Oct 8, 2019
1989’s Batman was a watershed moment in comic book movie history, just like Superman eleven years before it. It’s a film that’s only grown in stature in the (nearly) 25 years since it was released. I recently watched it again for the first time in a long time, and… well…
Relax. I’m not going to say the film hasn’t aged well. And I’m not going to say that Batman now seems horribly flawed in retrospect. That’s because all of this movie’s flaws were readily apparent when it opened back in 1989. Batman is a testament to how with enough hype, even a fundamentally mediocre film can break box office records and automatically become a “classic” after the requisite number of years have passed.
I clearly recall seeing it the first weekend it opened, after months of relentless marketing to my demographic, after months of my peers wearing Bat-logo T-shirts, after weeks of Prince on MTV riding the wave of Bat-hype with what might be the worst number one single in the history of the charts. And as I left the theater that night, all I remember feeling was “meh”. When you can’t get a teenager excited over a Batman movie, you’ve done something very wrong.
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The 1988 WGA strike began just after screenwriter Sam Hamm turned in his final draft, and that’s more or less what sealed this movie’s fate. Script doctor Warren Skaaren was brought in to do polishes without Hamm’s involvement, and at the behest of the producers and the studio, the screenplay was constantly being rewritten even after filming began. The end result is a directionless, patchwork quilt of a story that often feels like director Tim Burton and his cast just kind of winging it.
Not that telling a coherent story has ever been Burton’s strong suit, but Batman leaves all kinds of plot threads dangling, and contains long stretches of time where it looks like he simply let the cameras roll and told Jack Nicholson to just “be Jack” for a while. The film has a few good moments, but overall, there’s a rough, messy, amateurish feel to the proceedings. Batman might just be the most influential unfinished movie ever.
But hey, no one fondly remembers Batman for its finely honed screenplay, am I right? The important thing is that it reclaimed the dark, serious nature of the character, decades after the campy ‘60s show had become entrenched in popular culture. Well, this was important to Batman fans, anyway, who have a tendency to internalize their pastimes to a disturbing degree. It seems many of them bitterly resented Batman being linked with Adam West in the public consciousness, but personally, I loved the ‘60s show, and I never got the anger. There’s plenty of room for different interpretations of an iconic character like Batman, including silly, lighthearted takes, and the problem with the later Schumacher Batman films isn’t that they went for comedy—it’s that the “comedy” was soul-crushingly unfunny.
Of course, that’s only if you buy into what’s become conventional geek wisdom, that Batman was actually all that “dark” in the first place. I don’t think Batman in the 1940s was much darker than his superhero contemporaries, especially keeping in mind that Robin came along just one year after Batman’s introduction in an attempt to make the character more kid-friendly. It really wasn’t until the ‘80s and Frank Miller and Alan Moore that Batman got his current rep for being a grim, self-important, humorless crime fighter (which is why he eventually became perfect material for grim, self-important, humorless director Christopher Nolan).
When it was first announced, there was some initial fear that Burton’s Batman would be just as goofy as the ‘60s show, particularly after Michael Keaton (best known at that point for Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice) was cast in the lead role, causing the expected backlash from Batman fans. That turned out not to be the case, exactly, and now enough time has passed that Keaton in the role seems perfectly reasonable. But even as I write this, I find myself thinking: Burton cast Michael Keaton as Batman? For real?
While I’ll concede that he doesn’t embarrass himself (mostly thanks to stunt doubles, sculpted suits, and darkly lit sets), no way and no how does Keaton look like a man who’s achieved peak physical condition and is out kicking ass nightly. Hell, even Clooney looked more physically imposing in the role. Nothing against Keaton as an actor, but his casting ultimately hurts the film, and more than that, it says a lot about how seriously the director took the character.
The fact is, Burton’s Batman is only “dark and serious” compared to the TV show that came before. Taken on its own, Batman is a pretty silly, jokey film. It’s camp, just not the in-your-face variety of camp. Despite the horror-lite, pseudo-goth trappings of most of his films, Burton is far too precious and quirky to do anything truly dark; the best he can muster up here is various shades of black comedy.
We begin in Gotham City with a couple and their young son heading into an alleyway and getting mugged, in a nice little fake-out that makes you think we’re about to see Bruce Wayne’s parents get gunned down. But instead, Batman shows up to deliver a well-deserved beating to the muggers, and we learn he’s just beginning to make himself known to the crime world. And kudos to the filmmakers for mostly dispensing with the standard comic book movie origin story here, which nine times out of ten is boring as hell.
Later, the cops arrive on the scene, along with a newspaper reporter named Knox (Robert Wuhl) who’s investigating stories he’s been hearing about a guy dressed up as a bat. He’s sought out by Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a photojournalist whose work just made the cover of Time. She wants to team up with Knox on the story (because she has a bat fetish, you see) and the two decide to go harass Police Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) at a charity benefit thrown at the home of wealthy businessman Bruce Wayne.
