In the lead up to the debut of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I’m reviewing every single Batman film. Check out more Batman-related content in my Dark Knight Discussion column.
After decades of being one of the most popular superheroes in comics, Batman returned to the big screen in 1989 with director Tim Burton’s Batman. With a focus on far darker storytelling and a far bigger budget than ever seen for a comic book film before, Batman became a worldwide sensation at the box office. Decades later, the film has been outshined by many of The Dark Knight’s later films and its heightened gothic sensibilities may seem strange to those used to a more grounded take on the character, but Batman is still an irreplaceable entry into the character’s canon, warts and all.
Burton’s vision for a darker Batman tale is evident from the opening second of Batman, with composer Danny Elfman’s iconic theme playing over a slow and deliberate journey through dark caverns and tunnels, which is eventually revealed to be a giant stone version of the Batman symbol. The lack of an actual title, the methodical pacing, and the gothic trappings of it all lend an artistic flair to the opening that sets a certain precedent for the following film, even if some strange breaks from that tone throughout the movie hurt the overall flow.
From the get go, we are introduced to Gotham City, where Batman (Michael Keaton) is still relatively new and is seen by most as an urban legend while he hunts down criminals. Meanwhile, mobster Jack Napier is turned into The Joker (Jack Nicholson) during a shootout and reporter Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) looks to uncover the mystery of the dark vigilante.
Tim Burton’s style of directing is unmistakable in most of his works and Batman is no exception. Eschewing realism for a much more heightened world, Batman exists in a place outside of time where the ‘40s never quite died yet still somewhat blended into the ‘80s, which informs the look and feel of many aspects, such as the fedora-heavy fashion and pop-laden songs. Burton’s dedication to the use of heavily stylized sets is both a strength and weakness of the film, as it maintains a strong visual aesthetic but also feels incredibly fake at times. While it certainly creates a world where the outlandish Joker and the armored Batman are more believable, it also means that a certain artificiality prevents most events from feeling truly emotional and immediate.
Beyond that, there are some undoubtedly strange choices made concerning the narrative of Batman. These include making a young Joker the killer of Wayne’s parents, making Bruce Wayne’s tragic backstory a mystery to most Gotham residents, having Batman somewhat enjoy murdering criminals, and having loyal butler Alfred bring Vicki Vale into the Batcave. As a whole, the narrative is janky. Disjointed and lacking any strong emotions, it all feels slapped together and reliant on the characters of Batman and Joker making it worthwhile.
However, there are some fantastic setpieces that balance out the bad. Batman’s introduction, the Ace Chemicals heist, The Joker’s post-surgery breakdown, and the battle on top of the belltower all hit the note just right. Not only that, but any moody moments with the characters make a lasting impression. Whether that’s a shot of Batman moving out of the shadows, the Batmobile racing through a leaf-covered street, or the final shot of the Bat Signal lighting up, they all embody the comic book page on the big screen. It’s just that the film as a whole consistently breaks down.
While there’s no denying that Batman is steeped in a fashion and visual style that is very much of its time, there’s a certain timeless quality thanks to Burton’s gothic aesthetic. Everything from the architecture to the lighting to the mood is steeped in a gothic feeling, which clearly works with the dark nature of its main character. While stiff in movement, the heavy Batman costume is truly iconic, as is the Anton Furst-designed Batmobile, which has never been surpassed by a live action version of the vehicle since. All smooth curvy lines and aggressive posturing, this Batmobile is absolutely magnificent. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the inclusion of Prince’s music, which clashes with so much of the film as to destroy any sense of immersion held by the audience. Specifically, “Party Man” during Joker’s museum vandalism may be the musical lowlight of the film and feels apropos to be described as cringe worthy. While Prince has made plenty of outstanding music in his time, it simply doesn’t work in the slightest here and only worsens with age.
