Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger
Released: Aug 1989

Click here for Batman Official Trailer

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight must have dealt quite a blow to the cast and crew of the 1989 version of Batman. It has a better story, it’s more faithful to the comic books and had all the benefits of modern technology behind it. As a result, a lot of people tend, not to disregard this film, but rather regard it as being simply inferior to the TDK. Easy to do considering the many similarities, but not entirely justified.

The plot:
Gotham city is being ravaged by strange apparitions. Rumours on the streets say that a giant bat stalks the rooftops, waiting to prey on petty criminals. Vicky Vale (Basinger), while investigating this rumour, attracts the attention of Batman himself, under the guise of resident billionaire, Bruce Wayne (Keaton). Unfortunately, she also falls under the radar of psychotic criminal mastermind, The Joker (Nicholson).

At a time when the only film version of Batman was the ludicrously camp Adam West version, Tim Burton managed to make the comic book hero cool again. Like many of his earlier films, Batman is a Gothic fairytale, one that feels excluded from time and space. Gotham City doesn’t feel like it’s part of the real world at all, but rather a dreamlike metropolis that functions to music of Prince. It is insistently dark, with gargoyles and dim lighting pervading just about every shot. However, even with the bleak atmosphere, Burton also retains a sense of ‘camp’, in a way that only he can.

It works best as a standalone film, which goes to show how, with the exception of Batman Returns, the following sequels grated uncomfortably against the charm of the original. The slow discovery of Batman’s origins, despite being well-known to most, is well handled. It doesn’t go into as much detail as Nolan’s Batman Begins, but this in turn affords the character a degree of mystique, which is largely beneficial to the overall film. It makes Bruce Wayne’s quest to be the Dark Knight particularly personal, especially when it is discovered that the Joker himself is in some way linked to his past.

And it is Nicholson’s Joker that, inevitably, steals the show. To have such a colourful psychopath as the villain makes the film incredibly memorable. There are few moments in which The Joker instills a sense of dread or anxiety. However, the few that the character does have are put to great use. His introduction on the surgeons chair is distinctly unsettling, while his relationship with the character of Alicia beautifully expresses his amoral nature.  This is a side of him that is not explored enough, and it is one of the flaws of the film that tend to make people idolize TDK over Batman.

However, Nicholson’s Joker is still a ridiculously endearing character, highly enjoyable to watch the entire time he is onscreen. In one scene, Vicki Vale confronts him saying “You’re insane!”
“Funny,” the Joker replies, “I thought I was a Pisces”. He has any number of scenes that stand out, not just for Nicholson’s performance, but for Burton’s inspired direction as well. The gallery scene and his address to Gotham are all handled with distinctive creativity, but it a subtle scene in which he is examining photographs that remains a personal favourite.

Batman, in contrast, tends to come across as a little dull. He doesn’t get as much material to work with here as he does in the sequel. Bruce Wayne gets to share a romance with Vicki, but it is not until Batman Returns that the caped crusader gets to do anything other than be a hero. At least in the follow-up, Catwoman provides a bit of a nice sub-plot. Here, he simply hits things and looks intimidating.

And in that sense, you really get the feeling that Burton was trying too hard. Introductions in which Batman holds his cape above his head for effect are now simply ridiculous. And there is one blatant I-see-what-you-did-there moment in the final act, in which the Batwing is silhouetted against the full moon, to mimic the Bat signal. It works in the context of this darkly camp feature, but it is still a very cheesy moment.

Despite these complaints, the film as a whole is still an excellent watch. The action is slightly dated, but still entertaining. The set design is wonderfully surreal, the dated backdrops only adding to the charm. It is wonderful to see that neon does not feature in a single frame of this film, with Burton opting for stone and rain instead.

The supporting cast all hand in good performances. Gough is suitably composed as Alfred, while Robert Wuhl does great work with the small role of Knox. Basinger isn’t particularly memorable, but this is only partially due to her performance. The romance in the succeeding film has a tendency to widely overshadow any others.

Batman is a victim of its own legacy. Not only does it tend to get unfavorably compared to Christopher Nolan’s take on the franchise, it has also attained a bad reputation due to its connection with mediocre-to-bad sequels. Criticisms to the 1989 film are invariably made in connection to other films.

Detached from these installments, Batman remains an entertaining feature, worthy of multiple viewings. It is beautiful to look at (with the exception of some dodgy CGI), and is very strongly character driven. Batman himself might need a little work, which he receives in the follow-up, but Nicholson’s Joker more than makes up for this. A little unbalanced (the film, not the Joker), but still a worthy enough adaptation to justify an animated TV series, several Halloween costumes and children’s lunch boxes around the world.

Rating: 8/10

“Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?” – The Joker

Shamelessly Awful Facts:

  • One of the reasons that Batfans everywhere might slate this film is because it isn’t loyal to the comic books in one crucial aspect: Batman never killed anyone, yet he kills plenty of people in this version.
  • I taped this film on VHS, while someone else taped a film called Congo afterwards. Because it was written on the tape, for years I thought the film was called Batman Congo. A Batman conga would have been more hilarious.
  • Michael Keaton’s casting as Batman caused a controversy with comic book fans. An estimated 50,000 protest letters were sent to Warner Bros. studios.
  • There were many actors considered for the role of The Joker, but the two most interesting I found were Robin Williams and David Bowie.
  • This film was released on the year of Batman’s 50th birthday.
  • The note that comes with the gas mask in the Gallery scene is actually Tim Burton’s own handwriting. He also has a cameo as one of The Joker’s goons in this scene.
  • Lt. Eckhart shares his name with Harvey Dent/Two Face’s (failed) surgeon in the original Detective comics, as well as the actor that portrayed Harvey Dent/Two Face in The Dark Knight.
  • In the scene in which Knox is handed the mock drawing of Batman, the sketch is signed by Bob Kane, the original creator of the Batman comic book.


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