Vault: 'Batman' (1989) Dir. Tim Burton
Updated: Aug 31, 2020
The second big-screen adaptation of DC's Dark Knight helped launch the superhero genre, and the Bat himself, as a big, summer blockbuster event...
Gotham City reporters Alexander Knox (Wuhl) and VickiVale (Basinger) seek out any information they can from Gotham Police Commissioner Gordon (Hingle) about these reports of a vigilante known as 'The Bat Man'.
Crime boss Jack Napier (Nicholson) leads a raid on chemical plant, but Batman (Keaton) and the police arrive, and the confrontation ends with Napier falling into a vat of chemicals leaving him horribly disfigured and psychotic; re-inventing himself as new criminal mastermind The Joker.
As Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne dates Vicki, the two become swept up in the Joker's plan to destroy Gotham with a toxic gas called ‘Smilex’. Only Batman can stop Joker and his men before the city is taken apart...
The first major feature film for the Dark Knight (removed from the 60s Adam West adaptation) was to introduce audiences to the real Batman; dark, broody, exciting and dangerous. Director Tim Burton managed to deliver on all points mixed with his trademark blend of gothic surrealism and black comedy. The push for DC to launch the marketing campaign to really spread Bat-mania around the world was kick started by this major blockbuster and was the foundation for home media, music soundtracks, toys, clothes and games. It was almost the ‘Star Wars’ of the 80s in terms of marketing a franchise.
Michael Keaton embodies an everyday quality to his Bruce Wayne. He’s not overly tormented and broken like modern interpretations now portray him, but keeps his grief and reservations inside. He uses them as a weapon in his role as Batman to become a dark, silent avenger of justice and the balance is perfect because of this. He also splits both “characters” perfectly, much like Christopher Reeve did with his Clark Kent / Superman role.
Keaton certainly proved to doubters he could convey Batman as a dark and dangerous crime fighter with an imposing presence in the suit and his raspy voice without being over-the-top.
The supporting cast are equally enjoyable in their roles, never coming across as hammy or mis-cast. Basinger, Wuhl, Palance and Hingle play the clear lines of good and bad and are strong actors themselves to bring their characters to life to either oppose or work with Batman in their own way.
It’s Jack Nicholson however whom Burton clearly focuses on as the Joker, bringing an eccentric, psychotic and deadly essence to the character who has a clear trait as a manic criminal. Nicholson has a devilish glint in his eye at all times and he acts the fool perfectly, but never leaves doubt that he kills for pleasure and is 100% dangerous. With brilliant one-liners and a nightmarish quality to his visual look with the emerald hair and ruby lips, our Joker is certainly more humane in some aspects as we get to see his origins, but he certainly becomes a monster whom you can’t help enjoy watching thanks to Nicholson’s eccentric performance.
Looking far more like a film noir comic than most other super-hero films, it is almost a timeless film that could be set in the 50s or modern day thanks to Burtons’ visual style like trilbies and trenchcoats for the majority of the male cast and smoke rising from the man-holes between tall, dark and industrial looking skyscrapers. It’s a Gotham City you can’t really place in time or match to any other location. It’s a character in itself to capture the action in, and looks very good because of it that is always present, always there and never forgotten.
Danny Elfman creates a score that not only captures the film-noir genre and crime-fighting superhero thrills with balance, but has an unmistakable triumph and bravado to it. So much so, it became the theme for 'Batman: The Animated Series' in the 90s.
With effective use of miniatures and models for the action sequences involving lots of fan favourites such as the Batmobile and Batwing, Burton ensures we get as much action from the Dark Knight as we can as well as a decent narrative exploring human tragedy and redemption in the comic-book world. The set design is very faithful to the comics as well is the costume and make-up for our hero and villain with Batman staying dark and broody and the Joker a camp and deadly adversary.
While the film can stray a little in terms of fluidity, it doesn’t take long to get back on track with a bang and continue the excitement. It actually plays out at times more like a detective thriller, which essentially is what Batman should be seen as; a detective working in the shadows rather than an invincible super-hero.
'Batman' is a fun and very visually pleasing as a comic-book adaptation, introducing Batman to old and new fans and ensuring that Keaton is the man to hold up in Burton’s dark, sinister world.
'Batman' is a Warner Bros. Pictures production