*A note before we begin: Spoilers galore ahead. I am writing from the assumption that you have seen the movie, or at least, know of the major plot points. Also don’t be upset by my opinions. That is all.*
Nineteen eighty-nine’s Batman was the first movie I saw in the theaters. I was six years old and it was a life changing experience. I had no idea there was such a massive difference between watching a movie at home and watching it on the biggest screen I had ever seen. Remember too, this was a time when the biggest TV screen I had seen was…maybe twenty-five inches. You kids have no idea how good you have it with your iPads, and androids, and sexting—God, I would kill to be a kid today.
Anyways, of course, I had known of the character Batman. I watched the sixties TV show on reruns on the local FOX channel. He was cool, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie that things changed for me. I didn’t just like Batman anymore—I became obsessed with him. He is my superhero. I think most people have that moment when something clicks and becomes theirs, sure, had it been a sport or an instrument maybe I would have grown up—you know, cool, and possibly had gotten a girlfriend in high school, and maybe even had a useful skill that got me ready for adulthood, but no, for me, my thing was, and is, Batman. It really has been my most stable relationship.
It’s been 25 years since its release and I’m a totally different person. I’ve had my heart broken, and broken, and broken. I’ve been pushed down by one lousy dead-end job after another. I also now live in a different city, I have discovered single-malt scotch, and the pure joy of a perfectly made manhattan.
Today, I am even more of a Batman fan than ever, but, ultimately, that could be the biggest problem I face in re-watching the movie. Every criticism I have heard of the movie is how untrue it is to the source material. The Joker being responsible for killing Bruce’s parents, Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave, Batman not having a problem with killing. I don’t remember those issues having ever bothered me before, and even in thinking about them now I really don’t have a problem with it. In my mind, the execution was well enough that I am willing to overlook these inconstancies with the Batman mythos. Of course, I am still remembering the movie through the eyes of the child I was. And because of that there is this large part of me that doesn’t want to watch this movie with a critical eye. I want it to exist forever in the vacuum of my childhood. However, that is not good because I don’t want to become corrupted by the monster that is nostalgia. Nostalgia can keep us from growing; admitting we are different people; admitting what we liked once doesn’t define who we are now, and in knowing the past wasn’t better it was simply the past. So, though part of me doesn’t want to watch the movie, the part of me that wants to grow and learn is excited to watch the movie to see if it was actually a good movie that holds up. And what I’m most excited for is if the film can say something new to me, because six year old me didn’t know shit.
The Warner Brother’s logo shows up and the main theme starts to build over the title sequence, and I.Am.Pumped. I had forgotten about the title sequence, this is a thing that is almost non-existent in modern movies. Except for James Bond movies, which seem to be grandfathered in, I can’t remember a movie made in the last few years that had a full title sequence (Update: The recent release of Godzilla had a title sequence). I sort of miss them. Here, and in the best examples, title sequences are used to set the tone for the movie, and I wonder if I would have such fond feelings for the main theme had it not been for this title sequence?
When the film actually starts I am shocked by how ugly Gotham looks, and I mean that in the best way possible. It “feels” like a decaying gothic city with its drab, nearly colorless motif. Reds, especially, pop against the monochrome background. It’s beautiful and you are hit by set design at every moment.
The entire opening sequence is perfection. Hookers and homeless line the streets, an average family is mugged by two men, the Batman is watching and waiting; hears the woman scream and goes to work. The two muggers have fled to a rooftop where one of the muggers talks of the bat as a ghost or demon. The second thinks the bat is an urban legend, all-the-while the Batman moves in behind them. Every moment of this works, and even now I get excited remembering it. One mugger shoots Batman, but he gets back up. The muggers don’t know what he. Batman kicks one through a door, and uses his bat-a-rang to keep the other from escaping. And in the most iconic moment of Batman ever filmed, Batman holds the mugger over the ledge of the roof as the mugger screams for his life:
“Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me, man.”
“I’m not going to kill you,” the Batman says. “I want you to tell all your friends about me.”
“What are you?”
“I’m Batman,” he says before tossing the mugger back on the roof and leaping off the edge. This is essential Batman. This is the heart of who this character is.
