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Review: Batman (1989)

Batman (1989)

Directed by: Tim Burton

Premise: Batman (Michael Keaton) brings justice to the streets of Gotham City as The Joker (Jack Nicholson) unleashes a reign of terror. Photojournalist Vickie Vale (Kim Bassinger) is caught between the two as she begins a relationship with Bruce Wayne but also becomes the object of The Joker’s obsession.

What Works: Tim Burton’s Batman is an ambitious adaptation of the superhero genre. Previous to this film, the only artistically successful superhero films had been Superman: the Movie and Superman II and the many things that the filmmakers did successfully in Batman ended up shaping the future of comic book adaptations specifically and science fiction and fantasy films more broadly. Rather than trying to force the unique universe of a comic book onto the real world, the 1989 version of Batman exists within its own environment and one of the most successful elements of this film is its perfectly conceived look. Like a lot of Tim Burton films, the art direction is one of the characters and the Gotham City of Tim Burton’s first Batman film is a mix of modern architecture with Gothic and industrial influences. The style works well and becomes the perfect playground for Batman and The Joker to chase each other through. The visuals of Batman are complemented by the sound. Danny Elfman provides one of his best scores and Prince fills in the soundtrack with songs that invoke a hip urban sound of the late 1980s. The casting of the 1989 version of Batman is among of the best in the genre; Michael Keaton captures the duality of Bruce Wayne/Batman’s split identity and he is able to sell the dramatic sequences as well as the action scenes. By casting an actor who was not primarily associated with action-adventure films, Batman’s heroics seem more perilous and his psychological trauma is more apparent. The other notable casting choice of the film is Jack Nicholson as The Joker; Nicholson brings the psychotic energy shown in performances in films like The Shining and The Departed but it’s extremely well focused and controlled; Nicholson is more in character and less stock-Jack in Batman than in many other performances, including some he won Academy Awards for. By combining technical accomplishments and a stellar cast Tim Burton’s Batman managed to do something that is now taken for granted: it took a fantastical story and infused it with mature themes and characters that had psychological depth. The result is an urban fairytale that became a standard bearer in its genre.

What Doesn’t: Comic book purists have objected to Tim Burton’s tampering with the mythology of the Batman character. It is important to remember that film adaptations are interpretations, not translations. The filmmaker’s job is to create his or her version of the characters and Burton does that with this film in ways that are distinct not only among the various incarnation of Batman but also among comic book pictures as a whole. Fan complaints aside, there are flaws to the film as the plot relies on coincidence a few too many times.

DVD extras: The two-disc special edition includes a commentary track, documentaries and featurettes, music videos, trailers, storyboards, and character profiles.

Bottom Line: Tim Burton’s Batman is one of the great superhero films. It set a standard for the genre that was reflected in films that immediately followed such as Dick Tracy and The Crow as well as later films like The Dark Knight. Even if it does stray a lot from its original source, it successfully combines mature themes and interesting characters with the action adventure goods audiences expect.

Episode: #198 (July 27, 2008); Revised #398 (July 29, 2012)