If you were around in 1989 you could not have missed the release of Batman. A movie which basically redefined the term box-office success and for a short period made us believe that superhero movies would become the next big thing. But aside from the sequels it wouldn’t be until X-Men before the flood of good to great superhero movies was going to be released upon us. Up until then we got atrocities like Captain America, The Shadow, The Phantom and what not. The only remotely enjoyable comic book movies were Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer. But back to 1989, where I was an 11 year old boy who went to the cinema for the very first time to watch a dark re-envisioning of a comic book character whose only live-action version known to me was Adam West’s portrayal.
Batman starts off with a couple and their kid being mugged. While counting their loot, the two robbers talk about the rumors about a giant bat taking down criminals not noticing someone or something is slowly approaching them. It’s him. He is of course Batman (Michael Keaton), a costumed vigilante who took up the mantle to save his city from the crime spree it endures, one mugger at a time. There isn’t much back-story given to him other than that his parents were killed in front of his eyes. How he got the costume or all of his wonderful toys remains as much a mystery to us as Batman himself to the citizens of Gotham City.
A movie is only as good as its villain and in Batman that villain is the Joker (Jack Nicholson). When we meet him he’s named Jack Napier and working for Gotham’s #1 crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). He’s also banging Grissom’s young girlfriend Alicia (Jerry Hall) without Grissom’s knowledge, or so he thinks. Grissom sets him up for the cops in a chemical plant he owns, but things go south as Batman shows up and Napier falls down into a vat of chemicals. Presumed dead he resurfaces soon afterwards with a bleached skin and permanent grin on his face. Dubbing himself the Joker he kills Grissom, takes his place in the crime syndicate and starts to wage war on Gotham City for no good reason. Then again he’s supposed to be a psychopath, so much for reason.
Oh and he becomes a self-proclaimed artist.
If there’s one thing you can say about Batman it’s that they have made it as different as they could from the TV-series. This is a dark and moody movie, where there’s little room for laughs, a lot of people die and Gotham lives up to its name with its gothic look. There is no Robin, no aunt Harriet and certainly no funny quips from Batman, who is played by a guy known primarily for his comedic roles at the time: Michael Keaton. The only thing bearing any resemblance to the old TV show is the portrayal of Jack Nicholson’s joker. At times his performance really has a lot in common with that of Cesar Romero, who played the Joker in the 60’s. Nicholson’s performance is over the top, chewing his way through the scenery every chance he gets. It worked at the time but in hindsight, now with the Nolan films out there and Heath Ledger’s memorable performance, it’s kind of a weak link in the movie. He’s supposed to be this ruthless killer, yet he equips himself with joke toys like fake teeth and a pistol with a “bang flag” in it. It might work in the comics and in a movie with a more lighter tone, but here it never seems to suit this movie.
When I was 11 this movie was a dream come true and blew me away, and most of it holds up pretty well actually. But watching it 26 years later I do have a couple of remarks about the film, most notably the plot which is entirely nonsensical. When you boil it down the movie is actually about to psychopaths fighting over a girl. All of the 90’s Batman movies have far fetched plots which don’t make any sense, but this one is generally pointed out to be the best one. While it’s way better than Batman Forever let alone Batman & Robin, the script seems to have been written on a slice of Swiss cheese. The movie is full of strange scenes that hardly make sense, like:
- Bruce and Vicky meet at a fundraiser at his mansion, when they have dinner together a couple of scenes later at the same location the first thing he asks her is if she’s had any trouble finding the place. Dude, she was there just yesterday.
- First the Joker terrorizes Gotham City by trying to poison them with Smilex, then announces that he’s going to have a parade and give away 20 million dollars. So half the city comes out, apparently forgetting his earlier deeds, the police don’t even try to arrest him and wouldn’t you know it: he tries to poison them again. Seriously, those people deserved to die.
- What’s the use of killing all those innocent people? You’re a gangster, you make money off them.
- There was absolutely no point in Bruce interfering when the Joker is threatening Vicky in her home and he’s in the room next door. What was his plan? Get shot, then magically disappear? You’re supposed to be this inventive crime fighter and this is your best idea?
Aside from the plot and the quirky goofs there still is a lot of good stuff here. The whole movie really has a unique atmosphere and one might wonder if the sun ever shines in Gotham City. Even though we never get any explanation as to how Bruce got his hands on a Batwing, there are a some cool gimmicks here. The Batmobile featured is one of the coolest to grace the silver screen. In fact, it looks much sleeker than The Tumbler and has more class than the neon-lit atrocities from the later movies. At one point the Joker painstakingly asks “where does he get those wonderful toys”. He’s right, due to the limitations of the costume, the fight scenes come off as somewhat stiff, but Batman here is all about his toys. Whether is something small like a Batarang or large like the Batwing.
There’s also the iconic soundtrack by Danny Elfman and the signature theme is probably his most memorable composition as it was also featured in the second movie as well as the during the opening credits of the animated TV series. A show that wouldn’t exist, or not as darkly designed, if it wasn’t for this movie.
Batman might not be the everlasting classic movie I imagined it to be, but it still holds up pretty well. It’s enjoyable, but flawed. While the plot might not make much sense it’s still much better then when Joel Schumacher got his hands on the franchise.