Batman (1989)

I recently picked up Tim Burton’s lauded Batman film from 1989 on Blu-ray. The recently remastered transfer does indeed give this film a much-needed visual refresh. Unlike things that are digital, celluloid can degrade over a many years. I’m happy to say that much of the grittiness and loss of colour from the VHS and DVD transfer has been properly addressed. This breathes new life into Batman and made it a slightly more enjoyable viewing experience. It’s not just the picture quality that has improved, but the audio quality seemed audibly better as well.

I must admit, I have fond memories and a great swell of nostalgia when ruminating about the summer of 1989 when Batman was unleashed upon a frenzy of fans–both adult and children alike. Although it became a massive success, even before its release, many comic book fans had misgivings about the casting of Michael Keaton as the protagonist (many would argue Joker was in that role). Many feared that Keaton was far too short, not of the correct build, and didn’t have that billionaire playboy appeal. Those that argue these points wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Still to this day, I believe Keaton was miscast. Before I delve into my own criticisms, and yes, there are quite a few, I want to talk about some of the positive things about Batman.

Prior to the release of Batman, other than Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film, the superhero genre–comics et al–were not taken seriously by movie studios. If you watch the special features on the Blu-ray, you will get all sorts of insight into the turmoil that was the lead-up to the production of the film. It took roughly 10 years before Batman would make its way to the public. I won’t spoil the details of why, as you really should watch some of the interviews with Tim Burton, the producers, production people, as well as the writers. It seemed that during the 60s and 70s, no one wanted to dare approach making serious films featuring big name superhero characters. Okay, Superman was the exception as I mentioned previously, but that wasn’t exactly a dark and brooding feature. Batman had to be approached much differently, and for obvious reasons as well. The two DC characters are diametrically opposed. Other than the fact that they wear costumes and fight crime, the similarities end there. They come from different backgrounds and have clashing personalities. Bruce Wayne had a horrible childhood wrought with grief, torment, dread, and despair–what with the murder of his parents right before his youthful eyes. On the other hand, Clark Kent, whilst being sent to Earth as an infant before the destruction of his home planet, managed to have a relatively normal childhood growing up with loving foster parents. Sure, bad things happen to him in his adult life, but at least he wasn’t around to see his parents get brutally gunned down by a desperate street thug.

After concluding my recent re-watch of Batman, I was reminded that I still don’t believe this was a good Batman story, nor was it an overall good approach to Batman as a character. There are many flaws in this film, both in terms of certain choices that were made by Tim Burton during script re-writes, but even during production and filming. Let me first start with some positive aspects–those of which were the impetus for me even plunking down money to buy the Blu-ray. I posit the reason why I find myself still able to watch this film, is because I consider it to be an excellent art piece and of its time. If I were to remove Batman out of the picture, stylistically speaking, I love many of the things that Tim Burton was able to accomplish. Everything from the set designs to the lighting and general overall gothic look and tone are befitting to a live action film set in the fictional universe of Gotham City. I’ve always thought of Gotham City as a place like New York, but incredibly dilapidated and run down after many years of neglect and abuse by rampant crime. With that being said, the design choices made by Burton and his crew worked exceedingly well. Yes, I know Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is mostly set in real cities such as Chicago, and I can respect his realistic real-world approach, but I prefer bringing Batman to the big screen in what should clearly be a fictional looking city. For the most part, the costumes of all characters, sans Batman himself, are pretty fantastic. Believe it or not, I still hear people today debating the merits of the all black costume with yellow bat emblem that we ended up with in this film. As a big fan of the character and comics that I grew up with, I prefer the black and grey look with large black bat emblem splayed across the chest. The biggest grievance I, perhaps most people, have with Keaton’s costume is that he clearly couldn’t rotate his neck at all. Because the cowl was one solid rubber piece, it meant he had to rotate his body around in order to look in a different direction, which makes things look a bit awkward to say the least. Many years later, Christopher Nolan would address this problem in The Dark Knight sequel, where it was worked into the plot that Bruce needed a new suit because of this issue (when confiding to Lucius Fox). What they ended up with was a cowl that was a completely separate piece from the rest of the suit. It really made more sense and when you see Batman moving on-screen, he looks way more comfortable and natural.

