When I was four years old, my four favorite superheroes were Superman, Batman, Robin and The Incredible Hulk. While I didn’t read the comic books at the time I did enjoy their exploits through films (as was the case for Superman) and TV (Batman and Hulk). Batman, for me, was must see TV. Everywhere I went, if there was a TV, be it grandma’s house, a hotel, or sitting with my mom in the waiting room of an auto repair shop, I had to watch Batman. This was part of the reason why, on Christmas of 1989, when my dad opened his present from my aunt and uncle, I was excited. The video box didn’t have any words, but that was OK. The symbol on the cover said all I needed or cared to know:
I didn’t know it was a different Batman from the one I saw on TV. I didn’t know it was supposed to be darker or edgier. I just knew it was Batman versus the Joker. The only thing I wondered was where was Robin?
Now 25 years later, I have come to greatly appreciate the movie. While it is certainly dark and brooding it has just the right mixture of fun to the story as to not bore younger viewers. It takes some liberties with the mythos but at the same time they have never been as divisive as those made in say, last year’s Man of Steel. Further, like 1978’s Superman: The Movie with Christopher Reeve, it became a bench mark for superhero movies to achieve to and remains one of two important reference points for the super hero filmmakers who would follow.
Long before last year’s controversy of “Ben Affleck playing Batman”, this film was already rife with fan-boy rage at the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman. Fans wanted a muscle bound action star like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger to play the Dark Knight. Keaton was well established as a comedic actor, something that only made them think of the Adam West Batman. Further they also saw him as too small for the character in terms of height, and muscles and that he wasn’t good looking enough for the part.
So why cast Keaton? Tim Burton said that the main rational for his choice was that he wanted to cast someone who could come across like he actually needed to be Batman, someone who could convey the sense that he is driven to the point of obsession in his quest. This is something Bruce even says in this movie when asked by his girlfriend as to why he dons the Bat costume every night to fight evil. He tells her,
“Look, sometimes I don’t know what to make of this. It’s just something that I have to do….because no one else can.”
Keaton owned the roll and proved he had serious acting chops. He played his Batman as tortured and driven, and his Bruce Wayne as a “rich stiff.” Further he was the first Batman actor to do a different voice for Batman then he did for Bruce Wayne thus establishing precedent for Val Kilmer in Batman Forever , Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Trilogy and Kevin Conroy in Batman: The Animated Series.
Eschewing a full origin story, Batman’s motives are established through flashbacks. Here we encounter an experienced Dark Knight in the height of his career when he is established as an urban legend.
Playing his arch nemesis, The Joker, was actor Jack Nicholson. Unlike Batman, his casting was not meet with as much controversy. While Ceaser Romero played his Joker as a cackling goofball, Nicholson could bring a sense of creepiness and just a hint of menace. This was a Joker that would actually enjoy killing because it was fun and life and death are a game. As he tells Batman’s love interest,
” I now do what other people only dream. I make art until someone dies. See? I am the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist. ”
His performance was so well received by fans that they were reluctant to accept a new Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Not to say there weren’t some controversial aspects to the Joker. For Example, unlike the comic books we actually learned his name prior to transformation and had a back story. Typically in the comic books Joker has preferred to have a multiple choice history, one he can play like a fiddle. Further, his Joker had apparently killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, ( though an early plot thread that was to be carried out in the sequels is that the anonymous faceless, killer of Thomas and Martha Wayne would manifest itself in Bruce’s memory as whatever villain he faced in that film). However between his well timed one-liners, his freighting laugh, his creepy persona, and his overall good performance, he manages to steal the show, which Joker is aft to do in any Batman story.
Playing Bruce’s love interest Vicki Vale was actress Kim Basinger. She’s got the looks, and the scream, needed to be a superhero girlfriend. Vicki is drawn to Gotham for what she perceives to be the story of the century: this mysterious Batman. While she may be blonde, she is no bimbo and goes to great lengths to unmask him, for example Batman in the Batmobile and the Batcave she actually tries to get a good look at his face leading to some funny moments when Batman shines a dome light in her eye or turns away to try and conceal his identity from her. While Lois Lane may be so taken with Superman that’s he may not try to put together that Clark Kent is Superman, Vicki Vale is intrigued enough by the mystery of the Batman to try and unmask him.
