Before 1989, unless you were an avid comic book reader, you probably viewed Batman as a clownish superhero, trading punches and quips with bad guys with his youthful assistant Robin faithfully at his side. He was campy, a bit dull, and never dangerous. That is, until the summer of 1989, when Tim Burton arrived to changed all that.
“Batman” begins with a mysterious vigilante terrorizing Gotham City’s legion of criminals. One of those criminals is Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), the right hand man of crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). A fateful encounter between Napier and Batman at the Axis Chemical Plant leads to Napier taking a dunk in toxic waste. He re-emerges as the demented Joker, intent on ruling Gotham and killing most of the people in it. Batman must use all his talent, as well as an impressive array of weaponry, to stop an enemy with a very personal connection to him.
The script by Samm Hamm and Warren Skaaren (along with uncredited writers Tom Mankienwicz and Charles Mckeon) wisely presents Batman as a fait accompli, with his origins and motivations revealed as the story progresses. This allows us to see Batman in action right away, instead of having to wade through a tedious background story at the movie’s opening. The story itself is larger than life, but ultimately collapses under its own grandiosity in the final act. Although “Batman” put the luster back on the Bat symbol and gives us an entertaining film, it is frequently nonsensical in execution.
Michael Keaton (“Multiplicity”) truly embodies the part of Batman, a troubled and disturbed individual full of unresolved psychological issues and guilt. Looking thin and intense, it’s easy to imagine he’d need to put on a suit of body armor in order to transform himself into a more powerful entity. The only problem is that in order to play Bruce Wayne/Batman realistically, Keaton must understate his performance. Because of that, Jack Nicholson’s Joker steals almost every scene with sheer flamboyancy. The Joker is a wild ball of attention-getting energy, and tends to overshadow “Batman’s” titular character. Having the villain of the film be more charismatic than the hero is a problem; audiences should root for the hero, not look forward to seeing his nemesis.
The rest of “Batman’s” cast is uneven. Michael Gough is terrific as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s father figure and loyal butler. He gives a dignified performance that is occasionally, but gently, sarcastic. Robert Wuhl (“Good Morning Vietnam”) is fairly good as the reporter tenaciously tracking the Batman, even though everyone laughs at him. He projects a resolve to succeed despite all the obstacles placed in front of him. Tracey Walter, as Joker’s right hand man is also well played. Loyal as a dog, he pays the ultimate price for his devotion.
However, as Harvey Dent, Billy Dee Williams (“The Empire Strikes Back”) has little to do. He appears in a few scenes, has no real impact on events, and seems like he’s waiting to film another “Colt 45” ad. Pat Hingle doesn’t fare any better. A veteran actor, his turn as Commissioner Gordon gives him little to do but bluster and watch events unfold from the sidelines. Jack Palance’s role as crime boss Carl Grissom is brief, and never really gives him a chance to showcase his talents. He appears in a few scenes, is killed by the Joker, and that’s it.
The set design by Anton Furst is breathtaking, transforming Gotham into a dark urban nightmare. The musical score by Danny Elfman is amazing, a sweeping orchestral sound that lifts the film to new heights. But why did they allow Prince anywhere near this movie? His pop songs are gaudy and stupid, and are hardly appropriate for a dark film like “Batman”. They simply seem out of place and were obviously put in just to sell soundtracks.
Tim Burton’s direction is top notch as usual, giving us some stunning visuals as well as a few slow spots. Watching “Batman”, you can’t help but feel that studio executives must have reined in Burton’s concepts in order to lighten the tone, probably afraid that a dark film wouldn’t play well at multiplexes. Nevertheless, “Batman” raised the bar for comic book films, as well as returning the character to his dark roots. It’s an entertaining film, fun to watch but a bit flawed. Fans would have to wait three years for Burton’s true vision of the Dark Knight, which remains the best Batman so far.
Tim Burton (director) / Warren Skaaren (screenplay)
CAST: Michael Keaton …. Batman/Bruce Wayne
Jack Nicholson …. The Joker/Jack Napier
Kim Basinger …. Vicki Vale
Robert Wuhl …. Alexander Knox