RELEASED: June 23rd 1989
DISTRIBUTED BY: Warner Bros.
DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton
WRITTEN BY: Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren
PRODUCED BY: Jon Peters & Peter Guber
MUSIC BY: Danny Elfman
STARRING: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough & Jack Palance
If you’ve never seen the classic Batman ’89, just know that that trailer does the film no favours.
The first ‘serious’ mainstream Batman movie, ’89 introduces audiences to Gotham City, a metropolis overrun by crime and home to the mysterious and elusive ‘Bat-Man’; a supposed crimefighter who prowls the city from the rooftops. This vigilante is eventually brought to the forefront, as a criminal who escapes his wrath, Jack Napier, becomes the villainous Joker, while intrepid photographer Vicki Vale catches the eye of Batman’s alter-ego, billionaire Bruce Wayne.
Obviously, some may dismiss this movie, especially in comparison to the likes of superhero movies we get now, but frankly, it’s definitely worth a watch. While the movie is quite long at just over two hours, it has a unique tone and aesthetic that really make it stand out from its successors.
While the Nolan films are known as the best of Batman on the big screen, one thing ’89 has over them is the way it depicts Gotham City. The Oscar-Winning art design shows us a painted Gotham that’s full of dark visuals that truly feel like a place where characters like Batman and Joker would feel at home, unlike the standardised cities seen in later movies. Frankly, every shot of Gotham is gorgeous, and the art design really meshes well with Burton’s noir take on the property. It doesn’t always look real, but that slightly off look really captures the ‘Gothic’ tone that makes these movies work.
Another thing that really makes this movie stand out is Jack Nicholson. While younger audiences will primarily concern themselves with the debating the pros and cons of the Heath Ledger and Jared Leto Jokers respectively, Jack Nicholson proves time and again in this movie that he still deserves to be at the forefront of the conversation. His maniacal mobster take on the character feels like it’s sprung out of a classic Batman comic book. He’s threatening and oftentimes downright weird, stopping in the midst of an important situation to make a killer joke – shooting acid from his lapel flower or giving someone an electrifying handshake. He dances between the sincere villain and the loose cannon, and every scene he’s in is pure joy to watch.
Nicholson’s Joker is pitted, of course, against Michael Keaton’s Batman. People were famously unsure about Keaton as a fit for the role, and while he does give a captivating and deep performance, he doesn’t make the most imposing Batman. His costume looks a bit loose and at times quite goofy – giving way to the infamous (and hilarious) Bat-turn. But it’s part of the campy charm that occasionally wafts into this otherwise grim epic that that allows for other characters, like the Joker, to work. Yes, it is obviously made in response to darker takes on Batman like The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke, but at its core, it still holds on to some of the fun that has allowed comic books to survive as a medium for so long. In that same vein, Keaton does well as the slightly lost, kind of goofy Bruce Wayne. He’s a very affable character, which makes him perhaps the most likeable take on the alter-ego seen on screen.
His performance works well with the likes of Kim Basinger and Robert Wuhl (the last two of the films leading quartet), and some of the lines they exchange are very fun and quite sharp.
Others are decidedly less so, however, with weird lines like “Shoot to kill. You know what I mean?” thrown in every now and then (Uh, yeah, we know what you mean – you just said it in the most basic way you can). The script, after a point, also seems to lose interest with some of its characters, with Commissioner Gordon fading out of the film, and Harvey Dent never to be seen from again (at least, not in the form of the ever-charming Billy Dee Williams – a crying shame).
It’s not perfect. And you could argue that outside the occasional lapses in the film’s quality itself, there are some things that stand in the way of it being a solid Batman adaptation. Batman’s skill levels, while impressive, see him taking a lot of hits. While his wanton disregard for murdering his enemies puts Batfleck’s blood-lust to shame.
Still, they’re all interpretations at the end of the day, and this one is an enjoyable watch.
All-in-all, I give it:
What about you? What do you think of Batman ’89? Is Nicholson a worthy contender for the title ‘Best Joker’, or does Heath Ledger still snag the top spot? Let me know in the comments below!