By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Billy Dee Williams, Pat Hingle, Michael Gough, Jack Palance, and Jerry Hall.
In 1989, we were eleven years removed from the comic book film genre defining piece of filmmaking known as Superman: The Movie. The third and fourth entries in that franchise didn’t necessarily keep people wanting more, and rumblings around Hollywood were that there needed to be a new film to set people outside the pages of comic books scurrying to the theater. Enter producers Jon Peters and Peter Gruber. Armed with a hefty heavy-handed script by Sam Hamm, the big time producers looked to young wunderkind director Tim Burton to bring Batman, the ‘other’ DC property, to the big screen. The result is one of the darkest (I believe I counted only three scenes that took place in daylight), haunting, and maniacal films to ever hit the big screen. In other words, Batman ’89 is the perfect mix of all Burton’s sensibilities when he is at his best.
The film starts us off with a beautiful overhead shot of Gotham City (built at famed Pinewood Studios) and we are witness to a family trying to hail a taxi in order to get home. Wait. A father, a mother, and a boy. Is it the Wayne family? No, but Burton has fun toying with our assumptions of such. In fact, with the exception of the omnipresence of our title character, the first half hour or so of Batman doesn’t feel like a comic book film at all. It has more the atmosphere of a 40s style film noir mixed with a bit of horror. Themes of backstabbing police officers, assumptions that the Batman drinks his victims’ blood, and a journeyman gangster sleeping with his protégé’s girlfriend are all explored. Given the film’s mood, I was going with it. In fact, I believe part of the power behind Batman is its almost apologetic approach to the comic book material. Burton had Jack Nicholson as his main baddie, some of the best film sets money can buy, and
an at the time hefty $40 million budget at his side, and he decided to hide the fact that it was a comic book film for as long as he could.
Of course, when you have a man in a 50 lb. Batsuit, it makes for some obvious problems in pushing the heroic comic book theme. Not the least of which is an inability to move in it. The suit in Batman, with its hardened built-in musculature, is famed for being perhaps the best looking of the entire series. And if this was a silent film or stage play, it would be perfect. But the problem Burton ran into was staging fights and action scenes with his main actor and stunt people being unable to move within its confines. Still, Burton makes the most of his predicament, and the action works for what it has to do. Plus, the director does things such as shine a light on Batman’s eyes amongst darkness and keep him surrounded by smoke to make his dark presence harbor and shadow the entire film.
This many words into my review, and I still have not mentioned our two lead stars. First, let’s talk about the one who got paid, and paid highly. People wonder why Mr. Jack Nicholson has not acted much the past decade or so and spent the majority of his time seated courtside at Lakers games. It’s because Batman’s paycheck pretty much helped afford him to. In addition to the seven-figure salary initially given in order for him to accept the role, he also got a percentage of profits from this, Batman Returns, AND Batman Forever. All of which add up to what is still thought of as the highest single actor salary in the history of Hollywood. Was he worth it? I would say within the context of Burton’s vision, the answer is yes. The man’s maniacal laugh is ostentatious, and the many nuances he adds to his character once he emerges from the toxic waste as Joker cannot be turned away from. You basically think of him as his character Jack Torrance at the end of The Shining turned up to 11. Could the film have benefitted from an actor who worked out hard, took the role seriously, and studied the character? Maybe. But make no mistake about it, Nicholson’s Joker, with his plot to destroy the over non conservative spending citizens of Gotham City, was one of the most memorable villains from this era of film.
Being twelve years old in 1989, I remember pretty vividly the fanboy outcry at the casting of comedic actor Keaton as the title character. Watching the film, there are definitely reasons to be against Keaton’s hiring in the title role of the DC character. Lots of passive hours spent sitting and looking like Rodin the Thinker is one. Another example is in the film’s beginning moments. Burton shows Batman in shadows, waiting for a family to get robbed. And THEN he attacks, not even returning the things stolen from the family that was terrorized to begin with. It is an interesting portrayal. Yet I am not going to hold this against Keaton per se. It’s the way he was written. His awkward handling of his first meeting with Vicky Vail (Basinger) at a party being held in his house is interesting in that it sets us up for how he is going to handle their relationship as a whole. Burton’s constant swinging of the guard between the two enemies makes it
almost impossible for Keaton to stand out. Still, I don’t hold that against his overall performance.
Batman is certainly a film about mood. Its balance of Cesar Romero parody and gothic symmetry makes for a thrilling experience. Oh, and did I mention it also contains one of the best and most powerful super hero scores in film history, courtesy of Oingo Boingo alum Danny Elfman? What’s also interesting about Batman is that most films’ weakness of portraying no character worth rooting for is a huge source of its strength. There is never a title card showing what year it is, making it plant its roots of a timeless tree into our subconscious. Nicholson stands out. Keaton guts it out. And Burton makes his first foray into blockbuster filmmaking arguably his best. In the end, despite the lasting laughing box near the film’s final moments, it is us the viewers who win the final battle.