I can’t pinpoint the specific moment I became aware of the superhero Batman. Amidst the Captain N’s, Super Mario’s and Transformers of the muddled late 80s/early 90s culturescape, I came to know Batman through my dad’s comic collection. I was semi-aware of the movie when I rented the Nintendo game. I also had Joker and Batman action figures, but I didn’t care about the movie until much later. It was toys and video games for me, and that’s the way it went for a while. I didn’t know about Batman‘s initial impact on pop culture at large.
The movie was the centerpiece of the now-commonplace merchandising juggernaut that accompanies every major cinematic release, something Jack Nicholson took into account when he made his payment deal. Besides top billing (over title character Michael Keaton) Nicholson received a large percentage of the royalties, raking in one of the biggest paydays for an actor in history. Considering the Joker’s climactic parade scene, where he throws millions of dollars to a rabid Gotham populace to the tune of Prince’s “Trust”, it kind of makes you wonder. The Prince CD, Danny Elfman’s soundtrack, action figures, and Batmobile and Batwing toys were all prominently displayed in their live-action late-80s glory for kids to nag their parents to buy… In the decade to follow, marketing and toy tie-ins would be all Warner Bros. cared about when it came to their lucrative little Bat-franchise. Quality movies? Who wants those? But we’ll get to WB’s dark times later.
Whoa, wait. Things were dark from the beginning. This… this movie is dark as hell! From the opening titles you’re lost in darkness! The cool-cool-cool opening credits. The camera cruises through black contours and corners, and the only clue as to where we are is Danny Elfman’s marvelous theme music. The camera pulls back to reveal we’ve been traveling through the Batman insignia. Pretty cool. So cool Mortal Kombat would steal the idea for its opening credits.
It’s cliche to call the location of the movie a character as much as the actual characters, but Gotham City definitely earns that distinction as a grimy, decaying dystopia. Production designer Anton Furst (Full Metal Jacket) mish-mashed all sorts of different architectural styles to make Gotham one ugly, unsettling place. There’s Gothic architecture and art deco lettering in store signs. The skyscrapers, rendered in good old-fashioned matte paintings never seem to end a la Blade Runner, and the sky bridges recall Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Men wear fedoras, ’80s music blares through boomboxes, and red-dressed hookers target little kids. A great introduction to a terrible, beautifully realized place. My one problem is the lack of individual locations within the city. The first one we see, with the Monarch Theater dead in center, gets re-used often, giving the impression this is all the budget allowed. It is an impressive set — how common are actual sets anymore? — and it’s understandable Burton and crew would want to get all the mileage they could out of it.
The first characters we see are red herrings — a well-mannered husband and wife and their kid walking out of the movie theater. Those familiar with Batman’s story would think this is Thomas and Martha Wayne, and their son Bruce. Cleverly, the movie holds that card until much later and instead uses this image of a bewildered family as the example of the people Batman tries to protect from the criminals who prey on them. After they’re robbed, we get a great bird’s-eye shot of a shadowy figure on a rooftop balcony looking down at the city below. This is Batman’s first appearance and interestingly, if his unusual movement is any indication, he’s animated.
After their success, one of the criminals gets cold feet. He says to his partner there’s been talk of a giant bat punishing their kind, and that maybe they should hightail it out of there. The other guy plays Scully and insists there’s no such thing as a bat who punishes criminals.
This is one of the best parts of the movie.
“Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot” is one of the maxims of the character and world of Batman. This scene nails it. As they’re talking Batman slowly drops in from above behind them, more like a spider on a thread than a flying rodent, but a terrible nightmare come to life all the same. This Batman uses trickery and misdirection instead of martial arts. He pretends to die when the thugs shoot at him, then comes back up to life. When one tries to run away he pulls the guy back to him with a batarang. The following exchange is perfect. You probably know it:
Thug: *scared out of his wits* “WHAT ARE YOU?!”
The Goddamn Batman: *pulls thug closer* “I’m Batman.”
