Batman Cinematic Universe Retrospective: Batman (1989)

As I’ve already noted in these articles, my first foray into Batman media came from Batman: The Animated series. It was a staple of Saturday mornings alongside Power Rangers and The Rugrats (which seemed to be the only cartoon on Live and Kicking) but as I’ve grown older Batman has been the most enduring pop culture figure of those formative times. I’ve always been drawn to television that is shrouded in darkness, with psychological thrillers and horrors my go-to viewing. Without Batman: The Animated Series I would have never watched The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the show’s reach also carried over to the genre of film.

I remember the first time I watched Tim Burton’s blockbuster live-action version of a character I thought I knew so well. After being so familiar with the series, which I didn’t realize at the time was actually a spin-off from Burton’s film, this new Batman, this real Batman, seared itself into my brain for years to come. Batman was a nightmare version of the character that, up to this point, was shown in wider media to be fun, silly, and a little wink-winky. Burton’s film was almost an example of proof of concept, that the world was ready for this Batman, and his gallery of Rogues, to be dark and angsty again – with little sprinklings of gallows humor. Obviously comic book fans of the time were already familiar with The Dark Knight actually being dark, thanks especially to Frank Miller’s iconic The Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: Year One, but Burton popularized the kind of Batman who does what he does, not solely out of a sense of justice, but because of deep psychological scars. And his villains were exactly the same.

In terms of impact, Batman is to the superhero movie what Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was to blockbuster cinema. Both movies made buckets of cash, had clever and far-reaching advertising campaigns that still influence how movies are sold to this day, and each have a mayor who ignores all the signs of horrific danger to his own citizens to put on a festival. In this case, Batman took it further – the mayor in Jaws was only responsible for a couple of deaths because he wouldn’t close the beach, whereas the mayor of Gotham’s chances of getting re-elected took a hit when the Joker poisoned the population of a few city blocks.

In my research of the film I found many reviews of the time coming up with the same complaint: that Batman is a film that is very much style over substance. I personally hate when critics fall back on this nugget of space-filler when it comes to superhero movies. While I agree that the Joel Schumacher movies suffered greatly from this, I’ve come to question this criticism thanks to my writing on the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is always something going on under the surface, these stories are about characters and how they are changed, renewed, or broken by their experiences. That’s why Iron Man 2 and 3 aren’t a complete waste, because the characterization of Tony Stark is interesting. Batman has a lot going on in terms of characters and themes – it wouldn’t have the cultural endurance that it has without them.

Sure, Batman is an absolutely stunning film to look at. This is the first iteration of the character in which Gotham City is a character in itself, with its looming skyscrapers, permanent smog, and alleys and alleys worth of low-lifes. This Gotham feels like a crime has happened in every square foot of the whole city, a gothic metropolis with the influence of Blade Runner’s dystopian Los Angeles. What Burton does so skillfully is give us characters that fit this horrifying location. Take Batman’s first appearance – there’s no suit-up moment in the back of Alfred’s town car, there’s no instant costume change as he slides down the pole to the Batcave.

His introduction is mesmerizing. He glides down behind two muggers who look like they have herpes of the entire face and uses fear and intimidation as weapons. He gets shot, which has no effect, kicks a guy through a doorway, and threatens to drop the other mugger off the roof. Why? Because he’s BATMAN! Oh, and so the criminal underworld knows that he’s coming for them.

Before I go on and on in praising this movie to death, lets go over some flaws. As good and intimidating as Batman is, the suit doesn’t allow much opportunity for dynamic action. It’s better than the amateur boxing matches of the serial, and the scene with the double sword guy has a bit of an Indiana Jones vibe to how easy he’s dispatched, but the action leaves a lot to be desired.

There’s also a huge plot hole that has bothered me for years. The final confrontation between Batman and the Joker takes place at Gotham Cathedral, a huge building that The Joker, Vikki Vale, and Batman take an age to climb to the top. So, where the fuck did those goons that Batman fights come from. Where they already up there? They’re definitely not part of the helicopter crew because since they turned up a bit later. Where did they come from? Also, and I know I’m not alone in this, I wish Knox a slow and painful death. His function in the story is really good, Batman’s rise through newspaper reporting is a good way of giving Gotham a voice and identity out with the amazing art direction, but Knox is excruciatingly painful to watch and I wish he was dead.

