Batman on Film: Batman 1989

A column article, Shot For Shot by: Charles Webb
Batman (1989)
Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Sam Hamm, Warren Skaaren
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Michael Gough
Release Date: June 23, 1989


With the recent announcement of the title of the third Christopher Nolan Batman movie and all of the hoopla, speculation, and general goofiness that the announcement of another Bat-movie brings, I thought I’d take a look back at Batman on film. Well, that, and I recently picked up a copy of The Batman Anthology on blu-ray and figured I should tell someone about it.

And watching Batman ’89, I came to the realization that this movie, is in part, how I got hooked on movies. I mean, the whole summer of 1989 was pretty nuts with big genre movies and it was the first time I really ever paid attention to that sort of thing and it just stuck with me from there on out. It was the first “event” movie of which I was cognizant. You couldn’t go anywhere that summer without seeing the gold Batman logo on a billboard or t-shirt, or whatever, and I remember pleading—practically begging to be taken to see this movie as a kid.

Looking back now, I’m sort of amazed at how this movie even exists. It’s not bad, mind you—it’s just the product of another era of filmmaking. I mean, name another mainstream action movie that would have comedian Robert Wuhl as one end of a love triangle?

But let me back up a bit. Tim Burton’s Batman was the first big superhero megahit in years, with the Superman franchise petering out and Marvel pretty much absent from the big screen. It’s weird to note that during this time, DC parent company Warner Brothers had to option Batman before a film could get made in what was apparently a tumultuous period leading up to the final film. Merging media wasn’t really a thing back then, so one hand didn’t really know what the other was doing. I think that, in part, is why the first two movies under Burton’s stewardship were so nuts.

Burton was coming off of the unexpected success of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988)—which, today, wouldn’t exactly translate into tentpole superhero movie director. But reading between the lines of the making of docs included on the disc and some of the stories from the period, Burton’s hiring, and much of the production, was a hurried, often chaotic affair. The shoot was between October of 1988 and January of 1989, based on a script put together during the ’88 WGA strike, with a lead actress, Sean Young, who was sidelined days before principal photography, and a lead, Michael Keaton, who was being pilloried by comic fans as not serious enough for the man behind the cowl.

And yet, and yet, Tim Burton delivered an idiosyncratic hit that targeted adults and, for all its faults, was a mature treatment of superhero films without being overly serious.

Revisiting the movie now, you notice that the Tim Burton imprint isn’t quite as pronounced here. The color palette incorporates a lot of browns and natural colors, and “real” light was used in quite a few scenes. Outside of a couple of scenes, the camera doesn’t swoop, glide, or fly, the way it does is later films. The one-two punch of Batman Returns and Edward Scissorhands* I think, solidified the Burton aesthetic (and tone, and “outsider” narrative, to an extent) for good or ill, but here it was still in a nascent stage. The style of the city isn’t quite as uniformly gothic as it would be in Returns, but it was a mad, ugly construction in the way that only an artist (in this case, production designer Anton Furst) could conceive of urban blight.

For my money, the casting of Keaton was actually quite inspired. Fans were in an uproar about a comedian playing the ultra-serious Batman, and there was a genuine fear that the movie was simply going to be a camp companion to the 60’s-era Batman show. What fans didn’t realize, and the reason that Michael Keaton is my favorite Batman**, is that the actor brings a level of cool detachment to the role that works in and out of costume. If his Batman is a little crazy, his Bruce Wayne might even be crazier. Given that the focus of the movie was less on an origin story for Batman and more about his introduction to Gotham, Keaton has to communicate a lot about the character is less explicit ways. As a viewer unfamiliar with the character, you get that he’s wounded somehow and he’s kind of a mystery, and yeah, a little nuts.

Jack Nicholson’s Joker is something else entirely: he plays him like an acid-wielding lunatic version of Ceaser Romero’s essaying of the character back in the 60’s. Nicholson maintains that it’s one of his favorite roles because he loves the sense of humor the character has: the worst sense of humor of anyone in the room. As gangster Jack Napier, who gets an accidental chemical bath, Nicholson never thinks to underplay it. His joker is garish and loud, stealing every scene in which he appears. Of course, it’s appropriate: as opposed to Ledger’s brilliant, mysterious nihilist, Nicholson creates an equally brilliant egoist who can’t stand being anything other than the center of attention. Consider the motivations of the character on both sides of his transformation, and you’ll find that the character is driven by nothing more than a desire to be the center of attention.

The movie skewed older in its casting and skewed unorthodox in its promotion and production. Danny Elfman— former member of Oingo Boingo, and a previous collaborator on Burton’s previous films—was an inspired choice to create the swooping, almost operatic score for Batman. Elfman quotes his own work here in the Clive Barker penned horror flop Nightbreed from the same year—and he’s been using elements of this score for years. But then, wither Prince? What manner of strange corporate decision making lead to hiring Michigan’s funkiest son to make a score accompanying the work of Elfman?*** The Paisley One’s contributions are all but absent from the movie, save for his “Trust” and “Party Man.” Interesting fact: as a kid, I owned the single with “Party Man.” On tape.

I’m kind of still in “like” with the movie to this day, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the subject of my next piece, 1992’s Batman Returns.

*Although, if I’m being completely honest, almost every movie in Burton’s body of work is a piece about outsiders, from Pee Wee, to all the way through his take on Alice in Wonderland. Say this for the man: he has a theme and he stick to it.

**Yeah, I said it.

***Actually, weird fact: Michael Jackson was originally hired to compose love songs for the movie, but touring obligations prevented him from doing so.

You can find the trailer here:

If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of Charles Webb's work at his blog Monster In Your Veins.

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