Each week in Late to the Party, someone posts about an older piece of media that they’ve just experienced for the first time. This week: Tim Burton’s first take on the Caped Crusader.
Batman is nothing if not a versatile character – ever since he first appeared in the 1930s, he has been a gun-toting detective, travelled across deep space to battle giant robots on Zur-En-Arrh and even run for Mayor against the Penguin.
But one of the most influential versions of Batman was released on the big screen in the summer of 1989, directed by the man behind Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. It was a critical and financial smash-hit, and comic conventions and pop culture websites are full of fans who insist that it is the definitive Batman movie.
Are they right? Let’s find out.
The directing and production design is (mostly) excellent
Let’s start by stating the obvious – Gotham looks incredible. A mixture of practical sets, matte paintings and miniatures come together to create a city that is atmospheric and oppressive.
It also feels more consistent than later adaptations – Batman Begins is great but it was clearly filmed in Chicago, the slum-like Narrows and the Monorail awkwardly inserted into wide shots. Burton and his team have created a Gotham that is cohesive while not being any city in particular. It feels like a comic book location.
There are also some excellent directing choices that tell the audience who the characters are without a lot of unnecessary dialogue. At the Wayne Manor gala, Bruce puts down a pen and Alfred immediately picks it up. Bruce places a glass on a table and it is instantly taken away. A simple yet elegant way to show us that Alfred is always looking out for our protagonist.
Unfortunately, not every aspect of the production holds up. While I like Danny Elfman’s opening theme1, the score felt inappropriate at times. When Jack Napier reveals himself as the Joker and murders his old boss, what could have been a frightening introduction to Batman’s greatest foe is undercut by fairground music blaring away as Joker shoots a man over and over.
Michael Keaton is a compelling Bruce Wayne
Despite the movie being called Batman, we find out very little about the titular character. There is no particular reason why Bruce Wayne dresses up as a bat, apart from a throwaway line about bats being great survivors. He acts like Zorro – a wealthy aristocrat who uses a black costume to hide his identity.2 For once, Batman is a persona, not the “real” person hidden under a playboy millionaire facade.
The film is not devoid of characterization for Batman. At the Axis Chemicals plant, Batman chases down Napier and is about to apprehend him when another gang member holds Gordon at gunpoint. Batman lets Napier go rather than risk another person’s life. When Napier returns the favour by murdering another cop in cold blood, Batman nevertheless tries to save Jack from falling off the walkway into a vat of acid. Even if the movie doesn’t quite follow Batman’s “no killing” rule3, we are clearly shown that Batman values human life.
That said, the primary focus remains Bruce Wayne, played by a charismatic Michael Keaton. The wonderful scene where he and Vicki Vale awkwardly eat soup at opposite ends of a massive table before deciding to eat in the kitchen with Alfred shows that despite his wealth, Bruce is humble and down-to-earth. Their relationship is cute and Keaton is extremely good at portraying introspection, essential when you are playing a man hiding an alter-ego.
Unfortunately, that changes in the third act for no real reason. Bruce goes to Vale’s apartment to confess his secret identity and acts like a jerk, telling Vicki to “shut up” and pushing her into a chair to stop her complaining about his behaviour. When the Joker turns up, Bruce goes on a long-winded rant before suddenly threatening Napier with a poker. I suppose you could say that it’s a ruse to get Joker to shoot him, but how does that help Vicki? It doesn’t feel like the Batman persona asserting itself either because Keaton plays the superhero more taciturn and in control.
Moreover, it seems like a missed opportunity to have an actual conversation between Bruce and Jack.4 Bruce saw Jack commit murder right in front of him at the Town Hall; Jack has poisoned and mutilated multiple people as well as directly threatening Vicki. Doesn’t Bruce have something more meaningful to say than “mean kid, bad seed, hurt people“?
Jack Nicholson is a … competent Joker
Writers tend to make the Joker interesting in one of two ways:
- Focus on his relationship with Batman – the mutual obsession and the consequences of that, which is what The Killing Joke is about.
- Focus on his personal philosophy and the conflict it creates – the obvious example being The Dark Knight where he represents chaos and Batman represents order.
Batman tries to do both and doesn’t get either of them quite right.
First of all, the positives. Jack Nicholson puts a lot of energy into his performance and he has nice chemistry with Keaton and Basinger. The scene in the backstreet surgery is perfection – Nicholson’s desperate attempt to remove his bandages, seeing his face and slowly starting to laugh is chilling. When Joker asks Bob for his gun and shoots him, it felt like a bit straight from a Batman comic.5
The problem is that half of Nicholson’s scenes are obnoxious and unfunny. The sequence with the mob bosses is garbage, wasted frames when the audience needs to understand why Joker hates Batman. His initial motivation is that someone is stealing his publicity, which is fine as a starting point but doesn’t feel like something that would build to a deep personal hatred. Their dynamic is very one-sided – Joker acts, Batman reacts without any sense of escalation.
