PG Cooper: Batman (1989) Review

Posted: July 4, 2012 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in Retrospectives

*Disclaimer: Review contains SPOILERS!!!

Release date: June 23rd, 1989

Running time: 2 hours and 1 minute

Written by: Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren

Based on: The character Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger

Directed by: Tim Burton

Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Kim Basinger

In 1978, Warner Bros. released Superman, an adaptation of the popular comic character. The film was the first truly successful comic book adaptation, being a huge box-office hit and receiving solid reviews from critics. Naturally, Warner Bros. wanted to adapt DC’s other big hero, Batman. Years passed by, with different writers, actors, and directors were all considered. Until finally, in 1989, Batman hit screens. Directed by Tim Burton (who was a relative newcomer at the time) and starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, Batman was huge financial hit, and today is considered a landmark in the superhero/comic book film genre.

The plot of the film is pretty straight forward. The Joker (Jack Nicholson) is causing trouble in Gotham City and Batman (Michael Keaton) has to stop him. Despite the simplicity of the story, the plot is very engaging and there’s certainly enough meat to justify the 2 hour runtime. The story also has enough turns throughout to keep the film interesting. One of the most interesting things about the script is that it doesn’t focus on the hero the way most comic book adaptations do. For example, we do not see the origin of Batman, we only hear about it. Instead of having an in-depth analysis of the main character, the film instead shows Batman for who he is and allows the audience to do the analysing for themselves.

Before I really get into my review, I feel I should address the main complaints that a lot of Batman fans have with this film. The film breaks a lot of Batman traditions and changes things in a way that bothers a lot of fans. One of the biggest changes was the one to give The Joker a back story. In the comic books, no one knew who Joker was or where he came from. He was this inexplicable force who no one knew. Even when Alan Moore gave him an origin in “The Killing Joke”, it was still suggested that said origin may be false. But in Batman, The Joker is given a definitive back story. Another big change is that in the film, The Joker killed Bruce’s parents. In the comics, Bruce’s parents were murdered by a simple mugger named Joe Chill. Other changes include taking Commissioner Gordon, one of the most important characters in Batman mythology, and reducing him to being pretty worthless. Finally, there’s the fact that Batman kills in this interpretation. Now, that last point isn’t entirely a change since in some of the early comics, Batman did kill and even carried a gun. Even so, most fans prefer their Batman when he does not kill. Now all these changes have bothered fans and I’d be lying if I said they didn’t bother me. I do wish the film had stuck closer to the comics. I wish Gordon was a more important character in Batman and I wish they hadn’t given Joker a back story. That said, I’m not going to condemn the film for the changes they’ve made. Most of the changes the make work for the story anyway. Would I rather the film be closer to the comics? Sure, but the changes they make don’t actively make the film bad. That is to say, the changes they make work fine on a technical level, it’s my personal preference that takes issue.

For the most part, I can deal with the changes made. I don’t like them, but I can cope. There’s one however that gets to me more than the others. This change being that Batman kills. Now, there are moments where I can accept Batman killing. For instance, at the end of the film, Batman kills The Joker. I don’t really have a problem with this for three reasons. One, they were in an awkward situation and it was the only way. Two, The Joker is a serious threat that, you can argue, was too dangerous to be left alive. Third, in this incarnation, The Joker killed Bruce’s parents, and thus the situation is more personal. So that’s okay, but Batman kills others too. Like this big henchmen he fights in the church. Why did Batman kill this thug? Because it was easier than fighting him. This seems really out of character for Batman. Probably the worst example though is when Batman drives his Batmobile into a factory full of Joker’s henchmen, and then blows up the factor. The henchmen may have been working for The Joker, but were they so evil that they deserved death? Probably not. Plus Batman’s explosion takes out an entire factory. How does Batman know there aren’t innocent people being held against their will inside? The whole thing just feels too sloppy and violent for Batman. Now I did mention that the film is based on early comics when Batman killed, but that doesn’t mean I can accept it. I don’t particularly like a version where Batman kills. His no killing policy makes him feel interesting. When that’s taken away, it makes Batman feel like a more generic action hero.

Now for all that complaining I do want to point out now that I like Batman. In fact, I really like it. I’d even call it a great film. On a filmmaking level, Batman is extremely impressive. The art direction and set design for example, feels superb. Despite being shot entirely on sets, Gotham City feels like a real place. Another stellar aspect is the music by Danny Elfman. Elfman’s music is truly fantastic, and does an amazing job immersing the viewer in the film. The combination of gothic visuals and haunting music leads to the film having a palpable atmosphere. Every time I see the film, I’m amazed at how lost I get in the world. The film also features some solid visual effects (for the time) and fun set pieces sprinkled throughout.

