Director: Tim Burton
Way back in 1989, I was a seven-year-old boy that didn't have much interest in comics. Even if I didn't really care about them, I knew a phenomenon when I saw one. And in the summer of '89, one particular movie was all the rage. As much as I'd like to say it was Ghostbusters 2 (since I was a huge Ghostbusters fan at the time), it wasn't. This movie was everywhere. T-shirts, action figures, lunchboxes, music videos, everything was somehow tied-in to the movie. The phenomenon was inspired by a popular DC Comics superhero, created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Akin to other masked figures like Zorro, he protects the innocent from the criminals staining the streets he calls his home. But this is a little bit different form of hero. He's a dark and brooding hero that operates without any superpowers, a shadowy vigilante fueled simply by vengeance and the desire to protect the innocent from the evil that claimed the lives of his family.
Gotham City is a dark, depressing town to live in. Organized crime runs the show, and some high-ranking officers within Gotham's police force are on the local mob's payroll. Despite the best efforts of the mayor (Lee Wallace), police commissioner Jim Gordon (Pat Hingle), and new district attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), the drastically rising crime rate is choking the life out of Gotham City as it prepares to celebrate its 200th anniversary.
Gotham's citizens live in fear until a dark knight known as "The Bat Man" arises. An urban legend among the city's criminals, Batman's attracted not only the attention of the police, but reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) as well. Often ridiculed by his co-workers for believing the Batman stories, Knox attracts the attention of prize-winning photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). The pair team up to uncover the secret of Batman, while Vicki becomes drawn to billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton). Emotionally scarred as a child after watching the murder of his parents, the only person Bruce has allowed to get close to him is his butler and closest confidante, Alfred (Michael Gough). So how does a billionaire cope with watching the murder of his parents? He becomes a mask-wearing vigilante with a wide assortment of gadgets hidden in a cave full of bats beneath his house, that's what he does.
Now that that's out of the way, let's set up our villain du jour, shall we? Near the beginning of the movie, we're introduced to mob enforcer Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). With the help of a connection within the Gotham police department, boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) sends Jack to oversee a robbery at the Axis chemical factory outside of town. Unfortunately for Jack, it was all a setup, and the place is soon swarming with cops. Batman arrives as well, and after a firefight that sees our caped crusader take out all of Jack's thugs, it comes down to Jack and Batman dueling on a catwalk. Jack accidentally catches a ricocheting bullet with his face and falls off the catwalk, but Batman catches him by the wrist. But when the caped crusader loses his grip, he drops Jack into a giant vat of chemicals that end up washing him out into the sewer. Thanks to a combination of the gunshot to the face, the chemicals, and some botched reconstructive surgery, Jack is left with snow-white skin, green hair, and a permanent Cheshire Cat smile. Rechristening himself "The Joker," he kills Grissom and claims leadership of Gotham's mob family. The Joker declares war on Batman while preparing to kill everyone in Gotham City with an industrial toxin called Smylex.
Tim Burton redefined what people thought about Batman and superhero movies in general with this movie. Before Batman '89, casual fans had images of Adam West's campy television show stuck in their heads. With this movie, new fans were made (such as myself) and old fans were brought back into the fold. The movie is a little rough around the edges, sure, but it's definitely a fun ride. Visually, the movie looks astounding. Combined with the cinematography of Roger Pratt and set design of Anton Furst (who deliberately mixed clashing architectural styles to make Gotham City the ugliest and bleakest metropolis possible), Burton's knack for gloomy storytelling shines. The movie looks like what would happen if Blade Runner had been about Batman. The script by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren provides several classic lines and moments, but outside of those (of which there are quite a few), everything between the great moments and visuals are forgettable. However, I did enjoy how Hamm and Skaaren tied cards into the Joker character. We learn that the pre-Joker Jack Napier keeps a deck of poker cards with him for good luck, and after his first encounter with Batman, he changes from a Jack to a Joker. I never caught that before writing this review, but I thought it was neat. The orchestral score by Danny Elfman is beyond wonderful, very befitting of a superhero movie and the theme created for the movie reprising itself at all the right moments. On the other side of the soundtrack, the songs performed by Prince work well within the movie, but with the exception of one, none of them are very good. Prince is usually great, but you'd be better off just downloading an MP3 of "Partyman" from your favorite file-sharing program and forgetting the rest of the soundtrack exists. I actually own a copy of Prince's soundtrack, so you can trust me on this one.
The acting is give or take, depending on who we're talking about. He got a lot of crap from the diehard Batman fans before the movie was released, but I think Michael Keaton did a great job. You wouldn't think the star of Beetlejuice and Mr. Mom would make a good Batman, but he's aces here. Jack Nicholson is the highlight of the cast, with his wonderfully fun portrayal of the "King of Knaves" from Batman's rogues gallery. He crosses Cesar Romero's Joker from the TV show with a touch of the psychopathic Joker from the comic books, and I couldn't ask for better. And with as much time as they spent on Joker, I guess it makes sense that Jack Nicholson would receive top billing in the credits. Honestly, it seems like Joker is the focus of almost more scenes than the title character himself. Kim Basinger is forgettable and empty as the perpetual damsel in distress and would-be Bat-girlfriend, and I absolutely hated everything about the Alexander Knox character. It's no fault of Robert Wuhl's, but Knox was such an annoying character that I just wanted Joker to kill him and be done with it. Perhaps the most underrated members of the cast are Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, and Pat Hingle. All three turn in great performances, making their minor characters seem that much more important. If only Billy Dee Williams was brought back for Batman Forever...
In all honesty, I don't read comics, so I can't compare this Batman to the source material. However, Burton's Batman is definitely more serious than Adam West's Batman. And no matter what any critic says, it stands as one of the definitive superhero movies and introduced Batman to people that might never have given him a second thought. Batman is one of the most recognized superheroes ever (arguably number two on the list, behind Superman), and it's my opinion that this movie reinforced that status. Four and a half stars.
Final Rating: ****½