BATMAN (1989): I’m Only Laughing On the Outside

Batman (1989) – Directed by Tim Burton – Starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, and Jack Palance.

And thus was born the modern superhero movie.

At least, that’s how history should have gone.

Tim Burton’s BATMAN is an artistic masterpiece and proved itself a tremendous financial success at the box office, but the only superhero films it seemed to spawn were other Batman movies. It would take eight years for a non-Batman DC-based hero to hit the big screen, when- well, why am I telling you. Of course you know I’m talking about Steel. It would take Marvel another year after that to get Blade to the theaters, only managing the direct-to-video Captain America and the unreleased Fantastic Four movie in the interim.

You can see the influence of BATMAN on the superhero genre once X-Men kicked off the true modern age of superhero cinema in 2000, but in truth I don’t think Burton’s movie has turned out to be anymore influential that Richard Donner’s Superman, and in double truth I don’t think any superhero movie in my lifetime will prove to be more influential than Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, which has set the template for how to successfully make a superhero film. I couldn’t tell you why BATMAN didn’t immediately spawn a host of superhero movies, except that Marvel was in no state to start churning out movies in 1989 and DC, it appears, either wasn’t interested or couldn’t get other projects off the ground.

For me, BATMAN is much more an artistic masterpiece than a superhero masterpiece; I’m much more impressed by the sets and costumes than I am by the Batman vs. Joker plot, and I honestly think Burton is more interested in them, too. There are parts of BATMAN where I’m kinda bored with the story but I’m never tired of looking at what’s on the screen. The plot of the movie is rather dull; Bruce Wayne/Batman (Michael Keaton) is arguably the third most important character in the film behind the Joker (Jack Nicholson) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). Maybe some of this has to do with star power, as I can’t think of another superhero film off the top of my head where the actor playing the villain got a higher billing than the actor playing the titular star. (Internet, I’m counting on you to correct me if I’m wrong. Which Percival has – check the comments. Thanks!)

While I love BATMAN, I don’t find it to be a particularly enlightening or insightful movie about the human condition. Jack Napier is a very bad guy who becomes psychotic as the Joker. Bruce Wayne is an introverted, emotionally crippled man who dresses up to kick people as a way of coping. Robert Wuhl plays a reporter who tenaciously dogs his story until the film needs him to go away. Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon are pointless. The only character who feels remotely insightful is Vicki Vale, the award-winning photographer who comes to Gotham to chase an urban legend because she’s missing something in her life.

Like most of his later movies, BATMAN is little more than an excuse for Burton to exploit the psychological failings of his characters. While I could watch this movie all day long, I don’t want to listen to it because it’s depressing. (Okay, I want to listen to a few of the Joker’s one-liners.) This Batman is a killer; while the film absolves him of the technicality of the Joker’s death, it’s Batman who punches him off the roof of a building, only to have the Joker catch himself just over the ledge. Tying their origins together (it’s Jack Napier who kills Bruce’s parents, and Bruce who causes Jack to fall into the vat of chemicals to become the Joker) doesn’t work for me because Bruce’s “breakthrough” when he realizes that it was Jack who killed mommy and daddy turns this into a straight revenge movie. It suggests that the lesson Bruce learned about his parents’ murder is that you kill before you are killed.

The movie opens by establishing Batman is a bad-ass. Then it becomes Alexander Knox’s story (Robert Wuhl), the reporter tracking down the Batman story no one else seems to believe. Then Vicki Vale enters and it becomes her movie. Then Jack Napier falls into a vat of chemicals and it’s his movie. Then sometimes Batman shows up to punch people, or Bruce Wayne shows up to stare pensively at the wall.

None of this makes BATMAN a bad movie, but I often find I’m less interested in the story than I am just absorbing how cool everything looks. Gotham City is as much a character as anyone else in the film; the city is dark and bleak, with towering, menacing buildings everywhere. When on the ground, the city is often broken and crumbling, but when characters look up Gotham becomes a jungle of steel and various architectural styles, and almost always shrouded in darkness. And the Batmobile is completely stunning; this is, by far, my favorite version of Bats’ car. The costume, too, is pretty darn stunning, and the whole feel of the film marks it as a transitional moment between Adam West’s camp and Chris Nolan’s realism.

The plot focuses on the birth of the Joker, and the machinations of the Joker, and the craziness of the Joker. It also focuses on Knox and Vale’s attempt to track the Batman story. And Batman … Batman just sort of reacts to things.

Burton’s conception of Batman and Bruce Wayne is that of a reclusive introvert, who prefers only to venture out at night and in costume. He does leave the mansion as Bruce on a couple of occasions, but there is no Wayne Industries for him to run. Instead, he ventures out to lay roses at the sight of his parents’ murder, or to apologize to Vicki. Bruce isn’t a playboy and he’s not a leading private citizen. Vicki and Knox can barely find any information on him, and at a party Vicki has to ask for help from people to even point Bruce out since she doesn’t even know what he looks like. Alfred is concerned for his introverted employer, too, pushing Bruce to develop a relationship with Vicki.

