(PG-13, 126 minutes, 1989)
Surprisingly, Batman was not my introduction to the character. My parents bought me the Hot Wheels version of the film’s Batmobile, but I didn’t get to experience Michael Keaton in the cowl until Batman Returns in 1992. After that, I was further introduced to the World’s Greatest Detective through re-runs of the 1966 Batman television series on the FX channel. Since they were such building blocks of my fandom, both the darker version of the knight and the Adam West version hold special places in my heart. 1989’s Batman is a fun blending of the two in an adventure that has influenced nearly every interpretation of the Dark Knight since.
The opening credits elegantly trace the Batman symbol under the moody Danny Elfman score, a move that would be repeated in another epic adventure movie called Stargate in 1994. The Danny Elfman theme is the one that echoes in my brain when I think of Batman, and pairs well with the movie’s gothic art-deco noir style. Tim Burton also pulls a clever bait-and-switch with the film’s opening by showing the audience a family leaving a theater and being held up, echoing the very incident that orphaned Bruce Wayne.
Michael Keaton’s defining turn as Bruce Wayne was controversial at the time, but I love his portrayal. His eccentric oddball millionaire contrasts against the sharp-witted reality of the his alter ego, and it sets the tone of the essential duality between Wayne and Batman. His gadgets are also fantastic, from the batarangs, grappling hooks, and utility belt to the Batmobile itself. The Keaton-era Batmobile is a gorgeous example of the ’80s mixed with the ’60s, from the fins and the exhaust flame to the recent addition of the shields.
Jack Nicholson stars in a role of duality as well, from his standard henchman of Jack Napier to his maniacal and creepy interpretation of the Joker. He takes Cesar Romero’s humorous yet short-tempered character and adds an edge of lethality, easily killing as an example of his insanity. The makeup is a nod to the 1960s, but feels a bit dated in the modern era.
In supporting roles, Robert Wuhl’s is deliciously over the top as journalist Alexander Knox, and he’s a good comic counter to Kim Basinger’s spin on photographer Vicky Vale. Vale should have been a much stronger feminist role rather than a swooning damsel in distress, but that is easily attributed to the era. Jack Palance was also over the top as Carl Grissom, but his scenery chewing became grating in his short scenes. Luckily, his character quickly departed. Additionally, I would have loved to see Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face, but alas.
The last, but perhaps the most major supporting role is that of Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth. Alfred, the Wayne Manor butler, is Bruce Wayne’s adoptive father and Batman’s conscience. In the rather controversial move of compromising Wayne’s secret identity by bringing Vale to the Batcave, Alfred is pushing Wayne and Batman onto a course that neither could do on their own in an attempt to provide a life for his son by reconciling the duality of the Dark Knight. Ironically, that duality is why the relationship with Vale couldn’t work. Gotham needs Batman, as does Wayne, and try as she might, Vale cannot identify with both the man and the bat.
In minor notes, I loved the Bob Kane nod with the bat-in-a-suit ink drawing. I also loved the parallels in the film as noted by Shua of the TechnoRetroDads Podcast when the hosts reviewed the film on its anniversary, particularly those that I need to find on another viewing. When Bruce Wayne is orphaned, he’s grapsing onto a popcorn container. Similarly, when he’s about to reveal his secret to Vale but is interrupted by the Joker, Vale seeks solace in a bowl of popcorn.
In retrospect, the campiness of this film against the darker tone helps bridge the gap between the 1960s Batman and the more modern incarnations, bringing the character full circle from its darker origins to the Nolan/Bale era of films. The movie is dated, but it’s still fun.
My Rating: 8/10
IMDb rating: 7.6/10