Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren (Based on characters created by Bill Finger & Bob Kane)
Distributed By: Warner Bros.
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Michael Gough, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Palance, William Hootkins, Tracy Walter, Jerry Hall
Release Date: June 23, 1989
Movie Mondays is back with another look at Batman’s big-screen adventures. This week, we look back at 1989’s release of the box-office blockbuster Batman! The last Batman film released before this movie was the camp-fest from 1966 starring Adam West. Since that time, the comics had reverted, in large part, back to their gothic noir roots. When Michael Keaton was first announced, fans were only aware of his comedy performances in Beetlejuice, Night Shift, Mr. Mom, and so on. Tim Burton, announced as director, was only known for Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and the aforementioned Beetlejuice. Needless to say, everyone was worried they would be getting another comedy.
But what they got was another story entirely. To allay the growing fear surrounding this project, the studio released a short teaser showcasing the action-packed, gothic smash-hit this film was destined to become. People couldn’t get enough of it, actually going so far as stealing movie posters and copies of the trailer from any retailers that carried it. That’s right, retailers were selling not a film, but the trailer for a film. When released, Batman broke all expectations, from fans, critics, and even Hollywood itself, and it was the second ever comic book film to win an Academy Award.
There are several reasons why this critic puts Batman above all other entries in the franchise. With any luck, this review will explain what those reasons are.
Every actor pulls their weight, perfectly portraying their parts. They all do an absolutely magnificent job. Keaton’s only problems were that he was two inches too short and 20 lbs underweight. Other than that, he was everything Batman was in the comics: dark, brooding, psychotic, eccentric, smart, determined, charming, clever, and humorous. A combination of qualities no actor since has properly pulled off. Nicholson’s only problem was his gut. Other than that, HE IS THE BEST live-action Joker (unless Mark Hamill hits the gym, gets in shape, and dons the costume) to date, simultaneously psychotic and funny. Pat Hingle was a great Gordon in the first movie (they destroyed his character and turned it into a pointless cameo in the sequels), doggedly fighting crime and corruption.
Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale gives a fantastically well-rounded performance. Not to mention, she’s a dynamite blonde bombshell playing the comic book character inspired by Marilyn Monroe.
Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent. One might have a problem with the fact that in the comics Harvey Dent is Caucasian, so a change in race can be seen as a lack of fidelity to the source material. However, Williams does an amazing job portraying the character, and anyone should easily be able to look past his race to see just how well he embodies the charismatic, enthusiastic, and determined young District Attorney. If an actor can truly pull off the portrayal, racial accuracy means absolutely nothing, as long as race isn’t a defining feature of the character, especially in secondary characters.
Michael Gough was wonderful as Alfred, playing the father-figure with a droll dry wit. He brings moments of levity as well as sincerity in his heart-warming performance full compassion and wisdom.
Danny Elfman delivers an outstandingly flawless musical score! It features this critic’s second favorite superhero theme since John Williams’ theme to Superman. As much love as I have for Superman‘s theme music, it was THIS theme that truly got this critic excited about a character and his movie. It is so energetic and does a perfect job changing between bombastic music for action scenes, and ambient music for slow scenes. This film cobbles together multiple styles of film, from romantic to noir, with a good bit of dark comedy thrown in for good measure, and this score accentuates each stylistic aspect perfectly.
One critique should be made in regard to the film’s music, however. And that critique would be toward the inclusion of the songs by Prince. Not that there’s really anything to complain about the songs themselves. And the scenes they are used in work really well. It’s just that the mixture of modern and old cars, and modern and old suits, as well as everything else mixed together in such a way, gives the movie a timeless feel. Having such a recognizable artist and songs in the movie takes away from the timeless nature and really dates the film.
The art design is completely breathtaking. Everything from the buildings, the costumes, to the impressive Batmobile is eye-poppingly gorgeous. The Batmobile roars to life as the engine rumbles and fire shoots out of the back of the vehicle. With a long muscle-car front with scalloped batwings coming off the back of the cockpit, this design is instantly recognizable and undeniably cool. The Batwing (Batman’s one-man fighter jet) is no exception, either! An intimidating shape resembling Batman’s emblem literally soaring to life, this new vision of the Bat plane is astounding.
The city is wonderfully grand and surreal. Looking at matte paintings and statues, and all the things that were used to create Gotham, it looks like a comic panel come to life. And the Batsuit! Set in a ‘real’ world, it would make sense to have black armor as opposed to shiny spandex, and considering the views of the time, it’s understandable why they avoided the spandex again. And the design looked like a black version of Neal Adams’s Batman costume, which was the costume of the comics at the time.
The story uses an “in medias res” approach, dropping the audience right into the action, where the Batman is already an established figure in Gotham City, one part vigilante and one part urban legend. The origin is handled later in the film through dark, emotionally moving flashbacks.
The only complaint one can muster insofar as the plot is concerned is only really a complaint if you’re a stickler for accuracy to the source material. That complaint would be that this film made Joker the man responsible for killing Batman’s parents. And even that is forgivable for two reasons: 1) it being the ONLY change from the comics found in the movie, as opposed to later movies in the franchise which feature several, is pretty good; 2) it works as a masterfully utilized plot point, serving to further illustrate the duality and connection between these two characters.
This movie is a masterpiece, with very little to complain about. If you’re a fan of gothic style, film noir, action, and grand spectacle, you’ll love this film. If you’re a fan of Tim Burton, you’ll love this film. And Batman fans from every generation can find something to love about this big-screen adaptation! If you’re an old fan, do yourself a favor and give this film a re-watch. If you’re a new “Nolan-Era” fan, give this film a chance. Hopefully, you’ll be glad you did.
As an adaptation of the comic books it’s based on, this film earns a score of 9 out of 10. As a stand-alone film, Batman is easily a solid 10.