Batman (1989) Director: Tim Burton
“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
These old super hero movies are chucklingly fun, and delightfully nostalgic, but a bit too goofy at times for my taste. While groundbreaking for the time, Tim Burton’s foray into the Batman franchise comes across as an homage to some of the Dark Knight comics but it also strikes me as a conglomerate of missed opportunities –imagine the movie we could have gotten from the world’s leading proponent of contemporary German Expressionism joined by Jack Nicholson in the role of the Joker (apparently, Robin William was initially cast in the role as the Joker in a business ploy to lure Jack Nicholson). Amidst echoing Hollywood backlot sets and odd infusions of Prince songs to fill-out spontaneous musical montage sequences, Batman is a mostly mixed movie in my view. Even Tim Burton later called his own movie “boring.” It was trapped in production hell after the popularity of the Superman films (excluding the third and fourth installments), and many were concerned about the cheeky 1960s Adam West television show interpretation of Batman, however the publication of the comics The Dark Knight Returns (by Frank Miller) and The Killing Joke (Alan Moore and Brian Bolland) helped draw attention to a “darker” interpretation of the character (it’s hard to believe this film was once considered “dark” by today’s standards). A draft of the script was originally written by Superman writer Tom Mankiewicz, before being handed over to Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, but the story was apparently being rewritten constantly while filming was underway.
The film begins in what appears to be a flashback to Bruce Wayne’s familiar origins story, however the scene is quickly revealed to be simply another ordinary robbery on the streets of Gotham, and the criminals soon face punishment from Batman (we later receive an alternative origins story or Bruce in which a young Joker kills Bruce parents). At any rate, this film offers more of a Joker origins story as a young sociopath named Jack Napier is betrayed by his criminal employer and falls into a vat of chemicals which deforms his skin and face into the Joker. From here, the Joker assassinates his traitorous boss Grissom and assumes command of the criminal enterprise by unleashing Smylex, a kind of laughing agent, on the people of Gotham. A romance between Bruce Wayne and photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) before she is taken by the Joker and the film culminates in a battle atop a gargoyle-laden cathedral wherein the Joker falls to his death, still brandishing a menacing smile.
After Heath Ledger’s seminal performance as the maniacal Joker in Christopher Nolan’s arthouse interpretation of the Dark Knight, it’s hard to imagine anyone else succeeding in the role, however Jack Nicholson gives a terrific portrayal here nonetheless. Billy Dee Williams also makes a nice appearance as Harvey Dent, and despite the fact that Michael Keaton plays a great Batman character, his duel role as Bruce Wayne felt somewhat incomplete to me. Anyway, if you can overlook all the winking silliness and ridiculous 1980s musical montage sequences, Batman is a fun throwback complete with excellent cityscape designs, nice nods to the comics, and a great score by Danny Elfman.