When Gotham City falls prey to crime and corruption, a vigilante the papers call Batman begins his war on crime with his first major enemy — the clownishly homicidal Joker.
This is the proverbial “it.”
This is the one I grew up with.
For the longest time, DC Comics’ Caped Crusader was painted under a colorful spotlight. His adventures, helmed at large by Adam West, came complete with kooky villains, zany deathtraps and body blows accompanied with sound effect graphics.
Then the 1970s and ’80s saw such talent as Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams, Alan Moore and Frank Miller put the “Dark” back into the “Dark Knight” with such amazing literary works as “Batman: A Death in the Family,” “The Killing Joke,” “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth” and especially “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.”
With such a bolstered ice cream sundae…all that was left was the cherry on top that would shift the caped crusader from the weekly TV camp to the fore-front of dark and sophisticated brilliance.
And there was no one better suited for the job than Tim Burton…with 1989’s “BATMAN.”
Where it was logical and common sense for Christopher Nolan to take a darker route with the character following “Batman & Robin,” it was far and away a riskier gamble for Burton, despite his and producers Michael E. Uslan and Ben Melniker knowing full well that it would work. And it worked. Not only did it work…it worked WELL.
Put simply, camp films that don’t take the character seriously will die. The more seriously a filmmaker takes the superhero, the better the chance the film has of both intriguing the audience and making back its money. And did this film ever make money. So much of it, in fact, that through a clever percentage deal on the merchandising, star Jack Nicholson alone made enough money to almost pay for the cost of “Batman” twice over. Although Tim Burton never made such a massive revenue generator again, the fact remains that the profit-to-cost ratio of “Batman” was such that he could afford to make at least three more write-offs for Warners and still have money left over from “Batman” to buy credibility with.
“Batman” also pioneered the technique of putting a dark and brooding spin on comic book characters (even our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man got in on the action) and it paved the way on TV not only for the Batman character with the groundbreaking “Batman: The Animated Series,” but it even helped to develop other television projects such as Sam Raimi’s “M.A.N.T.I.S.” (whose pilot was, interestingly enough, written by “Batman” co-writer Sam Hamm), “The Black Scorpion” and the short-lived live action “Flash” television series. The film also paved the way by setting the standard for “dark” superhero films such as “Darkman,” “The Crow” and “Blade.”
In this rendition, Gotham City is filled with criminals and crazies. It’s an nightmarish urban conglomerate of steel and stone…a twisted mangle of architectural styles whose ominous skyscrapers and citadels create giant pools of shadow for evil to lurk.
Despite the best efforts of Mayor Borg (Lee Wallace), Police Commissioner James Gordon (Pat Hingle) and newly-elected District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), they’re ultimately doing little more than spouting words of encouragement…while Mob Tycoon Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) keeps a stranglehold on the city with the help of both vicious enforcers like Bob the Goon (Tracey Walter) and corrupt police like Lt. Max Eckhardt (William Hootkins).
His most trusted and lethal enforcer, however, is Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), a man with more than a few screws loose…who plans on one day trumping Grissom and taking over.
But among all of this chaos and failure to act, a lone figure lashes out from the darkness…striking fear into the hearts of criminals and leaving all of Gotham abuzz. As the city becomes increasingly unsafe, the mysterious Batman (Michael Keaton) appears…with intent to put an end to the criminal element once and for all.
Hot on the vigilante’s trail is Gotham reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and newly-arrived Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a gorgeous photojournalist who has her eye on uncovering the mystery of Batman…But getting in the way of her goal is a budding romance between her and recluse Gotham millionaire Bruce Wayne.
When Batman interferes in a hit on the Axis Chemical factory by Boss Grissom (which is nothing more than revenge against Napier, whom Grissom knows is sleeping around with his wife) Jack, by circumstance and a ricocheting bullet, is tossed into a vat of chemicals…his skin is bleached white, his hair a putrid green…and his mind is completely re-wired into the psychotic Clown Prince of Crime…the Joker!