The thugs’ arrests introduce the Gotham police and the press. Lt. Eckhardt, a big hairy balloon of a man, tells obnoxious reporter Knox, who wants to know if Batman’s on the police payroll, to buzz off. The dialogue, and the costumes — everyone’s in suits and hats — has a noir cartoon styling. Though the characters may not always resemble their comic counterparts, the movie’s style is influenced by the same brand of hardboiled pulp fiction, a look that carried over into the 1992 animated series. It’s not a stretch to call the movie cartoonish. Tim Burton did start out as an animator for Disney, and style and production design are his major strengths.
Characters, especially well-known comic characters, not so much. It seems useless to talk about Harvey Dent, a near non-entity played by Billy Dee Williams, who took the role on the promise he would later turn into the villain Two-Face. Williams gives some speeches during a Citizen Kane-y campaign on how he’s going to crack down on crime. And that’s pretty much all we see or hear of him until the very end. Commissioner Gordon, a major force in Batman’s life in the comics, is seen playing craps at Wayne Manor. He appears again later, briefly in the Axis Chemical Plant. Er, not playing craps, but standing around and ordering some cops around. Maybe he has nothing to do because he’s played by ancient theater actor Pat Hingle, who most likely couldn’t be goaded out of his sarcophagus for long enough periods of time. Alfred, played by Michael Gough, fairs slightly better by endearing himself with sight gags involving dinnerware and a story about a young Bruce Wayne. Overall, they’re ancillary characters pushed to the frigid margins by the Clown Prince of Hollywood, Jack Nicholson.
Jack Napier is introduced watching Dent speak on a black-and-white TV (a nice retro touch also adopted by the animated series). He wears purple and shuffles cards, some none-too-subtle foreshadowing, and flirts with the mob boss’ lady friend. His boss Carl Grissom, played by Jack Palance, doesn’t approve of the self-obsessed, overconfident lady killer (hmm), so he sets him up to take a fall. Grissom sends Jack to take care of some evidence at one of their fronts, the Axis Chemical Plant, where Jack has a run-in with the cops and Batman. Naturally, Batman takes down gangsters, hanging some of the guys from railings, ensuring he’s seen in brief glimpses by the other goons to perpetuate his fearsome image. Even Jack, who’s set up as this cold-hearted mobster, yelps out a convincing “JESUS!” when Batman confronts him.
Batman offers what became the definitive version of the Joker’s origin, though they are only a few in popular media to begin with, and often vastly different. For instance, in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, he’s a failed comedian who has one really bad day. Here, Batman accidentally drops Jack into the vat of chemicals that bleaches his skin. The subsequent surgery and its aftermath — “MIRROR … MIRROR!” — drives Jack over the edge. The sight of his new face, his ugly self he hides now in full view, drives him nuts.
Nicholson’s unexpected acting style suits this particular Joker. His shark grin and Kubrick stare is a good fit aesthetically, though his jokes hit and miss. Nevermind that Jack goes from gangster to prankster with gadgets in no time at all — that’s never explained nor does it really matter. Initially, his motivation is revenge. Once that is sated, he turns eyes towards Batman. When the Joker shows up in all his pale-faced glory, he’s like a performer with no audience. He shoots and shoots and shoots at Grissom until the scene flickers out. It starts out as a good scene until it keeps going. All momentum is lost. A good thing Elfman’s score helps out, otherwise it’s sort of blah. Scenes fizzling out is a common problem in the Burton-directed Batman films.
It happens again when the Joker skeletonizes a guy at a mob meeting with a hand buzzer. “You’re crazy,” one mobster says. Well, yeah, ya meatball, he just fried a guy so much you can see his brain stem. “OOOH WE GOT A HOT ONE IN TOWN TONIIIGHT,” Joker sings. It’s hilarious, upsetting and, well, really gory. He burns a guy’s skin off. It’s still kind of shocking to see today. This scene alone warrants Batman a big fat DARK label. After the killing, there’s a brief respite from the charred corpse when the Joker pulls aside his right hand henchman, rubs his shoulders and states “You are my number one guy” in a breathy, shivering fashion. It’s a great, weird moment, and definitely one of my favorites. The line is also a twist on one Grissom gives the Joker (then Jack) earlier in the movie, so it’s like Joker has officially been apointed the new leader at this point. However, afterwards, the scene just goes on. Like, what’s left to do? The Joker giggles then turns his attention to the charred corpse, whose welcome has long since outlasted. I guess they really wanted to get all the use they could out of that prop, but it feels like dead air.
