Review: Batman (1989)

batmanjoker

Still my favorite live action entry in the Batman franchise!

Screenplay By: Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren
Directed By: Tim Burton

As soon as Batman begins, oh funny, the look of the film captured my attention. Gotham City has never looked better than it does in Batman, except for maybe in Batman Returns. 1950’s art deco melds with a Gothic design to create a truly original aesthetic. Watching above or long shots of the city is fascinating to the eye, but in an unfortunate trend throughout the film, the look isn’t completely great. When location shots are used, or stage shots, the city looks so small, much smaller than in its rendered model state.

I have always been surprised by the amount of people who label this Batman film as camp, it isn’t camp, it is surreal. That’s not surprising in a Tim Burton film, but the visuals, characters and action have a stylized surreal quality to them. For the most part this works, especially when combined with Danny Elfman’s fantastic score. But, what you are left with is a film that doesn’t always follow real world logic, and in keeping with the overall theme of the film, sometimes this works and other times it doesn’t.

For instance, a few scenes bomb in epic fashion. The first encounter between Eckhardt and Napier doesn’t work at all, it is far too phony looking and feels awkward. The actions of Joker’s goons in the museum comes across as unnecessary excess on the part of Burton, or the work of someone trying to find some way possible to fit in a star music performance at the behest of the studio. Moments like this are countered by moments that work to the nth degree. The newscasters looking like crap after Joker has poisoned the beauty products is a nice touch. The first time the Batmobile enters the Batcave is a lot of fun and a small moment that really grabs your attention. There are moments that don’t work, but there are moments that work perfectly, once again that is the theme in Batman.

All of the characters in Batman are woefully underdeveloped. The partnership between Knox and Vale takes off way too fast, the relationship between Vale and Wayne never accounts to anything or feels real. Batman himself is more of an idea than a person, but he still feels whole because he is Batman and the movie goes out of its way to paint him as the hero and Michael Keaton portrays him well.

Once again all of the above is contrasted somewhere else in the movie, this time by the character of Joker as played by Jack Nicholson. He is funny, he is a clown, but he is also deadly and dangerous. Sometimes Jack Nicholson has the tendency to act too broad in his roles, but in Batman he nailed Joker perfectly. He had moments of out of control lunacy, but he also had moments of sustained, quiet rage. Those are the moments that let you know he is a killer, that he is a danger and that he is someone to be taken seriously.

There were other problems in Batman such as the identity subplot never feeling earned or honest. The film is far too open ended in some areas, expecting the viewer to take too much on blind faith. But, there are other moments of joy and fun. The showdown between Joker and Batman is a lot of fun with a psychological edge to it. Not to beat a dead horse, but just as much worked as didn’t.

As this review has hopefully spelled out, Batman is a very uneven picture. That being said it is a heck of a lot of fun and a joy to watch. Odds are most comic book or Batman fans have seen this picture already, but if you are a non-comic book geek and want a comic book based film to watch you can’t go wrong with latching your Bathook onto Batman and taking it for a ride.

Rating:

***

Cheers,
Bill

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6 responses to “Review: Batman (1989)

  1. The notion that Batman is more an idea than a person was, I’ve always felt, the purpose of the character. Batman is the shadow in the night, not a whole lot of personality there. It’s with Bruce Wayne that narrative and character development need to take flight, which doesn’t really happen in this film, but I still like it alright. ‘Begins’ and ‘Dark Knight’ took the Bruce Wayne route.

    Batman is a franchise that seems like it was made specifically for Burton to flourish visually. Sadly, I’ve never felt lifted by the narratives in his stories, Batman being no exception unfortunately. Despite all that, I’d put the movie at number one on my Burton list.

  2. Bill Thompson

    I agree with your thoughts on Batman the character as well as most of what you say on the film. I always have preferred Keaton over any of the other Batman’s though, his portrayal felt the closest to how I envisioned Wayne/Batman.

    I need to see Batman Returns again, and will at some point in the near future, but either that or Pee-wee’s Big Adventure would be my favorite Burton.

  3. I appreciate your review. I agree it was an uneven film. The thing that really threw me off was how completely everything ground to a halt during the Axis chemicals scene and the parade scene. It was as though Burton pasted together everything he shot, regardless of whether it worked together or not. It took me several minutes after each of those scenes to get back into the swing of the movie. Which was too bad because otherwise I thought it was pretty damn good.

  4. Those scenes were definitely big and a bit unwieldy as far as the flow of the movie went. I have fond memories of Batman Returns, but I also recall it having a few scenes like that. It will be interesting to see how the flow of that one pans out.

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