But perhaps the worst part of the movie is Vikki Vale. This is no comment on Kim Basinger’s acting, but Vikki gets a raw deal in this movie. She is in the middle of a love triangle featuring the two craziest people in the city. It’s a lose-lose. She doesn’t even really get the guy in the end either. She just gets into Alfred’s car with the slight promise that Bruce will catch up with her later. He won’t, he’s too busy with his true love, brutalizing Gotham’s criminals while the symbol of his true identity lights up the sky.

Ok, obviously Batman isn’t a perfect film, but it is a great one. Most of these complaints, apart form the Vikki Vale ones, don’t really hurt the film all that much. Now, lets talk about the good stuff.

The thing I love about the Tim Burton Batman movies is that Batman is just as crazy as the villains he faces. Michael Keaton, who was the lightning rod of a fan campaign to remove him from the role, plays both Batman and Bruce Wayne to perfection. Keaton’s version of the character is known for playing second fiddle to his villains, and while that is true of Batman Returns, Batman is a lot more even-handed in terms of our exploration into Batman and The Joker. It’s amazing that the first character to be feared in this movie isn’t the Joker, or Jack Napier as he was controversially known as, but Batman himself. Keaton’s stillness in the role gives Batman this incredibly imposing quality, especially in his more theatrical modes.

While Michael Keaton is my cinematic Batman, though I respect those who prefer Christian Bale, he is far and away the best cinematic Bruce Wayne. In this Batman universe Bruce Wayne is very much a reclusive millionaire, he kind of mysterious personality that it’s ok for Clark Kent not to have heard of. Keaton’s performance as Wayne is very coy and at times uptight. His proper introduction is one of my favorite in cinema, better than his introduction as Batman, as he pretends to Vikki Vale that he doesn’t know who Bruce Wayne is, even though he’s in the middle of his own party. While Tim Burton frequently stated that he wasn’t really into comics, he is a film and literature buff and Bruce’s introduction is almost paly for play the introduction of Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, another mysterious millionaire whose story has captured the imagination of millions. What’s interesting about Bruce is that he is never comfortable as Bruce Wayne. Even when he’s not out galivanting in his cape and cowl, he’s sitting in the Batcave like a man obsessed as he tries to figure out each of the Joker’s plans.

The Joker has a lot of the same characteristics. I know that Burton’s choice to have a younger Jack Napier murder Bruce’s parents was controversial to comics fans but who cares, it works in this context. As far as I’m concerned, change the cannon all you like as long as the change is interesting, and the Joker and Batman creating each other is really bloody interesting. Taking a leaf out of the Under Red Hood comics, the Joker is born as Batman maybe accidentally drops Napier into a vat of acid, bleaching his skin white and putting a permanent-rictus grin on his face. The proper introduction of The Joker is just as scary as Batman, as he kills the mob boss that screwed him over. Just as Keaton underplays Batman to great effect, Jack Nicholson goes full ham with the Joker and it would take 21 years before any live-actionactor could put such an indelible mark on the character again.

At the very essence of this movie is a hero and a villain that are trying to recover from the fact that they destroyed each other. Bruce could have been a normal rich kid, following his father into the family business and grow up relatively sane, but the trauma of his parents’ death snuffed out that hope. Jack Napier seemed to be happy being a sadistic mobster enjoying the more violent side of things without the stress of being in charge until he was double crossed and dropped into that acid. Both characters have created new personas to cope with this trauma: Bruce has become the embodiment of fear, and the Joker deals with his disfigurement by trying to make his horrific features the new normal. His goal is having his face on the one-dollar bill, which is both a joke and absolutely true.

Batman marked the beginning of my 20-year obsession with the Dark Knight, his villains, and Gotham City. It was the movie that gave me the Batman I wanted, with the amazing designs of the Batcave, the Batmobile, the Batwing, and proper batarangs. It’s also the first Batman movie in which the Caped Crusader crusades at night, features his tragic origins, and treats the material with the darkness that I craved. But Alfred’s still an idiot for letting Vikki into the Batcave – that’s secret identity 101 stuff. You moron!

If you enjoyed this retrospective, please be sure to tune in next week for our look at the next Tim Burton/Michael Keaton Batman movie. You can also take a look at our other cinematic universe retrospectives, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Jurassic Park movies! And, as ever, if you enjoyed this and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon.

By Kevin Boyle

(header image courtesy of Bloody Disgusting)

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