While there, Vicki catches the eye of Bruce Wayne himself and agrees to go on a date with him. And by “date”, I mean they stay at his mansion the whole time and eat at opposite ends of a comically long dinner table. After Bruce’s butler Alfred (Michael Gough) regales them with tales of Master Bruce’s youth, Vicki ends up staying the night.
Meanwhile, the 200th anniversary of the founding of Gotham City is approaching, and the mayor (an Ed Koch-lookalike) is concerned that all the mob-related violence of late is going to put a damper on festivities. He wants Gordon and D.A. Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams, who tragically never got to be Two-Face) to clean up the town, starting with crime boss Carl Grissom (pushup enthusiast Jack Palance).
Grissom’s main man is a former two-bit criminal named Jack Napier (Nicholson) who also happens to be sleeping with Grissom’s woman on the side. Napier seems to have a fondness for a deck of playing cards, particularly the Joker in the pack, but I’m sure this will never become poetically apropos.
Grissom orders Napier to handle a job down at the Axis Chemical plant, but it’s really a setup. Grissom has found out about Jack’s affair with his girlfriend and tipped off the police.
Down at the plant, a gunfight breaks out between the cops and Napier’s men. That’s when Batman appears, attempting to apprehend Napier. It’s a curious moment for him to suddenly show up. Batman taking on muggers who attacked a helpless family makes sense. But why insert himself, uninvited, into a situation where the police have already responded? I’m pretty sure an unknown vigilante running around an active crime scene can only make the cops’ lives more difficult.
Batman immediately proves my point when he basically causes what appears to be Napier’s death. Jack shoots at Batman and Batman deflects the bullet back into his face, and as a result, Jack ends up accidentally tumbling over a railing into a big vat of toxic green goo.
But as the scene ends, a chalky white hand reaches up out of the waters behind the plant. Jack has survived, and he’s soon paying a visit to a mob doctor to repair the damage done to his face. In a memorably creepy scene, we only see the back of Jack’s head as he unravels his bandages, beholds his new face in a mirror, and walks off laughing maniacally.
Jack heads to Grissom’s office to have his (somewhat misplaced) revenge. And here it’s revealed that thanks to the chemicals and the surgery, Jack’s skin is now chalk white, his hair green, and his mouth curved into a permanent smile, making him look exactly like the Joker in a deck of playing cards.
The Joker shoots Grissom, and in the film’s first bit of abject silliness, circus music plays as the Joker continues to shoot at the dead Grissom, holding the gun behind his back, and aiming it over his shoulder, and so forth. During my first viewing, I distinctly remember this as the moment when I got that “uh-oh” feeling about the movie, where it seemed like things were headed south. Sadly, I turned out to be right.
Honestly, up until this very scene, they were doing pretty well. We had mobsters, a mysterious masked crime fighter, a couple of reporters on the case, a dash of city politics, obvious signs of corruption in the Gotham City police force, and just how is this Bruce Wayne guy involved, anyway? But from this point forward, the whole thing falls apart. Most of those plot threads vanish, and all we get is a repetitive tale of the Joker indulging in random acts of mayhem while Batman tries to stop him. I’m guessing this is about where the material from the original screenplay ends, because Knox becomes little more than a bit player, the corruption angle is completely forgotten, Harvey Dent basically disappears, and so forth.
The Joker assumes control of the mob by meeting with the other bosses in a scene where he’s painted his face flesh-colored for some reason. Is he trying to be inconspicuous? Because using a joy buzzer to incinerate one of your rivals is generally not a good way to keep a low profile. And this scene drags on for several minutes after it should have ended, with Jack doing lame shtick with the guy’s charred corpse.
The Joker next decides to get into product tampering. After researching CIA nerve gas, he creates a chemical he calls “Smilex” and poisons various household products, leading to random deaths in the city. He even breaks into a news broadcast to do a whole TV ad for “Joker Products”. Naturally, this scares the crap out of the residents of Gotham. Though, wouldn’t this be an issue of national concern, or does Gotham City really produce its own supply of hairspray, cologne, deodorant, and soap?
After this, Joker spies a photo of Vicki Vale and becomes infatuated with her. He sets it up so that she’s in an art museum with a gas mask while he puts everyone else to sleep with purple knockout gas (and tell me again how this movie is more “serious” than the Adam West show?). He and his men then enter the museum, with the Joker again wearing flesh-colored makeup (pretty sure they only did this to reduce Nicholson’s time in the makeup chair), and they begin defacing various works of art in a tedious scene that only exists so they can play a Prince song in the movie.
