In the shadows of Gotham, death wears a smile, and hope flies through the night sky in black. But only one will claim the night.
I want to take you back to a childhood memory of mine. Yes, I realize I’m getting nostalgic, but that’s what us Millenials do, so shush. For as long as I can remember my greatest hero has always been Batman. I’m not entirely sure what year this was, so let’s just put it sometime in the magical era of the early 90’s. I see in a TV Guide that the ABC movie of the week is Tim Burton’s Batman. Now at this time, I’m already all about the Caped Crusader, I’ve got a giant poster of him on my wall and my bed sheets are emblazoned with images of him and Robin punching evil in it’s stupid face. However, I’ve never seen this movie, I own the action figures, I ate the breakfast cereal but I’ve never actually watched the film.
Many people ask me what my favorite movie is, it comes with the territory of working in film. This has always seemed like a ridiculous question to me, I mean my favorite movie changes everyday. Recently, I’ve started to try to quantify my answer to this question. Does it mean the movie that I’ve seen the most? The one I remember best? Or the one that made the biggest impact on my appreciation of film? The answer to all three of these questions is Batman. I practically wore out my VHS copy when I was a kid. I even loved the corny Coke commercial at the beginning of the tape where Alfred calls a local grocery store to ask if they have any Coke left and then sends the Batmobile to pick up the last case.
Let’s return to that first viewing though. Up to this point I had watched the Animated series, reruns of the Adam West show and somehow gotten my hands on those movie serials with the ill fitting costumes. But that ’89 movie, right away there was something different. For the first time, my hero was real. Stalking the dark gothic, crime filled streets of Gotham. Descending from the shadows and striking fear into the hearts of the punks who preyed on the innocent. At that moment, Michael Keaton became my Batman and to this day he still is.
The first thing that impacts anyone when they watch Batman is the production design. The late, great Anton Furst just went to town in this picture. One of the things I feel like this movie captures more than any other on screen depiction of Batman is it features a Gotham City where Batman belongs. Its architecture is ominous and gothic, the buildings are huge, dark impossible skyscrapers that peer over the city with a malicious intent. This is not New York or Chicago with a few added buildings, this is a comic book world that needs a man dressed as a bat to save it. In one of the greatest lines of description I’ve ever seen in a script, screenwriter Sam Hamm describes Gotham “as if hell had erupted through the sidewalks and kept on growing.”
In addition to the fantastic city design, I think Furst’s true crowning achievement is his Batmobile. Sleek, dark, and fast the Batmobile roars through Gotham like a crime fighting missile. This is not the lumbering tank of the Nolan movies, this is a car that will out run any vehicle that comes its way and dispatch it with extreme precision.
All the design and world building are obviously huge parts of the film's success but I want to talk about the amazing performances of the cast that populate Burton’s Gotham. I’ve got to start with the man himself, Michael Keaton. I not only think he’s fantastic as Batman but his Bruce Wayne performance is second to none. He plays Wayne with a real impatience, this is a guy suffering through a charity benefit at Wayne Manor and just biding his time until he can do what he really wants which is to throw on the cowl and beat up bad guys. Keaton, a brilliant comedic actor, also brings a deft comic touch especially in the romantic scenes between him and Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale. I also want to give a shout out to the totally bonkers “Let’s Get Nuts” scene, pure Keaton magic. There is an ease and charm to Keaton that you can see why Vicky would be drawn to him. He’s not a handsome, sullen guy in a suit; he’s likable and lively but still carries an air of mystery.
Of course, the charm and sophistication is mostly an act. We see him come alive when he’s wearing the suit. Keaton’s Batman is much different than the animalistic growl and violent rage of Christian Bale and Ben Affleck’s performances. Instead his Batman is quiet and calculating. He speaks in a low whisper and with a measured sense of calm. This is a Batman who’s got things figured out and you get the feeling he can get himself out of any situation (which has always been Batman’s greatest strength in my opinion).
