Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman reviews a game-changing movie – Tim Burton’s Batman, released in 1989…
“Winged freak terrorises….wait ‘til they get a load of me!” growled Jack Nicholson in the middle reel of Tim Burton’s first outing with the Caped Crusader. And that of course was the point. If ever there was a pivotal moment for an entire cinematic genre, it was casting Nicholson in the role of The Joker in 1989’s movie. In the mid-1980s Hollywood had begun to take notice of super-hero properties as possible heavyweight assets due to the arrival of revisionist graphic works such as Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ run in Detective Comics, The Dark Knight, Batman Year One, Frank Miller’s stint on Daredevil, and of course Alan Moore’s The Watchmen. By the time the movie was released, middlebrow papers and magazines such as Time Out were doing something that several years earlier would have been anathema to them – they were not only taking the ballet of Batman and the Joker seriously, they were hyping it for all it was worth.
Of course that didn’t mean that the more elite U.K. rags were enamoured of Burton’s gothic- lite nightmare, but understood its importance in the pop culture firmament. People who would never have considered going to a spandex flick prior to 1989 had no qualms seeing Batman, which was a massive sea change for the much maligned genre. And genre-piece it remained – for all of Burton’s ambition regarding the project, it was widely seen as a slick empty contrivance, and a triumph of style over substance. It was also clear that despite the usual canards mentioned in the press regarding the duality of the two non-heroes and their mutual psychosis, that this, above all, was an event, the movie itself the sideshow at the heart of the media storm.
Burton’s effort demanded attention but did so by pretending to push the envelope – certainly it was an innovation to take costumed crime fighters and their nemeses as a legitimate concern, but beyond that the director played it safe. He correctly used Miller and Moore’s versions of Batman as a key influence for the movie’s themes, and brought Anton Furst on board as production designer for Gotham’s expressionist, dystopian cityscape. However the casting of Nicholson and the lightweight approach to characterization and script meant that the movie would only reflect its source material rather than make any effort to transcend its claustrophobia. Just having the movie on cinema screens was enough it seemed, but then fandom couldn’t have expected much more at this stage.
To be fair, despite the film being too dark in places, it still looks great – the immersive retro – noir giving it a fairy-tale quality. However the performances have dated, the predictable scenery-chewing from Nicholson a show-stopper that borders on pantomime. Michael Keaton’s turn as Batman (despite fandom opprobrium regarding his casting) is a rather muted affair for a man who could outdo Nicholson in the wild-eyed insanity stakes, but is right for the character – he’s meant to be mysterious, brooding and shadowy after all. Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale is a bewitching lead but has little to do, while the rest of the ensemble are all presentable if forgettable enough.
Burton admitted while promoting the film that he was never a comic book fan, but (for the time) was probably the best option to helm the production, simply because his works all had a four-color component. What cinemagoers got was the expected, with few surprises, the media more interested in Jack Nicholson’s salary than the plot, which was mainly lifted from Killing Joke and Englehart and Rogers’ Detective run. Even Nicholson’s part was at least partially lifted from his role in The Shining, which was what the audience wanted, while Burton’s take regarding the relationship between Batman and The Joker was that not only were they mirror images of each other, they were mutually responsible for who they had become, which (apart from being overly schematic) plays fast and loose with the canon. Such a move was fine for the monolith that is the Joker, but omits a considerable amount from Batman’s character, such as his detective skills.
In the end the movie did little to validate the world of comic-book fandom, which would continue to be the exclusive realm of the marginalised nerd for another fifteen years or so, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe allowed millennials (and everyone else) to openly like comic books, even if they had little interest in reading them. As far as the movie’s immediate legacy went, it led to three sequels, the first of which was passable while the other two plumbed such depths (especially the execrable Batman and Robin) that the franchise, along with comic-related movies in general, were quickly seen as passé and outmoded. As we all of course know it was Marvel who unwittingly brought everything back from the brink, a mere year after the disastrous fourth installment, with 1998’s Blade, which in turn provided the impetus for Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000. This movie got the ball rolling in earnest with several venerated actors on board, all of whom were happy to follow Nicholson’s earlier lead for a hefty paycheck and a slice of the profits. With the arrival of Spider-Man in 2002 Marvel properties were beginning to develop the process that would lead to market domination a decade later, which forced Warner to reboot the Batman brand, with Christopher Nolan producing two Bat-films that completely traduced the four earlier ones.
Nevertheless it all began with this first big budget super-hero feature, that, despite having a certain contempt at its core, proved that comic films with weightier pretensions could succeed at the box office. It paid lip-service to the cadences and camp humour of the 1966 television series while stealing from numerous sources, establishing a whole new set of conventions for the emerging genre. And it could only have been about the most accessible comic character of all. For that, this film will always retain its significance and importance.
And here’s the trailer for the film from back in 1989…