Batman Review (1989)


I was just watching a video of Kevin Smith talking about the crazy character that is Tim Burton. The video talked about the aftermath of Burton kicking Smith off of Superman. Kevin Smith made a joke to a reporter that the Lincoln Memorial scene at the end of Burton’s Planet of the Apes ripped off his comic book Chasing Dogma, and that he was going to sue. Not thinking that it was in anyway serious he forgot about the comment and moved on. But soon Burton responded with a comment that every Batman fan wished they never heard: “any of my friends know that I don’t read comics.” This line perfectly sums up the original 1989 Batman flick.

Now I fondly remember this film as a staple of my childhood; I watched this flick as much as the Indiana Jones trilogy. But as I got older and I started to read more comic books I realized how this film failed on nearly all levels. This film did not have the story, mood, or the feel of Batman.

With this said, I will stick by Michael Keaton as the best Bruce Wayne. His fighting skills as Batman looked stiff and awkward, which was more the way it was shot, but his Bruce Wayne was spot on. The scenes where he wooed Basinger’s Vicki Vale was suave, smooth, and at times heartfelt. But as previously stated there were flaws with Keaton’s Batman persona.

At times the fight scenes felt dated and it didn’t seem like Batman was the martial artist that he was depicted in the comics. It felt like the henchmen were bumbling idiots walking into punches or kicks that any man or woman with a pulse could have avoided. This is sad because I am watching Batman films for the Batman persona; yes a well fleshed out Bruce Wayne was welcomed but it was not what people paid money for. In the end most of the ‘Batman’ scenes were laughable and most of all dated.

In addition to the problems with the Batman fighting scenes Tim Burton took several liberties with the Batman character and the Batman universe. I am perfectly okay with a director making a few tweaks to the source material in order to make the film his or her own. But when he took the main values of Batman, the fact that he does not kill or use guns, and just completely ignored them it was quite unnerving. What is the point of Batman if he is just a homicidal maniac? Yes the character is supposed to be unbalanced; any man who dresses up as a bat at night to fight criminals has to be unstable to do that. But once Batman crossed the line and killed henchmen, this makes him no better than the criminals he fights.

Furthermore, Batman would not just go into battle guns blazing. How many damn times do you have to be shot until you realize ‘hey maybe I should not go directly at a guy with a gun. Maybe I should use the shadows, a gadget, or my cleverness to take down an enemy.’ Again, I reiterate I do not mind when a director or writer takes a few liberties with the source material, but certain values have to be set in stone.

Another aspect that really bothered me is that no one knew Bruce Wayne. They just knew he was a rich billionaire and that was about it. I understand they wanted to give the character a mysterious edge, but Bruce Wayne is the backbone of Gotham City. His philanthropy saves Gotham by day and he adapts the cowl to protect the city at night. Perhaps, in an age before the internet one would not be able to look up facts as quickly; but Bruce Wayne and his father were so important to the city that it is almost mind-numbingly annoying to find out that not a single reporter has kept tabs on him. And if I knew a quiet billionaire loner who lost his parents and could afford all of Batman’s gadgets would be the first person I suspect as the caped crusader.

But the film did set up a few things right. For instance I felt that Alfred was set up perfectly. The party scene where he constantly cleaned up Wayne’s mess perfectly showed how much Bruce needed him. And even though he does not have a lot of screen time you have the impression that he truly cares for Wayne; it truly was heartbreaking when he told Bruce that he did not want to bury another friend.

But unfortunately the other supporting characters were not as strong as Alfred. I personally never liked Robert Wuhl and his bumbling idiot reporter just annoyed me the whole film. Palance’s Grissom was just a plot device for the transformation of the Joker: a waste of a talented actor. Pat Hingle’s James Gordon was useless, which was upsetting because he is such a strong character in the comics. His raid of the chemical plant at the beginning of the film set up his character as naïve and dumb. In many ways one could make the case that not only Grissom but all these side characters were mere plot devices.

But the worst offender of this film was Basinger’s Vicki Vale, who reminded me of Kate Capshaw in Temple of Doom. Vicki Vale, a strong woman character, was reduced to a screaming ineffective reporter who was terrible at her job. She goes to a Bruce Wayne party and does not look up a picture of the host so she could recognize him: clearly demonstrating terrible reporter skills. She is a damsel that Batman needs to save and nothing else. Yes, in the comics she needed to be saved but at least the reader gets the feeling that she was an independent reporter: a Lois Lane type. I can completely understand why she did not return in Batman Returns; she was weak character that was severely underwritten. If she was designed to be a damsel at least give her some edge; the perfect example of this was the art gallery scene. Instead of having her scream every other line, the movie should have showed that she was defiant towards Joker.

Now the thing one cannot omit when talking about Burton’s Batman is Nicholson’s scene-chewing Joker. It is hard to talk about Nicholson’s performance in the post-Ledger world. Yes, these were two completely different interpretations of the killer clown but it is hard not to look back at Nicholson and cringe at some of the dialogue and acting choices. However, a piece of me still absolutely loved this performance; but it certainly cannot be recognized as Nicholson’s best performance.

Nicholson chewed the hell out of the scenery but his performance had an ambience that still made the character great. The way he breathes while he talked to his ‘number one guy,’ or his over the top laugh that reminded me of Hamill’s Joker, sort of helped me forget the details that I hated. Details like his constant dancing which was cheesy and unnecessary. Or the fact they gave the Joker a back-story; something that hurts the character more than it helps him. The Joker’s mysterious nature in the comics made his character more fascinating because the reader does not know the catalyst that forever changed a possibly normal person. This sense of unknowing leaves the reader’s imagination to run wild, which in the case of the Joker is quite unnerving. But Nicholson’s Joker never radiated this uneasy feeling because of the details that the overall film got wrong.

Now what was written did not always perfectly represent the Batman universe. At times throughout the film the tone tended to clash with certain character’s decisions. This means that the cheesiness tended to conflict with the dark serious tones. I have noticed this confliction in several of Burton’s films and times it was distracting in Batman: particularly the hand buzzing execution or the previously said dancing.

But as I continue to complain about this film I must stress the fact that this film holds a nostalgic value to me. It was a film that I watched constantly as a kid, but when I revisited it as an adult I found it quite underwhelming: on a comic book and film level. Maybe it is because I am a Batman nerd or maybe it is because I only like a handful of Burton films, but this film is just not what I remember [I am also looking at you Phantom Menace]. Even the set felt dated and empty compared to films today.

With all this said, it comes with great nostalgic displeasure to give Burton’s Batman a 5/10, but it is impossible for me to give it a higher rating.


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