The museum defacement scene is another classic Joker scene that unfortunately falls flat in the end. The Joker and his gang wreck an art museum. They pump Prince music through a giant boombox and poisonous gas through the air vents to kill everyone inside except for heroine Vicki Vale, played by Kim Basinger. They paint streaks of red and green across every painting except a Francis Bacon — a nice Joker-y touch. In the following chat with Vale, the Joker reveals his M.O.: he’s the world’s first fully-functional homicidal artist and he wants to usher in a new aesthetic. It’s a great take on the character and the only real explanation we get for the things he does. To prove he means business he brings in Alicia, Grissom’s former paramour, who has been in a mask for a majority of the movie. Considering Vale’s reaction to Alicia’s unmasking you’d think the Joker really went all out, but the reveal is a total letdown. She’s just wearing some candle wax and pancake make-up on her face. Of all the things Batman does leave to the imagination (“Where does he get all those wonderful toys?”) it would’ve been nice if Alicia was one of them.
Batman is a very Joker-centric movie, but there are other characters to pay attention to, oddly enough. Batman happens to be one of them, and he has an alter-ego, namely millionaire Bruce Wayne who’s revealed at a party at his family estate, Wayne Manor. The reporter from the beginning of the movie, Knox, talks with Vicki Vale about the exotic statues and art in one the manor’s many ornate rooms. They badmouth Wayne as a worthless rich snob when he’s behind them the whole time. He interrupts them as they wonder about a particular suit of armor.
Bruce: “It’s Japanese.”
Knox: “How do you know?”
Bruce: “Cuz I bought it in Japan.”
Yeah, Bruce! It’s a great scene with quick timing and the refreshing presence of Michael Keaton. I make him sound like a cold soft drink (say, Diet Coke), but the shy, eccentric way Keaton plays Wayne is charming and nice break from Nicholson’s antics. Consider Vale’s and Wayne’s date at a huge table (“How’s the soup?”). How did they even get in that situation? Eventually, they move somewhere more intimate where Alfred tells a story about a young Bruce. Alfred reminds Vicki of her grandfather, which prompts her to ask Bruce about his family. Ouch. Bruce decides to talk about his house instead: “Some of it is very much me. Some of it isn’t.” Some nice economic, dramatic dialogue.
Then we’re treated (subjected?) to some drunken romance and a shot of Bruce Wayne sleeping upside-down like a bat. Wait what?! A bat joke? Wha? It’s kind of a cheap shot to have such a dopey BAT joke in there, but I guess it’s to show how sad and weird he is? I mean, that’s how the romance is: sad and weird, and Bruce knows it, yet he continues it because he’s a lonely, tortured orphan … who dresses up as a bat.
Bruce tries to explain his situation to Vicki at her apartment in one of Batman‘s best scenes, but ends up flustered. When the Joker shows up (observing the same thing Bruce did earlier: “Nice place you got here. Lots of space.”), Bruce tries to defend Vicki by going a little crazy himself. “Now you wanna get nuts?” he screams, smashing a vase with a fireplace poker. “C’mon! Let’s get nuts!” You’ve probably heard that line repeated in Seinfeld and American Dad, among other places. It’s a surprising outburst out of Keaton, one of the more memorable moments of the movie. If you look closely you can see Nicholson flinching, too. The scene has two other great Joker lines — the “devil in the pale moonlight” line, which reveals his link to Bruce’s past, and the head-scratchingly odd “Never rub another man’s rhubarb.” If we’re basing quality scenes on great dialogue this one is definitely the best.
The movie’s got a lot of great moments and details to point out. There’s this cheap-looking map of Gotham City that’s obviously some random map with “Gotham City” smacked on top of it. I guess the prop department was in a rush that day. The museum scene culminates when Batman breaks in through a ceiling window — something he actually does in every sequel. Afterwards, the Batmobile appears and there’s a fight/chase scene ending with a yelling katana guy. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark or something, he’s all showy and shit until Batman kicks him in the face. Very goofy.
