Reflections on BATMAN (1989)

28 Jun

batman-michael-keatonLast Thursday, on the 27th anniversary of the release of the movie, I reminisced about the lead-up to Tim Burton’s Batman back in the spring of 1989 and the experience. I re-watched the film over the weekend and I have a few thoughts.

With 27 years of hindsight—including multiple superhero films and 7 new Batman films (BvS included)—Batman ’89 certainly has its faults. But it still retains its charms.

Observations

Gotham

Opening image of Gotham. As soon as the credits stop, Burton shows us a long view of Gotham. Up until this moment, the only live action image anyone had of Gotham was from the 1966 TV show. Numerous comics from the early 70s onward showed the city as a dark and scary place. Here, we get that. It’s obviously inspired by Blade Runner, but that’s okay. Right out of the gate, we’re told this will be different.

But when you get down to street level, you pretty much can tell they are movie sets. You get a claustrophobic sense down on the streets. That is a good thing, but it makes the movie smaller. One thing Christopher Nolan’s Batman films had going for it was exterior locations. They filmed in Chicago and Pittsburgh. You really felt the scale of Gotham in those movies.

Michael Keaton

Keaton was, and still remains, a fantastic Batman. Yes, he had limitations, namely the Batsuit, but he did great work. The first two times we see Batman are probably the best times. Every time after that, he’s just trying to save Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). And Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is the best of the original 4 Batman films (i.e., all the ones from the 1990s). You truly got the sense that he was a little, um, batty. (cue eye roll) Creatives can portray Bruce Wayne in many different ways, but if they’re going for actual crazy, Keaton nailed it. He’s still my favorite “Bruce Wayne” although George Clooney did an okay job. I didn’t like Val Kilmer’s Wayne too much (although his Batman was okay). Christian Bale’s Wayne had a lot more to work with and was good. Ditto for Ben Affleck.

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But Batman in the 1989 film didn’t really stop any crime. Think about it. In a traditional Batman comic, he would have swooped in and *prevented* the mugging. Here, he just gets the bad guys after they’ve hurt that family. It is in this aspect that the movie suffers from being an 80s action movie. There were certain tropes one had to put in and “Batman” followed the roadmap.

Jack Nicholson

Jack’s Joker was awesome in 1989. He was funny, dark, murderous, kooky. He had the traditional origin story with the chemicals and the skin and the grin. It worked well back then. Jack’s Joker in 2016 reveals that he’s more akin the Cesar Romero’s take in the 1966 TV show than Heath Ledger’s version in 2008. Don’t get me wrong: I still really enjoy Jack’s Joker, but he’s comic book villain—*Which was exactly what he was asked to do.* The best thing about Ledger’s Joker—and likely Jared Leto’s Joker later this summer in Suicide Squad—is that they had Jack’s version as a template and each actor was free to interpret the character however they wanted. And let’s not forget Mark Hamill’s version in Batman: The Animated Series. Arguably, the best version of Joker outside the comics.

But I loved Joker’s antics. Granted, his motivations are a little sketchy. And when did he have time to slap his logo on helicopters? And when did he have time to lace all those products with Smilex? [waves hand over face] It’s a movie, Scott. Don’t think too hard. I know, I know, but the same is true for Ledger’s Joker, minus the logos. His big plan seems to have been hatched very quickly. But I digress.

Vicki Vale

Kim Basinger screamed a lot. It grew tiresome on this rewatch. I don’t really have a problem with her. You had to have a female lead that both males sought, so she fulfilled her role. But the one thing that surprised me, especially as a parent, was that she and Wayne drank alcohol, “got a little drunk,” and slept together. In a superhero movie! Sure, it’s ‘real life,’ but, in 2016, Captain America finally gets a single kiss after five movies. Bruce Wayne takes his girl to bed before the halfway point in one movie. Boy, have times changed.

Batmobile

This one is an easy one. The 1966 Batmobile has always been my favorite. The 1989 Batmobile is my favorite film Batmobile. Kilmer’s version is too bright. Bale’s version isn’t a “bat” mobile, and Affleck’s version, while better than the rest, isn’t as iconic as the 1989 car.

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But what’s with all the guns? We’re talking Batman here, the man who became a masked vigilante because of his parents’ death. You saw, in the assassination scene where Joker and his other goons dressed as mimes, that Wayne still is mesmerized by gunfire. Keaton did a great job here. But why does the Batmobile—and Batwing (or Batplane?)—have all the bombs and guns? Answer: it’s a 1980s action film.

The Change in Origin Story

It’s a 1980s action film. Of course Joker, as a young Jack Napier, killed Bruce’s parents.

Other Things

Robert Wuhl as Alexander Knox. He’s the everyman, the Greek chorus, the Han Solo (minus the heroics). Still fun to watch. And his line about “a six-foot bat in Gotham city” is still one of the best lines of the movie.

Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon. Of the four films Hingle made, he’s the best in this one. He’s active. He’s in command. He’s a bit out of his league, but he’s still good in this one. I’ll have to watch the other three 1990s films to be sure.

Michael Gough’s Alfred. He is exactly what you’d expect from Alfred. Now, Michael Caine was a nice upgrade to the traditional Alfred and Jeremy Irons looks to be fantastic as Alfred. But Gough did a fine job, especially as the exasperated butler to Wayne’s absentmindedness.

The Campiness. It’s ironic that Batman ’89, the dark film that tried to distance itself from the TV’s Batman, has now been lapped by darker versions of Batman so much that the 1989 film now appears too campy for modern audiences. I’ll be honest: After seeing Batman v Superman this spring, I want more camp in a Batman film. They may have gone too dark for my tastes. But that’s me.

I could probably poke holes in a bunch of different things—STILL don’t understand how Joker’s giant pistol brings down the Batwing—but who cares, right? Batman ’89 is a fun film, wonderful for its time, and served as the template for all that has come since in superhero films.

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