As I said last review, one of the most important aspects of a Batman film is the Batman himself. This time, it’s Michael Keaton. Now before the film was released, fans were appalled at the casting choice. Most people knew Michael Keaton from his roles in comedies like Night Watch and Mr. Mom. Fans even started a letter campaign to recast the part. And yet when the film finally arrived, fans loved Keaton’s portrayal of the Dark Knight. Despite the doubt, Keaton delivers a great Batman. What’s interesting about his performance is the subtleties he brings to it. Keaton doesn’t say much, but through his performance we learn about Bruce and his history. I also love the subtle switches he becomes between Bruce Wayne and Batman. His Batman voice is particularly awesome. It’s a small change, but a very effective one. To this day, Keaton is considered by some fans to be the definitive Batman. While I can’t go that far (Kevin Conroy forever!), Keaton does create an outstanding Batman.

Standing opposite Michael Keaton’s Batman is Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker. Now, in the comics, Batman and Joker are the same age, where as here Joker is something like twenty years older. Outside of that, Nicholson is a perfect choice for Joker. He’s sadistic, dark, and creepy, but he’s also hysterically funny. The way Nicholson gets such glee out of the most demented acts as a sight to be hold. Of course, it’s not like the part is much of a stretch for Nicholson, who even then was a pro at playing insane characters, like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining. But that shouldn’t overshadow how awesome Nicholson is as The Joker. Watching Keaton and Nicholson square off is one of the highlights in Batman. Both men do a great job, and work very well together. The rest of the cast is a bit more mixed. Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale is a very boring character whose only job is to scream. I also feel her love story is incredibly out of place. On the flipside, I do like Robert Wuhl’s character Knox. Michael Gough makes for a good Alfred, displaying a certain Grandfatherly warmth, while still challenging Bruce. Then of course you have Tracey Walter as Bob. Anyone who has seen Batman knows that Bob is freaken awesome.

It’s also important to note the sheer impact Batman had on film and superheroes. While it wasn’t the first superhero film, it was the first one to plunge into such dark territory. It features very little elements that can be considered “campy”. The material was handled by very talented people who took the material seriously. While it didn’t start off the big boom of superhero films, it certainly helped the evolution of the genre, and still holds up. The film is also responsible for launching the acclaimed television show Batman: The Animated Series, which led to the creation of the DC Animated Universe. For me, Batman: The Animated Series was an important part of my childhood, not only for introducing me to Batman, but also for helping show me the power of storytelling. For that, I am eternally grateful, both to it, and to Batman.

This review is already running very long, so I will wrap things up. Batman is far from a perfect film. The Vicky Vale angle is annoying, there’s a lot of changes to the mythology, and there’s also a lot of weird little details sprinkled throughout. Still, the film was a game changer in a lot of ways. Even if you don’t like it, it’s hard not to respect it. Fortunately, I do like it, quite a bit in fact. Keaton and Nicholson are both stellar, and the world Burton creates is simply marvellous. At the time of it’s release, it was easily the best Batman film yet, and also the best comic book movie, two titles it would hold for a long time.

Rating: A-

Comments
  1. For me, this came in as a solid B. I wasn’t old enough at the time for the changes to really bother me, as I didn’t know some of them were changes, but the tone came in just a tad too dark for my tastes. Not a lot — but enough that it felt a little off (Batman’s casual attitude towards killing being one factor.) I also thought Nicholson’s performance was a little off — again, I wasn’t quite old enough to articulate it at the time (I was born in 1979, so you can do the math for my age here), but what I realized later is that what was bothering me is that I had already seen Nicholson in some other roles, and his Joker felt too similar. The Joker is a character that needs to overshadow his actor, and Nicholson is, on some level, always Nicholson. Not that he did a bad job… just that it’s always clear who’s playing the role.

    Despite my complaints, though, I still liked, and still do like, this film.

  2. vinnieh says:

    Good review, just wondering what do you think of the recent Batman reboot?

  3. You point out that Gordon was worthless and I couldn’t agree more! I HATED that aspect of this movie. Also, as good as Nicholson is, he was too much of a buffoon as The Joker. He wasn’t evil enough, as weird as that sounds. He was unhinged and I liked that he was willing to kill his own men but when he danced to Prince, I wanted to puke. Great review!

    -Steve

    • pgcooper1939 says:

      I always remember the Prince songs negatively, but whenever I watch the film, I actually kind of enjoy those scenes. Yeah, he can act buffoonish, but I think that adds to the threat since you never know when he’ll be fun or when he’ll be sadistic. Still, I see your point, and get why you had problems with the portrayal.

      Thanks for reading :)

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