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'Batman' (1989) - Looking Good at Thirty

by Steven Shinder 3 years ago in movie
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How well does it hold up 30 years later?

(Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures / Guber-Peters Company)

Thirty years ago saw the release of the Tim Burton-directed Batman movie, starring Michael Keaton as Batman, and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. When you watch it, you see a Gotham City that, despite having some characteristics of the present time of the film's release (such as Prince's music and Vicki Vale's 1980s fashion style), is heavily dominated by aesthetics of the 1940s, a trend that would carry over into the 1992 Batman: The Animated Series. It seems like a surreal, anachronistic marriage of time periods, but it works. Even when one watches it today. The film feels very much like a comic book, with little regard to when exactly it is supposed to take place and what would be authentic to a specific point in history. And while the film no longer resembles the present, it has aged very well.

Michael Keaton as Batman / Bruce Wayne (Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures / Guber-Peters Company)

Batman of Mystery

With people being so familiar with Batman's origin today, the opening of the film almost feels like it subverts the viewer's expectations, with a boy and his parents face a mugger. But this scene takes place in the present time of the film, with Batman already in the picture and the family not being the Waynes. It is not until the third act that we finally see the flashback of what motivated Batman to fight crime. We are presented with the idea that a traumatic experience for a kid could inform the choices they make as an adult. This movie feels very much like a psychological study of Batman, with photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) wanting Batman / Bruce Wayne to let him in. And Alfred (Michael Gough), in few words, conveys his displeasure with Batman's obsession with crime-fighting, even though he continues to serve and care for him.

We also get to see Keaton's take on Bruce Wayne, as he interacts with party guests, maintaining the persona of a sociable and generous billionaire. When reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) sees a giant mirror in the Wayne mansion, he remarks that "Bruce Vain" would be a more fitting name for the billionaire. But behind the mirror are cameras transmitting footage to the Batcave. So it is behind the mirror that one would see that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Meanwhile, Jack Napier looks into a mirror after falling into a vat of chemicals. And within the reflection of that mirror, he sees that he is the Joker.

Jack Nicholson as The Joker (Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures / Guber-Peters Company)

A Joker Origin with a Twist

This movie was filmed months after the release of Alan Moore and Brian Holland's graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke. This story has been so influential on Batman mythology, in that it reiterates the Red Hood falling in chemicals story from Detective Comics #168, while also suggesting that the Joker used to be a failed comedian, who turns to crime in a desperate attempt to support his pregnant wife, who ends up dying. Still having to go through with the crime masked as the Red Hood, he encounters Batman at Ace Chemical and falls into a vat of chemicals, that gives him the iconic Joker look that drives him mad. But the magic of this story is not the idea of the Joker having a sympathetic backstory, but rather his claim that this is one way he chooses to remember, and that he has a multiple choice backstory, leaving his origin ambiguous. I have always liked this air of mystery to the Joker's backstory, and future comics would play off of it.

In Batman '89, we get the Red Hood backstory, but without the Red Hood aspect. Jack Napier encounters Batman and falls in a vat of chemicals that give him his look. He is not a sympathetic character beforehand. In fact, if we are to believe Bruce Wayne's memory, in which a younger Jack (portrayed by a well-cast Hugo Blick) murders Thomas and Martha Wayne in Crime Alley, it looks as if Jack has been bad for a really long time. Bruce realizes that the murderer was Jack Napier when he hears Joker utter the phrase, "Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?" the same phrase that the shooter said.

Traditionally, Joe Chill is the one who mugs and murders Bruce Wayne's parents. There is a mugger partnered with Jack Napier in the flashback, and producer executive Michael E. Uslan has expressed that he wanted the mugger there and thinks of him as Joe Chill. According to him, Bob Kane actually preferred the backstory of the Joker creating Batman, believing that this would have been the backstory, had the Joker been thought of at the time that the first few Batman stories were being made. (The interview can be found here.) So what we get is a Joker who creates a Batman, who creates a Joker. It is not my preferred backstory for the Joker, but one could argue that it works within the context of this movie.

As for Nicholson himself, it is difficult for me to view him just as the Joker, since he clearly looks and sounds like Jack Nicholson, just with makeup on. Whenever I read the Joker, I hear the voices of Mark Hamill (usually), Heath Ledger (sometimes), and others who's voices are reminiscent of theirs. I wonder whether it would have been easier for me to buy into Nicholson's Joker had I grown up hearing this one's voice first. For his credit, though, he does a fantastic job of depicting the Joker's absurd obsession with using silly gags to hurt people. His gimmick which involves "transforming" people into art is very sadistic. It reminds me of the serial killers who have appeared in the show Hannibal.

So despite Nicholson not necessarily being "my Joker," I enjoyed his performance. So much so that a part of me thinks it may have been a mistake to kill him off. In this movie, Batman causes his death and even states beforehand, "I'm going to kill you." He even fires at the Joker from the Batwing. His intent to kill might seem odd to people so used to the "no kill rule." It is true that Batman has killed in very early comics and in some comics of the 1980s. But the public imagination likes to cite the "no kill rule," probably because it speaks volumes about Batman as a moral compass. I honestly prefer a Batman who tries not to kill. When I first read The Killing Joke, I did not see the ending as Batman killing the Joker. So I think I would have preferred a different end for the Joker. Getting rid of him closed off the potential for future films with him. But then again, the direction of the later films changed so much, so maybe it would not have mattered.

(Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures / Guber-Peters Company)

Verdict

This movie does a really good job of capturing the spirit of Batman. It is no wonder that many people cite Michael Keaton as their favorite live-action Batman, even suggesting that he should return for a Batman Beyond film. The cast did really well with what they were given. And while Billy Dee Williams never depicted Harvey Dent after this film, it is interesting seeing his portrayal of that character in this film, even if we are left to wonder, "What if?" Batman '89 surely had an influence on later comic book movies. (I even question whether Joker's flipping through pages of Vale's work and saying "crap" repeatedly is intentionally referenced in Spider-Man 2 by J.K. Simmons' J. Jonah Jameson.) While the pacing toward the end feels slower than it needs to be, I really enjoy this movie overall. So I would give it the following score:

8.75/10—A really good Batman film that was groundbreaking and set a high bar for later films to strive toward. And while I believe that there are Batman films that have exceeded this one, there is no doubt that Batman '89 will continue to be remembered for the successful film that it was.

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About the author

Steven Shinder

Author of fantasy horror comedy novel Lemons Loom Like Rain, which is available on Amazon. You can also read excerpts at stevenshinder.com and check out facebook.com/StevenShinderStorytelling.

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