Before the late ’80s, the image most associated with Batman was the one portrayed in the Batman television series from the late 1960s. This was a campy and spoof like version of Batman that actually didn’t stay true to what Batman really was or represented. Never the less, the television show was popular (even among Bat fans) and helped the Caped Crusader gain a wider audience. During the ’80s, graphic novels such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moor’s The Killing Joke helped bring back the dark image and themes that were associated with Batman. By the late ’80s, Warner Bros. released a film that brought Batman back to his dark roots, with the help of macabre director Tim Burton.
The result was Batman, a dark and atmospheric film that, for the first time on screen, showed us who the Dark Knight really was. The film was a huge commercial success and garnered, for the most part, positive reviews from critics and fans who applauded the return to a darker Batman while also criticizing a few things here and there. The film stars Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman, but it’s Jack Nicholson who gets top billing (literally) as Jack Napier/The Joker. Other characters and actors include Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, Robert Wuhl as Alexander Knox (the most ’80s character in the whole movie), Pat Hingle as Commissiner Gordon, Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, and of course, Michael Gough as Alfred. The whole cast does a great job, with the ultimate highlight and praise going towards Nicholson and Keaton, respectfully.
The story is fairly simple: Joker vs. Batman. That’s really all that needs to be said. I mean, there’s more to it then that, but not only is the story not a strong focus (a negative or positive depending on how you see it) but possible plot points can be revealed if too much of the story is discussed.
One of the most interesting things about Batman is that, right at the start, Bruce Wayne is already Batman. I’ve never seen another superhero movie (that isn’t a sequel) have the main character already be the superhero right when it starts (Daredevil and the X-Men films don’t count). What this does is establish that in Gotham City, some “bat” or guy in a bat outfit is going around and getting bad guys. Not a bad way to start the movie at all, and it feels a lot more comic book-ish, since most first issue comic books of a superhero already have the protagonist going around being the superhero while establishing an origin story later on. Whether the movie firmly establishes how Bruce becomes Batman might be up to you to decide, but again, I won’t go into that. On the other hand, we are shown how Jack Napier becomes the Joker. Nicholson is terrific as the wild and crazy villain who is absolutely unpredictable with a dark sense of humor. I used to think this movie just had Nicholson playing himself, but when I saw the film (and saw it again) I saw that it really was Nicholson playing an insane character while still staying within the confines of reality (to some degree). Some of the my favorite scenes involving him are when he doesn’t look like the Joker (but still has his “smile”), like the board meeting with him and some gangsters. One my favorite scenes in the whole movie is when Napier is at a surgeon’s place and he sees his reflection in a mirror, breaks the mirror, gets up, and walks out of the place (up stairs), all the while laughing manically. The place where the surgery is done, and the surgeon’s character, mixed with the subtle music, the minimal lighting, and Napier’s reaction, make it a one of a kind scene in my book.
Arguably, one could say there’s more emphasis on the Joker then on Batman, and to that I say it’s the writer’s faults. By already establishing Batman as Batman, and showing us who the Joker is before he becomes the Joker, it seems the script is set up to show us more of a character we know very little of as opposed to a character we should already be familiar with. But is any of this a bad thing? No, not really, especially since Nicholson is always a delight when he’s on screen.
Now, about Bruce Wayne/Batman: Keaton does an excellent job as Batman; he’s simply awesome in the role as well as convincing. I at first didn’t like his Bruce Wayne but came to like it more with repeated viewings. When he’s Wayne, he’s completely unassuming to the point where I could never believe this guy is Batman. And then he puts on the suit and kicks ass. It’s nothing short of phenomenal that he pulls off the role of Batman while still being utterly convincing as some playboy millionaire called Bruce Wayne. Michael Gough as Alfred is pretty good; there isn’t too much to say, but he plays his part and plays it well. One interesting thing to note is that not too much is said as to what happened to Wayne earlier in his life, but as usual, I’m not go into that. One of my other favorite scenes is when Wayne confronts the Joker in Vale’s apartment and he utters one my favorite lines in the whole movie. (And in case you’re curious as to what line that is, it’s during the part where he “gets nuts.”)
The cinematography and art direction is beautiful, in a dark kind of way of course. Many of the costumes and buildings look inspired by film noir and art deco architecture, helping to make the film look modern and old fashioned all at once. The only thing that sticks out in this regard are some of the vehicles; they look too modern (or at least, too ’80s modern) in this type of environment. Exceptions would include the Batmobile (which is awesome) and anything driven by the Joker and his henchmen.
The film has two soundtracks: a score by Danny Elfman and original songs by Prince. Some of the Prince songs show up in the movie (notably during the museum scene and the parade), but Elfman’s score dominates this picture. This film has what is probably my favorite (if not the greatest) score for a superhero film ever (Superman would be the close contender); the main titles theme still gives me chills. The main titles itself is one of the greatest main title sequences I’ve ever seen in any film; it establishes the mood and atmosphere while moving around a landscape that eventually shows it self to be the Batman symbol.
Overall, when all is said and analyzed, Batman is a great piece of superhero action and a great example of a superhero movie. It started off the Batman movie series and helped establish the dark mood of Batman that we see today, as well as help make the Batman animated series possible. Tim Burton knew what he was doing with Batman, and Keaton and Nicholson are at the top of their game as the heroes and villains of this Gotham City tale. However you like your Batman, and whatever your stance on superhero movies in general is, this is one you shouldn’t miss; it still holds up today as a fine adaption of a well known and beloved icon.