This movie came out when I was 3 years old so it’s fair to say I do not remember the hype that came with it. According to the DVD case Erik Preminger of KGO-TV San Francisco called it “The Movie of the Decade”. My opinion is however mixed. As a huge fan of Batman comics I have issues with large aspects of the story and characterization. Is the movie entertaining? Yes. Is it true to the Batman developed over the prior 50 years from inception by Bob Kane? No.
The opening scene presents us with what could very easily be the Thomas and Martha Wayne murder but we quickly find it is not. It is a clever way to introduce Batman in Crime Ally where it all began and references his true origin that will be explored later in the film. We find ourselves listening into a conversation between thugs after a small time crime about the rumored Batman. In the back ground we see a silhouette of our Caped Hero making his first appearance. I can imagine how exciting it would have been sitting in the Cinema in 1989. The scene comes to a close after Batman defeats the thugs and disappears but not before my favorite part of any Batman film, the line; “I’m Batman”. Michael Keaton did this with style.
Unfortunately the movie was downhill from here for me. Not because the special effects were bad, they are supposed to be, it was 1989 after all. It wasn’t because of the city setting, it feels like any good Gotham from a Comic, TV Show, Movie or Game. It was downhill because of the characters.
Michael Keaton plays a good Batman and a decent enough Bruce Wayne for the most part. Bruce Wayne to me is a character who although dark and easy to misunderstand still comes across to everyone other than his inner circle as charismatic and level headed. We find our hero in this incarnation smooth enough to have one date with Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale and turn her into a semi-passive stalker but then too self-consumed to be able to effectively lie to her about where he will be or why he cannot see her. In his line of work lying is a very important part of survival.
Importantly though there were some missing facts about Wayne, his family and his fortune. It seems that people know he is rich but that is about it. No mention of Wayne Enterprises at all which is where the development of all his tech and toys comes from. Joker even says, “Where does he get all those cool toys?” Not even the audience can really answer that. During Vicki Vales stalking of Bruce it takes a fair while to figure out that his parents were killed and the archive newspaper footage only says “Prominent Doctor and Wife Murdered”, nothing about the family and the fortune that little Bruce would inherit.
Then we have the big Batman issue that we come across right towards the end of the film. He is a killer. The Batman in Detective Comics #27 in July of 1939 (his first ever appearance) wasn’t too concerned about knocking a man to his death in an acid tank saying simply, “A fitting end for his kind”. However in the 50 years that preceded that leading to this movie, Batman was further defined into being totally incapable of letting anyone die regardless of the carnage they had caused or the further damage they could do the world and innocent people. He even proclaims to the Joker, “I am going to Kill you”. He of course does along with some Joker thugs along the way.
Jack Nicolson has some stellar moments as The Joker where we see that loved character really come to life. Nicolson defined the role for a generation and to this day every incarnation of the Joker is compared against his take on the ultimate super villain. Where the Joker falls down for me is the back story. The name Jack Napier was a combination of Jack Nicolson and the late Alan Napier who played butler Alfred in the 1966 Television series Batman. The fact that he even has a name and history is a fair issue for me. I like that they adapted the Detective Comics tank of Acid mixed with “The Killing Joke” graphic novels origin on the inception of the Joker character to create him. “The Killing Joke” still left the reader unclear on who the man who would become the joker really was but gave us a glimmer in the man before the clown. The exciting thing about reading a comic with the Joker is that you don’t really have too much history to define his actions whereas this film gave him too much tangible history to draw upon making him a predictable foe.
I felt the inclusion of Harvey Dent as district attorney with no indication of his future as Two-Face, the criminal mastermind was excellent. It showed a conscious decision by the writing team to use a known character in a form that predates the one we are most accustom to and gave a sequel option without delving into any important over characterization where it was unnecessary to the current story.
There have been many a Batmobile across all media over the past 77 years however this is my second favorite. My favorite being the 1966 Batmobile. I like this one for so many reasons but right from the introduction of the car where Batman says to Vicki Vale, “Get in the Car”, to which she responds, “Which car” before the camera sweeps it into view. I need to keep reminding myself to imagine that I’m in a Cinema in 1989 and think about how awe inspiring this machine would have been. Then I realize it doesn’t need to be 1989 for me to still be impressed by what they created. It feels like it pops straight out of the pages of a comic book. Even its animated Shields would have been a triumph of the time.
There is a few moments of animation that made me chuckle to myself, but in a good way. Fittingly the shots of the Bat Signal in the sky and when big search lights are on buildings look like they were developed for Bugs Bunny in the looney tunes studio, which they probably were. Again this just personifies the fact that this film was made in the 80’s where Boom Boxes could be carried on your shoulder and the Beastie Boys were hot property.
I mentioned briefly the city setting before or the back drop to the film. There was only one scene notable set in the day time making the film mostly dark by design. No film about The Dark Knight should feel like a rose garden. I loved the mixed between an 80’s city with almost 1940’s or 50’s attire. It almost celebrates the history and early days of the superhero genre and Batman’s beginnings but most importantly it doesn’t necessarily look like real life. It is important I think to have movies like these seem realistic to a point but remembering they come from a world where an Alien with a Big S on his chest flys around and saves the planet from adversity, they can blur the lines and leave some explanations up to the audience to imagine for themselves.
I see why this was the biggest movie of the year when it was released and for a number of reasons still rates a mention today. As I said in the beginning I am torn between my appreciation for the movie by design and my love for the comic genre and Batman character vs the individual characterization of particularly Batman and the Joker. We are less than a month now from the release of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice in cinemas so I think if you are looking for ways to pass the time whilst your overwhelming excitement for the new film builds and boils within you, revisit Tim Burton’s take on the Caped Crusader and his emergence as Gotham City’s Protector.