As far as supporting players go, Batman has the best in Alfred Pennyworth played in this movie and its sequels by the late Michael Cough. His Alfred seems like a wise and loving grandfather, or even an elderly father who worries for his grown son and tries to steer him away from his path of destruction, even telling Bruce that he doesn’t wish to spend his remaining years grieving for Thomas and Martha, or their son. None the less he supports Bruce, and continually tries to pull him back from the darkness with wise advice, and a few pithy remarks. Actor Pat Hingle plays Commissioner Gordon, and while his Gordon is not the action hero that Gary Oldman’s was in the Dark Knight Trilogy, he is not the buffoon he became in the sequels either. You can tell his Gordon is working hard to lead a police force that is rotten to the core.
One thing that can be said for the aesthetic in the movie, it certainly put the “goth” in Gotham. Inspired heavily by German expressionism, unparticular the look of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, with a dash of film noir, Burton’s vision of Gotham as realized by concept artist Anton Furst looks like it was ripped right out of the comics. But his crown jewel is the design of the Batmobile. This Batmobile is the right blend between the “cool” factor of the Adam West Batman and the “militarized” look that Chris Nolan would later utilize. It almost serves as a bridge between the man that was Bruce Wayne and the myth that is Batman. To this day, most Batman fans will place it as a close second to the Adam West Batmobile in terms of their favorites.
If there was an iconic Batman theme that was on par with the John Williams Superman fanfare, it would be Danny Elfman’s haunting overture. He reaches down into the dark and brooding aspects of the character and brings forth a piece that sounds right at home with another vengeful creature of the night, The Phantom of the Opera. From the first bars, Elfman’s Batman theme draws you into this lair of mystery, intrigue, tragedy and darkness. It was so perfect for the character that it was reused as the opening theme for Batman: The Animated Series.
Most superhero movies have a pop-soundtrack to accompany it, and many times this can be hit or miss. For example using songs Black Sabbath and AC/DC, two iconic heavy metal standards for Iron Man, the ultimate heavy metal hero works to a T. However, others like Macy Gray in Spider-Man or Evanescence in Daredevil can make a movie feel dated. In the 89 Batman they featured nine songs by Prince. While at first glance using 80s music may date the movie, it only adds to it’s whimsical charm. Further, unlike other soundtracks where they may be preexisting songs with a vague connection that are selected due to some vague semblance to the movies basic plot, Prince, who was a huge Batman fan, wrote brand new original compositions for the film written from the perspective of Batman, Joker, and Vicki Vale. While “Partyman” maybe more memorable due to it playing while Joker is trashing paintings at an art gallery, the love song “Arms of Orion”is an underrated classic.
This year not only marks the 25th anniversary of Tim Burton’s Batman, but the 75th anniversary of the Batman character. While Batman in the comics had for the most part been a dark character, this movie that served as his “50th Anniversary present” helped establish precedence for the character. Without this movie Warner Brothers would never have been willing to take a risk on the Chris Nolan Batman movies when Batman & Robin was derided for its overly bright feel. It also helped give Warner Brothers the confidence to greenlight Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s Batman: The Animated Series , which would be considered the best Batman adaptation by many fans.
More importantly, it reaffirmed to the fans that Batman was more than the bam, pow, wams of the Adam West days, and introduced the rest of the public to the tragic aspects of the character. Like Richard Donner’s Superman it deserves its status as a bench mark superhero film. It is by no means a perfect film. It does deviate from the source material, but name one superhero movie that didn’t? None of that diminishes from how good this movie is. In fact, along with Nolan’s Batman Begins it’s one of the few Batman movies that stands well enough on its own without the respective sequels.
Not that I cared about that when I was a kid. All I cared about was that it was Batman. And that the car was really cool. You know what? That is still one sweet ride.
Photo credit: 1989 DC Comics/Warner Bros. Entertainment.