1989. Directed by Tim Burton.
Paving the way for the cinematic age of the superhero, Tim Burton’s noir drenched take on the caped crusader is an intriguing film. Batman was one of the darker entries into the comic book genre at the time, using Art Deco architecture and a Stygian color palette to present Gotham as a city of another time. Jack Nicholson’s over the top embodiment of the clown prince of crime combines with Danny Elfman’s memorable score and Academy Award winning art direction to create a Gothic dreamscape where the terrors of the mind walk the streets and identity is the last battleground between good and evil.
On the surface, Batman hits all of the expected narrative points of a caped crusader epic. The Bat battles the Joker, grapples with trauma from the loss of his parents, experiences emotional discordance with intimacy, and is initially rebuked by the people he is attempting to save. However, Burton build’s on Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren’s script by placing the story in an alternate Gotham, cut off from traditional reality. Where later films, such as Nolan’s trilogy, would seek to weave the concepts of costumed vigilantes into plausible reality, Burton created not only an original take on the character, but an entirely unique world. There are similarities to reality, but Gotham is very much its own universe. The buildings emulate the sharp angles of Lang’s Metropolis, captured by Roger Pratt’s insightful cinematography, perfectly emulating the comic book experience. Looming shots of the doomed metropolis are interwoven with bold compositions of Welles-like chemical factories and avant-garde gatherings of the elite.
The thugs and police use antiquated weapons such as tommy guns while enshrouded in classic outfits designed Bob Ringwood. Paul Engelen’s makeup design is another outstanding touch, particularly with respect to everything outside of the already astonishing Joker prosthetics. While Nicholson’s demonic trickster is the centerpiece, Engelen’s devious designs align with Burton’s farcical realm of dread. From grinning victims of Joker’s chemical poisons to beleaguered, unwashed News Anchors, physical appearance, not just costumes, is an important part of Batman’s dangerous hysterics.
The overarching divide between wealth and poverty is bridged by the criminal element, symbolized through Jack Nicholson’s unforgettable portrayal of The Joker. The seminal character has had several incarnations over the years, with Nicholson’s being the most madcap of the bunch, harmonizing the gleeful insanity of Caesar Romero with the dangerous edge that Ledger would bring to the role years later. Nicholson’s embodiment is so over the top that it outshines Keaton’s Bruce Wayne/Batman in every interaction and while this initially appears as a flaw, it is also a testament to Keaton’s quiet restraint that showcases his immense supporting talent. Batman is a film about larger than life personas doing battle in a city of excessive dreams, a place directly responsible for their existence. Where Nicholson is the criminal turned maniacal aristocrat, Keaton is the fallen noble, a man with expansive wealth who drifts from scene to scene in a calculating haze of aloofness, waiting for the call to action. While both characters share certain qualities, each actors’ approach to the material beautifully conflict, carving out layers of subtext within their relationship and in their distinct views on the world around them.
Kim Basinger delivers an interesting turn as Wayne’s love interest, Vicki Vale. Initially, her scream laden performance may repulse, however, after repeated viewings, there’s an edge to her character that reveals itself, particularly during her scenes with Nicholson. Despite the facade of fear, Basinger’s physical cues are representative of someone who has looked death in the face and it is one of Batman’s few flaws that this concept wasn’t explored more fully, particularly her character’s experiences during a South American civil war. Her scenes with Keaton are placid, perhaps due to reasons outlined above, but an understanding of Vale’s history puts some of the soapy pleadings in the final act into a more forgivable light.
Prince performed the soundtrack, lacing the golden age throwback with funky rock tunes that were in high rotation during the summer of 1989. Party Man, the most memorable track is featured during the slapstick museum sequence, a scene that is the perfect summation of Batman’s theme. What appears playful and eccentric from a distance masks murderous intent and it is here that the Bat and the Joker first lay eyes upon another. Danny Elfman’s triumphant score outpaces the riotous soundtrack with an eclectic blend of inspiring anthems and shadowy undertones, simulating both Batman’s plight and the fallen metropolis of Gotham, a city living in the shadow of itself.
Available now for digital streaming, Batman is one of the most important American films of the ’80s. It created a blueprint that has been improved upon since its release and was the key to opening the floodgates of superhero related entertainment that continue to dominate the box office to this day. Nicholson’s epic performance is the brightest gem; however it is the world of Burton’s design that is Batman’s hidden power, a corrupted place of elegance and predation that has inspired nightmares and dreams since the film’s debut. If you’re looking to see where it all began, Batman is the caped patriarch, and it delivers on virtually every level.
Highly. Highly Recommend.