Classic Review: Batman (1989)

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars:  ★★1/2☆


Review:  Let’s take a brief look at the Batman saga leading up to the 1989 Batman movie.  The character had first introduced in the 1930’s in Detective Comics, and was revolutionary for its time.  Drawing influence from horror movies and classic myths like Zorro, creator Bob Kane created the prototypical “dark” superhero (characters like Spawn and The Darkness owe much to Batman) and a pop culture phenomenon that still is thriving today.  Kids of the 1930’s must have been thrilled to read of the exploits of famed billionaire Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, then known as the Bat-Man, in all of its action, grit, and surprising depth-of-story.  Unfortunately, starting in the 1940’s, the character of Batman was softened up to become more kid-friendly, especially with the inclusion of Robin.  This softening reached its apex in the 1960’s with the infamous Adam West Batman television show (de ne nu nu nu nu nu nu Batman!).  This series was drenched in camp and comic value, and little of the darkness and complexity that had originally permeated the character remained.  However, beginning in the 1970’s, a movement grew amongst comic book writers to return Batman back to his darker origins.  Most notable of these efforts was the fabled 1986 miniseries Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, considered to be a masterpiece among graphic novels. Following up on this renewed interest in a darker Batman, Warner Brothers commissioned the making of a feature length Batman movie, and dark visionary Tim Burton was put at the helm.  What we get is one of the most interesting and yet oddly flawed interpretations of Batman.

The plot in Batman is interesting in the sense that, unlike many superhero movies, this one really is not an origin story.  We are introduced to Batman (Michael Keaton) on a dark, drizzly night in Gotham City, terrorizing two crooks.  It is almost surprising about how liberal this approach is. In fact, an important and unique message of the movie is revealed in one of Batman’s first lines.  Holding a terrified criminal over the edge of a building, he simply says, “I’m Batman,” before disappearing into the night.  Take note of this, because what Burton will show us is a Batman who has virtually no conflict.  He has already decided before the movie what he will be, leaving the audience to miss out on the fun it must have been to see the character make this choice.  In this movie, Batman is dark, violent, and resolute; we the audience must simply take it from there.

What else of the plot?  The rest of the movie is spent showing Batman battling the nefarious Joker (Jack Nicholson).  In fact, this movie almost feels more about the rise and fall of the Joker than Batman.  He is actually given a back-story—we see him change from common criminal to clown prince of crime.  That said, there is nothing particularly special for most of the movie, as it boils down to our hero foiling various plans—sometimes-silly ones– by the Joker to “…run this city into the ground.”  Apart from a small plot twist at the end though, it is pretty average, albeit entertaining.  There is also a sub-plot, some semblance of one anyway.  Bruce Wayne begins dating a reporter named Vicky Vale, who is very interested in discovering the identity of the Batman.  Soon however, Bruce Wayne finds he can’t balance love and crime fighting.  However he really isn’t given the choice of giving up the Batman role—sure there are a few scenes of him debating whether or not to tell Vicky about his alter ego, but one of the beauties of Batman is why he chooses to do these things and if he really should.  Burton’s movie simply doesn’t deliver on that.

It is a shame that the story was simply sub-par.  Not that the audience needs a complex story, but Batman does.  A character as intricate and dark as him deserves to have a story of the same caliber.  What Burton gives us is the darkness, but never really the intricacy.  It’s also a shame because the acting in this movie is exceptionally good.  Michael Keaton gives a great performance as Batman despite him being an odd choice for the part.  The former comic captures a more powerful and mysterious portrait of Batman, an obvious contrast to Adam West’s silly version.  Jack Nicholson as the Joker is equally impressive, delivering a mixture of psychotic violence and corny gags.  Even Kim Basinger gives a surprisingly good performance as Vicky Vale.  All of these actors are great at showing that their characters are suppressing motion, that all of them are hiding thoughts and feelings that would normally be released at a great emotional climax.  Unfortunately, Tim Burton gives us no such emotional climax here either, and all that acting, especially from Keaton and Basinger goes to waste for the most part.

Despite the plot, this movie more than excels in other areas.  Burton’s dark visionary style led to what were then the most elaborate and gothic sets ever created.  He succeeds very much in making Gotham City a sinister and dirty place, very well representing the crime that takes place there.  Combined with detailed miniature models and well-done matinee paintings, Burton succeeds in making the city a real and living, if also creepy, place.  Also of note are the Batmobile and Batwing vehicles, both of which are highly stylized and fun to watch in action during the film.

Perhaps most worthy of note though is Danny Elfman’s score.  Building on dark themes and classic orchestration, Elfman creates a powerful and evil sort of music, one that can invigorate just as easily as it can scare, perfectly fitting the character it describes.  However, it is somewhat compromised by the inclusion of not one but two Prince songs, I suppose as some sort of marketing tie-in.  They both suck, and I would do your best to ignore them.
So what are my final thoughts on Batman?  It represents the triumph of style over substance, image over quality.  It’s a fun movie to look at, and its entertaining as a popcorn movie, but Batman is a character who is capable of so much more, and it wouldn’t be for about another fifteen years before the Batman character was featured in a movie deserving of his complexity.  That said, this film does deserve credit for many things.  It at least ends the right way, with Batman as a symbol of hope for Gotham, something I can’t say about all subsequent Batman movies.  It is also responsible for re-igniting mainstream interest in Batman, and subsequent triumphs like Batman: the Animated Series would not have existed if not for this movie.  Also, I think that it serves well as a stepping-stone between the campy Batman of the 1960’s and the truly gritty Batman of today.  Indeed, even the Christopher Nolan films owe something to the original Burton film.

In short, Batman is what can be called a flawed masterpiece, full of its own errors, and yet having an overall positive effect on the hero it portrayed.  It’s worth a watch, but it won’t fully get you your Batman fix.

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