In the early moments of Tim Burton's Batman, we see two small-time thieves eagerly dividing their latest score and discussing the possible existence of a mysterious vigilante. One of the crooks feverishly reports the terrifying rumors he's heard, but the other dismisses them with a chuckle: “The bat? Awww, man, give me a break, will ya?” Then, a shadowy figure with giant leather wings appears in the background. A fight ensues, and within seconds one of the men has been knocked unconscious. The vigilante grabs the other and dangles him over the edge of a rooftop, leading to the following exchange:
“Don't kill me, man! Don't kill me!”
“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.”
“What are you!?”
One of the things I love about Batman (and there are many) is that it has the confidence to introduce The Dark Knight as a fully-formed character. By 1989, an origin story was unnecessary – who hadn't heard the tale of Bruce Wayne's parents getting gunned down in a dark alley? The movie knows that we know who Batman is. In contrast to today's origin story and reboot-obsessed superhero movie climate, it feels as if Burton jumped straight into the second film of an ongoing series. Even when the film offers a brief flashback detailing the death of Bruce's parents, it does so not to pointlessly revisit Batman's origins but to add a key, lore-defying twist to Batman's relationship with The Joker (who actually does get a proper origin story).
I could give you a detailed description of the complicated events that lead to mobster Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson, The Shining) becoming a pale-faced, green-haired villain with a diabolical grin, but let us instead simply say that The Joker is born by the thirty-minute mark and that the rest of the movie devotes itself to the conflict that plays out between Batman and his cackling nemesis. It's a relationship which has been examined many times in many ways, but Burton's take is engagingly Burton-y: he regards them as a pair of misunderstood, eccentric misfits working out their deeply troubling psychological issues on a wildly theatrical level. One is a respectable billionaire, one is a powerful mobster and they're both eternally isolated despite the presence of loyal underlings (I have no doubt that Batman's butler Alfred and The Joker's henchman Bob could have some long conversations about their mutual frustrations). One suspects that The Joker so eagerly woos Batman's girlfriend Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential) so enthusiastically not because he desperately desires her, but because he wants to rob Batman of something resembling genuine emotional connection.
Don't get me wrong: Batman isn't a particularly profound examination of the complex psychology embedded in the history of these characters, but it makes a solid stab at defining two pop culture icons. Michael Keaton is terrific as both Batman and Bruce Wayne, playing the former with unforced, square-jawed gravitas and the latter as a fidgety charmer who passes off his moments of strange behavior as rich guy eccentricity. Comic book fans protested when Keaton's casting was announced – how could the goofy star of Mr. Mom play freakin' Batman!? - but the film itself quickly silenced all doubters. Keaton makes Batman the calm center of Burton's three-ring circus, underplaying one scene after another while everything else flies over the top. It's a tremendously effective approach: he says “I'm Batman” with the quiet confidence of a man who has nothing to prove.
On the flip side, The Joker is essentially Jack Nicholson in heavy makeup. Surprisingly, this also proves rather effective, as Nicholson warps his party-loving playboy public image into something darkly hilarious. Fittingly, the character has a spontaneous quality that gives all of his scenes a nervous energy – you never quite know what he's going to do next, because he does whatever he feels like and he usually feels like indulging his own sense of fractured whimsy. His master plan is awfully scattershot, but at least it has the element of surprise. A scene in which The Joker and his goons vandalize priceless artwork to the strains of a funky Prince song ought to feel like a horribly awkward bit of product placement for the soundtrack album, but Nicholson's commitment to the bit makes it a memorable two minutes of inspired lunacy (it helps that the song is actually a lot of fun). The character's best lines have a similarly out-of-left-field quality: “This town needs an enema!”
It could be argued (and has been) that the real star of the film is Gotham City, presented by Burton and production designer Anton Furst as an Art Deco wonderland overtaken by demons with a fetish for Gothic architecture. The city is extremely stylized, but you absolutely feel its overbearing atmosphere of metal, steel, fog, smog, shadows and darkness. The Joker would stand out in any city, but in this one his colorful appearance has an air of contrarian defiance. It's one of Burton's best-looking movies, which is saying something considering that production design is his strong suit (Dark Shadows is an unfunny mess, but it looks terrific).
The other major technical virtue is Danny Elfman's score, which delivers one of the most instantly memorable title themes of the 1980s. The driving minor-key march that fuels the score is tremendous (and it gets quite a workout over the course of the movie), but pretty much everything Elfman serves up here is gold: the playful waltz for The Joker, the understated love theme for the budding romance between Bruce and Vicki, the thunderous Orff-inspired music that accompanies a journey the Batcave, the spine-tingling organ music that accompanies the film's climax, even the rattlesnake sound effect that underscores the menacing grin of mob boss Carl Grissom (a swaggering Jack Palance, City Slickers).
A number of supporting elements don't quite work. The romantic subplot feels like the sort of thing someone threw into the mix just because it's an expected convention. Essential comic book figures like Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle, The Gauntlet) and Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams, The Empire Strikes Back) are disappointingly relegated to thankless cameo roles. The reporter played by Robert Wuhl (Arli$$) works reasonably well from a narrative perspective (he's writing a series of investigative articles on whether or not Batman exists), but the character is incredibly obnoxious. Finally, the climactic battle between Batman and The Joker is awkwardly-staged: it starts on a strangely mean-spirited note, and ends up placing so much emphasis on The Joker that Batman nearly disappears during the finale of his own movie.
These are problems, sure, but they pale in contrast to the film's thrilling action sequences (that Batwing scene is still fantastic, as is the belltower fight between Batman and a sword-wielding goon), the endless visual and aural pleasures, The Joker's colorful antics and Keaton's sublimely conflicted performance. Batman occupies a unique tonal realm, straddling the line between the gleeful camp of the Adam West television show and the real-world grit of Christopher Nolan's Bat-flicks. It's simultaneously oppressively dark and invigoratingly energetic, capturing a weird but deeply satisfying vibe that no other comic book movie has quite managed to reproduce (not even Burton's own Batman Returns, an exceptional movie that probably should have been called Burtonman). It stands in sharp contrast to the assembly-line efficiency of modern superhero movies, and its best moments are genuinely exhilarating.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Year: 1989