Tim Burton’s first big budget film came in 1989 and became one of the biggest box office hits of all time. That film was titled simply, Batman.
Accompanied with its long resume, Batman is an impressive film on paper as is Jack Nicholson’s name next to the Joker. Batman was a stalwart innovator for its time, showcasing Burton’s talents at their most primal and Nicholson’s range and exemplary talent, and earned critical praise, winning the Academy Award for Best Art Direction.
That said, I would argue Burton’s comments on his own film are more telling than any box office receipt, film review or audience response: “It’s OK, but it was more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie.”
Batman has a lot to be proud of when the credits roll, but is it as great as we’re told it is? I have to say no.
Nicholson is a great cast for the Joker and shines in the glimmer of the spotlight. One could argue this film should have been called Joker, not Batman. With the eccentricity of a learned psychopath but the knowledge and dark wisdom of a sociopath, Nicholson is a true puppetmaster both as an actor and character. While Nicholson carries the metaphor of the macabre artist with him throughout the script, he also serves as the film’s most magnetizing presence. From his costume’s lavish design to his omnipresent sharp-witted lines, Nicholson as the Joker is as much a deadly dancer as he is a livid gangster or criminal comedian. It’s no wonder all the film’s eyeballs are drawn to every scene he’s in and audiences slow their breathing when he’s about to utter his next crack.
All of this culminates with a third consecutive Batman film reviewed on this blog where Batman is not the main character. This isn’t an innate problem. The Dark Knight remains the best Batman film ever made and there is no debate that the Joker was the star of the show in that masterpiece. It’s when you having nothing remotely close to evening the scales that we start to have problems as we do here with Keaton’s Batman.
In what became a war between Burton and Warner Bros. over casting choices (see Batman section), Burton chose Keaton as his lead man despite his inexperience with action installments. Burton’s logic was to make Bruce Wayne an everyday man with a wealthy inheritance, thereby making the argument that anyone could be Batman.
This perspective clearly resonated with audiences. Often our superheroes are painted with a very particular brush, one that tells us only a select few can be superheroes. Batman said anyone can be super and people loved the film for it. You can count me among that group. When you take away a man’s money, his material possessions, his family and all else, he is but a man. The only thing that makes that man any different from another is what’s inside. That’s the ideal Burton emphasizes here.
If anything, Burton pushes this point a little too hard. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is such an average Joe that he seems out of place in his own house. They are too completely different entities, this character we’re presented with and Batman. Wayne is so average that it’s no wonder our eyes are drawn practically anywhere else. The Wayne we’re granted is a nice touch but never fully blossoms and no one, not even an avid gardener, is going to sit next to their garden and wait for their flowers to bloom. They’ve watered it and taken the best care of it that they can. They’ll move on to more worthwhile things.
This problem, while not a world ender, is bothersome. While Keaton surpasses the performances of Clooney and Kilmer, Batman remains an underdeveloped vigilante who is more an outfit than a hero. There are scenes in which that is not the case, where the audience is gifted a glimpse of what Batman could be, with a special emphasis on the word “could.” Here, it’s what he could be but not what he is in Batman.
The action broaches the dramatic and at times loosens the tension, especially when Batman seems in no hurry to save the damsel in distress, which brings me to what will be the most aggravating part of this review.
The damsel in distress intersection is wearing on me. I’m a hopeless romantic. I enjoy a romantic storyline when appropriate and natural. Hollywood, especially the action staples of the industry, seem unable to discern natural from wasted plugs. I would greatly appreciate it if they would stop inserting papier-mache flames with no credibility or intrigue into their films because these scripts’ pages and tortured, glued newspaper strips are full-heartedly begging to be beat with a baseball bat. To say I am pissed off about seeing Kim Basinger battle Jack freakin’ Nicholson for screen time is putting it lightly. Forced and not at all subtle about it, we’ll see another Batman love affair that no one cares about engage in a warfare of prioritization.
Let me chirp on that again and make sure no one can plead ignorance: No one cares about a Batman love affair. No true Batman fan’s first description of the caped crusader is going to be “he gets all the ladies.” Getting all the ladies means very little in the grand scheme of things and it’s time for Hollywood to start acting like it. Not only is Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale a walking, talking detour sign from what audiences care about (Batman), Burton is willingly giving her the camera over Nicholson’s Joker. It is needless and excessively frustrating, especially for me, who gets slammed over the head with shoehorned romances in what feels like every other film I watch lately.
Once again, if you’re new to my blog, I’ve always ranked movies on a scale of 0-100 (I don’t know why, I just always have). Here’s the grading scale.
80-89 It was a pretty good movie and definitely one worth seeing, but it doesn’t quite scratch my top ten percentile. (Olympus Has Fallen, The Cable Guy, The Cabin in the Woods, Tears of the Sun, Edge of Tomorrow)
50-59 This movie isn’t intolerable but it’s not blowing my mind either. I’m trying really hard to get some sort of enjoyment out of this. (Underworld, The Do-Over, X-Men: Apocalypse, D-Tox/Eye See You, Constantine)
40-49 This movie is just mediocre. It’s not doing anything other than the bare minimal, so morbidly boring that sometimes I’m actually angry I watched this. (Underworld: Evolution, Batman & Robin, Bloodsport, War, The Ridiculous 6)
30-39 Definitely worse than mediocre, the 30′s ironically define the 1930′s, full of depression, lack of accomplishments, poverty and just so dumb. (The Crow: City of Angels, Centurion, Planet of the Apes, Stonados, Redemption)
0-19 Watching this movie resulted in one or more of the following: seizure, loss of brain cells, falling asleep/unconsciousness, feel you wasted your time/day, accomplished nothing for you, left the movie knowing less about it then you did going into it, constantly asking yourself why you came to see this movie, or near-death experience. In short, staring at a wall was just as entertaining as watching this movie. This movie deserved a sticker or a label that said, “WARNING: EXTREME AMOUNT OF SUCKAGE.” (The Coed and the Zombie Stoner, The Forbidden Dimensions, Cyborg, Outcast, Sabotage)
My score for Batman: 76.
1989’s Batman was a step in the right direction for the comic book genre, displaying some wit and charm that had previously been unseen. A young Burton was the man for the job, even if his visual style wasn’t up to the parlance we’ve come to expect from him now. Nicholson’s compelling Joker adds enough fear to the script to keep things going and Keaton is a charming enough presence even if at times it feels like Wayne and Batman are two different people. It’s a good picture but was it a pinnacle in film? No. No, it was not.