GBUK Film Classics: ‘Batman’ (1989)

Looking at some all-time favourites…

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

Batman 89

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

Year:  1989

Starring:  Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Pat Hingle, Jack Palance, 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 and Bill Finger’s comic book creation, for many 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 Kane and Finger’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 co-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).