Batman (United States, 1989)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The superheroes of DC Comics have been very good to Warner Brothers. In 1978, Superman became a major motion picture event, packing theaters and resulting in a franchise that generated three sequels before collapsing under the weight of bad writing, bad acting, and bad special effects. Then, only two years after the release of the movie that killed the Superman series (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), Warner Brothers turned to DC's other venerable hero, Batman. From the moment the announcement was first made, fans were ecstatic, especially when it was revealed that the tone of the film would more closely resemble the dark nature of the comics, as opposed to the jokey, campy feel of the '60s TV series starring Adam West. This Batman was intended to be a different breed from any previous live-action incarnation. Like Superman, Batman spawned three sequels, and, like the saga of The Man of Steel, the Caped Crusader's adventures were eventually ended not by the successful plots of his enemies, but by the inept plots of those who helmed the series. Batman and Robin ended the profitability of a franchise that had been teetering since installment #3, Batman Forever.

The future of the series, beyond the fact that there would be a sequel, was not on the minds of the men and women running Warner Brothers when Batman became the event of the summer of 1989, grossing more than $250 million domestically. The movie faced some stiff competition, chiefly from the disastrously underperforming Star Trek V, which was a has-been soon after its release, and from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which scored big at the box office, but not big enough to topple Batman. On opening weekend, the lines for Batman ringed theaters and, in some cases, entire city blocks. It was a display of cinematic enthusiasm that had not been seen in nine years, since the 1980 debut of The Empire Strikes Back. In general, Batman was well-received by fans, many of whom returned to see the movie countless times, inflating its box office tally. The rest of the movie-going community was less enthusiastic, wondering what had happened to the comedy from the TV series or why there was so little substance to go along with the style.

Like many comic book-to-movie adaptations, Batman is an "origin" story - only the origin being presented isn't that of the title character, but of the chief villain, The Joker. In fact, the entire movie belongs to The Joker, and, if there was a truth-in-titling policy in Hollywood, this picture would have been named after him. The character of Batman exists solely as a foil for The Joker. The film's hero (as essayed by Michael Keaton) is woefully underdeveloped. Beyond certain bare-bones facts, we learn little about him, and his "love affair" with reporter Vicki Vale (played by Kim Basinger) is so childishly presented as to be absurd. Actually, there's not much character development where The Joker is concerned, either, but Jack Nicholson's over-the-top performance is so enjoyable that it hardly matters. This isn't great acting on Nicholson's part, but it is a lot of fun to watch. Like Marlon Brando in Superman, he was getting a lot of money to bring a top name to the marquee; unlike Brando, Nicholson approaches his work with gusto and seems to be in it for more than just the hefty paycheck.

When I was a kid, I collected comic books. I mostly stayed away from the DC heroes, because, at least on a psychological level, they were less interesting than Marvel's group. The exception was Batman, who was in the bad guy-bashing business because of a childhood trauma - he watched as his parents were gunned down in an alleyway. Batman was a regular guy (albeit a rich one) who made himself into a superhero through intelligence, stamina, strength, and an amazing array of gadgets. Unlike almost every other character with a comic book to call his own, Batman had no inherent superpowers. And, in essence, he was little more than a sophisticated vigilante. Comparisons with the Charles Bronson character in Death Wish might initially seem absurd, but a little bit of thought makes it clear that they're actually reasonable.

We don't see how Batman became Batman in Batman. That's mostly irrelevant (although we do see the shooting of his parents during a brief flashback). The first time we encounter the Dark Knight, he's scaring the living daylights out of a couple of robbers. Gotham City is abuzz with rumors of a man-sized bat who can't be killed, and crack reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), aided by photographer Vicki Vale, is determined to get to the bottom of the story. But everyone who knows anything, including Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) and D.A. Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), is keeping quiet. In her attempts to get an inside scoop, Vicki ends up romancing millionaire Bruce Wayne, who's on friendly terms with everyone in power in Gotham. Unbeknownst to her, Wayne and Batman are one and the same. She and Bruce fall for each other, much to the delight of Alfred (Michael Gough), the faithful butler, but Bruce is reluctant to reveal the truth.

Meanwhile, the crime scene is heating up. Mob boss Carl Grisson (Jack Palance, not doing any push-ups) has decided to eliminate his right-hand man, Jack Napier (Nicholson), by sending him on a mission then tipping off the cops. Napier is cornered by Batman, and ends up falling into a vat of acid. He escapes alive, but is horribly maimed, both mentally and physically. A plastic surgeon re-constructs his features, but botches the job, leaving Napier with green hair, white skin, and a permanent leer. Thus is born The Joker, who quickly dispatches Boss Grissom, takes over his territory, and begins a reign of terror.

In a movie like Superman, the audience has a tremendous amount invested in the lead character because we follow his development. We get to know and like him. That's not the way it is in Batman. Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego remain impenetrable and largely unsympathetic. The only reason we like the guy in the costume is because he is Batman, and we all know we're supposed to be rooting for him. Plus, he's up against The Joker, who's not a nice guy. That's really all there is, though. Batman is as real as is necessary to tell the simplistic story.

Any likability associated with Batman/Bruce Wayne comes largely as a result of Michael Keaton's low-key but effective performance. Keaton only had two turns as the Caped Crusader (he bowed out, leaving the role to Val Kilmer in Batman Forever; Kilmer was subsequently replaced by George Clooney), but he was by far the best man for the job. While there wasn't much variation in the way the actors played Batman, the Bruce Wayne part was a different matter. In that role, Keaton easily outstripped his successors.

