Warner Bros. // 1989 // 126 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // October 18th, 2005
"Tell me something, my friend. You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?"
Batman was the film to see growing up. There had been no real good films on comic book heroes since Superman II, and that came out almost a decade before. The prospect of seeing how Tim Burton would direct a blockbuster, especially after his last film, which was Beetlejuice, suddenly was intriguing. Casting Jack Nicholson (The Shining) as The Joker was a bargain, considering he was only asking for a back-end percentage and merchandising rights. If there was a question mark, it was how Michael Keaton (Gung Ho) would handle the role of Bruce Wayne. So whatever became of this small, sleepy production?
Well, let's start with over $400 million worldwide in 1989, including $250 million in the US alone. The film created shockwaves, not only for how a comic book adaptation should be told, but how to publicize and produce it. Warner Brothers kept close guard on any pictures of Keaton, Nicholson, or the Batmobile until a trailer was released, to keep viewers going into the film as fresh as possible. The advantage is that it helped provide for a big payoff. Inspired by Frank Miller's graphic novels, the sets, costumes, and characters are clearly not the Gotham City of two decades before, where Adam West and Cesar Romero fought for supremacy against an animated "whap!" or "thwat!"
Set in present day Gotham City, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential) is a well-known photographer who works at the Gotham newspaper. She becomes intrigued with Bruce Wayne (Keaton) and tries to find out more about him. Wayne is rather secretive about his life, and from time to time, does put on a 70 pound body armor suit that looks like a bat so he can fight crime. Along the way, a criminal mastermind named Jack Napier (Nicholson), who rapidly tries to gain control of the mob business in town, is scarred when falling into a chemical tank. He emerges disfigured and psychotic, and will do anything that he can to destroy Gotham city, and Wayne, as the Bat Man, tries to stop him.
For those who think that Batman hasn't held up all that well since 1989, consider that the movie made a ton of money and everyone loved it. Putting it up against the comic book movies now that are swimming in computer animation, one would have to think that a new vision from Burton would be gangbusters.
Who remembers what the consensus opinion of the film was? Michael Keaton was OK and Nicholson was awesome, or something along those lines? Well if anything, Keaton's performance in this film was a little bit safe. It was going to be intriguing to see what Keaton, noted for his previous comedic work, would do with this role, and he showed previous glimpses of great dramatic capabilities in Clean and Sober, but in Batman, he almost comes off as being sedated. Granted, taking on a franchise role's first film may be a bit to much too handle and Keaton's performance in Batman Returns is more evolved than this because of the familiarity, but in Batman there's something lacking in Keaton. It's probably unfair to make the comparison, but it's out there. Take a look at the character explorations of Keaton compared to Christian Bale in Batman Begins, and ask which performance is better, and gets closer to the heart and motivations of the character? Or maybe there's something ingrained in Burton and writer Sam Hamm (Never Cry Wolf) that doesn't allow for such personal connections? Perhaps Keaton lobbied for more lines and didn't get them? Whatever the case may be, there just didn't seem to be that kind of character development with the character that there is now. And it's hard to make the case that Keaton got the short end of the stick too. While Nicholson's lines may have been a little better, his character development in the film was pretty similar. Judge Harold Gervais mentioned in his original review how the Joker's story arc closely mirrors Batman's, and it serves to show a couple of things; not only that Nicholson is an awesome actor, but that it's interesting to see how one incident can closely link two unrelated lives, and the choices that we may make, however minor, are potentially long-lasting.
But Nicholson did more with his time than Keaton seemed to, and he enjoyed his work in the film, despite most of it being done under some prosthetics and several layers of makeup. The supporting cast seemed to have been pulled from Wood's imagination, as they included Pat Hingle (Maximum Overdrive), Jack Palance (City Slickers), and Robert Wuhl (Arli$$). Then you've got Basinger's performance, which was capable as the romantic interest, if you could call it that. Granted, she did get more involved with Wayne's alter ego than others had in the past, and was a bigger part of the film than subsequent female leads were. How many people remember that Nicole Kidman filled one of those roles? All in all, the film helped to show interesting character development on both sides of the tracks, and it resulted in confrontations that were exciting and entertaining.