One of the coolest scenes is a simple one: Batman drives Vicki in the Batmobile through a forest road as Elfman cranks the score up to 11. Vicki’s curious and frightened by Batman, speeding along as his kickass theme song plays. Another highlight: The Joker shoots a TV Elvis-style when he finds out Batman foiled one of his plans. That part just makes me laugh. Another odd moment: As the Joker prepares to throw a huge party to lure out Batman, Bruce has a flashback. It turns out the movie he saw with his parents was … “Footlight Frenzy?” Okay. Not exactly symbolic like Mark of Zorro, but whatever. We do see a freaky Young Jack though, so now we know things are very personal. In retaliation, Batman remote controls the Batmobile to blow up the Axis Chemical Plant, where the some of the Joker’s henchmen are. A very un-Batman thing to do – blow up criminals with explosives – but at least he’s not playing ice hockey or something.
It bears mentioning now that the Batman in Batman ’89 is not an adequate representation of the comic book character. He’s not much of a detective, he has no problem killing people, and is shy around people. Which is okay, as Batman’s never been one character to begin with. He reflects the times and in the late ’80s the one-two punch of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel and Tim Burton’s Batman pulled the character back into the ether. Not as the campy Adam West joke version, but as the dark, brooding urban legend fans adore.
Now, the climax. The Joker’s party/parade is weird for a number of reasons, besides the Prince music blasting out the speakers. Where there’s money flying around there’s usually some kind of subtext lurking beneath. “Gotham’s greed,” Knox observes as extras scramble for the cash Joker tosses about. The Joker, it seems, is all about exposing ugliness. That’s why he poisons Gotham’s cosmetics and pretends to alleviate Gotham’s impoverished by giving away “free money.” To expose the ugliness of a failed capitalist dystopia, where the masses scramble to the feet of a painted madman who throws away lucre that bears his image, as he indicates in the museum scene. The money has his face on it so the joke is on the people — it’s useless. The money’s an empty, useless symbol for a city that desperately needs one to believe in. They get that symbol (or signal) in the end, but only after Joker threatens to kill them with gas. Because it’s just not a superhero movie with a villainous gas-dispensing plot. Welcome to the ranks, Amazing Spider-Man.
Anyway, the parade balloons give off poisonous gas and Batman has to get rid of the balloons with the Batwing. It’s the goofiest climax. Batman fires everything he’s got at Joker and he misses. Joker then pulls out a long-barreled revolver from his pants and shoots down the Batwing. Afterwards, Joker kidnaps a suddenly-drunk-or-tired Vicki Vale and goes up a HUGE Gothic church to escape via rooftop helicopter. Suddenly there are more Raiders joke guys for Batman to kill. Batman goes through a whole gauntlet of these guys until he finally reaches Joker, who he’s ready to go all Death Wish on. Instead, Joker falls and smears out of existence. Yeah, he smears out of the frame. I know technology was limited then, but Hans Gruber’s fall in Die Hard was four years earlier and that still looks spectacular. In any case, the church climax shows off some really cool, really dark cinematography. I think Batman gets a bloody face (hurt Batman is best Batman) during that fight to show some damn color in the scene. Well, color besides the Joker’s face and Vicki’s classy blonde hair.
The ending sets up what will become the classic way to end a Batman story. Billy Dee Williams returns as Harvey Dent and reads a letter Batman sent him. “We received a letter from Batman this morning … Call me!” Then he unveils the Bat Signal. I could imagine comic nerds in 1989 going crazy at this point, just as they later would at the similar end of Batman Begins in 2005.
Though Bruce Wayne is an oddball, though Jack Nicholson chews all the scenery, though Batman ruthlessly murders people, there’s something reassuring, something hopeful about the sight of the Bat Signal. Like, yeah, there are differences, but this signal proves he is The Batman. The theme music swells, Batman looks up on the roof, the signal’s in the sky — everything feels right.
At least for a little while.