Originally Reviewed – 5/9/2012
Tim Burton’s Batman is remembered for many things. Some reference it as the start of the “adult comic” genre, tossing aside square chinned protagonists in favor of darker, more personal superheroes. Others mark it as one of the best combinations of art house vision and Hollywood bombast in recent history. Me? I remember it as my first PG-13 film.
1989 was the year of the Bat. Buoyed by a massive advertising campaign and the expectations of a legion of comic book fans, you couldn’t walk down the street without seeing the iconic bat symbol. Sadly for me, the film was rated PG-13, dashing any hopes of my MPAA strict family allowing me to see it. It took two years before my dad came home with a VHS copy of the movie, waited for my mom to go to bed and invited me to watch it with him. My eleven year old mind was blown away. Everything seemed bigger than life in Tim Burton’s Gotham. The experience was overwhelming. From the maniacal cackle of The Joker, to the looming facades of Gotham to the Caped Crusader himself, Tim Burton’s adult interpretation of the comic book hero was nothing short of spectacular.
Now, nearly 25 years later, the only thing big about Batman ’89 is Vicky Vale’s hairstyle. Viewed with modern eyes and the images of Christopher Nolan’s vision fresh in mind, the original movie is still a fine time but lacks the depth and character development of the new series. The story is a familiar one. After a heist at Axis Chemicals gets thwarted by Batman (Michael Keaton), Gotham’s most ruthless gangster falls into a vat of acid and becomes The Joker (Jack Nicholson). The evil clown then concocts a sinister plan to cause chaos, prompting Batman to run to the defense of the good people of Gotham. Along the way, Bruce Wayne gets involved with photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), broods in the Batcave and fights the many baddies of the beleaguered city.
On the positive side, Tim Burton’s design of Gotham is my favorite of all the iterations. The visionary director’s take on the city is a mishmash of baroque, art deco and gothic design elements, perfectly reflecting a metropolis in turmoil. Everything in the film, from Keaton’s Batsuit to the classic Batmobile speaks to the director’s love of the dark and picturesque. The choice of Michael Keaton as the lead hero was also a brilliant one. By far my favorite Batman, Keaton excels at playing both sides of the tortured hero. Bumbling as Bruce, terrifying as The Bat, Keaton creates a duality with the role that hasn’t been bested by any who have followed. A tough role to master for someone who, up until then, had been known for light comedy.
The rest of the cast is also well selected, starting with Jack Nicholson’s spot on portrayal of The Joker. While I’m not going to get into the Ledger versus Jack debate, I will say Ledger had a heck of a lot more to work with. Nicholson’s Joker tosses aside decent development for pure fun, creating a manic yet enjoyable performance. The problems aren’t with Jack, as the simply penned story does little to develop the villain. This is a “take the part and run with it” type of performance and for the film they were making, it works just fine.
But not all is rosy in the wet streets of Gotham. The movie languishes under a mediocre script, one that suffered from the Writer’s Strike of 1988. Edits made during filming never gelled with the finished product, creating a movie that works but does so unevenly. Seriously, would Alfred really let Vicki Vale into the Batcave? Really? The relationship between Wayne and Vale never makes sense or generates any tension, there are some head scratching music cues and the film bloats towards the final thirty minutes. It’s a bit of a mess, but an enjoyable mess all the same.
Batman was described by David Handelman of the New York Observer as being “less movie than corporate behemoth.” While I don’t fully agree, there’s a grain of truth in that statement. Up until that point, Bob Kane’s original vision of a tortured avenger had been muddled by decades of campy treatment. A millionaire fighting crime in a bat costume. Hilarious! Fans of the comic had become alienated, fans of the TV show grew up and nobody cared about the adventures of Bruce Wayne. Supported by the biggest marketing campaign in the history of Hollywood, Batman was a necessary beast, a required purging of the artistic damage caused by twenty years of neglect. Batman didn’t just resurrect a comic book character; it revitalized the relevance of an art form. No longer relegated to the bedrooms of geeks and fanboys, comic book characters could now be taken seriously as allegories for our basic humanity. Tim Burton’s vision injected new life into a genre that would dominate filmgoing until the present day. Batman is nowhere near a perfect film, but it’s a game changer, and that, even twenty years later, is more than enough.
Score – 80%