Batman (1989) Directed by Tim Burton. With Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance and Jerry Hall.
It’s hard to do justice to the hype that surrounded the release of Tim Burton’s Batman, in 1989. It signalled the first proper big screen adaptation of the character, and the news that Jack Nicholson would play The Joker, seemed like the best piece of casting since the thing that was the best thing before sliced bread had been invented. In many ways, this was indicative of this era of Batman films. The villains were always of more interest than the title character himself.
In fairness, Burton attempts to delve into the psyche of Batman (Michael Keaton), while balancing the theatrics of Nicholson’s animated turn as The Joker. The trouble is, the film isn’t really about Batman’s character. It skips over the surface of his origins, rather than unearthing much about what makes him tick. Additionally, Michael Keaton’s brooding turn struggles to effectively win through, especially when paired on-screen with Nicholson in a role he was born to play. It’s not that Keaton is particularly bad, it’s just that he’s mostly unremarkable.
While we’re on the subject of Nicholson, it’s true that his performance is every bit as enjoyable as you might expect. Sure, there’s a lot of Cesar Romero’s iconic 1960’s interpretation of the character, but his version is much more sadistic and comically dangerous, an ante that was upped once more by Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s, The Dark Knight.
Tim Burton brings his usual brand of gothic flair, which is fun for the most part, but occasionally gets in the way as the film strays too far into the theatrics of pantomime silliness – a problem that became far more evident in the sequel, Batman Returns. Gotham city is an impressive sight, achieved through humongous, art deco sets. A talented illustrator, Tim Burton is at his best when focusing on the aesthetics and he really does bring the city to life, creating a perfect playground for the ensuing action.
Danny Eflman’s main theme and score speaks of mystery and heroism, while an original soundtrack provided by pop God, Prince, never really strikes a chord and seems an ill-fit for the piece.
Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale represents the damsel in distress, with limited effect, while Jack Palance’s performance is excellent, but too negligible to make a lasting impression. The screenplay is fine, if not a little saggy in places, while the plot doesn’t work any harder than it needs to. In truth, it’s no more complex than anything seen in the ’60’s TV series.
In summary, Batman has to be considered a success. It didn’t ought to be, but it is 85% Jack Nicholson’s film. His character absolutely dominates our interest, to the extent that Batman himself feels almost marginalised. The sophistication and roaring success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, has partly consigned this incarnation of the character to the superhero scrapheap, yet – there is still much fun to be had, with plenty of spectacle to spare. 3.5/5