As for the revelation that Jack Napier killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, that doesn’t bother me because it goes against canon but rather because it is anti-climactic.6 Bruce only makes the connection because Napier has apparently spent decades asking people “have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” before he murders them. There is also a bizarre twenty-minute gap between Bruce discovering the truth and his final confrontation with Joker in the belfry.7 It feels like a last minute attempt to make the conflict more personal and raise the stakes of the third act, and co-writer Sam Hamm’s admission that this was a studio-mandated change confirms my suspicion.
So, the personal relationship with Batman doesn’t work, but what about their ideologies? Well, underneath Nicholson’s hit-and-miss improvisation and the unfocused script is a really interesting take on the Joker. Napier was already narcissistic before he fell into a vat of acid, but his transformation changed these tendencies into a full-blown obsession. Thus, a Joker was born who is fixated on beauty, facade and spectacle.
This Joker makes elaborate collages out of photographs, being especially interested in pictures of atrocities. He defaces paintings that don’t fit his standard of beauty. He poisons cosmetics so that celebrities are forced to show their real, “flawed” faces. In an unusually disturbing scene, Joker shows Vale the scarred face of Alicia Hunt, his former lover and Grissom’s widow – he has “altered” Alicia’s face to make it more to his liking.
In the same scene with Alicia and Vicki, Joker explains what he is trying to do:
“You know how concerned people are about appearances. This is attractive, that is not. Well, that is all behind me. I now do what other people only dream. I make art until someone dies. See? I am the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist.”8
I would love to see a version of Batman that developed this idea to its full potential. Explore how Bruce is just as intrigued as the Joker by theatricality and spectacle. Focus on the human cost of this – how dressing up as a bat has alienated Bruce from his fellow man; how Joker has rejected social norms to better express himself but in doing so disregarded the lives of those around him. This gives the characters something in common that they can then disagree about.9
Imagine a reworked final scene where the Joker goes all out on a parade that celebrates excess and ultraviolence. Batman is framed as kind of a killjoy when he breaks it up, but he knows what can happen when people are treated as disposable. Maybe Alicia could help foil the Joker’s plans, reclaiming the agency that Napier took from her? That way, Joker doesn’t just lose in the final act – his ideology is discredited.
Kim Basinger gives the best performance of the movie
Batman movies tend to lack strong female characters, so I was pleasantly surprised with Kim Basinger’s portrayal of photojournalist Vicki Vale. In the film’s best scene, Joker lures her to an art gallery. After murdering the other patrons and defacing the paintings, he asks Vicki to “join me in the avant-garde of the new aesthetic” and become his photographer. Basinger’s performance in this scene is excellent – her small but firm voice, her periodic quivering, her attempts to comfort and flatter Joker as a survival tactic.
I also like that for most of the movie, Vale acts as a point-of-view character with the audience learning about Bruce’s psyche at the same time she does. It reminds me of the dynamic between Holmes and Watson, and it helps make Bruce more enigmatic than he is in most adaptations – people shouldn’t always know what Batman is thinking!
Unfortunately, Vicki has relatively little screen time and much of it is spent with Knox, a fellow reporter who objectifies her constantly while adding precious little to the plot. A better film would have Vale come to town to investigate the appearance of Batman and make that the inciting incident. The “love triangle” with Joker and Batman also had potential – Nicholson and Basinger have good chemistry, and a Vicki Vale who was torn between the earnest charm of Bruce Wayne and the vulgar spectacle of the Joker would have been interesting to see.
The Legacy of Batman ’89
It has become almost cliché to claim that Batman was the start of the modern love affair with superhero movies. The idea that Batman led to Blade, Blade led to Spiderman, until we all end up in theatres watching Captain America hit Thanos in the face with Mjölnir.
I call bullshit.
If you watch the behind-the-scenes featurettes, the creators openly acknowledge how the success of the first Superman movie 11 years prior was a huge source of inspiration for them, and this was after both Supergirl and The Quest for Peace had shown that superhero films could be financial disappointments.10
The success of Batman also led to the production of some absolutely terrible superhero movies that everyone has tried to forget – The Phantom, Steel, Spawn, Judge Dredd…
Furthermore, the character of Batman had been undergoing something of a renaissance in the late ’80s, with the The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke and Batman: Year One all being published at that time. You can see the influence of these comics on Burton’s movie, not just in Jack Napier’s transformation scene at the Axis Chemicals plant but also in how Bruce Wayne has only recently started his career as a vigilante, regularly getting shot by criminals and being treated with suspicion by the police.
In short, if you wanted a grittier and more “realistic” version of Batman back in 1989, you didn’t have to go to the cinema to get your fix.
So, is this the definitive Batman movie? Personally, I think The Dark Knight and The Lego Batman Movie are better portrayals of the character but Burton and his team have their own unique take that is worthy of appreciation. We need more movies where Batman is estranged from other people and the audience. The Joker as ultraviolent performance artist is an idea that is begging to be revisited and expanded upon. It would also be nice to see a Batman movie where Bruce and his love interest have real chemistry again.
What are your thoughts on Batman? Did I miss anything important? Let me know in the comments and if you want to do your own Late to the Party entry, click on this link and sign up – it’s fun!