Driven insane by his new appearance, Napier, now calling himself “the Joker”, kills Grissom, massacres Grissom’s associates, and takes over his operations.
He then starts terrorizing Gotham by lacing hygiene products with “Smylex” – a deadly chemical that causes victims to die laughing. The Joker soon becomes obsessed with Vicki and lures her to the Gotham Museum of Art, which his henchmen start vandalizing. Batman rescues Vicki, takes her to the Batcave, and provides her with all of his research on Smylex, which will allow Gotham’s residents to escape the toxin. Conflicted with his love for her, Wayne visits her apartment intending to reveal his secret identity, only for the Joker to interrupt the meeting. Joker asks Wayne, “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”, which Wayne recognizes as the catchphrase used by the mugger who killed his parents, realizing the killer to have been Napier all along. He shoots Wayne, who survives thanks to a serving tray hidden underneath his shirt.
Vicki is taken to the Batcave by Wayne’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth, who had been coaxing the relationship between the pair. After exposing his secret to Vicki, Wayne reveals he cannot focus on their relationship with the Joker on the loose. He then departs to destroy the Axis plant used to create Smylex. Meanwhile, Joker lures Gotham’s citizens to a parade with the promise of free money. This turns out to be a trap designed to dose them with Smylex gas held within giant parade balloons. Batman foils his plan by using his Batwing to remove the balloons, but Joker shoots him down. The Batwing crashes in front of a cathedral, which Joker uses to take Vicki hostage. Batman pursues the Joker, and in the ensuing fight, he explains that Napier killed his parents and thus, indirectly created Batman. This leads Joker to realize Batman is Bruce Wayne. Joker eventually pulls Batman and Vicki over the cathedral’s ceiling, leaving them hanging while he calls in a helicopter. The helicopter is piloted by his goons, who throw down a ladder for him to climb. Batman uses a grappling hook to attach Joker’s leg to a crumbling gargoyle that eventually falls off the roof. Unable to bear the statue’s immense weight, Joker falls to his death while Batman and Vicki make it to safety.
Sometime later, Gordon announces that the police have arrested all of Joker’s men and unveils the Bat-Signal. Batman leaves the police a note, promising to defend Gotham should crime strike again, and asking them to use the Bat-Signal to summon him in times of need. Alfred takes Vicki to Wayne Manor, explaining that Wayne will be a little late. She responds that she is not surprised, as Batman looks at the signal’s projection from a rooftop, standing watch over the city.
Batman is still one of the best superhero movies of all time, holding up well, more than thirty years after its release despite existing within the increasingly crowded superhero genre. The cast is excellent, the story is solid, the cinematography is amazing, and Danny Elfman’s theme song is iconic.
The movie’s character introduction and presentation is done in an interesting way. For much of the movie, the two reporters – Alexander Knox and Vicki Vale – are the first person characters, with both being interested in Batman and/or Bruce Wayne respectively. Through those two perspectives, Vale’s in particular, we get to know Bruce Wayne and his vigilante alter-ego at arm’s length. The audience experiences a romantic and awkward date with Bruce Wayne from Vicki’s perspective. We watch Bruce leave flowers on the sidewalk where his parents were murdered from her perspective, as well, as she spies on him at a distance. Even as the movie ends, the audience is not with Batman, but instead we are with Vicki and Alfred as she considers the events from the film and her feelings about Bruce. I really appreciated this approach because Batman is an inherently mysterious figure and keeping him at a distance protects that mystery. By not asking Batman to be the first person protagonist, the movie is able to avoid making Batman explain himself or ground his decisions in any type of real-world reality. Where did the technology for the Batmobile or the Batwing come from? Why is the Batwing equipped with tools to carry away large parade-sized balloons? Because he’s Batman… that’s why. That really is a good enough answer.
As a whole, Tim Burton’s Batman is not grounded in real world reality. It introduces and depicts its own separate reality, wholly apart from our own. The look and feel of Burton’s Gotham City are central to that effort (lighting, costuming, score, etc.) and the end result is something that is truly distinctive. The movie functions visually almost like a bridge between comic books and the real world, with similarities to both but difference as well. Maybe the best example of being in both the comic book and real world, at the same time, was the unrealistic looking Bat Signal in the sky at the movie’s end. It fit well within the Gotham City the movie had been depicting and I loved that scene.
