In the decades since his first dramatic appearance in the pages of Detective Comics, Bruce Wayne/Batman has become a mainstream, worldwide, pop culture icon. The brainchild of writer Bob Kane, Batman was brought to life by artist Bill Finger and has been a popular staple of DC Comics and countless movies, videogames, and cartoons over the years. Although “Batman Day” was a few days ago, any day is a perfect excuse to celebrate comic’s grim and broody vigilante.
Released: 23 June 1989
Director: Tim Burton
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Budget: $34 million
Stars: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, and Michael Gough
Criminals of Gotham City are terrified and hounded by an armour-clad vigilante known only as the “Batman” (Keaton), who is secretly wealthy loner Bruce Wayne. Wayne’s vendetta against crime is confused when he falls for intrepid reporter Vicki Vale (Basinger) and mobster Jack Napier (Nicholson) undergoes a dramatic transformation into the hideous Joker and begins terrorising Gotham with tainted beauty products.
By the end of the eighties, Batman had undergone a long period of reinvention to transform him from a colourful, camp, family friendly figure and into a more serious, darker character. A lot of this can, of course, be attributed to the works of Frank Miller, which fully embraced the darker aspects of the character and it was this version of the character that producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael E. Uslan wanted to bring to life after they purchased the film rights to the character from DC Comics. The script underwent numerous drafts before Sam Hamm was brought in by director Tim Burton to produce the final screenplay. Burton, despite not being much of a comic book aficionado, related to the duality of the Bruce/Batman dynamic and the dark, gothic undertones of the character and was hired off the back of the financial success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (Burton, 1985) and Beetlejuice (ibid, 1988).
While Jack Nicholson was the top choice for the Joker, Burton ultimately cast Keaton in the title role (despite many of Hollywood’s leading men being considered) after directing him in the aforementioned Beetlejuice and considering him perfect for his (as in Burton’s) subdued, haunted, “Everyman” interpretation. The casting of “Mr. Mom” caused much controversy at the time, as did chaotic script rewrites during filming. Despite all this, Batman was a tremendous critical and commercial success; “Batmania” swept the nation, resulting in a mammoth gross of over $411 million and, despite some criticisms concerning its dark tone and Batman’s lack of screen time, Batman was met with largely favourable reviews, kick-starting a slew of sequels and forever setting the bar for live-action adaptations of the character going forward.
Batman begins by immediately establishing its tone as a far darker take on the character thanks, largely, to Danny Elfman’s fantastic and unparalleled Batman theme; bombastic, operatic, and tinged with a gothic undertone, Elfman’s Batman theme was as much a part of Batman as the suit or the cinematography. There’s no messing about with Batman having to “earn” his theme or building towards some kind of heroic crescendo; it simply blasts at you alongside the film’s title to literally scream “Batman”. Following this, we’re introduced to Gotham City, a dark, dreary, and grimy city that has a timeless quality thanks to its mixed of thirties, fifties, and eighties clothing and architecture. The city is almost a character unto itself with its gothic trappings, dingy back alleyways, and looming, ominous presence that is only made more threatening by the abundance of street crime.
Thankfully, we’re quickly introduced to the titular vigilante but, while Batman makes an impression by slowly dropping into frame and then dispatching two thugs with ease and efficiency, what really adds to his mystique is horror stories of his presence that literally has criminals in fear of “The Bat”. Batman then adds to his mystique by taking two shots directly to the chest and rising again and threatening one of the thugs to spread the word about his presence. It’s a powerful, incredibly effectively introduction to the character, who speaks with a low, threatening whisper and is seen to actually strike fear into the hearts of the city’s criminals rather than simply targeting organised crime. This is something I feel is key to Batman’s character; he was, after all, born out of a random act of violence so it bothers me when it gets unduly distracted by corruption or supervillains.
Indeed, Gotham’s biggest crime boss, Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), and his “number one guy” Jack Napier are more concerned with district attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) than they are with the Batman. Having operated for six months and earned a reputation as an urban vigilante, Batman is, instead, the dread of criminals everywhere, the ire of policemen like Lieutenant Max Eckhardt (William Hootkins) and Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Pat Hingle), and the obsession of Gotham Globe reporter Alexander Knox (Wuhl). That’s not to say that corruption isn’t rife in Gotham, however, as Eckhardt is on Grissom’s take, and the city is slowly crumbling under Grissom’s influence and the state of their economy.
Batman is also a fascination of news photographer Vicki Vale, who specifically comes to Gotham after reading Knox’s stories and “likes bats” (which is a…little weird, to be honest). Intrigued by Bruce upon first meeting him, she agrees to meet with him on a date (which is amusing in its awkwardness, with Bruce’s confusion at the dining room a particular highlight) and ends up in bed with him. She is then greatly perturbed when Bruce fails to show any interest in her or return her calls, slowly becoming as
interested obsessed with Bruce as Knox is with Batman; she senses that the opulence of luxury doesn’t seem to fit with Bruce’s demeanour and is shocked to discover the trauma he experienced as a child. While an emotional catalyst and an interesting enough character in her own right, Vicki very quickly becomes little more than a screaming damsel-in-distress; the Joker becomes infatuated with her, turning his rivalry with Batman into more of a love triangle than a violent battle of wills and ideals, and Batman’s final confrontation with the Joker is as much about rescuing her as it is about revenge.
