DVD Review: Batman – 20 years later

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Have you ever danced with The Devil by the pale moonlight?

I never have, but I did have to square-dance with the smelly girl once in elementary school. That’s the best way I can introduce Tim Burton’s Batman, a movie that truly needs no introduction. It’s a classic piece of action and “superhero” genre filmmaking, a staple in any comics or movie lover’s collection, and, as I have found, a difficult flick to review completely without favorable bias. But I braved through my fanboy tendencies best I could, all for you, the reader. Without further adieu, let’s get to it.

Batman
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger
Director: Tim Burton
Company: Warner Bros.
Year: 1989

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 21 years, all of you more than likely know the basic plot of Batman (and for those of you who HAVE been under said rock, thank you for choosing Major Spoilers as your first website to visit). However, for the sake of having a balanced review, I’m going to quickly go over the broader points of this film. This film takes place fairly early in Batman’s career, back when his existence wasn’t common knowledge. Batman (Michael Keaton) has been busting up two-bit criminals, and was becoming quite the urban legend, one that intrepid journalist Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) were determined to crack. At the same time, slightly unstable mobster Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) and his crew were cleaning out a chemical factory, revealed to be a setup by his boss. The fighty-fighty ensues, Batman gets involved, and (surprise surprise) Jack gets dumped into a vat of unknown chemicals.

This is when all hell breaks loose. Jack, bleached-out and sporting a botched plastic surgery job, comes back to kill his boss, christening himself The Joker. He then goes to work on the fair city of Gotham, consolidating all of the city’s gangs, creating a mass-produced chemical toxin called “Smylex,” and destroying priceless paintings, all in the name of “art.” Long story short, Batman wins, Gotham is saved, and we all breath a sigh of relief, safe with the knowledge that “Batman & Robin” is still 2 films and 8 years away…

First things first, the overall look and feel of Gotham City and its inhabitants, to me, is spot-on. This is Tim Burton’s 3rd major foray into mainstream film (the others being Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, respectively), and his particular set design and direction style had become almost fully formed. Looking at his more recent films, I’m ultimately happy that Batman was conceived early in his career, and not influenced by more… “avant-garde” themes like his later movies (not saying that avant-garde is bad, per say, just not right for Batman). And since the movie was made over two decades ago, there were more physical effects and brief glimpses of animation, which really does stand out to me in a good way.

Special recognition goes to the music, composed by Danny Elfman. Usually, I find Elfman’s scores to be a little cartoon-y and very repetitive, but it really works in Batman. It definitely underlines the nonsensical-yet-sinister mind of The Joker. I also find it interesting that all non-score music was performed by Prince. On paper, it doesn’t sound like it work at all, but lo and behold, the Prince songs fit perfectly.

It goes without saying that Batman would not have been as successful and overall memorable if not for the top-notch acting. I’m sure a few eyebrows were raised when it was announced that the two main leads were going to be Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton, but man oh man, did they deliver! Keaton’s Batman is by far my favorite, as he is able to show that Bruce Wayne can be both avenging crime fighter AND relatively normal while not on duty. More accurately, he is shown to be human, with all the trappings and self-doubts that that entails. He is able to be Batman AND Bruce Wayne without either feeling like an act.

And it would be a crime to not mention Nicholson’s Joker. Smooth and suave one moment, completely insane then next, Nicholson really went all out for this role. I love how you can see how his psychosis evolves and compounds over the course of the film, starting with subtle chuckles here and there, and ending with yelling nonsensical one-liners and using ridiculous gag-weapons. A few years ago, the American Film Institute released their list of “Top 100 Heroes & Villains,” and The Joker came in a close second, right behind Darth Vader. After re-watching the movie, I gotta say, that position is totally justified. It’s a shame that nowadays, most people connect The Joker with the late Heath Ledger, because Nicholson’s portrayal is definitely on par with his, and worthy of recognition.

One thing about Batman that I’ve really gotten into is the sheer volume of behind-the-scene “secrets.” For example, many of the previous versions of the script included scenes introducing Robin into the film, which would have drastically altered the subsequent sequels. Another fun little in-joke is that Joker’s last name “Napier” is a callback to actor Alan Napier, who portrayed Alfred in the 1960’s Batman TV series. Also, singer David Bowie was offered the part of The Joker, among other actors. I could go on for hours about factoids such as these. Some of you may not find this particularly interesting, but these are the things I love about being a “film historian.”

As I said earlier, you’d think that a film such as Batman would be found completely faultless, even to the callused heart of a fanboy such as myself. And I have to be honest – I had an extremely hard time forcing myself to not just say “I liked it. It’s Batman, for cryin’ out loud!” But looking critically at this piece, not as a fan but as a critic, I did find a few miniscule faults with Batman. For starters, I found the character Alexander Knox almost completely unneeded. I understand he was supposed to be the comic relief for the first half of the flick, but honestly, once The Joker shows up, Knox loses his only reason for being in the movie. There were hints at a possibly scrapped feud between him and Bruce Wayne, but that plot falls flat. I feel that they should have either given him a larger role, or left him on the cutting room floor. There wasn’t anything plot-wise that Vicki Vale couldn’t have done herself.

The only other qualm I had with this film is the (SPOILER WARNING) death of The Joker. I think this was a mistake. It would have been just as easy for him to be arrested or (the better choice) had gotten away. His death meant that the character would never be able to be revisited outside of a franchise reboot (which happened and was very successful).  I know I’m just complaining for the sake of complaining, but The Joker’s death just felt like lazy screenwriting to me. It didn’t work for Dante at the end of Clerks (hence why it was cut), and I don’t feel like it worked here. End rant.

All in all, I really enjoyed revisiting this classic. I hadn’t seen it in at least 4 years, and it was everything I remembered it to be. There have been many films and television show that were spun out of this movie, either directly or indirectly. Some were great, some… weren’t, but it all started (or restarted, if you want to get technical) with this one. So, it is with no amount of surprise that I give Batman 4 out of 5 stars.

Rating: ★★★★☆