Should I Watch..? Batman
What's the big deal?
"Batman" is an action superhero film released in 1989 and is the second feature-film outing for the eponymous character created by Bob Kane. Directed by Tim Burton, the film acts as an origin tale for the character as well as seeing him combat his perennial nemesis, the Joker. The film's cast includes Michael Keaton (who was controversially cast as Bruce Wayne and Batman), Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl and Jack Palance. The film had been in development for a number of years before Burton found himself in charge, influenced by graphic novels such as The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns. It is notable for Nicholson's lucrative contract, widely regarded as one of the most generous ever signed. Despite rising budgets and initial scepticism, the film was a commercial and critical smash with global takings over $410 million and the now-legendary Bat logo appearing on a huge variety of merchandise.
What's it about?
As Gotham City approaches its bicentennial anniversary, the weary citizens live in fear of the criminal underworld led by "respected businessman" Carl Grissom. However, urban legend tells of a huge bat-like creature apprehending criminals despite the police commissioner Jim Gordon denying the existence of such. However, he is forced to change opinion during a police raid on Axis Chemicals after witnessing the mysterious Batman drop Grissom's right-hand-man Jack Napier into a vat of chemicals.
Away from the brutality of the streets, investigative journalist Alexander Knox is also pursuing the story of the Batman despite the mocking of his colleagues. Along with photo-journalist Vicki Vale, Knox continues his quest for information at a party thrown by eccentric millionaire Bruce Wayne. And while Vale follows her hunch and watches Wayne closely, the city is about to be terrorised by a recovering Napier - who has undergone a radical transformation...
Jack Napier / The Joker
Bruce Wayne / Batman
Billy Dee Williams
Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren *
Release Date (UK)
11th August, 1989
Action, Superhero, Thriller
Best Set Direction
What's to like?
Ignoring my personal preference for the Caped Crusader, there is much to admire in Burton's Batman. It's easy to see its influence in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy as well as the likes of Man Of Steel (1) - this was the first superhero film to attempt to psychoanalyse its characters and offer audiences a glimpse of life behind the mask. Despite the controversy over his casting, Keaton's performance is brilliantly under-stated as both Batman and Bruce and frankly, spot-on for my money. He brings an unexpected depth to the character, introducing the now-familiar brooding and vocal changes whenever Bruce "goes to work". Finally, there was characterisation in a superhero film!
Of course, Keaton struggles to make his presence felt against the wildly over-the-top Joker from Nicholson - still my favourite performance in the role. He is every bit as theatrical, psychotic and dangerous as the character should be and Jack absolutely nails it. Along with the breath-taking sets and Art Deco styling of Gotham itself, the film still provides plenty to entertain. Tracey Walter's appearance as Bob The Goon was so good, it led to the minor character getting his own action figure while Gough's quiet dignity as Alfred saved the character from descending back into the comic campness of the Sixties TV show and feature film (2). The model work of Derek Meddings also looks superb and while it has dated in places since the explosion of CG, it gives the film further depth and really brings Gotham to life.
- Williams was due to reprise the role of Dent, who later becomes Two-Face in Batman Forever (3). Burton was interested in an African-American version of the character but by the time the film was greenlit, Burton was replaced as director by Joel Schumacher who cast Tommy Lee Jones instead.
- The Batmobile was based on a Chevy Impala with adornments inspired by salt-flat racers from the 1930's. It was designed by Anton Furst and currently resides at the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA.
- Burton described the film as "a complete duel of the freaks... a fight between two disturbed people." However, he was reportedly unhappy with the finished product - "I liked parts of it, but the whole movie is mainly boring to me. It's OK, but it was more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie."
What's not to like?
It has to be said that Basinger's portrayal of Vale lacks a certain sharpness - she struck me as being a bit too blonde for the character while the romantic subplot involving the Joker felt more than a little creepy. As I've just said, some of the model work has suffered in the intervening years and seeing as the finale involves Gotham Cathedral, the Batwing and a carnival parade full of giant balloons, it does look a little creaky around the edges. Finally, there is the much-derided soundtrack by Prince which has divided fans of the Purple One for a number of years. Frankly, it's nothing like as bad as you might believe - it was the first soundtrack I ever owned, after all.
The curious thing I noticed was the atypically clumsy direction from Burton. Given the director's usual output of dark indie films (The Nightmare Before Christmas (4), Beetlejuice (5), Edward Scissorhands (6), etc), Batman must have represented the sort of big-budget blockbuster that Burton normally eschews. I suspect that his original cut was much darker and perhaps closer to the sort of film that Batman Begins (7) became. There are awkward moments of forced comedy, mostly from Nicholson and Keaton, which don't fit in with the overly serious tone of the piece. Of course, anything with a character as unhinged as the Joker has got to be a little unhinged itself but a little more script editing might not have gone amiss.
Should I watch it?
It seems unthinkable now but without Batman, the character may well have languished in the camp mire of the TV show forever. Burton's film is both hugely entertaining and massively influential, relaunching the character for a new generation and finally giving credence to the self-proclaimed Dark Knight. Keaton and Nicholson deliver quality performances amid the beautiful sets and special effects but the whole thing has been superseded by Nolan's terrific trilogy. But for people of my generation, there is something comforting in coming back to this and drooling over that gorgeous Batmobile...
Great For: fans of the Dark Knight, nostalgic 80's lovers, Jack Nicholson's bank account.
Not So Great For: people who prefer something more comic-book in style, Adam West, Superman fans.
What else should I watch?
One thing Batman did extremely well was kick off an entire franchise for the character (not to mention the acclaimed animated series in the early 90s) but the films wouldn't reach the same heights again. Batman Returns (8) saw both Keaton and Burton return but despite equally great turns from Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito as Catwoman and the Penguin, the film seems seedier and much bleaker like some sort of weird S&M fantasy. With Joel Schumacher replacing Burton in the director's chair, a new perspective was brought in for Batman Forever which is diverting enough but sunk by truly calamitous miscasting. But it's a positive triumph next to Batman And Robin (9) which was universally slammed as one of the worst films of all time. It was so bad, I feared that Batman would never again appear on the big screen.
Thankfully, in the hands of Christopher Nolan, the character was saved with the peerless Dark Knight trilogy. Batman Begins may well be an origin tale but made with exemplary attention to detail and littered with quality performances. The Dark Knight (10) lifted the genre still higher with electric performances from Heath Ledger as the Joker and Aaron Eckhart and Harvey Dent. And while The Dark Knight Rises (11) doesn't quite match the standards of the first two, it's still head and shoulders above most other superhero flicks.