Now, Batman is forced stop fighting from the shadows as he’s thrust into the public spotlight for the first time in order to save Gotham and end the Joker’s reign of terror.
Taking its cues from the original Bob Kane comics, as opposed to 1986’s “Batman: Year One” by Frank Miller, we open with Batman as a full-blown vigilante crime fighter…the origin concerning his parent’s deaths is told in flashback and no explanation of Batman or his gadgets is made clear. I personally preferred it that way. The film is pure spectacle and I’ve always enjoyed that.
The film is a visual masterpiece and a touchstone of cinema for the past 20 years, I feel.
While “Batman” is a classic example of choosing the right motif and the right director to execute it, a superhero film is only as good as its actors.
Michael Keaton does not get nearly enough credit for his performance as Bruce Wayne here. As many (if not all) critics and industry professionals have said, he was a less than obvious choice for the part. At 5-feet-10, and with a build to match, Keaton was the last person one would expect to use terror as a weapon against the underworld. Yet, because he carries himself and enunciates his lines so perfectly, it works incredibly well. His voice is laced with enough psycho-undercurrent and reverence that it makes Christian Bale’s sound even more horrible than fans have already considered.
Basinger provides a well-to-do take on Vicki Vale. Yes…her screaming rubs nerves raw by the end of the picture, but she can more than hold her own against her male counterparts. The scene in the finale where she kisses and swoons and moans on the Joker in order to distract him so Batman can move closer undetected is a great moment. But she’s also a competent journalist, working to get the shots of the Joker’s attack on Gotham despite putting herself in danger. She’s also got quite the body, too! Basinger’s known for her modeling as well and it shows.
We also get a bevy of great supporting actors. Robert Wuhl plays Knox with the right tongue-in-cheek humor and he’s actually pretty funny. It’s hard to get humor in comic book films just right and I think Wuhl does a tremendous job. Then there’s the incredible Jack Palance as Carl Grissom, who despite having little more than a cameo sized role in the opening act, manages to convey a vile bastard of a mob boss through the character.
The law-abiding trio of Lee Wallace, Billy Dee Williams and Pat Hingle do well to flavor the film and flesh it out, showcasing the need for Batman — despite their best intentions. William Hootkins’ corrupt Lt. Eckhardt also displays that need but, of course, through seedier circumstances, giving a very sleazy performance. It’s also interesting that “Batman” uses two cast members from the original “Star Wars” trilogy…Billy Dee (Lando Calrissian) Williams and William (X-Wing Pilot Porkins) Hootkins.
Michael Gough and Tracey Walter provide perfect supports for the hero and villain, as Alfred Pennyworth and Bob the Goon respectively, proving that no matter how small the part, every casting decision is equally important. I had to look in Walter’s biography to confirm that he is the same man who portrayed Miller in Alex Cox’s surreal masterpiece “Repo Man.” In some ways, he steals the show as Bob, the Joker’s most trusted lieutenant. But in all superhero films, the titular hero is only as good as his antagonist.
And what an antagonist we got! While I have said that Michael Keaton does not get enough credit for his performance, the critics and media are quite right in that Jack Nicholson steals the show once he becomes the Joker. There are some scenes in which he overacts, such as his electrifying handshake with Edwin Craig’s Anton Rotelli, but his subsequent hit on a mob boss (“The pen is truly mightier than the sword”) trying to take his position through subterfuge shows a subtlety beyond most actors. In this scene, he is not so much the crazed egomaniac the Joker is generally thought to be, but as a hypertensive, prowling cat.
People might think his upfront salary (which has yet to be disclosed) and his merchandising share might be excessive, but he rightfully earned it all and then some. His broadcast announcing the unsuspecting presence of his Smilex poison on supermarket shelves is a brilliant exhibition of the warped side of Tim Burton’s sense of humor, and it is small wonder that Burton went to Nicholson again to play not one but two parts in his subsequent “Mars Attacks!” satire of B-science fiction films.
