Michael Keaton - Bruce Wayne/Batman
Jack Nicholson - Jack Napier/The Joker
Kim Basinger - Vicki Vale
Michael Gough - Alfred Pennyworth
Robert Wuhl - Alexander Knox
Tracey Walter - Bob
Jack Palance - Carl Grissom
Pat Hingle - Commissioner James Gordon
William Hootkins - Eckhardt
Jerry Hall - Alicia
Genre - Action/Fantasy/Comic Books
Running Time - 126 Minutes
Since everyone [including yours truly] is pretty excited about the upcoming THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, which will conclude the Christopher Nolan saga of The World's Greatest Detective, I figured it's time I took the time and watched the original 1989-1997 franchise based on one of the best comic book characters ever created, Batman. I will take a look at all the live-action adaptations [including a re-review of THE DARK KNIGHT] and maybe even discuss some of the animated feature films along the way as well. I already started with the campy 1966 film, BATMAN: THE MOVIE, as well as a recent animated flick, BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD. So it's time to really get serious and discuss the major franchise, before THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is released in June, by starting with the 1989 Tim Burton blockbuster, BATMAN.
BATMAN had a pretty rough pre-production and I'm surprised the film didn't come out worst for wearer because of it. The idea for a Batman film was conceived in 1979 after the massive success of Richard Donner's 1978's SUPERMAN: THE MOTION PICTURE starring Christopher Reeve in his iconic role. The issue at the time was the supposed tone of the film. By 1979, the comic book version of Batman was somewhat darker than the 1960s television version. Producers felt that this would confuse audiences, plus having the added pressure to capitalize on SUPERMAN, who was an All-American Hero type of character that lifted audience spirits. The idea was put in the back burner until 1982 with the release of SWAMP THING, another DC character that did well at the box office. Producers were now desperate to get this idea running, even trying to convince directors like Ivan Reitman, Robert Zemeckis, and even Joe Dante to direct the project.
The film project wouldn't gain hope until 1986, when DC comics had rebooted their brand and gave Batman a grittier character that had ever been seen. The graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns was a smash hit, depicting an older and broken Batman in a grim Gotham City. In 1988, the graphic novel called The Killing Joke was released to much success as well. The success of this darker tone gave producers and writers [Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren] hope that a live-action adaptation of a modern-day Batman would go over well with audiences. The final puzzle was complete when Warner Brothers, who owned the rights to the franchise, hired Tim Burton to direct following his successes with PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE and BEETLEJUICE. Things started to look bright.
Unfortunately, 1988 was a year of a devastating writer's strike. Since no writers working for any guild or union could work on rewrites for the completed screenplay, others had to be brought in and change certain aspects of what was believed to be a great screenplay. Dick Grayson, who was in the original version, was now taken out. Vicki Vale and Alexander Knox, who were supposed to die in the original version of the script, now survived for a happier ending. Other things were rewritten behind the original screenwriters' backs, causing much friction in the pre-production stage. Also, casting a comedic actor in Michael Keaton caused much controversy, as no one at the time could buy him as a dark character like Batman. This scared fans, as they were worried that BATMAN would be a campy film like the popular television show.
But there was no need to worry, as BATMAN was released in 1989 to some of the biggest marketing fanfare the world hadn't seen since probably the STAR WARS franchise years before. You couldn't get away from all the ad campaigns and publications eagerly awaiting the film. This was helped also by Tim Burton, who refused to release any promotional material until near the film's release, creating mystery and buzz over the project. The result was a $400 million-plus worldwide box office take, becoming the biggest film of 1989 and creating a franchise that's obviously continuing today. It proved naysayers wrong, as those who were expecting a campy version of the character got a big kick in the ass when the darker comic book version was unveiled and mega-successful to boot.
Gotham City, a gritty scene of sin and crime, is slowly being cleaned up by a mysterious man in black dressed up as a bat. No one knows who he is, where he comes from, or what his true agenda is. But Batman has quickly made a name for himself, scaring the criminal world and even the police force who are unsure what side he's on. Also many journalists, including Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), want to sensationalize Batman as Top News. Underneath the cape and cowl is millionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who decided to become a vigilante crime fighter after the murder of his parents he had witnessed as a child. Armed with a multitude of gadgets and incredibly high-tech vehicles, Wayne plans on avenging his parents and making good on it.