Michael Keaton is very good as Bruce and pretty good as Batman, but I still don’t feel we’ve seen the quintessential Batman on film. (Paging Daniel Craig …) Basinger and Wuhl are rather good, too, but the star of the film is Jack Nicholson. The Joker is ready-made to play to Nicholson’s excess and he takes full advantage, wonderfully hamming it up and delivering many of the film’s lines. Burton wastes other actors, though: Jack Palance, Pat Hingle, and Billy Dee Williams are almost unnecessary to the plot.

I like BATMAN for what it is and love it for what it was. I bought the poster and a t-shirt and thought Batmania was pretty cool to live through. After not watching this movie for probably a decade, BATMAN still holds up. Happily, the movie still looks as great as ever. Sadly, the movie still largely fails to move me.

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11 thoughts on “BATMAN (1989): I’m Only Laughing On the Outside

  1. “Maybe some of this has to do with star power, as I can’t think of another superhero film off the top of my head where the actor playing the villain got a higher billing than the actor playing the titular star. (Internet, I’m counting on you to correct me if I’m wrong.)”

    Superman: The Movie, and it was actually more extreme than in the case of Batman. Not only did the villain (Gene Hackman) get billed over the titular star (Christopher Reeve), but a supporting character (Marlon Brando) received the top billing, even over Hackman.

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  2. As usual, an amazing and insightful review, Mark. A few things I’d like to throw in there:
    1: Michael Keaton is my favorite Batman/Bruce Wayne. He’s got the second best Batman voice and I love the way that we can actually see him thinking when he’s in the Batcave working. And there’s just something about the way he introduces himself to Knox and Vicki Vale in the armory that sold me on him.

    2: An artistic genius he may be but Tim Burton can’t direct action scenes to save his life.

    3: How can you not grin at The Joker partying to Prince while wreaking havoc in Gotham City?

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    • Agreed on Michael Keaton; I still don’t think the quintessential Batman has hit the screen, yet, but he’s the best of the bunch. I love that he’s studious. I love that he’s socially awkard.

      I like the idea of the Joker/Prince combo more than the result. I don’t find these songs to be very strong but I like the use of them. Ironically, according to Wikipedia, Burton thinks the opposite – he likes the songs but not how they were used.

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  3. After Burton’s wondrous cityscapes I find Nolan’s Gotham dull and dreary. Thus far I haven’t been a huge of Nolan’s Batman movies. They are a definite step upward from Batman and Robin–but, even so, Batman and Robin had a Gotham City with more interesting architecture.

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  4. 1) You can see the influence of BATMAN on the superhero genre once X-Men kicked off the true modern age of superhero cinema in 2000, but in truth I don’t think Burton’s movie has turned out to be anymore influential that Richard Donner’s Superman

    Whilst this may be true for live-action films, I feel you’re overlooking the profound influence that this this film and Batman Retuns had on Batman the Animated Series and the resultant DC Animated Universe, which ran until about 2004.

    2) I don’t think any superhero movie in my lifetime will prove to be more influential than Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, which has set the template for how to successfully make a superhero film.

    Whilst I liked Iron Man, it isn’t the quintessential comic book movie due to the fact that the protagonist doesn’t spend enough time against the villain (I love Jeff Bridges, but the Iron Monger was an after-thought in the grand scheme of things). Robert Downey Jr. made the film a great character study, but the film tries its best to use charm to paper over its flaws. That notwithstanding, it’s easily a 9-9.5/10 film, but it’s not the archetype in my opinion.

    3) Michael Keaton is very good as Bruce and pretty good as Batman, but I still don’t feel we’ve seen the quintessential Batman on film. (Paging Daniel Craig …)

    What does Bond have to do with anything? If, as I imagine, the question is whether Craig could pull off the role, I think he could be an excellent Batman but his Wayne would be too close to Bond.

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  5. Hi, Ian. Thanks for the comments. On your points:

    1) Very true, but as I said, I was just talking about “superhero cinema.” That’s not to diminish B:TAS because it’s a fantastic show.

    2) I think Spider-Man 2 is probably the most quintessential superhero movie, but I think Iron Man has set the mold that all of the Marvel films follow by doing just what you say – making sure that the story at the center of the films is very much a character study and then making sure that the movie offers a fun experience with a hero who wants to be a hero. The angst and self-doubt that often crops up in the Spidey, Batman, and X-Men films isn’t here – Iron Man, Cap, Thor … these are heroes who want to be at the center of things. After the disappointment of Superman and Green Lantern, I think we’ll see DC movies move in that direction.

    3) On Craig, I just think he’d be a great Bruce and Batman.

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