Film Review: ‘Batman’ (1989)

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Stars: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger
Director: Tim Burton
Distributor: Warner Bros.

“I’m Batman.”

Without doubt, one of the greatest marketing campaigns of all time, even if the product advertised was a complete disappointment to the hardcore fans. The advert? A black and gold Bat logo. The film? Batman. From the director of Beetlejuice, Tim Burton, came Batman’s first live-action appearance since the TV series and its spin-off film in the 60s, now frequently dubbed, Batman ‘66 or 60s Batman.  

Batman, now often referred to as Batman ‘89, presented the world of Gotham and the Bat in a noir-ish tone and setting. Though it may seem that Batman was a lifetime away from its 60s camp and fun-loving predecessor, this was far from accurate, primarily because of one man: The Joker. At the time, two-time Oscar-winner Jack Nicholson, signed the deal of a lifetime to play The Joker opposite Michael Keaton’s Batman. Nicholson received top billing in what would be the ultimate face-off of a comedic actor playing a serious character (Keaton), and a serious actor playing a comedic character (Nicholson). An insanely comedic character.  

Unlike recent renditions of the Joker character in The Dark Knight and Suicide Squad, where he is already The Joker, the origin of Jack Nicholson’s Joker was as Jack Napier, a flamboyant gangster working under sleazeball boss, Grissom (Jack Palance). Ratted out during a job taking place within a chemical plant, Napier and his crew are left to face both Commissioner Gordon’s squad and the Batman lurking in the shadows. After falling into toxic chemicals and his presumed death, Napier subsequently HAS HIS SKIN TURNED WHITE AND HIS HAIR TURNED GREEN. Hello, Joker.  

What about the big, bad Bat? Keaton on the other hand, because of his work as a comic actor, was doubted, dismissed and rubbished off before the film’s release, but when first appearing on the rooftop in that opening scene, all doubts were in ruins. But despite looking cool, was that matched or bettered by his usage as a character? Throughout Batman, there is an ambiance that the titular character’s purpose and presence is only to intervene and protect the safety of Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) – the love interest of Bruce Wayne, and photojournalist in pursuit of the Bat. Essentially, from one perspective, Batman can be viewed as a bizarre love triangle between Bruce Wayne, Vicky Vale and The Joker. The latter of the three developing an unhealthy obsession of desire towards Vale draws out the best in Bruce Wayne: his alter ego, Batman. 

Not only must Batman protect Vale from the pale hands of The Joker, but on an infinitely bigger scale, he must protect Gotham from The Joker too. Amid the scepticism over his existence as a hero, villain, vigilante, or even monster, Batman has to stop The Joker’s sadistic methods of murder by erradicating the distribution of Smylex – the Clown Prince of Crime’s toxin, which causes one to literally die from laughter. No joke…  

Contextually, Batman matches the ridiculousness presented in each of its sequels. Especially in its construction of the main villain. The difference is the execution. Whilst Batman Returns is an extraordinarily gothic Christmas film, and the Schumacher films are much more modernised, Batman simply exists as a crime/noir film, but with a pantomime villain, played excellently by Jack Nicholson. Stupendously over-the-top, but certainly a memorable, fascinating portrayal of The Joker. Bettered only by the two Oscar-winning portrayals by Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix.  

Keaton’s portrayal of Batman has certainly resurfaced in fandom in recent years, most likely a compound of nostalgia and a response to the inadequate Batman-centric films in recent years, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice  and Justice League (not the new one). Even if the resurface in fandom is slightly flawed, the admiration has legitimacy as, throughout Batman, the Batman character is dark, brooding and mysteriously cool all throughout. Even if playing a lowly second fiddle to Nicholson’s Joker.  

There is a notion that admiration for both Batman and Batman Returns had been lost in time thanks to the release of the much superior The Dark Knight Trilogy from Christopher Nolan. But in combining, as mentioned, the inadequate Batman-centric films in recent years – not a dig at Ben Affleck, but rather the films overall – alongside the 30th anniversary 4K re-release of Batman in 2019, there has been a magnificent resurgence in fandom, appreciation and admiration of the two Tim Burton films.  Such a surge in fandom has not only brought Keaton’s Batman back into the public conversation, but has established the great possibility of a role reprisal in the DCEU. A continuation of the Batman universe is to occur in the upcoming comic series, Batman ’89, too.

Equipped with a legendary score by Danny Elfman, and a legendary soundtrack from Prince, Batman is a definitive 80s classic if not for the music alone. Though not fully welcomed by the Bat-fans of 1989 who had rather seen Frank Miller’s much darker Dark Knight on the big screen. Instead, they got what can be considered by some to be just a darkened update of 60s Batman. One of Batman‘s biggest issues is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a gangster movie? Is it a comedy? Batman fails where the likes of Batman & Robin succeeds: the latter knows exactly what it is. Perhaps Batman‘s biggest issue overall is an existential one: it’s a Joker movie, not a Batman movie. Once Jack Nicholson becomes The Joker, Batman transcends into being 99% Joker-centric. Too much rides on Jack Nicholson’s performance.

Despite the fan backlash, the existential crisis, and the imbalance, whether Batman exists within another cycle of fandom, or deep down in the gutter, it remains that this is one tremendously fun film, and it is undeniable that Batman is the film that made Batman cool again to the mainstream audience.

Batman is available on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray and 4K UHD from all good retailers of physical media.

4 Stars


For John.

This article’s featured image: By Source, Warner Bros., Fair Use

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