Release Date: June 23rd, 1989 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Tim Burton Actors: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Palance, Michael Gough, Jerry Hall
ccasionally laughable but mostly tinged with a morbid darkness as only Tim Burton can supply, 1989’s “Batman” is a groundbreaking comic book adaptation. While the later films steadily got so hokey that the franchise required complete redefining (starting with “Batman Begins” in 2005 by director Christopher Nolan), this original theatrical venture retains most of the appeal of the inimitable hero and a standout performance by Jack Nicholson, who some say can’t be bested as the most famous Batman villain, The Joker. It’s certainly more cinematic than the Adam West interpretations.
An uncanny, black-cloaked flying man intercepts criminals during their getaways – a seemingly righteous act – but is being stalked by the local press of Gotham City, intent on revealing the identity of the “Batman.” On the job is award-winning photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) and comic relief reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), who attempt to get closer to the mystery by investigating wealthy recluse Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton). Just as soon as their investigation is underway, criminal Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is set up by his double-crossing boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) and is caught in a deadly crossfire with a crooked cop and the avenging Batman.
Thrown into a vat of chemical waste, Napier emerges a changed man – one with a newfound penchant for terror and a maniacally wicked laugh. Dubbed the “Joker,” he contaminates household supplies with toxic chemicals and plans to overtake Gotham City with chaos – and his unruly gang of mime gangsters. But Batman stands firmly in the way of such dastardly evildoers, and an explosive showdown on the blackened streets of the panic-ridden city becomes inevitable.
Batman the “Dark Knight” is brought to vivid life, despite a curious lack of backstory. While many initial entries of potential series define the origins of the character, Tim Burton’s attempt at the live-action superhero assumes that the audience already knows something about the caped crusader. An iconic figure with a huge fan base, this rushed plunge into the alien world of Gotham City may be too much for those not familiar with the renowned comic book series. Nevertheless, vigilantism in an unruly town is nothing new for action fans and always a solid source of excitement.
Beautifully macabre set designs help bring out Gotham City’s appeal, along with the colorful array of illicit characters. Dark and foreboding, the locales house the likes of the Joker, adorned with brightly colored suits and creepily gaudy makeup, and his band of clown-like pantomimists, who tote machineguns and lay waste to crowds of civilians. The Joker’s vivid makeup mirrors the artwork from the graphic novels, but utilizes scar tissue structuring that borders on nonsensical.
Some of the gangster’s stunts are a little overboard on comedy, especially when the Joker has a henchman carry around a jukebox so that he has an ever-present theme song following him about. The pulsing soundtrack by Prince also doesn’t help the severer tone Tim Burton orchestrated for his ghoulish production, though the museum destruction montage could be considered fittingly off-putting (the murderer dubs himself a homicidal artist). The majority of the film has the appropriately dark touch expected from the awe-inspiring Batman, but enough goofy scenes permeate the atmosphere that they ultimately counter the seriousness.
Decent scenes of action, including chases in the Batmobile and Batplane help to enliven the dull spots, and it’s always a thrill to see Batman make use of his many high-tech gadgets to thwart enemies. With an exciting showdown in a towering, rickety cathedral, intriguing characters, inventive art direction (which earned it an Academy Award), and the superb Jack Nicholson, “Batman” set the groundwork for one of the most successful franchises in motion picture history. The following three movies suffered a similarly lucrative yet much less acclaimed fate.
– Mike Massie