After a lackluster first release, Warner has pulled out all the stops, releasing all of the Caped Crusader films as part of large Special Editions. Devoting the feature to the first of a two-disc set, putting aside the trailer (which I remembered was pretty cool for its time, and wasn't disappointed by when looking at it again), Burton provides a commentary track for the film. He speaks very much in stream of consciousness when going over the film; anything that pops up he is bound to discuss. He's the kind of director that talks quite a bit without saying too much. He doesn't cover the production often, instead discussing the artistic aspects of the film, such as working with the two lead actors. He is a fan of the comic, and says that he really liked the "Killing Joke" graphic novel that came out shortly before he started work on the film, and is also a fan of the origins of the Joker, which may have helped his decision to exclude Robin from the film. And aside from thinking that Billy Dee Williams would have made a pretty good villain as Two-Face, a.k.a. Harvey Dent, there's not much to gather after listening to him over the course of the film.
Disc Two houses the remaining features, starting with the 40 minute Legend of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman. Narrated by Mark Hamill, the feature covers the impact of the character in comics and how it has evolved over the years. Aside from the recognizable names and faces that contribute to this piece like Stan Lee, Kevin Smith, and Frank Miller (whose The Dark Knight Returns series inspired the film), other notable individuals include writers Harlan Ellison and Denny O'Neil, and artists Alex Ross and Mike Mignola. It's a detailed look at how Bob Kane started the character, and formulated his series in the early years. Time discussing the allies and villains is spent, and even some footage of the movie serials from the '40s is included, and while everyone talks about the '60s show, no footage is introduced. Robin's Death is discussed, and graphic novels like "Killing Joke" and "Arkham Asylum" are covered too. And the animated series gets some airtime also. It's a very comprehensive look at where the character has been, where he is now and where he's going.
After a quick look at Kane on the set, a longer piece on Batman's movie life is next. All three parts can be played together, lasting over an hour, or each segment can be played separately. The feature is called Shadows of the Bat: The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight. From the initial securing of rights (back in 1979!) to the box office feast the film enjoyed, no stone is left unturned. Burton recalled that his success with Beetlejuice essentially provided the green light for the film. The trepidation over announcing Keaton in the title role is talked about. Hamm disavows any participation in the twist with the Wayne parents' murder or with Vale entering the Batcave. Look for a quick deleted scene when watching this too. Everyone who played a part in the film appears in new interview footage, Keaton, Basinger, Burton, composer Danny Elfman, but the coup was getting Nicholson to appear and talk about the film. You rarely see him reminisce about his work, but it's both humorous and engaging when he talks about his part in this one. All in all, this is a top-notch look at the film, with participation by everyone who is still alive that had a hand in it. Michael Gough (who played Alfred) appeared in the piece, and he's almost 88, for goodness sake! Sean Young was cast as Vale until suffering an injury that forced her to drop of the production, and she talks about that. It covers all bases.
Following this are separate looks at the villains and heroes in the film. This is a little convoluted (did we need to see a piece on the Joker's henchman named Bob?) and can be skipped. There's another long piece that focuses on the design and effects of the film, entitled Beyond Batman. This is broken down into smaller pieces and also runs for about an hour. It discusses the set design, props, Batsuit, and Batmobile, along with how Nicholson transformed into the Joker, and a piece on Elfman's music. It's all a worthy compliment to the first extended piece. There was a brief possibility that Robin would be introduced, in as much as the scene was even storyboarded, but never used. The storyboards are set to an effects track to show the viewer what it would have looked like. And there are three music videos by the man named Prince, who is so funky.
Well, after viewing everything, it's hard to make any rebuttal case. Aside from the usual arguments about a lack of deleted scenes or limited participation by the actors, there's not much to complain about. The only thing that I had a problem with at the time was the scuttlebutt that surrounded the casting of the film. The list of actors and directors who were considered for parts in the film seems to get longer as the film becomes more ingrained in the movie-going public's consciousness. And some of the names almost seem like they could be plugged into a Saturday Night Live sketch or a crude drinking game. Does Charlie Sheen as Bruce Wayne, Young as Vicki Vale, fighting Robin Williams as The Joker, in a film directed by the Coens, sound appealing? Try to get behind that one.
It's Batman, the film that started the comic-book blockbuster summer film. Sam Raimi, Guillermo del Toro, and (especially) Bryan Singer, or anyone who decides to adapt any comic book hero for the silver screen, should bow to this altar whether they want to or not. It will help determine the course between success and flop.
The court finds in favor of Warner for an outstanding Special Edition of Batman and they are free to go, provided they continue to put out quality work in the future. Court is adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2005 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2005 Winner: #10
* Top 20 Review Debuts: #18
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Commentary by Tim Burton
* "Legends of the Dark Knight" Documentary
* The Cinematic Saga of the Dark Knight Parts 1-3
* Beyond Batman Documentary Gallery
* On the Set with Bob Kane Featurette
* Heroes and Villains Gallery
* Music Videos
* Original DVD Verdict Review
* Batman Films Site