I love Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, and it’s great to see Jack Palance hamming it up with Jack Nicholson. The double Jacks are balls-out going for it. They are both at a 10 when the movie starts and when Jackie Nicks becomes the Joker he breaks the effen scale.
Speaking of the Joker: it’s fun to watch Jack Nicholson as the Joker. He’s no Heath Ledger, and Heath is no Jack. They are two different versions of the same character and I am beyond happy they both exist. Hell, I’m happy all the Jokers exist. Nicholson’s Joker is scary to me because you can see how much joy he has in killing. He uses a joy buzzer to electrocute a gangster and laughs it up the entire time. He kills another gangster with a feather pen. He tries to gas the entire city using parade balloons. He is a mass-murdering psychopath, and it’s fun/terrifying to watch him.
For all the good things I can say about the film I have to admit…I didn’t like the movie. As great as the Joker is, and as amazing as the visuals are, and as much fun some of the actors are to watch this is just not a good Batman film. It’s not a bad film, it’s just lacking when it comes to the other characters. I have a big problem with the depiction of Bruce Wayne. Don’t get me wrong I think Michael Keaton is a great actor and he finds a nice balance of over the top combined with serious moments which makes him fun to watch, but this isn’t Bruce Wayne. This Bruce Wayne isn’t famous. When Vicki Vale and Alexander Knox meet him for the first time they don’t recognize him! He’s Gotham’s favorite son and these are two reporters, with their fingers on the pulse of the city, they should know what Bruce Wayne looks like—and especially if they are at his party! I guess it could makes sense in terms of this movie since there is no mention of Wayne Enterprises, and Bruce seems to be a bit of a shut-in. He’s not even trying to put on the facade of a playboy. And when he does put on the suit…well, I never got the feeling that this Batman was all that well trained. I don’t think he spent his entire youth giving himself to the mission. Or, maybe, I was just struck by how slow the fight scenes were. I remember the alley fight between Batman and Joker’s henchmen being all things cool. But in the years that have past and the amazing action sequences that I have seen these fight play slow and mediocrely choreographed. In a lot of the fights the henchmen seem to be waiting patiently for their turn to be punched. This is probably because it looks like Michael was having a hard time moving in the batsuit.
Even for all my complaints about the depiction of Bruce Wayne he is not the most violate depictions of beloved characters. Pat Hingle as Jim Gordon, does not look like an honest cop fighting corruptions, he looks like a politician in a nice suit. I don’t see him getting his hands dirty fighting side by side with Batman. Hell, in the final showdown between Batman and Joker, Jimmy Gordon tells the cops to shine some lights up to the roof. Yup, that’s his big contribution, adding mood lighting.
And Alfred. What to say about this Alfred? Michael Gough has the look down, but he plays the stuffy British butler which is a huge problem for Alfred. This Alfred is not Bruce’s father figure, or his loyal friend. Nope, this Alfred is an employee plain and simple. He’s someone that has been burdened with the Wayne assignment. Alfred, in any incarnation of the character, was never too keen on Bruce’s mission. Alfred only wants Bruce to find peace and happiness, but he does understand what he is doing, and he will stand by his surrogate son’s side to the end—if for nothing else to keep Bruce from losing himself to the Batman. This Alfred, however, just wants to clean up after a rich husband and wife and some kids; he never signed up for this. There is no sense of friendship or a duty to a greater mission to save Gotham. So when the infamous moment comes when Alfred let’s Vicki into the Batcave I buy it because this Alfred doesn’t give a shit. His demeanor is: “Bruce why not marry her? She’s here. Look, you gave this Bats-man thing a try; why don’t you get over the murder of your parents and settle down and have a couple of kids.” Or maybe Alfred brought her in because he was trying to get fired.
Which brings me to the bore that is Vicki Vale. Look, I think Kim Basinger is a talented, attractive lady. Watch her in LA Confidential,she’s amazing. But here she succumbs to what most women in action movies, especially of time, succumb to: the screaming lady. Vicki can not hold her shit together. She faint at the drop of a hat. Early in the film she’s painted as a tough-as-nails photographer who goes into war zones and does anything for that perfect picture (side note: her pictures didn’t seem all that great), but there is nothing in what she does during the film to show she’s anything other than a pretty face. Why Bruce and the Joker became so infatuated with her is beyond me, maybe they just like that’s she’s willing to put out on a first date. I have a lot of opinions about Vicki Vale that six year old me never questioned, but thirty-one year old me is interested in feminism and the depiction of strong women in culture has a lot of problems with the fact that Vicki is neither strong nor an interesting character, in fact she is pretty annoying (for a better version of her check her out the Lego Batman 2 video game; she’s fun in that). I was far more interested in the Jokers’ girlfriend Alicia I want to know what her story was.