During one mission, Batman attempts to stop Gotham City's crime lord, Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), reign by attacking his group of men at a chemical plant. In midst of the fight, Batman accidentally sends Grissom's "number one guy" Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) into a vat of toxic waste. Napier emerges from the chemicals with his skin pigmented ghost white, hair green, and a face permanently plastered as a sinister grin. Now calling himself The Joker, Napier kills Grissom to take over the criminal activities of Gotham. His plan is to poison the entire city with chemicals called Smilex, that cause its victims to laugh to death. While being insanely delighted by his new sense of power and second chance at life, Batman makes him a target. He soon realizes that he's met The Joker once before the accident...as a child.
I remember clear as day - June 23, 1989 - my eight-year-old self watching BATMAN in theaters on opening day with my cousins and friends. I always discuss how 1978's HALLOWEEN changed my life at a young age. Well BATMAN was really the second movie to really create an impact on me. I always liked the darker, grittier works of art and BATMAN was right up my alley. The costume design, the art direction, the colorful characters, the Batmobile - it all hit me like a ton of bricks. I was in love with BATMAN and probably watched it 4 or 5 times during its initial theater release. My mom even bought me the VHS home video the day it was released, which unfortunately was stolen years ago. But BATMAN opened my eyes to the comic book world, where I invested a lot of time in until really the end of High School in 1999 [even though I still catch up on what's going on thanks to the World Wide Web]. You couldn't escape Bat-mania. Action figures, video games [I still have the NES adaptation], and T-shirts [one of which I owned and wore proudly] were everywhere. It really was something amazing to an eight-year-old kid. I couldn't wrap myself around it. It was like BATMAN was larger than life itself.
I think the last time I had actually watched BATMAN in full was in 1995, right before the release of BATMAN FOREVER. I would only manage to see glimpses here and there on television since. Even after buying the DVD, I still didn't even bother to watch it. So checking it out again during Christmas weekend was really something. I still enjoy it immensely 22 years later, as it still manages to entertain and make its two hours feel like a breeze. But what I didn't notice as a kid was how flawed the actual screenplay was. So even though I thought it was a perfect film when I was younger, I can see now that it really isn't. Still, there's a lot to love about one of Tim Burton's better films in his massive filmography.
Like I mentioned earlier, the screenplay went through many massive rewrites - to the point where the final version of the film was nothing like the version that was greenlit for production. It really should have been more of a mess than what's presented on film, but what we do get is still pretty solid and manages to relate a narrative that's easy to understand on superficial levels, even if its depth isn't as deep as it should be given all the comic book and character history. So what works and what doesn't about BATMAN?
I think the best thing about BATMAN is really the dialogue. Even though I hadn't watched the film in 16 years, I was still able to recite the lines as if I had watched it yesterday. That's how powerful and memorable the dialogue is. Obviously, the villain gets all the best lines. The Joker is hilarious, whether he talks about Gotham City needing an enema, to pondering where Batman gets his wonderful toys, and to asking Bruce Wayne whether he's ever danced with the Devil in a pale moonlight. The Joker is dialogue king here. The other characters do get some nice dialogue as well, but The Joker is the one you remember at the end.
I also got to praise the structure of the narrative. It introduces Batman right away, creating the mystery about who he is and what his agenda may be. It also quickly sets up the villains, especially Jack Napier, eventually leading to his transformation as The Joker. We get the love story angle. We get the struggle with the dual identity bit. We see the full circle arc between Batman and Joker, who made each other who they are. It's a template many other comic book films have followed since because it actually works and creates suspense and tension a film like this should do. There are many subplots and unfortunately not all of them are developed as well as they should be, but that's sometimes a sacrifice a filmmaker has to make in order to keep the story going and the pace fast. Things are easy to follow and the structure keeps the entertainment value high as the film never gets boring. A bit superficial, sure. But at least you're having fun with it.
And while not all the characters get great development, at least The Joker's character is amazingly written. Even though the film is called BATMAN, this film is really about The Joker [unfortunately a majority of this franchise has had more interesting villains than the heroes]. Even though his mission to poison Gotham City is a bit flawed and not really logical in a business sense, The Joker shows a ton of personality that really evolves once he emerges from that acid vat. From murdering Bruce Wayne's parents [which I will get into a bit later], to being Carl Grissom's "Number One Guy" [which he passes onto his henchman, Bob], to scarring his girlfriend Alicia, to vandalizing art, and to creating a chemical called Smilex that makes his victims laugh to death - The Joker is a pretty busy guy and does everything he can with a lot of style. He'll fry a man with a hand buzzer. He'll shoot the Batwing down with a gun who's barrel is probably 2 feet long. He'll squirt acid in people's faces from the flower on his purple jacket. He's sarcastic. He's insane. He's demented. He's vicious. The Joker is one of the best villains ever created period. The man has no conscious and is more than willing to laugh about it. The writers did a great job bringing this character to life and having the perfect actor at the time to portray him. He's a ham, but he's a ham you can embrace and enjoy as a personality.
