Caped Crusader Reviews: Batman (1989)
To celebrate the July 20th release of the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, entitled “The Dark Knight Rises” I thought it was about time to take a look back at the evolution of the batman film franchise, starting with Tim Burton’s first entry in 1989, “Batman”. I’ll be releasing a review weekly, going all the way up to The Dark Knight. Anyways, enough babble, let’s get on with the review!
The story follows the caped crusader in his early years, stopping criminals in the dark alleys of Gotham city. He eventually encounters the Joker, an insane criminal who uses his knowledge in chemistry to poison all of Gotham city via the mixing of makeup products. Meanwhile, Vicky Vale, a reporter and photographer for the Corto Maltese, develops an interest in Batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, but what she finds out is far more tragic than she could have imagined; the very motivation for Batman. It’s an excellently crafted piece of cinema, also being the first ever dark take on the character to be brought to the silver screen, a far cry from the ’60s television series. The mystery behind Batman is executed brilliantly, truly capturing the feeling of a dark figure hiding in the shadows. Everything from the Joker’s origins to the final battle between Batman and the clown prince of crime atop a cathedral has a dramatic and badass feel. Still, while the majority of the film’s story is well-written, the final act is where things get a little strange. Just a warning for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, spoilers follow. It’s always been the general consensus amongst fans that Alfred letting Vicky Vale into the batcave was a really stupid idea, and I have to agree. That should have been Alfred’s last day of service at Wayne Manor, what were the writers thinking? They played Batman up to be so mysterious and at the end, he gets found out! Secondly, the reveal that it was in fact Jack Napier as a young crook who killed Bruce’s parents was something that didn’t mesh well with fans. On this, I have to say that yes, it isn’t faithful to the comics in that regard, but the idea of this added so much more tension to the battle between Batman and the Joker at the end, although it still feels like a bit of a plot convenience. Logic goes out the window a lot by the end too, with Batman shooting missiles at the joker and, despite aiming directly at his target, misses completely. On top of that, the Joker is able to shoot down the Batwing with merely a pistol, albeit a ridiculously long one. The Joker’s death, while it pissed off a lot of fans for killing off, for some people, the greatest Batman villain of all time, for me, made sense. He was such a big threat and couldn’t be allowed to live, and this also meant the writers couldn’t reuse him later so we could get more variety on the villain front. What I was annoyed about was how silly it was that Batman was so easily able to grapple the Joker’s leg and tie it to a gargoyle at the same time from a distance. Ok, spoilers finished.
Acting is phenomenal, too. Despite the uproar from fans that Michael Keaton was not suitable for the role of Batman at the time, he portrays, in my opinion, one of the most convincing Batmans of all time, as well as being able to play the tortured character of Bruce Wayne. Also, nobody can do that epic Batman smirk like Keaton can, it’s truly fantastic. Jack Nicholson portrays the Joker to a T, maniacal and crazy, very much bringing the comic book character to life, in fact, I was scared of him for a large part of my childhood. Supporting cast is good, although I don’t like Commissioner Gordon too much in this film, heck, in this entire series he’s depicted as a fat police chief, he’s got nothing on the comic book Gordon. Michael Gough (R.I.P.) plays the subservient and forever loyal butler Alfred quite well, always there when Bruce needs him, showing great concern for his master. Kim Basinger and Robert Whul as Vicky Vale and Alexander Knox, respectively, have some funny scenes together, as well as Basinger and Keaton having some good chemistry; the scene where Bruce tries to tell Vicky he’s Batman is priceless. The only negative thing I have to say is that some characters don’t get nearly enough screen time, even the memorable ones from the comics. We see Harvey Dent in a few dialogue scenes, but at least something to suggest Two-Face would have been nice (more on him in by Batman Forever review, coming soon), and although I’ve already stated my opinion on how they screwed up Gordon’s character, he could have at least been more involved in the story, otherwise there’s really no point in him being there. Hell, even Batman doesn’t get as much screen time as the Joker. As the villain he steals the show, making the film more about him than Bruce or his alter ego, a trend that unfortunately is never changed in the later films.
On the music front, what can I say? It draws you in. This film has one of the most sophisticated music scores in film history; immersive, pleasing to the ears, it’s like we’re being made love to through song, Danny Elfman did a marvellous job here, the theme is right up there with the Star Wars and Superman themes, just as memorable, if not moreso, and the Joker’s music sounds very much like circus music, everything fits together nicely.
The sets are gorgeous as well. Gotham City is truly brought to life in this gritty dystopia that Tim Burton has created; alleyways are dark and grungy, the architecture is truly gothic and chilling, which sells the corrupt atmosphere of a place that is completely overrun with crime. The fact that it was completely built from scratch is also what makes this version of Gotham City one of my favourites; it sells the comic book aspect of it so well, because it’s not taking a real city and altering its appearance, no trickery involved, the film-makers simply made an entirely new location within a set, so it’s timeless, in a way.
Overall, this is one of the best adaptations of Batman ever made. The acting is great, bringing the characters to life from the page, music is fully immersive and the sets are incredible, but most importantly, it has a great story that makes you invested in what’s happening in the world. Still, it feels more like Joker’s movie, and for an introduction to the series, that’s not really the best idea, even though Batman’s character is developed enough to get the sense of mystery around him. Some characters appear for so little that they might as well not be included, which is a shame, and the third act, while not as strong as the majority of the film, is still dramatic and suspenseful. Despite the negatives, they don’t detract from the overall product, it’s a film that’s aged very well, I give it a 9/10.