Movie Review: BATMAN (1989)

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BATMAN, 1989
Movie Reviews

Directed by Tim Burton
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger
Review by Mike Peters


Gotham City is under siege. Criminals and corrupt officials rule and the innocent are left defenseless. Crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) and his right hand man, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) are the true leaders of this city. They rule with an iron fist. However, Jack is eventually set up by Carl and is forced to fend for himself while on a routine mission at Axis Chemicals. This is where Jack, on the verge of escape from the police, first encounters Batman. Batman prevents Jack from escaping by dropping him into a vat of toxic chemicals. Jack reemerges as The Joker and vows to destroy the city of Gotham and Batman. Batman, on the other hand, vows to save the city from the corruption of crime and from the unstable actions of The Joker.


In recent years, comic book fever has hit Hollywood. Every sort of superhero has popped up in celluloid from Spiderman and Superman to Daredevil and Ironman. This genre has quickly become a bona fide financial juggernaut. As the films continue to be released and the quality continues to diminish, one starts to ponder the validity of these once iconic figures. Originally created to cope with the stress of war and famine during the 1930s and 1940s, these characters once represented hope and faith for a nation in a stage of turmoil. Now that these characters are merely exploited for financial reasons, they tend to lose what they once stood for. Their honor and truth are stripped from them by greedy capitalists.

Prior to the bombardment of the superhero films, studios were extremely hesitant to green light any film based on a comic book. These films were not viable entities and were not considered serious modes of art by many critics. Superman was released in 1978 and was a major hit but as the sequels continued, the product diminished and the film eventually ended its embarrassing run with Superman 4: The Quest for Peace in 1987. As the hoopla quickly subsided and the crowds diminished, so did the superhero film.

This posed serious risk for the film version of ‘Batman’. Having bought the film rights in 1979, producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan (and eventually Peter Guber) struggled for nearly ten years to bring the caped crusader to the big screen. However, after numerous changes to the script, director and actors, the film finally was green-lit and was set for release on June 23, 1989.

Tim Burton, known for his work on Beetlejuice (1988), was a surprise candidate to some but eventually was hired on as director of this big-budgeted film. This did not sit well with some industry professionals as they were concerned with how this former artist from Walt Disney would handle the dark world of Batman. The character had changed so often in the past fifty years that many were unaware of how the film would go about depicting the legacy of the caped crusader. With a great amount of stress on his shoulders, Burton persevered and decided that he was going to introduce the world to a reinvented Batman. Having been greatly inspired by Frank Miller’s 1986 comic ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns”, Burton aimed to create a bleak and unrelenting landscape for his ‘Batman’ film. Gone were the days of the psychedelic camp excesses of the 1960s television series starring Adam West (Batman had become a joke of sorts with his portrayal in this series). Instead, Burton vowed to once again honor the ‘Batman’ story with the respect and admiration he felt it deserved.

Batman is a story about the good and evil in everyone. Bruce Wayne (A.K.A. Batman), is a character haunted by the murder of his family. He was defenseless during their attack and the traumatic situation has left him a vulnerable soul. He is a brooding, melancholy individual who has never been at peace with who he is. Attempting to escape his pain and self loathing, Bruce Wayne transforms into the crime fighting idealist known as Batman. Crime destroyed Bruce Wayne but Batman vows to destroy the crime.

Jack Napier, on the other hand, is a cold and calculating master criminal who aspires to be the top dog. His ambitious nature and his arrogance are, however, his downfall. Having had enough of Jack, Carl Grissom vows to rid himself of him forever. After being dropped into the vat of chemicals, Jack is transfigured into a demonically possessed, fun loving, insane criminal mastermind. The Joker becomes Jack’s alter ego and though he is as ambitious as Jack is, The Joker is the antithesis of him in regards to personality, demeanor and appearance.

Thus, the performances from Keaton and Nicholson are crucial in the understanding of the motives behind these two characters decisions. Bruce Wayne is clumsy and reserved but Batman is fearless and heroic. Jack is a vindictive but controlled man. The Joker is uninhibited and sadistic. Both Bruce Wayne and Jack Napier are the complete opposite of their alter egos. They are allowed to live out their fantasies as a result of their defined title as outsider. The fact that Bruce Wayne lives on the outskirts of Gotham City is highly symbolic of his ostracized role in society.

Keaton is restrained (reserved) and slightly comedic in his performance. In a sense, he plays the straight man to Jack Nicholson’s over the top portrayal of The Joker. With Keaton playing it straight, Nicholson is allowed to chew the scenery with relish (and boy does he ever). Perhaps this is the most fun any actor has ever had at portraying a role. The Joker is demented but goes about it with such an uncontrolled giddiness that Nicholson’s performance borders on flamboyant. However, Nicholson does steal the show and truly deserves top billing. He brings life to the film and, to some, is more of an interesting character then Keaton’s Batman. Whereas Keaton needs to be the brooding, reluctant hero, The Joker adds flavor to an already spicy role.

The characters exist in an urban hell. It is a city devoid of life. Highly reminiscent of Metropolis (1927) and Blade Runner (1982), the film oozes bleakness. The darkness is highly representative of the character’s emotional detachment to life. Production designer, Anton Furst, beautifully depicts a city being eaten away at its core by creating a cold and sterile environment. It is highly reminiscent of a hopeless world. That is until Batman vows to battle the crime infestation of the city.

Anton Furst’s production design goes hand in hand with the dark, visual scope of Tim Burton. Burton’s zealous in creating a dark world has become a common distinction amongst his films. The darkness that seeps through the crevices of his films may appear to be bleak and unmanageable but he always allows for the chance of hope and redemption to surface. Aiding Burton’s visual extravaganza is the score by Danny Elfman. From the beginning of the film, Elfman presents a raucous and riveting musical accompaniment that truly gets ‘Batman’ off to a quick start. Aided by the artist (formerly known or known or whatever he is now) Prince, the music helps to drive the story forward and assist during some of the lulls experienced in the film.

Batman is in no way a perfect film. There are many plot lapses and the film is not as deep as Christoher Nolan’s superior, albeit completely different Batman Begins (2005), but the film holds a special place in my heart. I grew up with this film and to this day it still makes me excited when I watch it.

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