Batman (1989)

*. Batman is often discussed as a sort of cinematic milestone, foreshadowing the coming rise — nay, dominance — of superhero franchise filmmaking. That’s not the way I see it. To me it seems more like the bloated tail-end of an earlier period of comic book movies that haven’t aged that well. Think of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, or Dick Tracy (which I referred to in my notes as “the last gasp of the old guard”).
*. The character of Batman came carrying a lot of baggage. After his decline into camp in the popular 1960s TV series starring Adam West, recent comic books (or graphic novels, as they were coming to be called) had been trying to recast the figure in a darker light. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke (1989) being the leading examples. In the twenty-first century this direction would become more pronounced with the Dark Knight movies of Christopher Nolan and Todd Phillips’s Joker, but in 1989 Batman would still be a hero with feet in both worlds.
*. Watching this movie again I do find it a darker movie than I remembered it being. But overall it still seems closer to the camp Batman. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a ringer for Cesar Romero’s, not just for his look but also in many of his mannerisms. His gang of henchmen comes straight out of the TV series, as does his toy helicopter. Yes, he’s “the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist,” but the violence is all comic book.

*. Nicholson gets a lot of praise for this movie, and heaven knows he got paid enough for it as well as insisting on top billing, but I’ll go out on a limb here and say I think he’s miscast. He’s the only thing in the movie worth watching because Michael Keaton is an even worse case of miscasting and Batman/Bruce Wayne is a stick anyway. Heath Ledger would do the same thing to Christian Bale, and in Joker the logical next step was taken and they just got rid of Batman altogether.
*. The reason I think Nicholson miscast is that he’s not very funny or threatening and he doesn’t move well. Is he supposed to be dancing during the two terrible Prince numbers? He’s not even keeping time with the music. As far as not being funny or threatening goes, most of that is a function of the poor script. It’s odd, watching it again, to realize how many of the best known lines from this movie are terrible. “You’re insane!” “I thought I was a Pisces.” “You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” “I’m of a mind to make some mookie.” “Remember you are my number one guy.” Nicholson does his best to sell crap like this, but it’s awful.
*. Speaking of problems with the script, how can Bruce Wayne  be such a mystery to the reporters? He’s Gotham’s most famous citizen and very much in the public eye. And yet they’re amazed to find out that his parents were murdered? It was headline news!
*. I said Keaton was miscast. That was felt to be a problem from the start. I think he tries hard, but he’s just not the thing. And he has zero chemistry with Kim Basinger. Though admittedly, chemistry with Kim has never been easy. I never even sensed any heat between her and Mickey Rourke in 9 1/2 Weeks.

*. Was Tim Burton a good choice to direct? Again I have my doubts. He doesn’t do action well, and this is an action movie. The fight scenes are terrible, with the movement all too slow and stiff. The Batmobile appears to be crawling through the streets of Gotham and even the Bat Jet seems to fly in slow motion. The film was shot at Pinewood and is way too studio bound, which makes the sets seem less impressive. I don’t mean to pigeonhole Burton, but the effect is not unlike watching stop-motion animation some of the time. Batman here in his hard plastic suit isn’t far removed from his later Lego incarnations.
*. Burton himself said “I liked parts of it, but the whole movie is mainly boring to me. It’s okay, but it was more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie.” Apparently he also didn’t like how Prince’s songs were used. I agree on all counts. The two big musical moments just stop the film dead.
*. I do like Danny Elfman’s score, but note how the movie dies whenever it’s not playing. For a comic book movie Batman has a really slack pace.
*. All of the problems I’ve outlined would get much worse as this original run of Batman movies continued, but I think it’s still worth pointing out how they were all here at the inception. This isn’t a good movie. I didn’t think so at the time, and while I don’t think any less of it today it hasn’t grown in my estimation either. While so much of the comic book aesthetic of film was transformed by Marvel Studios and the use of CGI, making this film a real throwback visually, perhaps it’s the character of the Joker that changed the most in our own day. Ironically, while Nicholson is pretty much the only reason to watch this Batman, he’s also the most retro element in the mix.

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