Review: Batman (1989)

Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger star in Tim Burton's 1989 classic Batman

Batman, a film that gave rise to a more darker telling of the caped crusader’s exploits. Infamous for Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker the movie was a huge box office hit.

Tim Burton had his work cut out in the 1980’s when he was given the duty of re-visualising a flagging franchise. Haunted by the camp exploits of the 1960’s Adam West series, Batman was an out of date superhero. Bolstered by the success of Superman, studio execs saw the promise the caped crusader held. At the time Burton himself had only two feature credits to his name, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice – not exactly the sort of films you’d expect a director who was tasked with rejuvenating the Batman franchise to have commandeered. Add the outcry that was heard when Michael Keaton was cast as the Dark Knight and you had yourself the potential for a huge flop.

Thanks largely to Frank Miller‘s comic book Year One, audiences were more than ready for a new take on the Batman legend. Here we are given no backstory, instead we’re plunged straight into the action, with Batman fighting crime on the streets of Gotham. His identity, for much of the beginning of the film, is shrouded in mystery, a mystery that fascinates reporter Vicki Vale (Basinger).

At the same time we’re introduced to Jack Napier (Nicholson), a man adept at double-crossing and cheating his way to the top. When an operation goes haywire, Napier finds himself face-to-face with Batman himself – an encounter that sends him into the depths of a mysterious vat that horribly disfigures him… his true tendencies are given full reign and he begins to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting Gotham with flourishes of insanity.

All the usual Batman tropes are in attendance here; the crooked cops, the dingy alleyways, the mean and miserable criminals – but this was one of the first times the franchise was allowed to fully harness its darkness. Although it retains some of the cheese from Batman’s 1960’s outings , the peril here is more palpable than ever before. Nicholson’s stint as the Joker is menacing in its gaudy vibrancy and the danger he poses is a very real one, threatening as he does to contaminate Gotham via poisoned sundries.

The film steps away from comic book legend insomuch as it suggests that the Joker is directly responsible for the evolution of Batman, having killed his parents in front of him. Tying the two so closely is a strange but ultimately interesting move as the two face destruction in each other – although the decision angered many fans. Burton described the film’s central rivalry as a ‘duel of the freaks’, as both Batman and the Joker are deeply disturbed.

Although some of the special effects used in the film have dated rather badly (the Batmobile’s shield system being one of them), the sheer immensity of the retooling is still very much awe-inspiring. The pumping tunes of Prince’s soundtrack for the film intrude on the scenes in which they appear but, overall the film is a riotous trip into the heart of Gotham. Not everything is explained, but, when you’re Batman, you can just about get away with it.

Best line: ‘This town needs an enema.’

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