Of course, even overshadowing Nicholson, is the film’s visual style…seeing how that, and not Nicholson, was rewarded with an Academy Award.
To this day, Burton’s take on the character is superior to Nolan’s in three distinct categories: the depiction of Gotham City…the Batmobile…and the musical score.
The production design of “Batman” is awe inspiring. Rather than attempt to stick Batman into a New York or Chicago (sorry, had to say it), famed production designer, the late Anton Furst, created an entire world of grit and grime…filled with giant metal staunches, trash-filled streets, granite and art deco super structures and even a Gothic monumental cathedral. The back lot built at Pinewood studios is beautiful. It’s a combination of Gothic fantasy and exaggerated urban realism that very much struck a chord with me (and audiences at large).
The sets…from Batman’s underground Bat-Cave to the gorgeous Fluggelheim Museum (an obvious play on the famed Guggenheim)…are made with such a graphic sense of quality and, through Roger Pratt’s photography, look absolutely incredible. The Acton Power Station that fills in for Axis Chemicals is a twisted nightmarish hell of steel girders and staircases and it works perfectly (Acton was also utilized as the stage for the Atmosphere Processing Station in James Cameron’s “Aliens”). Another beautiful set can be found in Vicki Vale’s lavish white art deco apartment, which is somewhat like a loft with its huge semi-circle windows.
Furst also helped to design the groundbreaking Batmobile…which is, to this day, my favorite rendition of Batman’s signature vehicle. The Batwing used in the finale is also an awesome piece of machinery (the shot of the ‘Wing being backlit by the moon…god, it doesn’t get any better than that).
One of the most inspiring aspects of how the film is put together is its use of models and matte paintings. Since the film was produced in 1988/1989, visual effects through digital means were obviously way off. But the visual effects of the film have so much tangible weight and passion you easily forgive that…maybe, like me, you even prefer it. The matte backgrounds of Gotham are dark and lovely, with charcoal skies and grainy structures with seeping smokestacks. It’s truly something to see practical in-camera effects that still work in both a theatrical and storytelling sense.
The costume design is also quite inspired. Having everyone in this 1940s style with the huge winter trench coats and fedoras makes the picture timeless for me, in spite of the music the film uses. And aside from the “Batman Returns” variation, “Batman” has one of the best Batsuits ever! It’s crude and utilitarian and so visually striking. That first shot of Batman when he unfurls his giant bat-winged cape is just breathtaking.
While the use of Prince for the lyrical soundtrack of the film immediately works to date the picture…I could care less. Those songs, from “Partyman” to “Trust,” still get me going and I adore the film for all the memories it has given me. Plus, being a huge Prince fan anyway, it just makes the film even better for me.
The sight of the Joker atop the birthday cake float, throwing cash down Main Street for Gotham City’s 200th anniversary while Prince blasts has always been thrilling to me. What a great moment…
But when it comes to Batman music, no one…and I mean no one…tops Danny Elfman’s score for the film. His “Batman Theme” (along with the “Superman Theme”) defines “iconic” for me. It’s haunting and moving and fun and mysterious all at the same time. Once it roars, like the jet turbine of the Batmobile, it fires you up and your heart can’t help but race alongside.
The rest of the score is very moody and atmospheric, setting up the visual stylings of the film in a musical sense. Standout tracks include the spooky and ominously awesome “Descent into Mystery” and the fun and light “Joker’s Waltz.” The finale of the film, musically, is beautifully loud and boisterous, with the score reaching highs you wouldn’t even expect with tracks such as “Charge of the Batmobile,” “Attack of the Batwing” and, especially, the “Finale” when Commissioner Gordon ignites the famous Bat Signal for the first time…leading to the most heroically uplifting ending in the contemporary “Batman” films (with “Batman Forever” being a close second). The image of Batman standing alone, looking at the signal painted across the sky as the score swells, is just spectacular.