I’ll never understand why Prince, of all people, was asked to write songs for the movie. Well, of course I understand the real reason, which is that movie soundtracks were huge business in the ‘80s, and Batman was a Warner Brothers release, and Prince was the biggest artist on the Warner record label, so it all makes perfect financial sense, at least. But who thinks of Batman and immediately associates him with R&B/dance funk?
The Joker sits down with Vicki, revealing that he horribly disfigured Grissom’s girlfriend, and he plans to do the same to her. Luckily, Batman comes crashing down through a skylight to rescue her. And then he just zip-lines out of there with Vicki and takes off. That’s right: Batman doesn’t even bother to go back and catch the guy who’s been poisoning products and randomly killing people. Batman was more than happy to apprehend Napier back when he was just an ordinary hood breaking into the Axis Chemical plant. But now that he’s a supervillain, he’s free to go about his business unperturbed?
Batman and Vicki hop into his incredibly impractical-looking Batmobile. The bad guys chase after them, though I can’t even tell you why. Is the Joker trying to get Vicki back? Because later on, he has numerous chances to kidnap her and never does.
The Batmobile gets blocked by a bulldozer, so they completely abandon the bulletproof vehicle and take off on foot. What? Why not just tell the guy driving the bulldozer to back up, for god’s sake?
Batman fights off the Joker’s men in an alleyway, then he calls the Batmobile back so he can take Vicki to the Batcave. There, he reveals that he’s cracked the case of the Joker’s product tampering, and he knows exactly which combinations of products are killing people. And then, he just flat out tells Vicki he wants to have sex with her. Smooth, Bruce. Actually, he’s most likely doing this to get a roll of film from her that might reveal his secret identity. Still: smooth, Bruce.
And it’s not until she wakes up the next morning that Vicki calls the newspaper with the solution to the product poisoning case. I wonder how many people died while she was screwing Batman and then getting a good night’s sleep afterwards?
Bruce then decides that Vicki is special, and she needs to know that he’s Batman. He heads to her apartment to tell her the truth, but before he can get around to it, the Joker and his men show up to menace her. This inspires Bruce to grab a fireplace poker and start doing a hilariously non-threatening tough guy act, screaming, “You want to get nuts? Let’s get nuts!” Okay, remind me who thought Michael Keaton was the perfect choice to play Batman?
The Joker delivers his now-famous line where he asks Bruce if he “ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight”, and then shoots him. Satisfied that Bruce is dead, Joker and his men just leave, not even bothering to take Vicki with them. Meaning, they apparently came all this way just to leave her a creepy present (a mannequin hand holding dead roses?) and then take off.
Luckily, Bruce put a silver tray over his chest, knowing ahead of time that a) the Joker would shoot him, and b) he wouldn’t go for a head shot. As far as I can tell, the only reason this scene exists is so Joker can say the “pale moonlight” line.
Next, the mayor goes on TV to announce that Gotham’s 200th anniversary festival has been canceled due to all the violence and bedlam, but the Joker breaks into the broadcast to say he’ll be having his own festival, with floats, and giant balloons, and blackjack, and hookers! And, oh yeah, he’s also going to give out $20 million in cash, because apparently the product tampering business is more lucrative than it seems.
In the Batcave, Bruce watches this and then flashes back to the night his parents were murdered. He suddenly remembers they were shot by a guy named “Jack” who also said the “dance with the devil” line.
Yes, in the lamest moment of the movie, it turns out a young Jack Napier killed Bruce’s parents. I really don’t get why they felt this plot twist (which isn’t based on anything in the comics) was necessary. Was the random poisoning of innocent people not enough motivation for Batman? Sadly, this crappy “twist” got imitated in other superhero movies (the Sandman killed Uncle Ben??) and it’s lame every time. Making this stupider is how they cast an actor who looks and sounds nothing like a young Jack Nicholson, and he even has blue eyes. Hmm, if only there were some way to know what Nicholson looked like when he was younger…
And that’s when Alfred takes it upon himself to bring Vicki into the Batcave. 25 years later, this still stands as one of the dumbest things a superhero side character has ever done. Who was the standup comic who did a whole routine about Batman sitting Alfred down and patiently re-explaining to him who is and isn’t allowed in the Batcave? Because that was gold. They even ended up adding a line to Batman Returns where Bruce sarcastically lashes out at Alfred because of this.
So Vicki knows Bruce’s secret, but he’s got no time to do the boyfriend thing. Now that he knows the Joker killed his parents, Batman goes on an all-out assault on the Joker’s hideout, which also happens to be the Axis Chemical plant. How long did he know the Joker was hiding out here? Because I have to wonder why didn’t he do this sooner.