I have strong feelings about Michael Keaton in the role of this character. Both height and build problems aside, he wasn’t the right choice to pick for someone to play both Bruce Wayne and Batman accurately. Keaton is a great actor, and even if he had worked with a personal trainer to make his physique look athletic and believable (yes, Batman needs to look like he can cripple someone with his hands tied behind his back), his hight is unmistakable and obvious on-screen. Next to most of the actors, in so many scenes, he is clearly shorter than them. This irritated me right near the beginning of the film, where we see reporter Alexander Knox talking to Lt. Eckhardt about how “there’s a six-foot bat in Gotham City.” Batman is said to be over six feet in the comics, which helps him have an imposing stature over most of the criminals he encounters in the shadows. After all, criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot. If you were one, would you not be somewhat unnerved by a dark shadow moving swiftly through a dank and dirty alley? I know I would. Beyond physical appearances, a fundamental problem that is hard to overlook, is the fact that Batman overtly kills people. I concede that people who have been around Batman have died in the comics, but in Burton’s film (made worse in Batman Returns), he even tells the Joker during the climax that he’s going to kill him–he even follows through on that promise by flat out killing him in the end. Sure, it’s not like he put a gun to the Joker’s face and pulled the trigger, but Batman knew what he was doing when he fired that grappling gun to secure the Joker’s leg to the gargoyle so he couldn’t escape via helicopter (oh, and couldn’t the pilot have moved the helicopter a foot or two so that the Joker would have landed on the roof?). This was just too much for me and left a bad taste in my mouth. This is not the Batman that I grew up with. Another peculiar decision made, and I’m not sure if it was Burton or not, is why Bruce Wayne is seen wearing glasses in so many scenes. Is he far-sighted? Near-sighted perhaps? Sorry Tim, but you totally tossed any believability out the window of a man fighting crime with even the slightest form of astigmatism.

Jack Nicholson is hands down the best casting choice in this movie. His portrayal of the warped and psychotic Joker was sublime. The character had just the right blend of charm, wit, and creepiness that I just gobbled up every single scene he was in. I don’t have much else to say about Nicholson, however, I have serious qualms with Burton’s choice to expose the character’s identity, nor should he had been on the hook for the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents (this was not part of the original script written by Sam Hamm).

Even with all of the bad things about the film, I still occasionally find myself re-watching it, mainly as an art piece with fantastic sets, costumes, and music (who can forget that unmistakable heart pounding opening theme from Danny Elfman?). There are other ridiculous and completely silly scenes in the movie that still annoy me today (some vary in level of stupid). One scene worth mentioning is the one in which Joker and his goons take over the boardroom of the late crime boss Carl Grissom. After the mafioso at the head of the table poses the question: “And what if we say no?”–We see the Joker shake his hand and almost instantaneously electrify him into a completely burnt-out corpse. Are we really supposed to buy that the buzzer in Joker’s hand was able to output enough amperage to turn a human body into crispy bacon in a matter of seconds? The problem in this scene is compounded by the fact that Joker’s hand made contact with the mafioso’s, so there’s no way he wouldn’t have killed himself in the process. There is another scene where we see Alfred let Vicky Vale into the Batcave, where Bruce clearly seems surprised (perhaps slightly annoyed) that this just occurred. This is another point in the plot that the original script writer, Sam Hamm, pleads ignorance too. This was part of one of the many re-writes that happened after he was already off the project. I just can’t see Batman so easily divulging his identity to some girl he has known for a very short period of time. There are other irritating plot devices that I could list here, but I’m going to leave it at that for now. I mainly wanted to spend some time reflecting on the overarching positive and negative aspects of the feature. If you’re a child of the 80s and are old enough to vividly remember the impact this film made on you, if you haven’t recently watched it, I strongly suggest giving it another shot–for better or worse.