Another milestone anniversary this week is the 25th for Batman, released on June 23, 1989. I distinctly remember seeing it on opening day, and then had to see it a few days later. I wouldn’t call it a great film, but it captured my imagination. Today it is significant as a touchstone in the way movies are marketed and how summer blockbusters have dominated the business.
I was interested to read that Tim Burton was hired to direct this based only on his first feature, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and the film was only greenlit after the success of Beetlejuice. It’s hard to remember when Burton was a gamble, as was the whole idea of a comic book film. Other than the Superman films, Hollywood was still innocent in basing its entire economy on sequels, superheroes, and reboots.
After so many iterations of Batman, it is also to be remembered that before this film, the Batman fresh in everyone’s mind was the camp TV series of the 1960s. To take it dark, as this film did, although still with comic dialogue, was something of a risk.
I love the look of the film, with Oscar-winning art direction by Anton Furst and Peter Young, and the whole Grand Guignol style Burton brings to it. Theoretically set in the present day, what with batplanes and batmobiles, it seems timeless, given the German Expressionist architecture and pre-war look of the cars.
What bothered me was the seeming lack of plot. To briefly summarize, a vigilante is striking terror in the hearts of the criminal underworld of Gotham City. He is Batman, secret identity of Bruce Wayne, and, as almost everyone in the Western world now knows, the lone survivor of a mugging that killed his parents and set him on a path to justice.
Meanwhile, a gangland boss (Jack Palance) sends his “number one guy” (Jack Nicholson) to destroy records at a front company, a concern called Axis chemicals. Palance knows that Nicholson is sleeping with his girl (Jerri Hall) and sets him up, and both the police and Batman arrive. Nicholson ends up falling into a vat of chemicals, turning his skin white, his hair green, and his face in a permanent smile. He calls himself the Joker.
Nicholson takes over the criminal enterprise and wreaks havoc, but without much forethought. There’s some business about poisoning toiletries, vandalizing paintings in the museum, and then releasing poison gas at a festival via large character balloons. It’s hard to fathom what his end game was. But I sort of got it this time–he’s just plumb crazy. There is no method to his madness. But there are numerous plot inconsistencies. Why, when Nicholson comes to kidnap Vicki Vale in her apartment, does he leave without her? How easy is it to rig a major museum with knockout gas? How did the Joker’s henchman get to the top of the cathedral? How inept can Commissioner Gordon be? As for the corrupt cop Eckhardt, why not just hang on a sign on him reading “Corrupt Cop?”
The film also suffers from Prince songs that aren’t needed and seem out of place. Thankfully the Wagnerian score by Danny Elfman makes up for it, it’s one of my favorite scores ever.
Despite the plot problems, I do love this film. The casting of Michael Keaton, normally a comic actor, was very controversial. He was fine, though he basically is the second lead. Burton is interested, as he should be, with the Joker, and Nicholson, allowed to run free, does wonders with the role. Nicholson only took the role with certain financial considerations, and it made him a very rich man, but he is so fun to watch. Many moments seem to be improvised, as if the camera were left running after cut was called, such as after he shoots Palance he says, “What a day.” Some other of my favorite lines of his: “Never rub another man’s rhubarb,” “Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in, where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press? This town needs an enema!” or “He stole my balloons!”
The theme of the film is the duality of man, as both men have double identities. Although Nicholson’s character was always a crook, as the Joker he becomes an artist of crime, while Keaton, interestingly, may be portrayed just as crazy. He seems very unhappy, even with his relationship with photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), which is a drag on the film (also not helping is Robert Wuhl’s comic reporter). Keaton plays Batman not as a noble do-gooder–he doesn’t hesitate to kill. It was this dark tone, following only by about twenty years the comic TV series, that gave some hesitation.
But what I’ll take away from are certain moments that are classics of their type, such as the moment when Nicholson, his back to us, sees himself in a mirror in the low-rent plastic surgeon’s office. Or the entire ending on top of the cathedral, a mixture of the epic and the lowdown (chattering teeth and a “You wouldn’t hit a man with glasses.”)
While paling in its scope with Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, Burton’s Batman still holds an important place in Hollywood history, and is still a fun film to watch (mostly because of Nicholson).