Now what would a hero be without a villain, and it made sense for Burton to choose Batman’s greatest nemesis, The Joker to go toe-to-toe with in his first big screen outing. Played remarkably well by the legendary Jack Nicholson, this Joker manages to mix the goofy clown with classic gangster tropes and add a dash of unhinged anarchic serial killer. Nicholson does something I feel few other Jokers have, he’s funny. This guy sees murder and mayhem as a jovial prank, he’s not trying to prove a point to Batman he’s just killing and stealing for the sheer glee of it. The scene of vandalizing the art museum is one of the greatest on screen Joker moments ever. This aspect of the character is elevated by the fact that Nicholson is clearly having a ball. There is not a frame of this movie where Nicholson phones it in, he’s taking comic book material seriously. This may seem like an odd point to bring up but in 1989 an actor of his stature giving a sincere performance in a superhero movie was almost unheard of.
The movie also features an excellent supporting cast, including the aforementioned Kim Basinger as Vicky Vale who in many ways is the audience surrogate as she is pulled into the world of Batman. Robert Wuhl offers up comic relief as sleazy reporter Alexander Knox while Michael Gough makes the perfect prim and proper Alfred. Billy Dee Williams was robbed of the chance to take on the role of Two-Face in later sequels but brings his classically cool persona to his performance as Harvey Dent. Jack Palance gives a very Jack Palance performance as Gotham mob boss Carl Grissom. Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon is one of the few complaints I have about the movie. He is unfortunately underused, though I still like the energy he brings to the role.
The one name I haven’t said much is that of director Tim Burton; now I realize Burton can be kind of a polarizing filmmaker, I count myself as a big fan. However I realize some people don’t care for his work, and I can see how he’s not everybody’s bag of cats. That being said, I can’t think of many better match ups of director and source material than Tim Burton and Batman. For all the reasons I mentioned above and for one very clear one: he gets that Batman is scary. To the criminals of Gotham Batman is the ultimate bogeyman, waiting in the shadows to snatch you up and break your bones. Take the scene in ACE Chemicals near the beginning of the film, the police are busting a heist perpetrated by the pre-Joker Jack Napier. Batman swoops in, at this point in the film most of the city believes him to be a myth. The terror in Nicholson’s eyes when he comes face-to-face with the Bat is the stuff of comic book dreams. Up to this point Napier is the biggest badass in Gotham, afraid of no one including boss Grissom. But when he sees that terrifying black suit, his eyes go wide and he shouts “Jesus!”
I can’t stress enough the state of Batman prior to this film. He was a kiddie character, at least to the general public. While people like Neal Adams, Denny O’Neil and Frank Miller were reinventing him on the pages of comics most of America still had the image of paunchy Adam West doing the Batusi. Burton gave Batman his teeth back, he returned him to the avenging shadow of night he was created to be. He does it right from the opening scene, it’s practically his thesis statement. The film opens with a pair of lowlifes beating up and robbing a family in an alleyway (not dissimilar to the tragic fate of the Waynes). The goons take to the roof to count their score and talk back and forth about the mythic Batman who’s been terrorizing the criminal underworld.
In one of the greatest introductions in movie history (in my own opinion of course), we see the figure of Batman descend from the shadows behind them. In a flurry of kicks and Batarangs, Batman has knocked one scumbag out cold and holds the other one over the edge of the roof. The exchange between them is nothing short of magic:
LOWLIFE: Don’t kill me, man.
BATMAN: I’m not going to kill you, I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me.
LOWLIFE: What are you?
This scene would forever change the cultural view of Batman. No longer would he conjure the image of a smiling do-gooder. In one line Burton would erase the goofy ’66 series, the rainbow colored costumes of the silver age, the Scooby team-ups, or any association with Wonder Twins. On movie screens across the nation in the summer of 1989 Michael Keaton was allowed to finally declare that the Dark Knight was nothing to be laughed at when he pulls that lowlife in close and hisses:
For more Batman, check out "Starter Guide: Batman" and "Sometimes Justice Must Wear Little Green Booties."