Review: Home Video
Batman | Tim Burton | US | 1989 | 126 minutes
Now Streaming on Netflix»
The addition of five live-action Batman films between 1989 and 2005 to the Netflix catalog provided Taylor Cherry an opportunity to revisit and reevaluate Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) starring Michael Keaton under the cowl.
After watching Batman (1989) with my husband, he asked me how I liked it. I felt horrible. I could tell he still had that fond memory of it, and I didn’t want to ruin those rosy glasses. I told him the truth: I didn’t hate it.
Now is a convenient time to revisit the Batman franchise, with five films currently streaming on Netflix. I thought I had seen Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) at some point in my childhood, but I couldn’t remember any exact moments or even who was in it. All the Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney Batmen had mushed together in my memory and I wasn’t sure which villains, love interests, plot points came from which film. My husband, on the other hand, grew up with the Burton/Keaton Batman. He remembered his favorite parts and remained fond of those memories.
Tim Burton has always been hit or miss for me. His films attempt to strike that difficult balance between silly, over-the-top ridiculousness and sentimental cheesiness. Batman goes too far into the latter, and the result is something that is overly corny and void of a compelling story. This is especially true for the relationship between Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), the love interest.
The film begins with a problematic thirty-minute backstory explaining how Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson, who receives top billing) becomes the Joker. The whole thing is messy, confusing and unnecessarily complicated. We meet characters of the mob, who never have a big role later on, as well as franchise characters like Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon, who remain incidental details. Burton and his screenwriters should have cut the first 40 minutes of the film and introduced Nicholson as the Joker. No need for the boring backstory. If something isn’t going to be explained well, don’t explain it at all.
I was bored out of my mind until the Joker takes off his bandages and shows his deformed face. When Nicholson finally embraces that character, I was like, “Hell yeah, this is something I can get on board with.” Nicholson’s Joker saves the film. He is enthralling to watch and definitely lands on the side of creepy and ridiculous in a Burton-esque way.
But let me get to Keaton. Fans will always debate who has been the best actor for the role, but I think Keaton makes a pretty lame Batman. I like Michael Keaton in other films but he was a strange pick as Batman. How did Burton go from casting him as Beetlejuice one year and then as Batman the next?
Keaton’s Batman doesn’t move much. In fight scenes he just kind of stands there, every once in a while lifting an arm that miraculously blocks attacks. Most of the time he flees the scene with one of those wire devices. His most effective move is acting dead, which he does multiple times in the film, and then surprises his opponents when they don’t suspect it.
Though the relationship between Wayne/Batman and Vicki is an integral part of the plot, it is not believable or explained in the least. They first meet at a party, talk for two minutes and then he asks her over for a date. His mannerisms and awkwardness make it obvious that he never invites women over, suggesting he isn’t the player-type seen in other Batman films. They sleep together, and then he tries to blow her off for an unexplained reason. She keeps calling him, because even though he lied to her she knows they had a deep connection their one night together. Eventually Vicki catches the attention of the Joker and a love triangle is formed.
Towards the end of the film, an unnecessary connection between Bruce Wayne’s parents and the Joker emerges. As if going after his woman and trying to kill the whole town wasn’t reason enough for Batman to try to stop the Joker, they needed to throw in this plot point half-heartedly.
So those are my complaints. My husband said, in defense of Batman, that a lot of 80s movies are like this—cheesy and not fully thought out—but they still work because no one watches them for the stupid love story. I think he has a point. My concerns might seem irrelevant when considering the current target audiences for Batman—those who grew up with it and love it for nostalgia, those who admire Burton and his quirky style, and those who only need the entertainment of Jack Nicholson as the Joker to get through a film.
I fall into that last category. Nicholson was enough for me. From the moment he first grins and giggles, I went from bored to intrigued. I loved when he poisons the entire city’s cosmetic supply forcing news anchors to go all-natural, resulting in pimples, bags and messy hair. In the best scene, Joker and his gang deface the art in a museum while dancing to Prince. That scene was the perfect combination of being completely messed-up, yet silly and fun.
Did I mention that Prince did the songs for this film, supplementing Danny Elfman’s now-classic score? That’s another reason to watch.
My favorite Batman movies are Adam West in Batman (1966) and Christian Bale in The Dark Knight (2008). West provides that extreme example of goofy, campy Batman; Bale delivers the bleak and psychologically realistic, post-Frank Miller Batman. It is difficult to find a film that can successfully go in between those extremes. Burton was a good choice for the attempt, but I could not take the film seriously due to the the touchy moments that lacked any semblance of realism.