Unfortunately, the other characters get the shaft because the film focuses more on The Joker and his activities above anyone else. Especially with Bruce Wayne/Batman, who never feels like the star of his own film at all. I think a flaw in the screenplay was not making BATMAN an origin story because we barely know this guy is. Maybe that's the point because he struggles with that issue at all. But the audience shouldn't have to experience that as well. That's why 2005's BATMAN BEGINS works so well - it allows the audience to watch Bruce Wayne grow from victim to vigilante in a believable way where he's build up and developed enough for the audience to embrace him as their hero. Sure, we get Bruce's parents getting killed in a short flashback to set up his motivations, but it really isn't enough to give him a personality. Unless you're a fan of the comic books, which this film really caters to, you'll be wondering why Bruce chose a bat as his animal of choice, how he learned to fight so well as he does, and how he manages to have so many cool gadgets at hand. Just because he's a millionaire doesn't mean he knows how to make that stuff. So his backstory would have fleshed out Bruce greatly. That's the reason why I have no major issue with the fact that Napier was chosen as the killer over the original murderer, Joe Cool. At least it connects Wayne to Napier as much as it connects Batman to The Joker. It gives Batman a story arc that we can buy and that's why we want him to get vengeance on the man who, without reason, murdered his parents. Plus he has cool cars, an awesome costume, and a bad ass attitude towards crime. But other than that, what else is there?
Same goes with Vicki Vale, who is really inserted into the story because every superhero narrative needs a love interest. But we barely know anything about her other than she takes photos, sleeps with men on the first date, and is very attractive to men with mental issues. The fact that Batman is so quickly thinking about telling Vicki his secret identity still makes me scratch my head. The fact that The Joker wants to fight Bruce Wayne for her comes out of nowhere, unless the official reason for the fight is because Vicki's a hot piece of ass. And don't get me started on Alfred actually LETTING her walk into the Batcave! What makes this woman so damn special? And why didn't Bruce bat [no pun intended] an eye to that anyway? Even the screenwriters thought that was a terrible idea.
Also there's the issue of convenience that BATMAN tends to have. For example, the Batwing has a pair of shears on the front of the craft. Did Batman really know The Joker was gonna hold a parade full of toxic filled balloon floats? Speaking of The Joker, how did he just happen to keep a long ass gun powerful enough with one shot to shoot down The Batwing? He never seen the craft before that moment! Plus, the people of Gotham were willing to celebrate The Joker's parade, even though he attempted to murder them with Smilex! I guess when Alexander Knox mentioned their greed, he wasn't kidding! There's more of these moments that I never really noticed before, making the film not only a head scratcher, but pretty funny at times too.
The soundtrack to BATMAN is still pretty solid after all these years. Danny Elfman's score is still one of his best ever, really creating an epic heroic feast for the ears. It was so good that it was even used for Batman: The Animated Series. Whenever I think of a Batman movie, Elfman's score always comes to mind. The Prince songs are also pretty cool, even though they do date the film pretty immensely. I think the songs do overstay their welcome at times, but I can't knock the music since it isn't terrible. I still dig the Prince soundtrack today, so it works for me. I think the music in general really creates an atmosphere and mood of the time. And who doesn't enjoy The Joker dancing to "Partyman"?
The special effects, while also a bit dated, are still pretty cool after all these years. There's obvious stop-motion animation, especially when The Batmobile shields itself into a cocoon. Plus there's some green screen that isn't hard to see, especially when people fall from large heights. Still, the costume design and art direction is fantastic. Gotham City looks like a really messed up version of New York City [even with a former Mayor Ed Koch look-a-like], which is what it should look like. The Batman costume looks awesome and they got The Joker look right with the white paint, green hair, red smile, and purple outfit. And the Batmobile and Batwing look awesome [I still prefer these over The Tumbler]. It's everything you would envision a Batman movie to look like.
