Every Batman Ever Marathon: Batman (1989)
Welcome to the Waiver Wire’s EVERY BATMAN EVER MARATHON. In the weeks leading up to the release of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ I will be watching and analyzing every feature film based on the Caped Crusader. The Batman film franchise is an old one with roots stretching all the way back to film serials produced in the 40′s. The first feature film came about in 1966 and our love affair with The World’s Greatest Detective has continued on ever since. Check back every Wednesday for the newest installments and I encourage you to join in and do the marathon with me. Here’s the schedule (click on the date for past installments):
Intro: 5/23; Batman (1966): 5/30; Batman (1989): 6/6; Batman Returns (1992): 6/13;Batman Forever (1995): 6/20; Batman & Robin (1997): 6/27; Batman Begins (2005): 7/4 ; The Dark Knight (2008): 7/11; Recap/Rankings: 7/18; The Dark Knight Rises (2012): 7/25
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance
Plot: Mid level gangster, Jack Napier (Nicholson) is set up by his boss and ends up falling into a vat of acid and becoming the Joker. The only one who can stop his reign of terror is the mysterious Batman who has been terrorizing Gotham’s criminals. Vicki Vale (Basinger), a reporter covering The Batman, falls deeply and overly in love with Bruce Wayne (Keaton) over night and his dual identities cause tension until he eventually reveals his true identity.
Production History: Burton was hired to direct Batman after the success of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Initially he wasn’t a comic book fan but found the dark nature of 80’s Batman comics to his liking. Rewrites were made to make the original script less campy leading to a major tonal shift from the 1966 film, which is famed for its camp. The role of Batman started as something of a who’s who in Hollywood at the time. Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Selleck and Bill Murray were all considered but Burton, to the chagrin of fans, decided to cast Keaton for the “dark and brooding” quality he was looking for. The role of the Joker was highly sought after by Robin Williams but the studio was set on Nicholson who took the role upon the condition that he could dictate the shooting schedule and command a huge salary. The movie was a huge financial hit and generally liked by critics. Fans of the comics took major issue with a flashback revealing the Joker killed Thomas and Martha Wayne and a scene in which Alfred lets Vicki Vale into the Batcave (Ed. Note: For good reason…it makes no fucking sense.)
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: The very first note I wrote down was “now this is a Batman movie.” That’s not to say I see it as the Batman movie but it strikes a tone that actually makes sense for the character. West’s psychotic campy Batman is fun but he’s not really Batman. Burton clearly understands the dark(ish) world he is trying to create. His Gotham is both Gothic and industrial and Burton is clearly playing off German Expressionism like Metropolis. His take on the city makes you feel like Batman would actually fit in there and that coherent tone really is impressive. The movie makes the interesting choice of going over fifteen minutes without introducing us to Bruce Wayne. I’ve read that the writer didn’t want to start with the origin because he felt showing the process by which Wayne becomes Batman would be boring. It’s ironic to read that now considering Batman Begins doesn’t show the audience Batman for an hour and we get nothing but Bruce and the long road to the cowl. I’m biased in favor of Nolan’s movies but I do think the focus on Gotham and Batman here works for Burton’s tone. Danny Elfman’s score is fantastic except all the songs are done by Prince and there are several musical sequences set to Prince songs that make no sense. They totally jar the viewer out of the experience. Now, I’m waiting for the inevitable Superman/Michael Jackson pairing. Hopefully Zak Snyder can deliver.
THE BAT: Two movies in a row now I’ve been struck by how little fighting skill Batman has. Sure he can beat up some henchmen and makeup clad lunatics but he doesn’t have a method. He just clunks around punching people. He doesn’t even use stealth. He’ll sneak up on criminals and then make his presence known so they’ll have the option of approaching him one at a time. Keaton’s Batman carries himself with a nice brooding confidence and he doesn’t have Christian Bale’s sometimes perfect, sometimes distracting, Batman voice. All in all he’s a solid Batman who needs to take a martial arts class or two.