It’s telling that Bruce Wayne doesn’t actually appear in the film until after Batman and Napier have been introduced; Bruce, a wealthy bachelor, is not as prominent a figure as you may expect. While he hosts a fundraiser at Wayne Manor, he’s like a ghost in his own home and is known more for his affluent wealth than his physical appearance (while I can understand Vicki not knowing who he is since she’s new in town, Knox doesn’t recognise him either). An awkward, distracted individual, he seems uncomfortable in his own skin but this may be because he’s (shock-of-shocks!) secretly the Batman! With cameras secretly hidden all over his mansion, Bruce monitors his guests from the cavernous Batcave and seems far more comfortable hiding behind the grim visage of the Batman. Haunted by his parents’ deaths and driven by an obsession to use his pain for good, Bruce has crafted a ferocious persona to dispense justice but is losing his grip on his humanity in the process.
Napier, who has a reputation for being a “nutball” even before he takes an acid bath, is Grissom’s right-hand man; egotistical and self-absorbed, Napier is so arrogant that he’s even sleeping with Grissom’s moll, Alicia (Jerry Hall), on the side and considers himself untouchable. Unfortunately for him, this isn’t the case as he is set up by Grissom and supposed to be killed by the police while cleaning out Axis Chemicals; while he gets a measure of payback by shooting Eckhardt in cold blood, he ends up taking a bullet to the face thanks to his shot ricocheting off Batman’s gauntlet and then plunging into an acid pit despite Batman’s best efforts. Although he survives the dip, he is horrifically scarred and mutilated by the injury, and the acid, which breaks his already fractured psyche and gives birth to a colourful, maniacal supervillain: The Joker!
Sporting a wicked permanent smile and clearly off his rocker, the Joker is a flamboyant, sadistic villain who quickly executes his former boss and assumes control of his operation. Though initially a glorified gangster with a flair for the comedic, the Joker quickly becomes a charismatic and dangerous threat to the city when he plots to taint beauty supplies with the same concoction that transformed him. Obsessed with art, he believes himself to be a living work of art and wishes to turn all of Gotham into a pale-faced, permanently-smiling pile of bodies but quickly becomes jealous of Batman for stealing all of the headlines and “[getting] all of [his] press”. As random and weird as all this seems, it’s very similar to a lot of the Joker’s madcap plots from the comics and eventually culminates in him riding an elaborate parade through the city while his “Smilex” gas covers those in attendance.
You might have noticed that I haven’t spoken about Batman all that much and there’s a reason for that; Nicholson’s energetic charisma and scene-stealing performance dominates the majority of the film, with scenes such as when he fries a mob boss with his lethal joy buzzer and executes another with a poison pen being notable highlights. Still, when Batman does appear, he immediately takes control of the screen; dressed head to toe in black armour, Batman cuts an intimidating (if restrictive) figure. However, while it is noticeable that Keaton cannot turn his head, the film does a commendable job of hiding the limitations of the suit and it is always perfectly shot, seeped in darkness and shadow and always shown in the most dynamic way possible. While Batman’s fight scenes are a bit clunky and awkward, he has a bevvy of gadgets at his disposal, the most impressive of which is his sleek, powerful Batmobile. Rather than a sports car or a tank, this is an aerodynamic and intimidating vehicle which bursts through the city streets with a burst of flame and sports such optional extras as machine guns and an impenetrable shield. However, if the Batmobile is, somehow, too blasé for you, Batman also pilots the Batwing for the finale! This, as you might expect, results in some very impressive and detailed model shots and miniatures as Batman glides gracefully through the dark night skies…only to be promptly shot down by the Joker’s comically oversized pistol!
It’s easy to forget that Batman features some fantastic actors; Jack Palance was a big name in the eighties and, while his role is small, he’s perfectly cast as a cantankerous mob boss and it’s great to see Billy Dee Williams but he hardly factors into the film at all and it’s a real shame that he got shafted in the sequels as he’s a charismatic and magnetic presence even in his brief screen time. Similarly, Commissioner Gordon is barely in the film but Pat Hingle plays the character with a gruff weariness that helps him to stand out in his few scenes. The upside to this, though, is the exploration of Bruce’s psyche through Vicki’s investigation; while Batman doesn’t go into massive amounts of detail in exploring why Bruce does what he does, there’s enough here to give a sense of the character’s obsession and trauma and the film is more concerned with portraying Batman as an urban myth (which I absolutely love as I feel this is how the character should be portrayed most of the time) and his eventual acceptance as an ally of the city and its police department.
While Batman remains a very impressive and engaging take on the character, it does over emphasise his “Everyman” qualities a little too much. There’s no suggestion that Bruce spent any time travelling the world or training to be the peak of human mental and physical perfection; instead, it seems like Bruce spent all his time, effort, and money in building his suit, cave, and many Bat-gadgets. Still, while the lack of any real physical presence on Bruce’s part is a little disappointing, he makes up for it with his intelligence; a common part of the character that is often downplayed is his status as the world’s greatest detective and, while this isn’t massively emphasised in Batman, it does get some exposure in Bruce’s ability to figure out how the Joker is poisoning the city.