The direction by Tim Burton is very good. While an odd choice to direct this film, since he wasn't really a fan of the character until he read The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, I think he was a great choice to start the franchise on a good note. Burton is a director who's more about style over substance, more focused on making Gotham City feel grim, gritty, and all-around dangerous. Burton's vision of Batman's world is visually impressive, as he creates a sort of film noir atmosphere but done for the 1980s. If Vicki Vale was a femme fatale character, BATMAN would fit right into the noir genre. In fact, Burton makes Gotham City a character on its own, which is just perfect. The film moves at a quick pace due to constant scene shifts, action sequences, and tight editing. I love the Smilex commercial. That could have been a short film on its own. The only real issue with Burton's direction, however, is that he doesn't really know how to direct action. While it's not bad at all, the fight choreography looks stilted and forced. Plus the editing during these scenes tend to cut away to something else. It's not Burton's strong suit, but it's adequate at best. I think his direction on BATMAN RETURNS is much better, but for his first big blockbuster Burton does a great job.
The acting is very good as well. Michael Keaton got a lot of heat for being cast as Batman, but to be honest with you, he's the best actor to play the role. For a while, I thought it was Christian Bale, but Keaton just pulls off the presence more naturally than Bale does. His Bruce Wayne comes across as conflicted and mysterious. He may not be the most handsome actor or look like a guy who can kick people's asses, but he brings a quiet intensity that gives dimension to the role. His Batman is pretty darn good as well, not needing a raspy voice to pull off the difference between the two roles. It was an inspired choice by Tim Burton and I think he made the right one.
Jack Nicholson is just phenomenal as Jack Napier/The Joker. Until Heath Ledger came along in 2008, he was the best live-action version of the character [Mark Hamill is still tops for the animated stuff though]. No one was more perfect at the time to play this role. Nicholson thrives on playing unhinged characters with glee, turning The Joker into a character you could both laugh at and laugh with as he destroyed people's lives just because he wanted to. Nicholson chews the scenery every time he's on screen, stealing the spotlight from all his co-stars and rubbing it in their faces. He has the most developed character, the best dialogue, and the most screen time - never once taking advantage that he could have just sat on his $6 million paycheck [which eventually turned into $50 million due to merchandise and box office receipts] and not bring anything to the table. You can tell Nicholson is having an incredible time in the role, which makes it fun for us to watch him. He's the star of the film without a shadow of a doubt.
Kim Basinger is decent as Vicki Vale. She doesn't really have much to do but take photos and act scared. The screaming got a bit irritating after a while, but it doesn't happen too often. Sean Young was originally supposed to play the character, but got injured in a horse-riding accident. Basinger was a very last-minute replacement and does what the script wants her to do. Michael Gough is understated as Alfred. He's a great actor and pulls off the character perfectly. Robert Wuhl is good as Alexander Knox, bringing some nice needed comedy to the film. Jack Palance resurrected his career as Carl Grissom, being as cool as ever. Tracey Walter is great as Bob, The Joker's "Number One Guy". His exit is very funny. Pat Hingle doesn't get to do much as Commissioner Gordon, but he's decent in his short amount of time. A very cool cast for a very cool comic book movie.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE DANCING WITH THE DEVIL IN A PALE MOONLIGHT
- Alicia is having an affair with Jack Napier behind Carl Grissom's back. Judging by her most famous relationship, I'm thinking Jack has "Moves Like Jagger".
- Jack is Grissom's "Number One Guy". I heard R. Kelly tell someone this as well, but I think the meaning was disgustingly different.
- "Eckhardt, think about the future!" Judging by his poor diet and sinful behavior, his future was all of 5 minutes.
- The plastic surgeon was disturbed by his work on The Joker's face. Not like his work on Joan Rivers was any better!
- Never double cross The Joker. All the push-ups in the world won't make you bulletproof.
- Both Batman and The Joker have an interest in Vicki Vale. She's too much trouble. You'll end up marrying her, having children, getting a bitter divorce, calling your children "pigs", and end up getting kick off an airplane for playing Words With Friends. It's not worth getting your Schwedy Balls busted over.
- Batman destroyed a building by dropping explosive balls from the Batmobile. Just like Justin Beiber destroying pop culture once his balls dropped.
THE FINAL HOWL
Besides a slight weakness in its screenplay, BATMAN is a great comic book adaptation at a time where it was rare and not all that optimistic for a live-action movie about a comic book character to be possibly good. It's got great acting [Jack Nicholson tops everyone], cool direction by Tim Burton, and a narrative that does justice to the Batman character even if it is flawed. If it wasn't for its high entertainment value all these years later and still managing to hold up better than I thought it would, BATMAN would have received a lower score. Not my favorite of the original four live-action films [that would be BATMAN RETURNS], but still a solid entry in the superhero genre and a precursor of things to come. Shine that Bat Signal proudly because BATMAN is still a blast to watch.
3.5 Howls Outta 4
PRINCE - "BATDANCE"
PRINCE - "PARTYMAN"