Batman (1989)

23 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

In the late-1980s, “Batman” was the most anticipated movie to come around. Warner Bros. was hoping that this would make people forget that they distributed the “Superman” sequel-bomb “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” released in 1987, and so they turned from DC Comics’ Man of Steel to its Caped Crusader. And people were excited to see a dark, live-action film adaptation of Batman that didn’t have the campiness of the 1960s “Batman” TV series or the in-jokes that the comic book series had, but it did have the promising director of “Beetlejuice,” Tim Burton. Sure, there were some uncertain comments from people who even wound up petitioning not to have Michael Keaton star as Batman (but I’ll get to that later), but nothing was going to keep people from seeing “Batman.” And so, in the summer of 1989, it was released in cinemas and became a box-office hit, leading to become the highest-grossing film of the year. And honestly, I can definitely see why. “Batman” is a solid entertainment. It’s dark, it’s brooding, it’s suspenseful, much like the Caped Crusader himself.

Yes, this “Batman” is dark and not necessarily for younger kids. This is more in the spirit of an old-school film noir, with Gotham City as its backdrop. There is a lot of crime, and fascist crime bosses, but there is also someone out there on a crusade to foil it. This is Batman, a dark-costumed vigilante whose presence scares criminals and angers local Mob boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). Gotham City locals don’t really know of any “bat man,” outside of robbers and murderers, but there are rumors about him. Reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) describes him as a man-sized bat who is indestructible, and wants to find out more about him. In comes Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a reporter/photographer who is interested in his theory. To get some answers and an inside scoop, she believes that eccentric billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is secretly Batman, and so she decides to romance him.

Meanwhile, Grissom’s right-hand man, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), is set up by Grissom on a mission that leads the cops to him. Along comes Batman, who corners Jack and tosses him into a vat of acid. Jack survives, but his facial nerves are severed, leaving a permanent smile. This also changes his personality so that he’s more gleeful and also more psychotic. He calls himself The Joker, overtakes the Mob, and begins his own reign of terror in Gotham City.

Despite being called “Batman,” the title character himself is more or less kept in the shadows for the most part. We don’t get his standard “superhero origin story” here; instead, the origin story that the movie delivers is of the Joker, the movie’s villain and Batman’s arch-nemesis. (I think the movie could have been titled “Joker,” in a way.) After all, we see how this Jack Napier becomes Joker and what will lead to his downfall in the film’s inevitable climax. And so, most attention is brought onto the Joker in this movie, as well we see a lot more of him than of Bruce Wayne/Batman. While this may seem like a flaw, it actually makes it all the more solid. Batman is known for being dark and mysterious; the less you know about him, the more interesting he is. You want to find out more about him, and there are some good details that indicate what he’s been through and what he’s going through, but had there been anymore, the fascinating mystery may have been gone. And so in the sense, I’m glad Batman wasn’t the main focus of this story.

I know having a villain as practically the “star” is a risky move to pull in a movie like this. But Jack Nicholson is so enjoyable as the Joker that it doesn’t matter how sick and psychotic he is; you just watch him go throughout his schemes, while still knowing that Batman is still the one to root for.

What we do see of Bruce Wayne is very interesting, and Michael Keaton is excellent in portraying Bruce as an odd billionaire with dark secrets and a tragic past. When Keaton plays Bruce Wayne as he socializes with people, you wouldn’t really believe that he is secretly Batman. He keeps his pain inside, not making it anyone else’s problem but his own. And when Keaton is Batman, he practically “breathes” cool. He’s intimidating, purposeful, and rock-solid, which makes his performance of Bruce Wayne all the more interesting. As the movie develops and you start to see more of this character than before, you understand what Bruce is going through—this is his problem that hardly anyone else can handle and so, he’ll deal with it by himself. Although he does have a couple people to turn to (including Vicki, who becomes his romantic-interest who discovers his secret, and his loyal butler Alfred, played by Michael Gough), he tells only what they deserve to hear and leaves everything else for him to handle. This leaves him with a few strengths for us to notice about the character, making it even more fascinating that this is our hero. When all is said and done, Michael Keaton is a great choice for Batman. I know that back then, he was known for his broad-comic persona in films such as “Night Shift” and especially “Beetlejuice”; but here, he’s absolutely brilliant. You may not see as much of him as the Joker, who practically hungers attention from the audience with the manic Nicholson performance, but there’s always that sense that this is Batman and he knows what he’s doing. I’m glad that that ridiculous petition to remove Michael Keaton from the role was ignored—seriously, what were those people thinking?

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Jack Nicholson owns it as the Joker; it’s not only menacing, but also funny. You can tell he’s not just doing for a nice paycheck, much like how Marlon Brando must have felt when he played Jor-El in “Superman.” You can tell he’s just having a good time and that energy that he brings to the screen is always evident.

Kim Basinger plays Vicki Vale, whom Bruce falls for while she is attempting to gain a scoop on Batman for Knox’s story. While many critics felt that this character was pointless and a misstep, I thought she fit into the story really well. She is the one who aids the audience into discovering Bruce’s secret (and also the reason Bruce wants to admit the truth to somebody for the first time), and she is an interesting character. Sure, she screams a lot (whether she’d be menaced by the Joker or reacting to one of Batman’s surprise gadgets), but she was kind and polite while also having her limits. And when she’s captured by the Joker in the climax so Batman can save her, she still manages to fool Joker into thinking he’s winning. Basinger is game in a role that would have had her doing a lot less.

We still have the traditional Batman gadgetry, such as a self-guiding grappling hook that aids Batman up the side of a building. But more importantly, we also have the awesome-looking Batmobile and the Batplane (even though the Batplane looks more like a model in some shots, it’s still pretty awesome). Those visuals are well-handled, but the look of Gotham City itself is a true marvel. Director Tim Burton is best known for specializing in gothic production design in his films, and this is no exception. Gotham City looks kind of like Manhattan if it was redesigned to look like a carnival funhouse—it’s just incredible to look at.

The action sequences are set up and executed with such flair and energy that it makes the film all the more exciting to endure. It’s engaging and well-crafted, although I will admit that I thought the final climax went on a bit too long. That is the main reason I’m rating this film three-and-a-half stars instead of four, but just be impressed I’m even rating it that (I’m surprised to find that not many people seem to like this movie very much, because of how little of Batman is seen—oddly enough, I found that to be the most intriguing factor). But to the credit of that climactic half-hour, it does allow for some psychological turns as well as physical force. You see, in the middle of the battle, Joker and Batman attempt to turn one another off by admitting that they created each other, as Batman threw Jack into the acid that made him this way, while Jack was the one who killed Bruce’s parents long ago (this is why Bruce would become Batman). That’s pretty clever.

Another thing about “Batman” I want to praise is the music. And no, I’m not talking about the dated Prince soundtrack. I’m talking about Danny Elfman’s memorable, fantastic score. Whenever I think of Batman, this is the music I’m going to be thinking of every time. It’s terrific in the way it keeps with the dark tone of the movie and yet maintains a consistent quirky side to it, making us remember that this is a superhero movie after all. Elfman nails it here with his score.

“Batman” is told with a more adult approach, than one might have expected at the time, and that makes it interesting and all the more solid. With a dark look, a fantastic production design, and convincingly troubled characters played by great actors, this is an enjoyable, good-looking, terrific film that is respectful to the superhero-movie genre and delivers some truly great surprises.

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