However, the Joker wasn’t even inside the plant, meaning Batman just murdered a whole bunch of goons for no reason. Soon, the Joker is on a float riding through town to the tune of another Prince song. As promised, he’s making it rain, but it seems his real plan is to kill the gathered crowds with poison gas canisters affixed to giant helium balloons. Just out of curiosity, why aren’t the police already swarming the area, trying to stop him? He did give them advance notice, no?
Batman arrives in the Batplane he suddenly has, using it to cut the balloons free and release them high in the air, and this is about the point where I zone out hard. All we get is Batman flying around aimlessly, and Vicki Vale driving through unruly crowds, and nothing else is going on, and somewhere in the middle of this monotony, the Batplane flies up above the clouds just to imitate the Batman logo.
Finally, Batman decides to directly fire upon the Joker, but even while blasting away with multiple rockets and machine guns, he can’t put a scratch on him. And then the Joker pulls out a really long pistol, fires one bullet, and completely takes out the Batplane. I don’t have to explain why this is dumb, do I? I’m pretty sure that after 25 years, the dumbness of this is appreciated by all.
The big finale involves the Joker dragging Vicki up endless stairs to the top of an insanely tall cathedral, in what I can only assume was a deranged homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Once they all get up there, the Joker waltzes with Vicki while Batman fights his henchmen, casually killing a couple of them, and I have no idea how Joker’s henchmen made it to the top of the cathedral before he did. And then, in a truly uncomfortable moment, Vicki distracts the Joker by going down on him, apparently, allowing Batman to take him by surprise and start pounding the crap out of him.
Eventually, they all end up on out on a ledge, with Batman and Vicki hanging on for dear life. The Joker’s goons arrive in a helicopter, lowering a ladder for him, but Batman uses a Bat-grappling hook to tie the Joker’s leg to one of the cathedral’s gargoyles. This causes him to fall to his death, meaning Batman not only basically murdered the Joker in cold blood, but he also tried to make it look like an accident.
Somehow, this convinces Commissioner Gordon that Batman is on the side of the police, and the movie wraps up with him unveiling the brand new Bat-Signal.
It’s a lackluster film, but I can’t totally dismiss it. The first act (basically, everything leading up to Napier becoming the Joker) was actually rather well done. And the cast is generally likeable, even when they’re not given much to do. Nicholson more or less saves this film with his various memorable quips on subjects ranging from “rub[bing] another man’s rhubarb” to whether or not Gotham City needs an enema. Though, one must admit, most of these quips are non-sequiturs dropped into scenes where they have little to do with anything that happens before or after.
Also, the art design was groundbreaking for the time, with Gotham presented as a city of Fritz Lang-esque architecture, a beautifully hideous combination of retro sensibilities and modern technology. But with all the art deco interiors and old-fashioned gangsters and fedora-wearing going on, I don’t know why they didn’t just make Batman a 1940s period piece.
Ultimately, the story is hopelessly banal; a large chunk of this movie is little more than Batman and Joker fighting over a woman. And disappointingly, the movie never feels like it’s reintroducing us to the Batman character. It’s taken as a given that you know who Batman is, and that Bruce Wayne is Batman. And the truth is… you probably do. And you probably know Clark Kent is Superman too, but 1978’s Superman still had that great moment where Clark ripped open his suit to reveal the big red S for the first time as if it were a stunning reveal.
Batman is missing a similar moment, which might not be the worst oversight in the film, but it is the most telling; Clearly, Tim Burton had no real wonder or excitement about the character (he certainly didn’t seem overly concerned about whether or not Batman should be killing people), and as such, he was probably the wrong guy to direct this movie.
But given the insane amount of money it made, Burton was naturally offered the opportunity to direct the sequel. Batman Returns was a moderately better film, and yet, much worse when you take into account that they didn’t have the excuse of a writer’s strike to explain away the movie’s lack of coherence. There was just as much stupid stuff (an army of penguins with rockets strapped to their backs? really?) and just as many ill-advised attempts at humor. This, frankly, is why I don’t bear any ill will against Joel Schumacher for what he did with the franchise. He was really only amplifying the silliness that was present in this series from the very beginning.
But the real legacy of this film is how it singlehandedly ushered in the age of front-loading. Batman made it to $100 million in record time, then completely dropped off the map. Compare this film’s box office performance to Superman, which was the number one movie for ten weeks. Nowadays, the strategy has become: market the hell out of your movie, get it into tons of theaters, and pray that you make your money back before word of mouth gets around. Batman may not have invented this formula, but it sure as hell perfected it.
And with that, all the Batman feature films have been reviewed on this site. And it only took us 11 years! But this is most assuredly not the end of Batman movies being dissected and re-dissected on the Agony Booth. With seven mediocre films (and counting!) that have somehow become pop cultural touchstones, I’m sure we’ll all be reviewing Batman… forever. See what I did there?