Length: 126 minutes
Release Date: June 23, 1989
Directed by: Tim Burton
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
The Dark Knight has attracted fans across many generations. From comics and television series to movies, Batman continues to impress readers and viewers with his vigilante justice and deep, personal ethos. Tim Burton took the directorial reins in the 1989 “Batman” movie, and he created an inspiring and intriguing look at a Gotham City plagued by crime and championed by a billionaire playboy with a passion for justice.
“Batman” focuses on the conflict between Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) and Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). After failing to save Napier from falling into a vat of chemicals, Wayne, as Batman, must contend with Napier’s alter ego, the Joker. Along the way, viewers are introduced to the wisecracking reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and Batman’s love interest du jour, photojournalist Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger). The love story is eclipsed at every turn by the conflict between the hero and the supervillain, creating a wonderful action film with only a hint of love story.
The acting in the movie is hit-and-miss at times. Keaton is truly believable as Bruce Wayne, but often lacks the punch of darker Batman portrayals or the clichéd wisdom of lighter versions. Likewise, Nicholson portrays a truly dark and whimsical Joker, but can’t efface enough of his own style to really get into character. We get a look at Nicholson as the Joker instead of the Joker himself. This can be distracting to those who are familiar with the earlier works of the two veteran actors, and some may wonder why they struggle with such storied characters. Kim Basinger fills her minor role nicely, but fails to stand out in any meaningful way. Robert Wuhl and many of the actors with much smaller roles or cameos provide some of the best acting in the film. Billy Dee Williams and Jack Palance steal the show in their brief appearances, and Michael Gough provides an iconic performance as Batman’s loyal butler, Alfred Pennyworth.
The cinematography of the film is a testament to the prowess and insight of Tim Burton. The mood of the film is dark and dangerous even when outdoors or in the presence of giant inflatable balloons. Likewise, the music truly sets the scene for almost every Joker appearance and more than a few of Batman’s more memorable entrances. The scene transitions are ahead of their time, with wipes more common in later eras used throughout the film. Each shadow in “Batman” is a character in its own right, lending an air of mystery and suspense to the action film. This brings the city and the cast alive, highlighting some of the seedier aspects of a beleaguered metropolis struggling with day-to-day and night-to-night life.
The script is almost stereotypical in its delivery. This isn’t bad, as Batman and the Joker are long-established characters and Burton delivers a darkness found only in specific comics from the series. The lines are delivered with precision by the veteran actors, even if Bruce Wayne occasionally feels more Beetlejuice than Caped Crusader and Nicholson struggles to get past the crazy emotes from “The Shining.” The storyline itself is believable within the universe created by the comics and earlier series. The time frame may seem strange to fans of later films, as Batman appears to be middle-aged, yet the police and criminals are still unsure of his existence. Casual fans of the series, especially those who grew up with the television series, may not worry overmuch with this discrepancy.
The direction of the piece is what truly sells it to both modern and earlier audiences. The city is dark and gritty, and the characters seem truly at home in it. From the woman in red who attempts to seduce a young Bruce Wayne walking out of the theatre with his family to the hardened cops and armed thugs who fight it out in scene after scene, viewers are never taken out of the action for more than a brief moment. Even periods of rest are used to deliver poignant commentary on the madness of the Joker or the struggles of Bruce Wayne to reconcile his nocturnal activities with his daily life.
The acting of the film showcases the actors more than the roles, but this is the only real drawback to a film that truly stands the test of time. “Batman” set the stage for a series of later hits in the Tim Burton movie series, and allowed Burton to show his skill with established characters. This proved to be greatly beneficial when he later tackled “Alice in Wonderland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” The movie is sure to find a home among comic book fans and action-movie buffs alike, and it’s a great choice for a night in with friends.