Batman (1989): A Dark Knight Emerges

This is part of my “Batman on Film” blog series. To read other entries in this and other Batman-related blog series, head over to my Batman page.

Batman (1989) PosterBackground & History
Prior to this film’s release, Batman had gone from a dark detective character in the 1940s to a silly, cartoonish superhero in the 1960s. Public perception of the character was one of bright, gaudy colors; fatuous one-liners; and outrageous plotlines. While the 1960s Batman television series and subsequent movie served to bring the comic book character into the mainstream eye, fans lamented the long-time departure from the Batman comic books of old: haunting stories, creepy characters, and a dark motif.

During the 70s and 80s, the comic books began to shift back towards Batman creator Bob Kane’s original vision for the character, but public perception had not yet caught up. Books like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One betrayed a longing inside the comic book industry to take the popular franchise back to its dark and haunting roots.

Fans and industry insiders received what they asked for in 1989’s Batman. Despite early misgivings, particularly surrounding the casting of Michael Keaton as the titular character, fans embraced the renewed vision of a somber and shadowy vigilante. Batman was a creature of the night once again.

Batman began production at Pinewood Studios in October of 1988 and wrapped the following January. The original production budget was $30 million, but that quickly jumped to $48 million during filming. Much of the production was kept a secret; the police were contacted when two reels of footage went missing.

Batman opened on June 23, 1989, grossing $43.6 million in 2,194 theaters during its opening weekend. The film would go on to gross $411.35 million globally.

The movie was received well by critics and cinemagoers, who praised the “new” take on the Batman franchise. Some casual Batman fans were bothered by the dark and violent tone, and many disliked certain facets of the story, but overall, reception was positive.

The film opens with a look at Gotham City’s crime problem. Two thugs mug a family in a dark alley. After they commit their crime, a shadowy figure attacks them and requests that one of them “tell all your friends about me.” When the thug asks, “What are you?” the figure replies, “I’m Batman.”

The film then shifts focus to the problem of mob control in the city. Police Commissioner Jim Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent are working to stop the crime problem prior to Gotham City’s bicentennial celebration.

Meanwhile, news reporter Alexander Knox and photojournalist Vicki Vale investigate reports of a giant bat terrorizing Gotham’s underworld. Vicki Vale finds herself personally caught up in her subject matter as she is dating Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego.

Mob boss Carl Grissom finds out that his second-in-command, Jack Napier, has gotten romantically involved with his mistress, and in response sends Napier to a setup where he arranges with corrupt police lieutenant Bob Eckhart to have him murdered. Upon arrival, Napier discovers that he’s been set up and murders Eckhart. Batman disrupts the shootout, accidentally causing Napier to fall into a vat of chemicals.

The film sets up its plotlines well, but it unfortunately doesn’t deliver on them. Unlike its counterpart, 1978’s Superman, this movie avoids the “hero’s journey” storyline, but to its own detriment. Director Tim Burton decided to steer clear of Batman’s origin story, which in a way works well for the film; it provides a sense of mystery surrounding the character of Batman and gives other characters a reason to fear him. I loved how we saw the criminal world’s superstition surrounding him along with journalism’s skepticism and disdain of him. The Batman is a polarizing figure in this movie.

However, what’s missing in this movie is a clear direction. If Burton wanted to avoid the “hero’s journey” arc, another genre or trope should’ve been selected. I personally think a mystery story would’ve gone along well with this film’s tone. But as it stands, it doesn’t really know what it’s trying to accomplish, and a film without goals tends to fall flat.

4223383-batman-1989-batman-confronts-the-jokerThere were several moments that I found myself scratching my head. Why did the Joker visit Vicki Vale’s apartment? Was it just to intimidate her? He wasn’t there to kidnap her or anything. Why is Batman going around the city kicking criminal’s asses? What is his motivation? Sure, his parents were murdered, but we are offered no reason for his existence. That’s fine if we’re viewing this story through the lens of another character, but the perspective characters in this movie are Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jack Napier/Joker. The filmmakers owe it to the audience to offer an explanation for Batman’s existence.

When Vicki Vale goes digging into Bruce Wayne’s past, she comes across the story of his parents’ murder. What’s strange is that this isn’t public knowledge. Bruce Wayne is supposedly a high-society billionaire. I might’ve bought the secrecy if the movie made him out to be a rich recluse, but I would think that one would have to be pretty high profile to host a city-wide benefit at his own mansion with the mayor in attendance. And I find it extremely hard to believe that Vicki Vale didn’t immediately recognize Bruce Wayne upon meeting him, but maybe that was the film’s way of trying to get the audience to believe that Wayne isn’t as high-profile as your average billionaire.

The third act of the film is sloppy, particularly as the story comes to a close. The Joker takes Vicki Vale up the bell tower of an old cathedral, but for what reason? And as Batman follows him up to the top of the tower, he comes across resistance from the Joker’s henchmen. Where did they come from? Did the Joker somehow know that he was going to end up at that particular location? When did he have time to get his henchmen to wait in the shadows for Batman to arrive?