The action in the film is rather sparse in quantity…but it’s quite stylish.
Batman’s battles with the Joker’s thugs have loads of style and panache, notably his Act II confrontation with a double-katana wielding ninja goon in the back alleys of Gotham…and the final confrontation with the notorious black goon in the cathedral.
The former has a wonderful moment with an annoyed Batman eventually taking the ninja out with a single kick (and egging Bob on with a simple, but bad ass, gesture) while the latter is like a brutal, barroom brawl. But who doesn’t love that moment when Batman, after being tossed down into the cathedral stairwell, reveals that he hung onto the girders and lashes out with his legs, grabbing the Joker’s goon in a headlock with his ankles (!!) and pulling him off the platform to fall to his own death (!!!). Such an awesome twist on the end of that fight!
The Axis Chemical shootout is also very well put together, with Batman delving in and out of the shadows very much in character…it also has that famous “no look back fist” move that subsequently was used in the animated series quite a few times.
And Batman saving Vicki from the museum is still one of my favorite sequences in a comic book movie. The Joker writhing around pretending to be in pain, spooking Vale with his runny flesh-tone make up…then Batman crashing through the skylight, unfurling his cape amidst a shower of broken glass (the best “skylight crash” ever in a comic book movie) and zipping Vicki out of the place on his gauntlet.
“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
A film that works on a number of levels, which accounts for the universal appeal that made it so successful, “Batman” has an engaging, enduring quality that fulfills a need within us all; that need to vent and be sated in the righteousness of justice. It can be enjoyed as simply a good guy versus bad guy movie, or in the deeper sense of Good versus Evil. However you take it, it’s a film that you’ll appreciate more with each additional viewing. Like a good wine, it gets better with age.
Other comic book films have come and gone…all have entertained me and a few have stayed with me…but for being the first film to introduce me to comic books and comic book film, I will never forget and will forever be in debt to “Batman.”
“BATMAN” (Tim Burton, 1989)
Directed by … Tim Burton
Story by … Sam Hamm
Screenplay by … Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren
Based on the DC Comics Character Created by … Bob Kane and Bill Finger
Executive Produced by … Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan
Produced by … Peter Guber and Jon Peters
Cinematography by … Roger Pratt
Production Design by … Anton Furst
Costume Design by … Bob Ringwood
Editing by … Ray Lovejoy
Original Motion Picture Score Composed by … Danny Elfman
Michael Keaton … Bruce Wayne/Batman
Jack Nicholson … Jack Napier/The Joker
Kim Basinger … Vicki Vale
Robert Wuhl … Alexander Knox
Pat Hingle … Commissioner James Gordon
Billy Dee Williams … Harvey Dent
Michael Gough … Alfred Pennyworth
Jack Palance … Carl Grissom
Jerry Hall … Alicia Grissom
Tracey Walter … Bob the Goon
Lee Wallace … Mayor Borg
William Hootkins … Lt. Max Eckhardt
Edwin Craig … Anton Rotelli
Vincent Wong … Crimelord #1
Joel Cutrara … Crimelord #2
John Dair … Ricorso
Christopher Fairbank … Nic
George Roth … Eddie
Kate Harper … Action News Anchorwoman
Bruce McGuire … Action News Anchorman
Richard Durden … Action News Director
Kit Hollerbach … Becky
Liza Ross … Tourist Mom
Garrick Hagon … Tourist Dad
Adrian Meyers … Jimmy, Tourist Son
David Baxt … Dr. Thomas Wayne
Sharon Holm … Martha Wayne
Charles Roskilly … Young Bruce Wayne
Hugo E. Blick … Young Jack Napier
Steve Plytas … Back Alley Surgeon
Dennis Lill … Bob the Cartoonist
Amir M. Korangy … Wine Steward
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