The Dark Knight Retrospective: Re-watching Batman (1989)

The Dark Knight Retrospective: Re-watching Batman (1989)

In honor of next weekend's release of the hugely anticipated trilogy capper, The Dark Knight Rises, and because I've just recently re-watched all of the Burton/Schumacher films with my son, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to reflect back on the first four Batman movies that paved the way for Christopher Nolan's take.  Forget the '60s Batman starring Adam West.  I'm going to start with Tim Burton's Batman from 1989...

BATMAN (1989)

Tim Burton's Batman was released in June 1989.  I was 10 years old at the time.  That was a big summer as I recall.  You had Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Star Trek V, and many more.  Each week, it seemed like there was something cool to see.  But I was all about Batman at the time.  The Bat symbol was everywhere back then: hats, t-shirts, shaved into hair lines, trading cards, toys.  You name it, I probably had it.  I think I still have the trading cards - a complete set.  I'll bet those are worth about...$2 probably.  Oh well.  They were fun to collect.

It took a while for Warner Bros. to get the movie version of Batman off the ground.  The studio had a lot of success in 1978 with Superman, starring Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman, and Batman seemed to be the next logical character to make the leap from comic to silver screen.  But it wasn't until Tim Burton took the reins that the project made any real progress.  At the time, Burton was not as iconic a director as he is today.  Before Batman, he only had Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice under his belt.  Don't get me wrong - both are instant '80s classics, but they don't exactly scream blockbuster franchise.

As we all know now, however, Burton was an inspired choice to direct.  His goth sensibilities and background as an animator proved a perfect match for Batman.   He took a lot of shit for casting Michael Keaton in the role (Keaton probably took even more), but I remember loving Keaton in the role back then, and, honestly, I still do.  Keaton may not be the biggest guy, or the most intimidating, but he had real presence and intensity as Batman.  I like him even more as Bruce Wayne.  Keaton is a gifted comic actor, and he got to show his deft lighter touch in many of the Wayne scenes, like when he meets Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) for the first time at Wayne Manor.  You keep waiting for the wild and crazy Beetlejuice-style Keaton to show up, but other than one confrontation with the Joker ("You wanna get nuts?  C'mon.  Let's get nuts!"), Keaton keeps things in check.

What's most striking about this Batman is its focus on the villain of the piece - Joker.  Batman is a supporting character in his own movie.  This is Jack Nicholson's show, make no doubt about that.  Nicholson was top-billed, and he hams it up exactly as you expect.  I wasn't as familiar with Nicholson when I was younger, but having seen all of Nicholson's work since, there's definitely some typecasting going on here.  While I enjoyed his take on the Joker, and he's given a lot of good one-liners ("This town needs an enema!"), his Joker pales in comparison to Heath Ledger's.  Much of that has to do with the script.  The Dark Knight's version of Joker is just so nihilistic and dangerously unhinged.  Nicholson's Joker can be menacing at times, sure, but too often the character is played for broad comedy.

It doesn't help that Burton punctuates many of the Joker's scenes with music from Prince, of all people.  I don't know if the Prince songs were  a studio mandate (the lack of any such pop hits in the far more Burton-esque Batman Returns suggests so), but they seem way out of place and only serve to distract the viewer.  On the other hand, the score by Danny Elfman is one of his best, and the opening title theme is brilliant.  Another problem area?  The lack of action.  There are some big-ish set pieces, but nothing outstanding.  Burton definitely seems more interested in jokes about mass consumerism, and themes involving freak dual identities, than action beats.  Too often, the movie takes the easy way out of an action scene, trying to avoid anything too epic, like when Joker shoots down the Batwing with a single bullet.  What?!!!!

So the real question: does Batman hold up?  Yes and no.  There is much to admire here, but it's not as good as you may remember.  Christopher Nolan's Batman films remain the definitive take on the character.  Although most audiences thought Burton's film was dark and gritty when it came out, in retrospect, Nolan's movies have rendered it almost as campy as the '60s Batman.  Notice I said, almost.  If you really want campy, stay tuned.  We'll get to the Schumacher movies soon enough.

NEXT UP: BATMAN RETURNS...

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    No Batman retrospective would be complete without doing Batman: The Animated Series. Something that was so good, so balanced, it heavily influenced the comics themselves. Those are the definitive takes on the characters. Almost anyone I talk to about Batman would say Mark Hamill is the Joker and doubtless, Kevin Keiner's Batman.
    How people manage to skip over Batman Media that define the 90s generation amazes me.

  • Trent, excellent comment. I only skipped over the animated series because I've never seen it, and frankly, with TDKR coming out in less than a week now, there just isn't time to fit it in. If you want to do a piece on it, let me know. I'd be more than happy to post it on the blog and give you full authorship credit for it.

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