Adam West was my first Batman, but while that iteration may have opened the door to my obsession with the Dark Knight, it was the Tim Burton movie that set it alight with a burning passion.
So while I have the 1989 film to thank for furthering me on the path to Bat-mania and adding to my collection of wonderful toys (I even had the Bob the Goon figure), there are definitely some aspects of it that date it severely (Prince, anyone?), especially in a post-Nolan world.
Let’s Bat-track to the final summer of the 80’s and re-examine how Burton’s first foray into Gotham stacks up.
Jack Nicholson as The Joker is a tour de force. I recall that post-Dark Knight, the immediate reaction consensus was that Heath Ledger’s interpretation for a new generation made Nicholson’s performance look like Cesar Romero, but looking back at it, he’s having a blast chewing the scenery and by extension, so are we while watching him.
Sure, he’s still Jack, but he knows just how far to ramp up the crazy while still retaining enough of the original spirit of the maniacal villain, and in doing so, turned in a classic take on an iconic role. He may not have been playing the title character, but Nicholson earned top billing for his efforts.
Even Joker’s scheme to poison the citizens of Gotham with specific combinations of cosmetics was very much in line with the character’s MO so I can’t really complain with how he was handled here. We all know Burton was more interested in Batman’s villains than Bats himself and it really shows here.
This movie introduces us to Danny Elfman’s Batman score which is not only one of the most recognizable superhero themes ever recorded, it’s probably in the top 10 themes of all time, up there with John William’s Superman and Raiders marches. It elevates the material in every scene and is instantly recognizable, everything you could want in a superhero theme. It was so good that it worked its way into the animated series opening as well, and for me, no matter what comes after, there will never be a better Bat score.
As much as I dig the Batmobile of the 60’s, and that one reserves a special place for me, the Batmobile in this movie is probably the coolest car I’ve ever laid eyes on (sorry Doc Brown). The design of the Batmobile here continually evolved over the course of the series but was never improved upon.
Batman is barely recognizable in his first big screen appearance in over 20 years.
Let’s start with the fact that this Batman has little to no regard for human life. This Batman is not opposed to mounting machine guns on his Batwing or dropping a bomb in a chemical plant and blowing it sky high with several of Joker’s goons inside. As far as the guns go, I guess I can give that a pass and pretend to hear “rubber bullets, honest,” in my head, but the Bat bomb is definitely anti-hero territory. Batman even has a hand in Joker falling to his death, which feels very much of its time when 80’s action movies always resulted in the bad guy’s grisly demise, but the Batman that I’ve gotten to know since would never have let that happen.
Commissioner Gordon here is played like an incompetent fool whose only job is to show up and react to what’s going down between Batman and Joker as opposed to actually getting involved.
He might as well not even be in the movie for all the difference he makes.
He is one of the aspects of these movies that Nolan would later improve upon vastly and actually show this character proper respect.
As far as love interests go, Vicky Vale is pretty bland.
It’s not Kim Basinger’s fault, she does what she can with what she’s been given, but as far as strong female leading lady roles go in a tent pole summer blockbuster, Vicky is more Willie Scott than Marion Ravenwood.
Also, Joker’s obsession with her feels completely forced and drags down the plot, which is already shaky at best.
We’ve since been spoiled by Nolan’s vision of bringing Batman to the real world, but Burton’s Gotham was very much a movie set and upon multiple viewings, it really shows.
Gotham is apparently only a couple blocks long as there’s hardly ever a shot where The Monarch Theatre, the front steps of City Hall, or the neon hotel sign of Crime Alley aren’t in view. It makes Gotham, which is meant to be a metropolis, seem very small and the movie by extension.
As previously mentioned, Joker sticks pretty close to his roots, even incorporating his origin of falling into a vat of acid ripped straight from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. His knack for appearing on TV to announce his crimes is 100% in character (that commercial for Joker brand products is spot on) and he even packs an acid squirting flower. All the stuff about working under mob boss Grissom is totally made up here but it works and fits naturally.
Of course the biggest deviation from the source material, and for some, the most controversial, is replacing Joe Chill as the mugger who murders the Waynes with Jack Napier, AKA The Joker. I’m not as big of a stickler for continuity as some fans when it comes to the movie adaptations. My stance is, if you can bend the brand without breaking it, as long as it makes sense thematically in the story you’re trying to tell, I’m all for a fresh take on a well worn concept.
This change works for the movie in the sense that it ties Joker into Batman’s origin and makes him the ultimate arch-nemesis. To the average movie-goer, Joe Chill doesn’t mean anything, and the murder, while life altering for Bruce, carries more weight when he realizes Joker was the one who pulled the trigger.
Alfred makes the transition from page to screen relatively the same (although escorting Vicky into the Batcave is WAY out of character) and even Harvey Dent pops up.
Billy Dee Williams never got the chance to make the transition from Dent to Two-Face, which was eventually handed off to Tommy Lee Jones, but he did kick off the trend of adding some color to a formally white comic book character which has since been followed by Kingpin, Nick Fury, and eventually Johnny Storm.
Back when comic book movies only required one villain, The Joker proved more than enough of an adversary for Batman and made it hard, but not impossible, for anyone to follow in his footsteps.
Burton was wise not to incorporate any other baddies in the movie as The Joker deserves as much screen time as possible, but not more than Batman.
Don’t get me wrong, this movie will always be one of my favorites from the first time I saw it in theaters, and I love it, warts and all, but it’s far from being the perfect Batman movie.
I’m still happy it exists and without it and its success, who knows if we would have ever gotten to where we are today with multiple comic book related movies cropping up every year and even crossing over into television to the point where we have a comic book show practically every night of the week.
Batman is still an important comic book movie and paved the way for the caped crusader’s continued presence at the box office, (and more importantly, the animated series), so while it’s not the pinnacle of Batman on film, it still earns its place in cinema history and did what it was supposed to do at the time which was secure Batman’s legacy for another generation.