RETRO REVIEW – ‘Batman’

Written by J.T. Johnson

4-stars

ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: June 23, 1989
DIRECTOR: Tim Burton
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Pratt
WRITERS: Sam Hamm, Warren Skaaren
MUSIC: Danny Elfman

In 1989, Warner Bros. took a chance with Tim Burton, a young director who was making a name for himself with films like “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Beetlejuice”. They decided to give Burton the chance to direct “Batman”. Due to the great success Warner Bros. already had with “Superman”, it was only a matter of time before they brought the Caped Crusader back to the screen. The only question the studio had was how to go about bringing him back.

Before this film, most people were associated with the 1960s television series starring Adam West. In the comic books, however, Batman was already heading back to his darker roots. In fact, it was graphic novels such as Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Batman: Year One” that inspired Burton to make the film a darker retelling of the classic hero.

Not only was Burton’s role as director slightly controversial, but fans were outraged when actor Michael Keaton was hired by Burton to play the lead character. Fans were upset that Warner Bros. might be taking the series in a campier direction. This was because Keaton was mostly known for comedic roles in films such as the aforementioned “Beetlejuice”. It was not until a trailer was released that fans’ minds were put to ease and Keaton was accepted into the role.

The film starts at a time when Batman (Keaton) is nothing more than an elusive boogeyman that criminals talk about. The police, including Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) know more about what’s going on, but they are trying to keep things under wraps until they know even more. In the meantime, crime is actually on the rise due mostly to a powerful crime lord named Carl Grissom (Jack Palance).

Grissom’s right hand man is Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). Eventually, Batman and Jack meet, they have a confrontation, Jack falls into some acid, and the Joker is born. After dealing with Carl, the Joker sets about trying to take over Gotham while Batman does everything he can to stop the maniac.

The first thing to notice about the film is the fact that it is a truly dark piece. Burton did not set out to make a film for the kiddies. There is a film noir look present in every scene. Batman himself is an enigma in his own film and that helps also set the mood for the entire piece. Eventually, the audience does learn the back story for why the millionaire Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, but they never truly get to know him.

That is also one of the biggest problems with the film. By not paying much attention to this elusive creature of the night, Batman becomes a secondary character. The true star of the film is Nicholson as the Joker. The fact that it’s a truly fantastic performance makes up for the problem that Batman is not really the main character.

People who like to compare Nicholson’s performance to that of Heath Ledger’s in “The Dark Knight” are not being fair to Nicholson’s Joker. There have been many versions of Batman and his villains over the years. Ledger played the completely psychotic and downright scary version of the character while Nicholson truly was the Clown Prince of Crime but he still had enough menace to be a real threat.

Keaton gives a truly brilliant performance as the Dark Knight. It’s not easy to convince the audience that there’s a man out there dressing up like a bat to fight crime. There’s a thin line where one false move will take away the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Keaton does a great job at walking that line.

Burton’s version of Batman is obviously not perfect. There are many decisions made to the story of Batman that sends fans in a rage. The story can also drag in a couple of places and some of the effects have aged. Also, while they did a good job on the batsuit, one can tell that it’s a prototype and it’s a good thing that they tried to keep up with making the design better in future films.

’89 was considered the year of the bat and for good reason. Burton made a film that proved to studios that comic book films did not have to be brightened up for the kids. While Hollywood forgot that lesson for short time, “Batman” helped foreshadow the dominance of the comic book film almost ten years later.

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