Batman (1989) Movie Retro Review By Stephen McLaughlin

Batman

Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Bob Kane (Batman characters), Sam Hamm (story)
Stars: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger 

Taking you back to a time that because I wasn’t a comic book fan growing up in the sense of having access to comic and graphic novels throughout my childhood I was “subjected” to the television series of Batman, The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man. In particular the Batman Television Series of the 1960’s starring Adam West was the only Batman I was exposed to up to the age of 13 and then “Bang” and “Kappow” I saw the first photograph of Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight. I remember being mesmerised by the image and clearly thought this incarnation of Batman was terrifying and yet gripping my attention.

I don’t remember at the time that flurry when Keaton was announced. I supposed coming off the back of Beetlejuice it may have looked like an old pals act between Burton and Keaton. The fans wouldn’t be disappointed as many regard him as the best Bruce Wayne and the best Batman (separately and together) To top that I was then introduced to the terrifying presence of ‘The Joker”. I still to this day think that the Cesar Romero version is celebrated in a way in Jack Nicholson’s incarnation but Nicholson’s version certainly was darker and even more so terrifying than Keaton’s Batman.

One thing for sure was that Tim Burton had created a darker version of these characters than I was used to. The Bat-Suit was black and ripped, menacing and mysterious. Gotham City was fleshed out more with seedier characters and for the first time I understood the mission and predicament Bruce Wayne found himself in thanks to Burton’s vision. Admittedly Burton never claimed to be a comic book fan and admitted he never made the movie for avid comic book geeks. There is evidence in this as some of the Joker’s origin storyline was altered and having a hand in the demise of Thomas and Martha Wayne was pivotal to Bruce’s vengeance and more importantly how bad Jack Napier “The Joker” was. Of course I would discover years later that in fact it was at the hands of Joe Chill that Bruce would begin his path into becoming the symbol of hope for Gotham City.

Did the tone completely change from the 60’s series. I would say 98% of it did. The other 2% paid homage to those angle shots we saw in the television series and some of the bat toys remained. Even Jack Nicholson had a musical moment thanks to Prince’s “Party Man” but the biggest decision in changing the tone was to have Batman as a lone hero. Not having Robin appear was probably the boldest move Burton made and one I agreed with. I’m not having a go at the character of “The Boy Wonder” but it was a statement from Burton that he was making his film and his vision for Batman and potential sequels.

Michael Keaton was a great casting moment for the Director and looking back it was one of the actors finest moments. He managed to create the two personas required for the role in his actions, his speech patterns and his delivery. Keaton played the role of Wayne more mysterious than I had previously saw or witnessed since. He certainly was a billionaire that kept his cards close to his chest. The Keaton edginess and black humour was still evident though. It’s one of the traits of the actor I admire the most. His subtle craziness seeps out everyone and a while in these roles. Okay he went full crazy in Beetlejuice. Here it was like a therapeutic coming down of that character into the more complex Bruce Wayne. Kilmer to an extent had this in Batman Forever (1995) but by the time George Clooney took the reigns in 1997’s Batman and Robin the character had lost his way and was appearing more as a celebrity than a mysterious brooding dark knight. Thankfully the character on the big screen has a resurrection in Christian Bale’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” that carried on to Ben Affleck’s incarnation of recent time. Keaton cemented this back in 1989 and most fans still regard him the best of them all.

Jack Nicholson as the Joker. I remember thinking at the time that the role was perfect for him. I remember round about that time Robin Williams was rumoured to be portraying a potential Riddler Character that would have been as interesting but to be honest. If you are going to enter the DC comic book cinematic world then your villain must be Batman’s biggest arch nemesis of all time and Jack Nicholson at this time was the best version. I was slightly disheartened that after Heath Ledgers performance that some fans felt it necessary to compare both portrayals, which I felt was unfair on both actors. Both were given different directions to take the character. More so in Nicholson’s version that only had the 1960’s Romero version from live action to compare with. Ledger was brilliant and my favourite, but that doesn’t mean Jack’s Joker wasn’t amazing. Different in every sense, but equally good.

Overall, Batman (1989) was a game changer that could have gone horribly wrong (certainly on paper). You just have to look at films like Captain America (1990) or Daredevil (2003) but thankfully paved the way for a darker look at comic book heroes. Maybe this is an overstatement or perhaps over time this would have been created through the graphic novels in particularly the Frank Millar series. Nevertheless films like Watchmen, The Crow and even some of the  darker DCEU films and MCU have gone down this road. This review is more of an appreciation of the effect this film had on the comic book culture in its day. Looking at the movie today it holds up in most aspects. Some of the choreography is a little jaded and the batsuit actually looks like it was carved with a stanley knife. The sets look like a set these days of CGI but still has a charm to it that reverts back to an unintentional homage to the Adam West days. It is a film that should be viewed with that mindset and not to compare to what came after it. Highly Recommended.

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