There are a lot great moments in this film to love: The “Birth” of the Joker is effective and iconic. The rooftop scene at the beginning of the movie. The set design and the costume design! I flipping loved the costume design, which is at once forties film noir—men are in three piece suits, or double-breasted suits, and everyone of them in a fedora—yet, it is also completely 80s—women have big hair, high shoulder pads; just look at that weird prom dress Vicki Vale wears to Bruce’s party early in the film. The costumes hold up and don’t date the film because it doesn’t look like it takes place in any time period. All that said; all the good things this movie has going for it, it is just a bad Batman movie. Sure, all I have disliked up to this point could be forgiven; it could be looked at as some bad directing and wonky writing in a still fun movie. However, the movie takes a turn at the second infamous moment, and it has no hope of winning me back when it’s revealed that the Joker killed Bruce’s parents.
I said I had never given this scene much thought before, but goddamn is it awful. And it’s not awful because it breaks comic lore. It’s awful because the movie hits a switch and is suddenly a revenge film. Watch the moment and see Bruce’s turn. It seems he has been a fairly classic Batman; not killing; knocking out bad guys, but now suddenly Batman seems to have no issues with killing. He’s off on a rampage. He blows up Axis chemicals killing, at the very least, a dozen of the Joker’s men. He shots henchmen on the parade float with the Batwing’s machine guns. He tries to blow up the Joker with missiles. Batman is on a mission of revenge.
There is a moment of Bruce and Vicki in the Batcave where they try to set up Bruce as being a hero. Bruce tells Vicki he is going after the Joker: “It’s just something I have to do,” he says.
“Why?” Vicki asks.
“Because no one else can,” Bruce says. That line is who Batman is. He’s out there doing things the police can’t. And he understands the police are no match for the Joker, however, this is preceding a scene showing the Joker as having a direct effect on Bruce’s greatest tragedy, and it also proceeds Batman going full Liam Neeson killing spree. You need more proof of my thesis? In the bell tower Batman points at the Joker and says: “You killed my parents.” Bruce doesn’t seem all that interested in, oh, the dozens, maybe even hundreds, of people the Joker has killed thus far.
It is heartbreaking to watch the movie, and see the glaring flaws. This is the first time I had watched the movie, really watched the movie with a critical eye. I had just absorbed this movie when I was younger; I wasn’t interested in things like set design, costume design, or character motivation. Hell, I didn’t even know what those things were. Now it’s painful to see this movie for what it is: A mediocre film at best and a bad Batman story at worst.
Of course, I can say that now because there are so many better Batman things in the world today. Christopher Nolan’s almost perfect Dark Knight trilogy. The 90’s Batman cartoon, which is still great and is free for streaming on Amazon Prime. The Arkham game series. The DC animated movies (I can’t recommend Batman: Under the Red Hood enough). And, of course, the hundreds of great comic stories that have been told. However, it is possible that none of that could have existed without this version of Batman. It was a huge hit, and it was directly responsible for the go ahead to make the 90’s animated series in the tone they went for. It even gave Batman his signature movie design, the all black suit.
And you know what? For all the flaws I see in the film now, this is still a movie that fueled my childhood, so I’m glad this movie exists, but it’s, perhaps, better off left in my childhood.
One more quick note on the movie: Why was Prince involved in this? As a child I loved this soundtrack. I thought it was the shit, and I have no idea how many times I listed to Batdance and Party man. But these are not good songs. I think Prince is an amazing artist (bold stance, I know)—go listen to Purple Rain again because it’s pretty great—but, man, these songs are bad. That joke in Shaun of the Dead where they throw the Batman soundtrack at the zombie suddenly is a whole lot funner to me.
Thanks for reading.