Bruce also makes up for his unimpressive physique and stature with a focused intensity; it’s all about the eyes with Keaton and he exudes a tortured demeanour, especially in private, where he lapses into a brooding countenance and pushes away all other distractions in favour of focusing purely on his investigation into the Joker. This is a version of Bruce Wayne who categorically needs the suit to become Batman; even now, the Batsuit is impressive and remains one of my favourites for the way it manages to balance being anatomically correct, somewhat impractical, and intimidating all at the same time. Yes, Keaton is a bit clumsy and awkward at times but, as I said, the film makes every effort to hide the suit’s limitations and it works fantastically; Keaton looks threatening and absolutely bad-ass in the suit and it played a large part in throwing off Batman’s reputation as a camp and colourful superhero.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this portrayal of Batman, though, is how unhinged the character appears to be; Vicki even tells Batman that many believe him to be as dangerous and psychotic as the Joker and Bruce definitely seems to be on the razor’s edge of sanity throughout the film. This is best seen in one of my favourite scenes in the film, which is the confrontation between Bruce and the Joker in Vicki’s apartment; here, Bruce’s façade slips noticeably, outrageously, and he flies into a maniac rage as he threatens the Joker. It’s intense and massively over the top and punctuated by the Joker’s ridiculous admonition: “Never rub another man’s rhubarb!”
Bruce’s mental stability is of particular concern to his long-serving butler and father figure, Alfred Pennyworth (Gough), who dotes on Bruce like a grandfather and supports his endeavours but is continuously seen to be concerned for Bruce’s welfare and encourages him to leave his double life behind and settle down with Vicki, whom he sees as a positive influence on Bruce’s life and demeanour. This is explicitly stated at least twice in the film (once when Bruce is laboriously going over Napier’s criminal file and later when Alfred voices his wish to not have to grieve for Bruce as he does for his parents) and is precisely the reason why Alfred later allows Vicki into the Batcave. Unlike so many people, I never had a problem with this plot point as it makes perfect sense; Alfred wants Bruce to settle down, live a normal life, and to abandon his crusade and, when Bruce flounders in admitting his double life to Vicki, Alfred intercedes and forces him to reconcile his two lives.
Of course, the real star of the show here is Jack Nicholson as the Joker; clearly revelling in the role, Nicholson looks to be having the time of his life and his Joker, despite being middle-aged and lacking the slim figure of his comic book counterpart. As colourful and iconic as his portrayal may be, however, it’s forever tarnished by the decision to have Napier be the man responsible for killing Bruce’s parents. As a kid, I didn’t really mind this all that much as this event hadn’t really been a major part of any of the Batman stories I’d read at the time and, even now, it doesn’t really enrage me that much and I can see why the change was made. It’s a quick and easy way to add a little more animosity to the Joker and Batman’s relationship and, without it, the love triangle aspect of the film would have been far more noticeable but I can’t say I’m a massive fan of the change, or the decision to give the Joker a name. Sadly, subsequent films learned very little from Batman’s few mistakes, with Spider-Man 3 (Raimi, 2007) making a similar bizarre retcon and Joker (Phillips, 2019) crafting an entire new alter ego for the character.
Batman remains an iconic and enduring film, for me at least; nostalgia plays a big part in this, of course, but I still maintain that this is one of the best adaptations of the character ever made. Keaton was fantastic in the title role and I had absolutely no problem with his Batman killing; he’s hardly a serial killer and subdues criminals far more often than killing them and, considering the Joker’s role in the death of his parents, it makes sense that he’d go out of his way to kill the Joker. It’s harder to explain the death of that random Joker thug in the bell tower but, as I’ve stressed on numerous occasions, Batman’s line of work is violent and dangerous and collateral damage is to be expected.
With a fantastic and memorable soundtrack and absolutely spectacular sense of visual style, Batman is definitely more style over substance but there is a lot of nuance to the film; as a deconstruction of this version of the character, it works really well and Burton definitely explores the dark, tortured, lonely aspects of Bruce’s character in his own unique way. His interpretation of the character may be a little skewed but the spirit of Batman’s character is masterfully evoked and Batman definitely set the standard not just for subsequent adaptations of the character but for all superhero films by proving that superhero movies could be dark, serious adaptations while still being over the top, comedic, and entertaining.
What are your thoughts on Batman? How does it hold up for you today and where would you rank it against other Batman movies? What did you think to Michael Keaton’s portrayal of the character? Do you think he managed to embody Batman’s brooding nature or were you put off by his unimpressive physique? Were you a fan of Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker? What did you think to the reveal that he was responsible for the Wayne’s deaths and Alfred’s decision to let Vicki into the Batcave? Were you a fan of the Batsuit, the Batmobile, and the film’s visual style or do you think Burton maybe missed the point of Batman? How did you celebrate Batman Day and what are some of your favourite stories, characters, moments, and adaptations of the character’s long history? Whatever you think, share your comments down below.