On the other end of the musical spectrum is composer Danny Elfman’s score, which still works wonders today. His main Batman theme is legendary, with its dark and brooding nature crescendoing to a mysterious sense of adventure. All these years later and it has cemented itself as one of the all-time great movie themes. Beyond the main theme, Elfman does impeccable work with the score as a whole, which employs a heavy uses of brass and strings to create a classical score that is heavy on mood and mystery. Other standout tracks include “Descent into Mystery,” “Charge of the Batmobile,” and “Attack of the Batwing,” all of which elevate the film in their respective scenes.
But the film lives and dies on the performances of its leads. As Batman, Keaton is clearly an odd choice due to his leaner physique and unique looks. His Bruce Wayne is most certainly a man who is removed from the ordinary world, with the character being more of a recluse and odd man out instead of billionaire playboy. That’s a smart choice for Keaton, who would be less convincing in a playboy role and not surprising for a Burton-directed film, as the director has always focused on oddities rather than dashing heroes. Keaton is also quite convincing behind the cowl, as the leathery armored Batsuit bulks him up into a man of action while his deep whisper of a voice adds gravitas and mystery.
Of course, that same Batsuit is both a blessing and a curse for Batman and the many Dark Knight films to follow. It’s thick rubber makeup helps cut an imposing figure for the hero, but it also restricts its actor to such a degree as to be comically obvious. That restriction also limits the amount of action possible, leading to some overly staged fights and an added degree of silliness to most action setpieces.
As an antithesis to the restraint placed on Keaton’s Batman stands Nicholson’s Joker, who embodies a wild, scenery-chewing sense of acting that is perfect for the character. Once his mobster takes a dip into a vat of acid that bleaches his skin white and turns his hair green, all restraints are taken off the performance. It’s no wonder that Nicholson was given top billing for Batman even though he portrays the villain, he’s not just the film’s biggest star, he’s its biggest asset. He consistently injects energy into the character that is both faithful to his comic book persona while still making it something new. And while he may be outlandish in every scene, that’s the point. “This town needs an enema,” “Where does he get all those wonderful toys,” and “You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight,” are all standout lines owed by The Joker, with Nicholson’s delivery elevating them from great to classic. So long as he’s not accompanied by Prince music, Nicholson works wonders. In addition, any scene with Keaton’s Batman is fantastic for both of them.
In the light of blockbuster filmmaking that has become bigger, brasher, and more expensive in the time since, Batman has felt smaller and smaller, even though it was the epitome of a summer action tent pole movie when it debuted. While it’s likely that the strongest aspects of Batman will continue to live on in the memories of fans of the character and Batman’s cinematic legacy, they are often best remember in pieces. Their existence in an uneven narrative such as this helps strengthen Batman as a whole, but they can be taken without the weakness surrounding them.
Best Batman Moment: The introduction of The Dark Knight himself. Silently descended with cape outstretched behind a couple of crooks, Batman scares the hell out of his target, especially when he shrugs off multiple bullets to the chest. After making quick work of them, he holds one off the side of a building and introduces himself with the simple yet unforgettable, “I’m Batman.” That scene alone does more for the character than the entire film and still works well on its own years later.
When They Got Batman Wrong: The decision to tie The Joker into the origins of Batman as the man who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents may give Batman more narrative cohesion, but it’s a major misreading of the character’s origins. Having the two so closely tied weakens the mystery of The Joker and also gives Batman a chance to avenge his mother and father, whereas his inability to ever completely do so in the comics gives him a more obsessive motivation. His parents’ deaths can never be fully avenged, so the lack of closure drives Batman to prevent such a thing from ever happening to someone else.
Comic Book Inspiration: While Batman comic books had been slowly growing darker throughout the ‘80s, it’s clear that Frank Miller’s run on the character with his seminal The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One is the greatest influence on the film version found here. While no plot points are taken from them in the film, the incredibly dark aesthetic is the result of these comics. Mix that with Burton’s gothic bent and you have the tone of Batman.
Fun Fact: Warner Bros’ worked on a feature film adaptation of Batman for years before Burton’s film was finally made. Prior to this iteration, the film went through various forms that included a story involving Robin and a version where the studio’s top choice for Batman was Bill Murray.