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Batman (1989)
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BATMAN (1989)

Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle

Written By: Sam Hamm (also story), Warren Skaaren Directed By: Tim Burton

The Short Version

Behold the last Great Film of the 1980s, and the first truly modern comic book flick.

Batman isn’t just a movie; it’s an artistic statement.

Despite pre-release skepticism from nearly everyone, Michael Keaton nails the role of Bruce Wayne.

Oh, that music.

Batman is a must-own not just for comic fans, but for any true cinephile.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Sharp, and crafted with style.

Pairs Well With...


Bat rum.

“She is great, isn’t she?”

The summer of 1989 was one of the truly great summers for cinephiles.  There were lots of fantastic flicks to choose from, the theatre experience was affordable at any wage, and the fun seemed just plain endless.  Buddy cops, Indiana Jones, James Bond, aliens hiding out beneath the waves; all of these and more were waiting on the big screen to delight any audience that happened by.  But of all the wonderful motion pictures that played during that golden summer, only one truly ruled the box office.

That movie was Batman, the last Great Film of the 1980s, and the first truly modern comic book flick.

Batman is an artistic statement.  German Expressionist atmospherics are draped atop dirtied up Art Deco sets while a Gothic Hero and Villain duke it out surrounded by a cast of Noir characters.  The character play is Operatic in style with Andrew Lloyd Webber overtones (one could argue that both the Hero and the Villain play the Phantom; mirror images fighting over a shutterbug take on Christine Daae) built upon the framework of a 1980s action flick and flavored with a generous dash of the angst that would come to define the decade yet to come.  But don’t even think about calling Batman derivative; Director Tim Burton (who cemented his reputation with this picture) brings together this amalgamation of past styles, the signature of the then-present day, and that little bit of cultural future casting to put forward a vision the likes of which had never been seen before, and that even he himself would never quite be able to capture again. 

It is, indeed, a masterwork.

Let’s start with the frame.  The 1980s and early 1990s were the Golden Age of Action Movies, and 1989 is when the wave started to crest.  The formula was simple and rarely varied.  A collection of action sequences were strung together along the sometimes-invisible and always-loose thread of a plot that was usually questionable at best.  Character archetypes Did Their Thing, punctuating the action with witty exchanges and occasionally devastating one-liners to keep everything fun.  With one very important exception, this is exactly the movie that Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren have written at Tim Burton’s behest.  (Well, mostly; there are some parts he's known to have been unhappy with.) The razor thin plot is just an excuse to tell the origin stories of Batman and The Joker before setting them at each other’s throats, but because the formula is adhered to properly, nobody cares; the story’s too entertaining and the visuals are too pretty to look at for a little thing like “plot” to get in the way.  Besides, Burton and his writers have another ace up their sleeves: the ace that is Tim Burton’s most significant contribution to the comic book film genre, and the one that turns Batman into a game changer.

That ace, of course, is interesting characters, outstandingly played.  Batman/Bruce Wayne and The Joker/Jack Napier may start out as archetypes, but this screenplay dares to dig deeper, after which Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson get to work and take things to the next level.  Despite massive skepticism from not only the general public but even Batman’s original creator, Bob Kane, before the film’s release, Keaton absolutely nails both aspects of the title role.  As Bruce Wayne, he is a complete yet troubled human being; a man with very real walls holding back a flood of repressed emotions and questions he’s too scared to ask himself.  (Keaton is, indeed, the best-realized and most complete Bruce Wayne ever to hit the silver screen, for my money.)  As Batman, he’s Bruce Wayne’s shadow without becoming his dark side, and despite his toys and martial arts skills, he’s still very much a human being, capturing one of the most important essences of what sets Batman apart from other superheroes to degree that most other miss.  The Joker, meanwhile, is the (ironically batshit insane) mirror image of Bruce Wayne; still the troubled Gothic archetype, but wearing a different skin and choosing a fundamentally different coping mechanism for his problems.  This is not The Joker of the comics, however; his glee is more that of Cesar Romero than that of the panels of Bob Kane or Frank Miller, and his amorality is given the fascinating cloak of an artistic movement.  (His explanation of himself: “I make art until someone dies.”  That’s heady stuff.)  Jack Nicholson runs with this idea in a way that only he can, with a little bit of “Here’s Johnny!” type stuff thrown in to give it an even nastier edge.  Together, Keaton and Nicholson make Opera while they audience enjoys waiting for the next chandelier to fall.

Meanwhile, they’re surrounded by characters pulled straight out of Noir.  The newspaper staff (newspaper are still relevant, see) look like they could be working for Charles Foster Kane.  The cops wear 1930s style uniforms.  The gangsters wear pinstripes and spats.  Tommy guns abound, as do an astounding number of hats.  Some 80s thugs break into the picture just to keep the look current (I so dig the dude with the boom box), but even they look lost in time, as though they wandered through Marlon Brando’s rebel wardrobe on the way to modern Gotham.  The only real modern character is Vicki Vale, and she spends enough time screaming that she might as well be Fay Wray anyway.

And whenever The Joker’s not on the screen, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Burton is doing his damndest to film a black and white movie on color stock.  In stark contrast to most modern expectations, only the villain seems to be at home in a world of vibrant colors… or vibrant music, for that matter.  Maybe that’s why he’s always got Lawrence in tow to pump out some Prince from the ghetto blaster.  Speaking of…

The visual and character feast that is Batman is wonderfully enhanced by that rarest of combinations: an outstanding musical score (though this wasn’t his first score by any means, Batman was Danny Elfman’s coming out party as a major force to be reckoned with) that goes hand in hand with an outstanding – and relevant – pop music soundtrack.  Indeed, just as Batman can be considered that last truly Great Film of the 1980s, so can Prince’s soundtrack be considered one of the decade’s Last Great Albums, giving some rock to the opera with a totally unique vibe that doesn’t take away from the orchestral pieces.  “Partyman” is the icing that makes The Joker’s raid on the museum work, while “Trust” provides a perfect setup for the death parade.  Meanwhile, Elfman provides a shadowy symphony that could just as easily accompany a German Expressionist silent film, and which even includes (as a great friend of mine pointed out) an Overture.  An Overture.  Neither Elfman nor Prince are looking to just dash off some incidental notes here; they’re making artistic statements of their own, and they’re every bit as excellent – and culturally relevant – as Tim Burton’s.

Like I said before: this is a masterwork.

Does that make it perfect?  No.  If you’re looking for flaws, you’ll find them, but for my money, remembering again that Batman is, at its foundation, an 80s action flick, many of those flaws actually contribute to making the movie work so well.  Who cares if Jack Palance chews the scenery?  So what if Gotham City’s ace reporter has no idea what the burgh’s richest man looks like?  What difference does it make if the plot is paper thin?  Batman does everything it needs to do, and then it goes on to do way more than anyone could ever have reasonably (or even unreasonably) expected it to.  Nitpick if you must, but the fact is that this flick is just plain amazing.

That’s probably why I saw it a dozen times on the big screen.  Yes; a dozen times.  And even after all that and countless more viewings on home video, the movie still never gets old.

Bottom line, Batman is a must-own movie for cinephiles of any stripe.  Call it the last Great Film of the 1980s; call it a Cultural Icon; call it a Cinematic Landmark; Call it Timeless.  Then call it time to watch again.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2013

This review is for Glynis Mitchell, who live tweets one hell of a Batman.

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


- copyright 2000-2016, Ziggy Berkeley and Cinema on the Rocks, all rights reserved.

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