The presence of Vicki Vale is one of the film's obvious missteps. She's nothing more than a token love interest, and Basinger plays her in such a shrill manner that she loses the capacity to be attractive. Compared to Batman's other women (which included Michelle Pfeiffer and Nicole Kidman), Basinger is clearly inferior. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Vicki is her lack of reaction when she finds out that Bruce is Batman. One could be forgiven for expecting this to be a bigger revelation than it turns out to be.

The supporting parts are ably filled. Veteran British actor Michael Gough does as much as any performer could possibly do to humanize Alfred - in fact, one could make the argument that the butler is the best developed character in the film. Pat Hingle takes on the role of Commissioner Gordon. Billy Dee Williams (still in the limelight only six years removed from playing Lando Calrissian) is the district attorney. (Williams was replaced six years later by Tommy Lee Jones when Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two Face, was one of the villains.)

One of the most frequent comments voiced about Batman mimicked a familiar lite beer motto: "Looks great, less filling." Indeed, with Tim Burton at the helm, this kind of gloriously gothic production design was to be expected. Burton has built his career upon visually striking films like Beetlejuice, Edwards Scissorhands, and Sleepy Hollow (which, like Batman, was far more impressive to look at than to sit through). Batman won a deserved Oscar for Art Direction & Set Decoration - this is a moody, atmospheric motion picture. Despite being set in modern times, it has a middle-of-the-century, noir-ish feel to it. The era is like a jumble of the '40s, '50s, and '80s, and the intended look was that of the year 2000 as seen from 1945 (then interpreted in 1989). Batman is also an example of form winning out over function. Many of the buildings that comprise Gotham City - a haunted house version of New York City - serve little purpose beyond looking impressive.

Burton loves in-jokes and cinematic references, but there are surprisingly few in Batman. (More showed up in the sequel. For example, Christopher Walken's character bore the moniker of "Max Schreck", the name of the actor who played the vampire in Nosferatu.) One of the most obvious, however, is a nod to Batman's creator, Bob Kane. When an artist at a newspaper comes up with a sketch of what a six-foot tall bat might look like, it was drawn by Kane (the signature is clearly evident).

Like James Bond, Batman has a lot of great gadgets. First and foremost is the Batmobile, which comes complete with an impenetrable anti-theft and anti-vandalism protection system and a remote voice-controlled activation system. Then there's a one-seater Bat airplane and various other Bat devices (like grappling hooks). Actually, in many ways, Batman has more than a passing resemblance to a 007 adventure. In addition to the gadgets, there's a beautiful-but-largely superfluous female character (Basinger once played a Bond girl, in Never Say Never Again), a megalomaniac villain, and a hero who likes dressing up. I wonder if anyone thought of asking Bruce Wayne if he liked his martinis shaken or stirred.

Ultimately, it should be remembered that Batman is an action film, and the movie's various fights and chases are directed with some flair - enough, certainly, to keep the average viewer engaged. One suspects that if another Batman movie was made today, in this post-Matrix environment, there would be a lot of martial arts involved. Here, however, during a scene in which a character brandishes some nasty weapons and tries to put some fancy movies on Batman, he dispatches the guy with simplicity and aplomb (in a moment that's reminiscent of Indiana Jones' "solution" to the sword-wielding brute in Raiders of the Lost Ark). There's no slow motion walking on air or running up walls. Over the course of the movie, Batman takes a few knocks, but, like the superhero he is, he's never down for the count.

The final confrontation with The Joker, while not terribly impressive from a violence and/or pyrotechnic perspective, does have a nice psychological edge to it, with each of the characters admitting that they owe their creation to the other (Batman allowed Jack Napier to fall into the acid; long ago, Napier, as a kid, shot Bruce Wayne's parents). Unfortunately, there's not more of that during the course of the movie. Batman is largely content to skim the surface and bask in the light of its visual style.

Had some of The Joker's scenes been cut in favor of more on Bruce Wayne, Batman might have offered a fuller plate. There's no doubt that Nicholson's performance makes The Joker an impressive villain, but less would have been better. There are times when all that laughing and ranting becomes a little tiresome. In the Batman sequel, Batman Returns, there is no Joker, and, even though two villains (Catwoman and The Penguin) are brought in to replace him, the movie has a more balanced feel. Batman Returns seems like Batman's movie, not another opportunity to spot the bad guys. It also isn't hamstrung by the presence of a one-dimensional female caricature like Vicki Vale; Catwoman represents a far more interesting match for our hero.

Danny Elfman's score, while having been knocked in some circles, is actually effective in evoking a mood. It captures some of the grandeur of John Williams' work for Superman, but there's also an underlying gloom to it. Elfman, who often works with Burton, has a good synergy with the director and his output here is in perfect keeping with the tone of the movie. (It's a shame that his music was abandoned when Joel Schumacher took over with Batman Forever.) On the other hand, the use of several songs by Prince seems like a marketing ploy. They add nothing to the film.

At the time of Batman's release, many industry experts expected a surge in superhero movies. That never really happened. Talks of a Superman revival withered and died on the vine. The Rocketeer and the heavily-hyped Dick Tracy (both released by Buena Vista) turned out to be box office disappointments. Dick Tracy reached the $100 million mark, but, considering that it used the same kind of media-saturation blitz employed by Batman, its significantly lower tally caused a lot of grumbles. It would be twelve years before the next major comic book-to-screen convergence happened (X-Men).

Looking back at Batman from a distance - after all the hype has dried up and the franchise has at least temporarily been abandoned - it's easy to see the movie for what it is: a moderately diverting motion picture that should have been shorter and better paced. There are a lot of things wrong with Batman, but it still makes for decent entertainment in the fine tradition of the typical low-intelligence summer movie. The best thing that can be said about Batman is that it led to Batman Returns, which was a far superior effort.

Batman (United States, 1989)

Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 1989-06-23
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1