Tim Burton’s Batman came out in the summer of 1989, one of the biggest summers for movies in history I believe. I was 12 years old at the time and I remember for months beforehand that I and other boys at my school were all caught up in Batmania. I even had a cool Joker t-shirt I wore since everyone else was wearing Batman shirts. I remember seeing this at the old Mohawk Mall cinemas (remember those?) at least two or three times. I got it for Christmas on VHS and watched it every once in a while. I always liked it back in the day, but I never really loved it. I wasn’t nearly as big into Batman back then as I am now, so I really wasn’t hoping for the movie to be an accurate reflection of the comics. In fact, as I got deeper into comics I started to realize how much superior they were to the movies.
I can’t remember the last time I watched this particular film, but it must have been at least a decade ago. I put the Blu-Ray in last night and gave it a watch. Here are some of my reactions:
Michael Keaton was the wrong casting choice
A lot of people will still defend the decision to cast Mr. Mom as Batman, but I didn’t like it as a kid and I like it even less as an adult. Keaton is just too normal-looking. Batman (and even Bruce Wayne) is supposed to be large and intimidating; this is just some well-dressed guy. You’ll notice whenever Keaton is in the Batsuit that he rarely talks and when he does, he just whispers. Christian Bale’s Batman voice was grating and annoying, but at least he had chutzpah and came across as a dude you didn’t want to mess with. This Batman doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing.
I noticed several times throughout the film where Batman just looked timid and mousey. Batman is supposed to exude confidence at all times. For example, there’s a scene where he grabs up Joker’s balloons with the Batjet and he’s grimacing like it’s an arduous task.
Remember that scene where Bruce Wayne is at Vicky Vale’s apartment and the Joker shows up and Keaton delivers that hilarious line: You wanna get nuts!? C’mon! Let’s get nuts!” THAT’S the kind of bravado Batman should have at all times.
The action sequences are played for laughs rather than thrills?
I would think wanting to see Batman kick some ass would be one of the major reasons people would flock to a Batman movie in droves. Yet, this Batman really doesn’t do much fighting (and even less detective work). In the opening scene he sneaks up on two muggers and, despite holding the one guy over the ledge, he doesn’t really do anything to them. Notice that at no point does he tie them up or knock them out, he essentially just lets them go free. Yet, later on when “Eckhart” shows up we see the two goons trembling in fear as apparently an entire SWAT team showed up to arrest two muggers.
Additionally, there are really only three action sequences in the entire film and they’re quite short. First, when Batman rescues Vicky Vale from the art museum he has to fight off Joker’s goons. At one point a ninja-like guy jumps over the fence and does a whole dance with his swords. He attacks Batman for all of 5 seconds until Batman knocks him out. I’m not sure if Burton intended this to be funny or badass. Either way, it was pretty corny.
There’s also the infamous scene where Batman flies in the Batjet and snags all of Joker’s balloons (but not until they had already killed a bunch of people with the Smilex Gas). And how in the world does Batman miss Joker with all those guns and missiles? Of course, that begs the question why this Batman kills. I suppose you could chalk it up to the fact the 1980s was absolutely lousy with action films thanks to Schwarzenegger and Stallone wherein the heroes always killed everyone and asked questions later.
The fight scene in the bell tower was ridiculous. Of all the goons that attack Batman, only one actually manages to do any damage. Again, if Burton was playing this for comedy rather than action he failed pretty badly. And seeing Batman actually get in a fist fight with the Joker was just lame. Of course Joker can’t fight – he relies on tricks for that.
Jack Nicholson absolutely was great as The Joker
I remember, as a kid, complaining that The Joker got more screen time in this movie than Batman. It’s still a beef I have in 2015. In fact, if you watch this movie closely, it’s almost more of The Joker’s narrative than Batman’s. Regardless, Jack Nicholson absolutely was the right call as The Joker. He owns every single line and every single scene. He genuinely looks like he’s having a ball. There really isn’t much more to say about this that hasn’t already been said. It’s a shame he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for this role – he definitely deserved it.
The sets, cinematography, and production design still look fantastic
As a child, I remember being a bit confused as to whether the movie took place in modern times or in the 1920s. The costumes are overtly vintage; all the men wear suits and fedoras and all the women dress like Marilyn Monroe (actually, that’s just Kim Basinger that looks that way; she’s the only female character). There is absolutely nothing in the film that could ever be described as casual, middle class, or mainstream modernism. Everything is either ritzy high class or wallowed in the mire. It’s like Taxi Driver as envisioned by C.C. Demille.
The sets look like movie sets, but the film owns its back lot imagery. Anton Furst won an Academy Award for his production design, and rightly so. The design is a weird amalgamation of both futuristic and classic/Gothic. Unlike the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, which embraced realism, this Batman goes in the opposite direction and makes it clear that it’s a Big Hollywood Production intended to wow audiences. In that aspect, it succeeded quite well.
And let’s not forget Danny Elfman’s score – it’s still wonderful to hear today.
Batman doesn’t hold up as a film, but it does hold up as pop culture milestone
Great movies hold up over time, meaning – you can watch them repeatedly and still enjoy them (maybe even more so than the first time). Watching Batman again after all these years it’s clear that it hasn’t aged all that well. As a “superhero” movie it pales in comparison to other films of the genre of recent years. It’s not particularly suspenseful or thrilling because the screenplay is convoluted and the tone is too silly when it should be serious. You can’t tell what’s supposed to be facetious and what’s supposed to be sincere and mysterious.
That being said, it’s still pretty interesting to watch 26 years later because of how novel and ground-breaking it was for the time. You can clearly see how it has inspired movies, TV shows and even comics themselves. There’s also plenty of memorable scenes and individual lines that are still funny and/or moving today.
It would take another 15-20 years before a superhero movie could be played even remotely straight, though. The Christopher Reeve Superman movies demonstrated that comic books could work on the big screen for mainstream audiences, but Tim Burton’s Batman showed that they didn’t have to be completely campy in the process.
FUN FACT: DC Comics launched the on-going series Legends of the Dark Knight as a promotional tie-in to this movie. It ran until 2007 after 214 (mostly excellent) issues.