THE BRUCE: The most immediately noticeable difference between Keaton and West’s take on Bruce Wayne is that Keaton seems to have some understanding of how humans behave. His take on the character is to play him as an eccentric billionaire who is a little out of touch, a little awkward and kind of endearing. He’s not particularly brooding when you consider the entire buzz about this film being “too dark” but it was the late 80’s and Adam West was everyone’s point of reference.
I do take issue with how willing he is to share his identity with Vicki. She does nothing but stalk him after a one night stand and he and Alfred determine that it’s cool if she knows the biggest secret possible. Once again Batman’s psychosis takes on an unexpected new direction.
THE SUIT: The costume is a big improvement in that it’s body armor and has the correct length ears. It still looks a little rubbery and impractical as a defensive tool but you can see why you wouldn’t want to run into this guy in an alley. When you see the costume in the light it doesn’t look fantastic but this is definitely worlds above Adam West.
THE GADGETS: After the first film in the marathon all future gadgets are going to seem a little mundane. Batman does throw the worst smoke bomb ever. He lets the room fill up and then zip lines out of the room and you can totally see every single move he makes. I don’t mean Burton lets us in on it. I mean he is clearly not obscured at all by the smoke. Otherwise it’s a series of ropes attached to guns and one sweet ride. The Joker on the other hand has a joy buzzer which literally melts a rival gangster, a comically giant pistol capable of shooting down planes, the strangest henchmen ever and the power of summoning Prince songs whenever he is doing something wacky.
THE CAR: This is the batmobile I grew up with and seeing it made me quite happy. It’s not the most efficient looking car but it has a gothic style that fits the aesthetic of Gotham perfectly.
THE ROGUE’S GALLERY: Nicholson has a blast with his role of The Joker and chews up enough scenery to feed a family for a year. He brings a lot of fun and color to a movie which is oppressively dark (visually) but I can’t help but nerd out towards his portrayal of the character. He has way too much motivation, purpose and back story. The script even has a young Jack Napier (later the Joker) kill Bruce’s parents. That is just plain dumb. There’s a line about how “I made you and you made me” is in the spirit of the two characters but it’s just too much of an affront to mythology of the Joker. He should be more chaotic and in it for the fun and his origins shouldn’t be so generic (even if they somewhat draw from “The Killing Joke”). Nicholson’s Joker is essentially a bitter thug who decides he wants revenge on Batman. It’s a strong performance that fits in this specific version of Batman so I can’t really bash it but it’s not what I want from The Joker (here my Nolan bias shows again as Heath Ledger was perfect). Still he definitely tells some appropriately terrible jokes and commits some horrific acts so The Clown Prince of Crime is still worthy of his title.
THE SIDEKICK(S): I guess Vicki Vale fills this role if you consider being a clingy stalker who is always getting kidnapped and trying to take pictures of the people who are shooting Batman adequate for being called a sidekick. I don’t know if I can emphasize how odd her and Bruce’s relationship is. They connect on their first date (and it’s pretty well written and acted and I believed they connected) and then they play pelvic pinochle. Bruce then lies to her about a business trip for the sake of doing Bat stuff and Alfred totally blows up his spot by mistake. From then on out she calls him at every turn, literally follows him around with a camera, and conducts research to try and better understand him. Later she tells him she’s loved him since the moment they met and he concurs. Maybe Batman just loves the crazy ones. Someone’s got to…
THE VERDICT: All of these reviews are a little tainted by my full on obsession with Christopher Nolan’s modern Batman. I tend to have trouble avoiding comparisons and this film falls short when stacked against Nolan’s.
On its own merits, though, it’s a fun comic book film with a believable tone that successfully walks the line between fun and dark. It’s got an iconic, hammy performance from Nicholson and a fantastic score. The story is a little wonky but there are laughs to be had throughout and some good set pieces. Burton is pretty horrible when it comes to directing action and the set pieces don’t deliver excitement so much as they all contain something enjoyable, dialogue, visuals, etc. All in all the film has aged pretty well because of the timeless quality Burton lends to Gotham and the Caped Crusader. It feels like 1945 and 1989 all at once. At this point there might not be a definitive take on the Dark Knight but this is certainly a fun place to start.
Next Up: Batman Returns (1992): 6/13