Jun 6, 2015

Review: Batman (1989)


There were a lot of questions regarding Batman before it came out in the summer of 1989. A lot. It was Tim Burton's first true blockbuster film after finding success with smaller films like Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice and who could really say if he was the right guy for the job? That was nothing compared to the uproar over the casting of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman though. Apparently 50,000 letters were sent to the offices of Warner Brothers to get them to cast an actor who could actually tackle a non-comedic role. Talk about trial by fire for that poor mail room intern.

It kind of reminds me of the response to when Heath Ledger was cast as the Joker actually for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. People mouthed off over social media instead of sending letters, but the result was the same. People were pleasantly surprised at just how well Michael Keaton performed as Batman, just as people's minds were blown when they got a whiff of Ledger's Joker. I try to take a wait and see approach when it comes to casting choices these days because of all this and I think most people should too. Doesn't really matter what I say though, just look at the response to Ben Affleck as Batman...

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At a Glance


Genre: action, adventure
Directed by: Tim Burton
Produced by: Peter Guber, Jon Peters, Benjamin Melniker, etc.
Written by: Sam Hamm, Warren Skaaren
Music by: Danny Elfman
Running time: 126 minutes
Production company: Warner Bros., The Guber-Peters Company, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment
Distributed by: Warner Bros., Warner Bros. Entertainment, Falcon, etc.
Country: United States, United Kingdom
Language: English, French
Budget: $35,000,000
Box office: $411,348,924 (Worldwide)

IMDb entry
Rotten Tomatoes entry

Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance, Jerry Hall, Tracey Walter, Lee Wallace, William Hootkins, Richard Strange, Carl Chase

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Synopsis


Crime in Gotham City is at an all-time high. District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) and Police Commissioner James Gordon (Pat Hingle) do what they can, but the planned festivities for the 200th anniversary of the city are in doubt. Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) is one of the biggest players in Gotham City's criminal underworld and he sends underling Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) to take care of a job at Axis Chemicals. Gordon eventually finds out an intends to bring Napier in. Unbeknownst to everyone involved, Batman (Michael Keaton) is planning to make a little appearance as well.


Review


What you notice first about Batman is just how rich of a production it is. The establishing shots of Gotham City and other important landmarks give a really interesting flavour that is all Tim Burton in the best possible way. Buildings are imposing and seem to take up more room than they need to which gives this really claustrophobic and controlling atmosphere. Combined with some pretty dark story elements and you've got yourself a unique superhero movie.

Seriously though, the use of shadow, dimly lit locations and Tim Burton's somber score makes Batman quite the sinister-looking movie. Without that though, there's no doubt that the off-the-walls performance of Jack Nicholson would've gone into corny territory. I think it still does with all the one-liners and ridiculous dancing scenes (which I love I might add), but I'm definitely a fan of how the Joker is painted as a complete psycho who considers himself an artist with a taste for homicide. It's definitely an interesting take.

I think most people can agree that Jack Nicholson's Joker actually overshadows Michael Keaton as Batman. That's not to say that Keaton doesn't do a good job though. He does and I personally like his version of Bruce Wayne. He's a more modest kind of Wayne who doesn't hide behind a mask of snobbery, laziness or wealth like he's done in past or future Batman movies. He's himself. Except for the fact that he hides his dark past of course which of course is why he spends his nights dressed up as a bat, fighting crime. Point is, there's something about Keaton's Wayne that's pleasing.

When it comes to the action sequences though, this is where Batman begins to show its age. Fights usually begin with Batman floating into the frame and he always seems to have some kind of gadget to help him out. These scenes which feature all manner of ridiculous henchmen are definitely a little cheesy and the editing is clearly done in a way to give the illusion that Michael Keaton is some kind of fighting force. Overall we're pretty far away from the Batman of the 1940's, but generally I wouldn't say we're worlds away from the Batman of the 1960's either.

Still, from an action standpoint, Batman is no disaster. There's quite a bit of fun to be had in these sequences and what's not to like about that Batmobile? There's a particularly cool sequence involving Batman breaking into Axis Chemicals with the Batmobile that always catches my eye. It's wildly ridiculous but it brings a smile to my face every time I see it.


The strength of Batman is not in its action sequences. For this Tim Burton production, it's all about atmosphere, atmosphere and atmosphere. The Gotham of Batman feels like its own world. This is no real American city stand-in like we've seen in other Batman movies. Gotham is a living, breathing entity that is sick to the core with crime. Nicholson's Joker is one of the highlights of this film and Michael Keaton does a great job at proving all the doubters at the time wrong. While there are some pretty questionable story elements that play around with traditional Batman lore, Batman is a blast.

Rating

7/10

Related Reviews:

Batman (1943)
Batman and Robin (1949)
Batman: The Movie (1966) 
Batman Returns (1992)