Batman (1989): A Flawed and Amazing Exploration of Revenge and Identity

Batman (1989)

   Tim Burton’s “Batman” was my introduction to DC and the Batman Universe outside of “Batman: The Animated Series.” It has also been years since I have watched this film so it was great coming to it with fresh eyes as even though it is a favorite film, it has a lot of glaring flaws that bring down my overall experience of the story. What those flaws are, I’ll get into deeper into the review. This is the film that really made Super Hero films a thing as it was the success of the Tim Burton films that made Hollywood more comfortable taking a chance with other Super Hero films, for that reason we really can thank the Tim Burton for helping jump start this whole entire film genre in the modern age…for his was the first big hit that showed films about comic book heroes could be profitable and franchises.

   “Batman” was directed by Tim Burton and written by Sam Haam and Warren Skaaren while being produced by Jon Peters and Peter Guber.

     The story involves the investigation into the vigilante Batman (Michael Keaton) by reporters Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) while Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) plots a coup against his boss so he can own the gangs, not knowing he’s already been betrayed.

The Pros: The Soundtrack – Danny Elfman’s fantastic score captures both the mythicness of Batman, the darkness of Gotham city and even the personal of the romance and relationships we see on the screen. This was my first introduction to his music and from here I fell in love with so much of his work.

The Cinematography – Roger Pratt does a great job capturing the Gothic feel of Gotham as well as the fear behind Batman and the Joker. There are great color contrasts in this film, from the Joker’s purple, white and green…to the black aesthetic of Batman, which really illustrates how they took the scars to their identity.

The World – Burton’s world of Batman is awesome! The city manages to have both a modern and old time feel to it (much like “Batman: The Animated Series”) which gives it an epic and comic book feel. This is a world that feels lived in and has characters outside of those we get to know, to explore.

Harvey Dent – Billy Dee Williams really should have had the chance to play Two-Face. The guy does an amazing job as the charismatic Harvey Dent whose hands are tied by the corruption around him and the power of the Joker and the mobs. The only con is I wish he could have got more screentime and had interactions with the Joker and Bruce Wayne.

Bob – Bob is the Joker’s second-in-command and is  lot of fun. He’s a man fully devoted to Joker and can even hold his own against Batman. Sadly when Batman takes Joker’s poison balloons Joker kills him in anger. Poor Bob, you were a great Dragon for the Joker.

Alfred – Alfred is great in this and I really like Michael Gough’s portrayal of him. He comes off as a grandfather figure who is trying to look out for Bruce as best he can, while still having a level of detachment because of his job. He’s great at connecting Bruce to his humanity though as he does all he can to make sure Vicki and Bruce are as successful relationship.

Jack Nicholsan Joker

Jack Napier / The Joker – Nicholson’s Joker is very much a crazy mob boss, which works. Nicholson owns roles like this and he clearly had a lot of fun. His design manages to be opening yet threatening and he destroys Batman’s plane, breaks into Bruce Wayne’s home and nearly escapes Bruce at the end too. His moment of stupid besides using the chemical planet he was turned into the Joker in was his obsession with Vicki Vale and the fact that after he shoots down Batman’s plane, he doesn’t finish the job and instead chooses to retreat. After seeing him stand his ground multiple times, the moment of arrogance/fear/stupidity? cost the character his life. Also he is all about revenge and hurts Batman, kills the boss and girlfriend who betrayed him and even messes up Gotham. In this way he is an effective villain.

Bruce Wayne / The Batman – Batman like the Joker is a character motivated by revenge and ego. Neither really knows how to be around people and Bruce does that by giving and collecting while Napier just kills and destroys. In this Batman we really see how the death of his parents motivate him as he goes to where the shooting happens to give them roses and it is when Vicki finds out that he is finally able to feel real. Michael Keaton is an amazing Bruce Wayne and really illustrates his humanity better than Bale and the others. He feels like a man uncomfortable in his skin and in constant emotional turmoil. For this reason I get why his Batman kills. He’s a Punisher type Batman and wants to do all he can to prevent more Batman’s from being born (in the first scene we meet him he saves a couple with a child mirroring what never happened to him). For this Batman the Joker and crime isn’t just a duty, it is personal and how his crazy and anger comes out.

Exploration of Identity – Identity is key to this and both Napier’s and Wayne’s trauma transforms them into different identities that elevate their obsessions…from Napier’s disregard for life and obsession with people and art…to Bruce’s desire to hurt criminals the way they hurt him. This is expressed in their identities of Joker and Batman who give them permission to be those people and not have to answer to anyone for what they do.

Okay/Cons – Commissioner Gordon – The guy is invisible and wasn’t needed in this at all. I got the feeling they only put him in this since he was in the comics, Billy Dee Williams Harvey Dent was much more of an influence and punch when I saw Gotham’s leaders than the Mayor and Gordon.

Vicki Vale – Vicki Vale like Knox is largely there be rescued though Vicki gets it worse as she spends a good portion of this film kidnapped by the Joker or screaming…which is a shame. She is a character who could have been more as she was a reporter from a war torn region, yet once a psycho came around (the Joker) she froze and needed Bruce Wayne or Batman to rescue her.

The Mob Boss – He talks quiet and I never saw him as a threat. He owned one corrupt cop and that guys men but we never see him do anything but fail to kill Jack Napier. More could have been done to establish this guy as a threat.

The Cons: Damsel in Distress – Vicki Vale is saved so many times in this, this is distracting and I’d honestly expect more from a reporter who came out of a war zone. This con gets more obvious with each viewing. Vicki Vale is a love interest and something to be competed over with the Joker, not a character.

Obvious Plan – Joker uses chemicals from the place he was dumped into and that his boss had been tamed up with before…how did Batman not figure this out until the very end? This was a major dropping of the ball on his part.

    This is a movie with problems, but it is still one of my favorites and it is thanks to this film that one of my favorite animated series exists (“Batman: The Animated Series”) as well as the rest of Bruce Timm’s work from “Superman: The Animated Series” to “Justice League” and the spinoffs). Batman in all his variations and as a popular character today, probably wouldn’t have existed without Burton and Keaton’s Batman and for what they are…they are fantastic. The humanity of the characters is captured as well as the psychosis one must have to be a vigilante, and this lends power to the script and fills in some of the plot holes or weak characters that happen. This is a favorite film of mine and Keaton will always be one of my favorite versions of Batman.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

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