I know I'm about to start revisiting the Trek films, but last night I was in the mood for something different. And so I watched Batman
from 1989, something I haven't seen for a good many years. I was also thinking about the forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises
and reflecting back to when these major feature films began.
I watched some of the special features first and I was reminded of how big a deal this film was back in 1989. Prior to this the only major feature film based on a comics superhero character had been Superman: The Movie
in 1978. Prior to this even though Batman had been brought back to a serious minded sensibility in the late '60s and early '70s in the DC comics many more remembered Batman as he had been portrayed in the '60s Adam West TV series. The '89 Batman
promised to bring him back to his dark origins. Casting Jack Nicholson as the Joker seemed exactly right, but casting Michael Keaton as Batman/Bruce Wayne was controversial. Nonetheless there was a lot
of anticipation for this film.
I was 20 in 1989 and for the most part the film delivered in overall sensibility. Then again what else was there to compare it with? There was Superman: The Movie
and the old Batman TV series. And, of course, there was also Batman in the comics of the '70s and '80s.
But how does it stand up now with so many other serious minded superhero films and animated series that we've gotten since then? And quite a few of them have been damn good.
had been only moderately successful then it might have been only a one-off feature. Superman
had also been successful, but the subsequent sequels were evermore silly and the general sensibility seen in the 1978 film lost momentum to be perpetuated. In Batman's
case the films also got sillier, but as a counterpoint we also got the very good animated film Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm
as the following well-regarded Batman
animated series. This seemed to build on the critical works in comics such as Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns
and Batman: Year One.
Superhero movies haven't been the same since. I argue that as a good thing because now it seems filmmakers have learned to generally respect the original source materiel when it comes to superheroes. Generally they've learned to balance the larger-than-life aspects of the genre with some measure of realism.
Now looking back...
Batman (1989) ****
A city, already plagued with crime and corruption, becomes the arena when a maniacal madman challenges a vigilante crime fighter.
This is a very stylish looking film where Gotham City is a weird blend of 1940's metropolis and Gothic architecture. It's quite a surreal place that in some ways is hard to reconcile with our everyday reality. It's something like a dreamworld and doesn't seem much like the Gotham City of the comics either. The setting sets the stage for a rather schizophrenic film.
At times the film feels serious minded and yet at others there's a sense of exaggeration. Although nothing like the '60s era television series there is nonetheless an ever present element of camp to this. Some of the characters can be a bit too broad to be credible. To that end they come across as types rather than distinct characters. As such there are really only two characters in this film and the rest is window dressing.
Jack Nicholson nails it
as the Joker. He walks the fine line between maniacal menace and ridiculous clown and makes it work. There seems to be almost a childlike quality to him that can also instantly become homicidal without thought or hesitation. He just makes it feel so natural. Watching Nicholson I think he could have made the Joker work even without the elaborate make-up much like Heath Ledger would twenty years later.
Michael Keaton makes for an interesting Bruce Wayne. In this film Bruce Wayne is the invented identity because he doesn't seem sure of who he is and what he's supposed to do. He is whole only as Batman as if that is who he was always meant to be and Bruce Wayne is a cover, an afterthought. And despite seeming counterintuitive a casting choice Keaton does rather well as Batman. I think it's really in his eyes in telegraphing a convincing sense of determination and conviction. I also like that we saw something of Bruce/Batman as detective as well as crime fighter.
The rest of the characters are barely two dimensional. Even Vicki Vale doesn't really offer up any real substance of why she should get under Bruce's skin other than him finding her attractive. Any pretty girl could have played this role and no one would have noticed the difference. I don't mean this as a criticism of Kim Bassinger, but as a criticism of the character. She doesn't offer up anything of interest. Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent are basically nonexistent.
Alfred Pennyworth does marginally better. Here he comes across as a quietly strong yet gentle and caring soul. He is Bruce's surrogate father without being overtly judgemental.
Yes, there is an element of darkness to this film, but it's a matter of interpretation as to whether it resonates with the original subject matter. Looking at it now the degree of camp and cartoon like sensibility tends to undermine the supposed serious mindedness this film was said to have. Despite claiming to want to get away from camp they still succumbed to a measure of it anyway. And so, in that respect, I think it diverges from the original source materiel and isn't a truly definitive Batman film.
In 1989 a lot of us were taken with this film's version of Batman's costume and the Batmobile. In retrospect they don't work as well now. Keaton's Bat costume simply looks too heavy and unwieldy to be credible for someone who has to be able to move and fight quickly and near tirelessly. The Batmobile fits perfectly with the retro/Gothic look of Gotham City, but it's absurd as a believable car.
The other thing that gets me is how small this film feels. I mean in the sense it feels
like it was all filmed on a soundstage. It doesn't feel like it's part of a larger world hidden off camera and just beyond the sets.
I can still enjoy watching this film, but it doesn't resonate the way it once did. For me it's more a Tim Burton film than a Batman film.