Batman (1989)

Batman
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Sam Hamm, story by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren and how cool are those names? I want a name that rhymes, holy crow.
(number 458)

This movie was huge when it was released. I mean.. super massive Batmania. There was this huge fad at my primary school for the trading cards, mostly the boys collected them but I did too because I’ve been a Batnerd since I was nine, apparently. You got like, 5 cards and a stick of mostly tasteless pink gum. I remember that Vicky Vale was a reallllly common card and was therefore deemed sort of worthless. In addition I’m pretty sure Prince’s Batdance song was number one on the charts for pretty much a year.

Prince was apparently specially commissioned for a bunch of the soundtrack of this film, and I found it really jarring on this rewatch. For the record, I watched this film at the tail end of my recent flight from Los Angeles, so I may have been more grumpy at it than is strictly reasonable. But I have to say that you’re watching the Burton styled Gotham with the Danny Elfman mood music and then it cuts to Prince and you’re just like, what?

The retro styling of this movie cannot be faulted though, it led straight into the Batman Animated series which was flawless in it’s gorgeous art deco, retro America grimy look. The men all wear hats and well, the women have massive shoulder pads and incredible eighties fashion but that’s cool too.

I caught a very nice bit of CGI, where Batman watches some villainy from the rooftops. Sweeping cape and all, very nice. In fact the opening sequence is a very nice fakeout because you think you’re seeing Bruce’s origin story, but actually Batman swings in and prevents the tragedy repeating. Very clever.

My main problem with these two early Batman movies by Burton is that Batman is pretty free with the violence, and I’m pretty sure he kills baddies. Now, this isn’t a huge problem unless you know the Batman mythology/comics and know how very set against killing Bruce is. I mean, it goes against his everything. So, that grates me. But I put it aside and paid attention to the rest of the film because it’s been years since I saw it and I didn’t remember very much.

I like that Billy Dee Williams is there as Harvey Dent, it would have been nice to see his story play out in a later film.

The Dark Knight is in the list, higher up, so I know I’m going to talk about the genius of people playing the Joker again but I do think Jack Nicholson’s performance here has been somewhat forgotten. He is flawless, even as Jack Napier – mobster, he has a knowing drawl and an utter ruthlessness about him. Once he becomes the Joker he has an obsession with appearances, hiding Smilex in beauty and hygiene products so that people who want to look good ultimately look like him, and die. Clever form of revenge, but he also uses beauty and ugliness interchangeably and takes pleasure in destroying fine works of art in the excellent art museum sequence.

Kim Basinger is also wonderful in this film, although her plucky, demanding reporter does eventually fall into Damsel in Distress territory which is annoying. Her amazing 80s styling cannot be faulted though, from the massive shoulder pads to the sheer black tights with pointy flats to the size of her hair, it’s all gorgeousness.

I did notice on this rewatch the amount of subtle references to clowns, you see a police officer slip on a banana peel for example. Eckhart is a pretty clear parallel of the excellent comic character Det Harvey Bullock, which makes me wonder why they didn’t just call him Bullock but whatever.

In this film the Joker is a statement on corruption – being betrayed by the boss who’s meant to look out for you. Gotham has always had stories of corruption but it’s interesting here because later on Joker became both pure chaos/anarchy or the mirror image of Batman. I don’t see those themes here as strongly although they are hinted at.

The movie fits in a lot of the Batman tropes, we have the difficult balance between Batman and Bruce Wayne, his desire to have someone close to him and then push them away and the villain having an inextricable tie to Batman himself. Plus, revenge for the death of the Waynes, everything being connected.

I found the climactic chase and action sequence a bit on the dull side but a large part of that will be because it was getting to the end of the 12 hour flight back from Los Angeles as I watched it.

Does it make me love the people? Yes, Keaton’s Wayne is rather geeky and loveable in this film and I actually really enjoyed Knox in this film. Vicky is interesting and fun but she’s maybe too much of a stereotype for the Batman ladies to feel her as a complex human character.

Knox actually has a very Jimmy Olsen-ish role in the film, he doesn’t get the girl he likes but he tries his best all the same, working hard and even taking a baseball bat to the masked villains during the smilex gas release sequence. Kinda bad ass.

Bechdel test: No, there’s Vicky and Alicia and they’re even in a scene together, but they talk through the Joker, with Vicky asking ‘why is she wearing a mask?’ directing it to the Joker rather than Alicia herself. So close, so close and yet so far away.

Best line: Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?

State of Mind: Nostalgia aside, this is a good, solid Bat-film. There’s a good blend of action and silliness. It’s a better movie than I remembered it being, and a pretty good plane movie. I am upset at the way Batman ensures the Joker’s death though, which is a huge drama in the comics (why don’t you just kill him?) and something Batman is tormented over, because he would never kill.

Also the canned laughter playing over Joker’s dead body is truly horrifying.

Watched movie count

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4 thoughts on “Batman (1989)

  1. Simply marvellous movie, innit!? Interesting your comment about Batman not killing anyone – I didn’t know that. I thought he did try and save the Joker, even at the end, but I’ve been wrong before.
    LOVE Batman Animated too – best Batman cartoon series, like, ever!

  2. Couldn’t resist commenting AGAIN, so much to say!
    I totally echo your mild disappointment with Vicki – she is excellent for much of it, but then turns into hand-on-forehead-swoon damsel in distress. Not great.

    Other than that, I positively adore Keaton’s Batman. Still the best. Like you say, the nerdy/geeky kind of bumbling that he does; his massive mansion with rooms he doesn’t even know about, all of that is positively endearing. No other Batman comes close to this day, imo.

    Jack Nicholson not only pioneered the Joker for me, but he set the standard. Of course he’s a wonderful actor, but he takes such delight in such horrid things, and exacts such revenge over those who cross him. Even his goons are scared of him And the laughter over his dead body and that smile…! The best word I have is “harrowing”. I still remember to this day!

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