Overall, the story lacks cohesiveness and a sense of direction. The plot is full of holes (pardon the old cliché), and the movie stretches the limits of plausibility in many areas. But a weak plot doesn’t a weak film make.

Visuals/Cinematic Design
One of the things I continue to love about this movie is its ambiguous design. Architecture is very 1940s, hearkening back to the era of the Batman’s creation by Bob Kane. The film carries a 1980s tone while still holding up to today’s style (though that could have something to do with the fact that 80s fashion is back in at the time that I rewatched the movie).

The “art deco” style introduced in the film went on to influence the next few decades of Batman design on film and television. The film was beautifully shot and framed, and if there’s one hallmark of Tim Burton’s work, it’s his ability to create visually stunning setpieces. Batman is no exception.

The costumes in the film are great as well. The Batsuit’s design, though ubiquitous today, was a vast departure from what was commonly associated with Batman previously. Bright colors and tights were set aside for an all-black, molded body armor. The look was sleek and menacing, creating a chilling interpretation for the Dark Knight.

The Joker’s look is just as terrifying, albeit for different reasons entirely. The eerie frozen smile solidified my fear of clowns growing up, and even watching it as an adult, I’m left with chills running down my spine.

Batman-1989-07-gI would be remiss to not mention the Batmobile. Few cars have as storied a history as the Batmobile, and this iteration of Batman’s iconic set of wheels is one of this film’s greatest achievements. It fits perfectly inside the world Burton created for Batman, and it stands as the perfect representation of it. Few pop-culture items are more instantly recognizable than the 1989 Batmobile, and its association with Batman is indelible.

Main Characters
Batman/Bruce Wayne: Michael Keaton.
I thoroughly enjoyed Keaton’s portrayal of Batman. He does a great job of being dark and menacing. I wish that this version of Batman had utilized his detective skills a bit more. He figures out the Joker’s plan for spreading a “laughing virus” that kills Gothamites, but beyond that, we don’t really get to see the comic book industry’s greatest detective at work.

Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is a bit confusing. He’s an odd character, and we don’t really get a sense for why he acts the way he does. Why does he pretend to not know who Bruce Wayne is when he first meets Vicki Vale? Why does he go crazy when the Joker shows up at Vicki’s apartment? Why doesn’t he fire Alfred when she brings Vicki into the Batcave?

The Joker/Jack Napier: Jack Nicholson.
The Joker is the real star of this movie. Nicholson’s portrayal of the character is impressive. He’s frightening, deranged, and mesmerizing. While this is indeed an excellent performance, I couldn’t help but feel that the character was typecast. Nicholson basically performs as an exaggerated version of himself in this film. That’s not to say that it was a bad Joker; quite the opposite, actually. Nicholson was the perfect choice for the Joker at the time, and it seems as though the role was made for him.

Vicki Vale: Kim Basinger.
Vicki Vale is a frustrating character. Kim Basinger did a great job here, but I didn’t feel like there was any real chemistry between her and Bruce Wayne. Their romance was rushed and short-lived, yet Bruce is ready to bring her in on his deepest secret. She played an authentic photo-journalist, but she doesn’t seem to have much to do in the movie except as a damsel in distress.

Alfred Pennyworth: Michael Gough.
Michael Gough’s Alfred is one of my favorite versions of the character. He’s a butler, but he clearly has raised Bruce and loves him dearly. Gough plays the role with such heartfelt honesty that I found myself wanting him as a butler. My biggest issue with the character is his decision to bring Vicki Vale into the Batcave. How long had Bruce been dating her? In the film’s perceived timeline, not long. I’m surprised Bruce didn’t fire Alfred after that.

This film is fascinating. Like most of Tim Burton’s movies, Batman lacks narrative strength and instead opts for tones and themes. The movie isn’t preachy by any measure, but it doesn’t provide the rich and cohesive storytelling that 1978’s Superman drips with. Despite the lack of a “hero’s journey” narrative, the film still works thanks to Burton’s ability to create a visually engaging world.

I enjoy the idea of Bruce Wayne/Batman as a late protagonist; he remains somewhat ambiguous until almost the third act. Batman serves as a backdrop for the protagonist of Vicki Vale (who wasn’t a particularly well written character, but still holds her own in the film) and the antagonist of Jack Napier/Joker (who serves as the perspective character for much of the movie).

Reaction & Impact
It’s difficult to understand the impact that Batman had on the film and comic book industry unless you actually lived through it. I was just five years old at the time, so I wouldn’t consider my perspective worth as much; however, I did have the opportunity to see the shift. Until this film, Batman was perceived by general audiences as a broad-daylight, self-aware, transparent good guy who existed in a lighthearted, campy world. Sure, the comic books told a different story, but most people weren’t familiar with Batman from the comics; they only knew him from the 1960s TV show. This 1989 film changed all of that.

batman15I enjoyed this movie. What it lacks in narrative coherence it makes up for in authentic acting, stunning visuals, beautiful cinematography, and a rich score. Batman might not be a perfect movie, but it’s certainly a triumphant one.


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