If this movie were made today, there would probably be a too-lengthy explanation about how the Joker’s chemical attacks worked, or we would have been given a side-plot introducing the audience to the R&D department of Bruce Wayne’s company. By ignoring the “how” questions, the film lets the audience imagine all of that on their own, or to not care about the answers to those questions at all. In my opinion, that approach is more immersive, the suspension of disbelief is easier (because belief was never required at all), and the audience is left with more time for character development.
Jack Nicholson’s Joker is scene-chewing, one-liner delivering, brilliance. It is a bit jarring to see Joker portrayed with a sense of fun and humor, and with less physicality, than the character’s recent on-screen portrayals. Once I adjusted to that, though, I really loved it. Nicholson’s Joker is still psychotic and deadly, but he’s also a guy who likes to party, he listens to Prince, and he enjoys the company of beautiful women. There is just enough camp built into the character, and just enough space from trying to create a realistic depiction of this type of psychopathy, that I did not have to feel tense throughout the film. Every single new depiction of the Batman universe tries to outdo its predecessor, with respect to grittiness and realism, but it is worth remembering that you can tell an excellent Batman story without those two traits. I liked seeing the Joker wearing a beret, destroying an art museum, and shooting at Batman with hilariously long pistol tucked into his pants.
Michael Keaton was also great in this movie. Because of the way the story is told, he mostly just has to give off the correct vibes. He comes across as super-intelligent and the story protects the assumption that Keaton’s acting creates by having him do all his detective work off-screen. In costume, Keaton is cool and he is not asked to do a lot physically. This works well with Nicholson opposite him as an older and less physically imposing Joker. One of Keaton’s strengths is exuding intensity, and he does that really well in the movie. Keaton also sells his Bruce Wayne effectively. Rather than playing up the part of the billionaire playboy, his Bruce is more of an awkward, weird, eccentric. It works.
Kim Basinger was great as Vicki Vale. Her job in the movie is to be believably intelligent, curious, and so beautiful that billionaire Bruce Wayne and womanizing mob boss, the Joker, would fight over her. She probably could have had her character’s professional background utilized more effectively, but for what she was asked to do, she did it well. The love story between Vicki and Bruce Wayne was thin, but Basinger and Keaton had enough chemistry together to make that easy to overlook.
The one big weakness of the movie, in my opinion, as I mentioned, was the love story. The plot provides a pretty unearned insta-love between Bruce and Vicki Vale. They met briefly, soon after had an awkward date, but they also slept together at the end of that date and fell so much in love that Bruce wants to tell her about his secret identity. Would Batman really do that? No way. That said, Bruce Wayne is a billionaire vigilante and Vicki Vale looks like Kim Basinger, so suspending my disbelief is not impossible on either side of that equation.
Tim Burton’s version of Batman has no qualms about killing bad guys. He was firing shots at Joke, from his plane, intending to kill him. If his aim had been better, the movie would have ended half an hour more quickly.
I really wish Billy Dee Williams had been given a chance, in one of the sequels, to play Two Face with Tim Burton at the helm directing. I’m genuinely curious what that would have looked like.
This version of Batman features a lot of Batman running around on foot, with that long cape dragging behind him. Something about that felt weird. Batman is supposed to just kind of appear and disappear, right?
In this iteration, Joker is the one who murders Bruce Wayne’s parents. On the one hand, the decision to make that change to the source material works within the movie and adds some depth to the conflict. On the other hand, though, I don’t think it was a necessary change. Nicholson’s Joker also has a definite name and official backstory. I think it would have been better to leave the source material mystery in place.
In the early days of YouTube, a user named GoldenTusk performed the music for various and sundry movie themes – including Batman – but he wrote and sang lyrics for the tunes, too. I realized as I was watching Batman that I know all of his lyrics, to this day, and that I cannot help but hear him singing those lyrics in my head as I hear Danny Elfman’s classic theme. Does it diminish my enjoyment of the music? No. It enhances.
Having watched the movie and the YouTube video again, I kind of want a Batman costume. Should I get one?
Overall, I am glad I re-watched this. I had not seen the movie in three decades but I was pleasantly surprised about how well it holds up and how much I enjoyed it. If you’ve seen it recently, or have some thoughts, let me know!