GBUK Film Classics: ‘Batman’ (1989)

Looking at some all-time favourites…

“Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight?”

Year:  1989

Starring:  Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Michael Gough

Director:  Tim Burton / Written by:  Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren

What’s it about?

Protected by the mysterious ‘Batman’, the innocent of the corrupt and crime-ridden Gotham City soon find themselves facing a new and deadly threat…a homicidal criminal known only as ‘the Joker’!

In review

Amongst the many screen iterations of Bob Kane’s comic book creation, for many (myself included) Tim Burton’s Batman is perhaps the most perfect.

The highest grossing box office success (and merchandising behemoth) of 1989, Batman succeeds on numerous levels.  Whilst taking the iconic character and his world back to the roots of Bob Kane’s vision and mirroring the darker and more adult comic book interpretations of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Tim Burton’s gothic fantasy also retains an element of the camp wit and charm of the hit 1960s Batman television series starring Adam West.

Michael Keaton makes for a perfect Bruce Wayne.  Effectively dark and brooding with just the right hint of angst, Keaton proved the naysayers of the time wrong and allayed the fears of millions of Bat-maniacs (here’s hoping the same will be true of Ben Affleck in the forthcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).  Beyond a flashback to the tragic murder of Wayne’s parents, the origin of Batman is not explored in too much detail yet provides the crux of Bruce Wayne’s story and the subtleties of Keaton’s performance are a key element.

Synonymous with the film’s tone, Jack Nicholson (who receives top-billing above Keaton) infuses the role of Jack Napier/Joker with a multi-faceted performance.  As gangster Napier, he exudes a steely calm but once reborn as the Joker we are treated to an electrifying and manic portrayal that melds the psychotic elements of Nicholson’s iconic turn in The Shining with a homicidal twist on the camp clowning of Cesar Romero’s portrayal of ‘the Clown Prince of Crime’ in the Adam West TV series.

The cast is rounded out by a list of noteworthy names including Kim Basinger, who brings a touch of sparkle and elegance to proceedings as love interest Vicki Vale, Michael Gough as Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler, Alfred, Pat Hingle as police commissioner Gordon and Jack Palance as crime boss Carl Grissom.

Beyond the performances of the principal stars, Anton Furst’s Academy Award Winning production design brings the decaying, crime infested streets of Gotham City breathlessly to life (all the more impressive considering it all comprises of sets constructed at Pinewood Studios) and the exhilarating action is elevated by neat stunt work, scintillating pyrotechnics and exemplary special effects and miniatures by the legendary Derek Meddings.  The costume design is also inspired, from the jet black armour of the Dark Knight himself to Vicki Vale’s elegant clothing and the pin stripe suits, hats and trench coats – all lending themselves to the otherworldly ‘pulp’ feel of Batman.  It would also be remiss to not mention Batman’s “wonderful toys” the highlight of which is the sleek and formidable Batmobile, complete with machine guns, armour shields and that iconic flame exhaust!

Equally important to the piece are the dynamic themes of Danny Elfman’s exciting and atmospheric score, complemented by specially produced songs written and performed by Prince.

Tim Burton’s Batman transports the viewer into the panels of the comic book world, brought to life by incredible sets and outstanding cast performances – a true classic of the genre.

Standout moment

Having thwarted the raid on the Axis Chemicals plant, Batman escapes the pursuing Gotham City police in a shroud of smoke – yet the damage has been done, from a vat of acid a white hand rises.  The Joker is born…

Three reasons it’s a classic…

  1. It presents a dark and moody interpretation of Bob Kane’s creation that’s still fun and retains an element of comic book camp without the silliness of later sequels.
  1. It features one of Jack Nicholson’s greatest and most intense performances, providing the definitive screen Joker.
  1. It boasts impressive production design, bringing the ‘character’ of Gotham City to life.

Did you know?

Batman creator Bob Kane was originally due to cameo in the film but fell ill, leading to the proposed scene being scrapped.

If you like this then watch…

Batman Begins : the opening chapter to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy presents a more grounded version of Batman and Gotham City that’s breathtakingly realised and benefits greatly from stellar casting with Christian Bale proving the perfect fit as a grieving Bruce Wayne who seeks to reinvent himself as a symbol for justice…

Batman Returns : although veering a little too far into the realm of gothic fantasy, Tim Burton’s sequel to Batman is still an impressively designed and action-packed affair with a confident return from Michael Keaton and memorable performances from Danny DeVito (the Penguin) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Catwoman).

Batman (Michael Keaton) and the Joker (Jack Nicholson) face off in Tim Burton's seminal big sceeen adaptation of the DC Comics character.

Batman (Michael Keaton) and the Joker (Jack Nicholson) face off in Tim Burton’s seminal big sceeen adaptation of the DC Comics character.

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10 thoughts on “GBUK Film Classics: ‘Batman’ (1989)

  1. I think Jack Nicholson is the most underrated Joker.

    There was a video on YouTube that compared him to Heath Ledger and like the rest of the world, it gave it to Ledger… But I honestly think that Nicholsons Joker was much more accurate and true to the comics, thus more what the character is.

    Still, it’s only a matter of time before we get a film version of The Killing Joke’s Joker… Right? 😛 (Probably not!)

    • Good to hear from you Timlah – totally agree re: Nicholson’s Joker, that’s not to knock Heath Ledger’s take – which is still iconic and well suited to Christopher Nolan’s approach – but it’s always Nicholson that springs to mind first whenever discussing Batman onscreen.

      I feel that Nicholson and Ledger both brought out elements of The Killing Joke’s Joker so I’m curious to see how Jared Leto will compare in next year’s Suicide Squad film.

      • Yep, I’m looking forward to Leto’s performance in this. After all, the Batman films are truly all about the villains!

        I’m with you here, this is no knock at Ledgers take as it is now indeed iconic. The insanity he portrayed was just perfect.

      • Absolutely but I agree that overall Nicholson has the edge and I can’t honestly ever see his performance ever being bettered. Great to hear from you – thanks very much for your thoughts!

  2. Great piece, I really enjoyed reading that. I think you make some excellent points in favour of this film. I must admit, it has since been overshadowed by Chris Nolan’s trilogy (in my mind at least) but there are still many things that I admire about this. Burton was more interested in the bad guys, than Nolan.

    • Thanks for the kind words Gareth, great to hear from you as always! I love the Nolan trilogy as well (I’ve written blog posts on them all) there’s certainly no understating the quality of them and there impact on audiences and the influence on modern comic book films.

      The thing that always brings me back to the original Burton film though is just down to my own personal experiences – it introduced me, at a young age, to Batman and the comic book universe in general and I’ll always have a deep personal connection to it for that reason (plus it’s still holds up as a great film).

    • Cheers Dan, it’ll always be one of my top picks – just a shame that Tim Burton didn’t get to make the proposed Batman origin film that would’ve followed Batman Returns.

      Thanks for your thoughts as always!

  3. Great post, I love the breakdown of three reason’s it’s a classic. Burton’s film was the first big Batman film I watched so I have stronger emotional connection to it over Batman Begins which is a good movie too.

    • Thanks! My connection to this Batman film mirrors your own, it introduced me to the world of Batman and comics in general and for that reason, among numerous others, I will always cherish it.

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