Release Date: June 23, 1989
Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Bob Kane (Batman characters), Sam Hamm (story/screenplay) and Warren Skaaren (screenplay)
Stars: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Tim Burton’s Batman gets so many things right about the character and the overall vibe of the comics. Unfortunately, he gets a few key things wrong that keep this very good movie from being a truly great Batman film.
Until this movie came out in 1989, most casual observers thought of Batman as the campy character Adam West portrayed in the 60s TV show. For a while, the comics embraced this persona and gave fans a similarly lighthearted version of the Caped Crusader, but over time they shied away. By the 70s and 80s, Batman had gone back to what he always should have been – a brooding, intense vigilante looking to clean up a corrupt and dirty city.
With the black rubber suit, the cool car and Michael Keaton’s snarling Batman voice, this film reeducated America on what Batman could be. I was eight years old when it came out and already in love with Batman from the comics, but this film set it over the edge for me. Danny Elfman’s amazing, sweeping score and the overall Gothic look of the film made an indelible impression on me and countless other eight-year-olds. The film’s success also spawned Batman: The Animated Series (which kept Elfman’s iconic theme song and the overall dark, Gothic tone of the film and stylized it with an awesome cartoony look), which is perhaps its greatest legacy.
Overall, Michael Keaton is a really interesting and solid choice for Bruce Wayne/Batman. Much like Luke Skywalker is a little short for a Storm Trooper, Keaton is a tad too short and physically small to be Batman, but the suit and the camera angles mostly disguise this fact. What I love is his intensity as the Dark Knight and the quirky, aloof way he plays Bruce Wayne. He’s not who I picture in my head when I close my eyes and think of Batman, but he made the role his own and found a way to make it work.
Jack Nicholson is fantastic as The Joker. Until Heath Ledger came along and completely redefined what the character could be, Nicholson was the industry standard. The look is spot on from the comics and he somehow manages to be amusing and disturbing at the exact same time, which is what defines The Joker. And the permanent smile on his face is absolutely amazing.
The one thing that’s always bothered me though is Burton’s change to Bruce Wayne’s origin story. In the comics, his parents were killed by Joe Chill, an average thug who represented random acts of violence. He never gets revenge on Chill, so instead he devotes his life to saving others from those random moments of violence. Chill is a symbol. He could have been anyone.
By making The Joker Thomas and Martha Wayne’s killer, it changes the dynamic. Also, further complicating things, Burton makes another huge change to the character – doing away with Batman’s policy of not killing anyone. This fundamentally alters the value system and driving motivation of the character, which I hate. These two changes come together in the end when Batman kills The Joker, which robs us of the potential of future conflicts between the two and also theoretically allows Bruce Wayne to even the score, which means he doesn’t really have a reason to be Batman anymore.
In addition to the conflict between those two, we also get a love story between Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). For the most part, their story works well enough, though rewatching the film now, I’m a bit disturbed by the brevity of their relationship. They only ever go on one date, then Bruce stops calling her. Even if it was the most amazing date ever, that’s not much of a history to build off of. Plus, it makes the ending – in which Alfred lets Vicki into the Batcave – seem even more ridiculous. He barely knows this woman and she’s a reporter looking into Batman – how can he know they can trust her?
Speaking of Vicki, I do love how the film uses her as our entry point into Bruce Wayne’s backstory. Most modern superhero movies devote so much time at the beginning of their movies to showing us the character’s origin, which often times seems to drag on needlessly. But this movie starts with Batman already being Batman and uses Vicki’s investigation into Bruce Wayne’s past as a way to give us a few quick vignettes explaining how Batman came to be. It’s a much quicker and more entertaining way to get us up to speed. I wish more films did things this way.
Overall, this isn’t a perfect film, but it gets right more than it gets wrong. And it holds up rather well considering it is 23 years old. If you’ve never seen it or haven’t seen it in a very long time, it’s worth watching.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.