Batman (1989): Retrospective

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By: Kimberly Kuxhause

Before I begin with my review of 1989’s Batman, I want to begin by saying that I am reviewing it as a movie buff, not a comic book reader. I realize there are a lot of differences between the comics and movies, but I’m not here to talk about them. I want to focus on Batman, its legacy, and what it meant for the modern day superhero scene.

Surprisingly enough, the first superhero movie I ever saw wasn’t a Superman film, but Batman Returns. As such, I have a certain reverence for the film, the superhero, and the cast and crew that made the Batman films possible. The first movie in Batman’s modern canon premiered in 1989 and starred Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Kim Basinger. In hindsight, the casting choice seems natural. Keaton has always been the Batman and Jack Nicholson plays one of the most iconic Jokers to date. However, at the time, the casting was less than obvious. In researching information for this article, I noticed that in most of Keaton’s prior roles, he was cast as a comedic actor. The choice to make him Bruce Wayne was a risky one, but it paid off.

The origins of Keaton’s moody and split personality Bruce Wayne / Batman are almost entirely unknown to the new Batman fans and as Vicki Vale learns more about his past, so does the audience. He conveys his tortured past and witty quips with silent conviction. It’s not a stand-out role, but there are moments when his outstanding acting skills shine through the darkness of the film, like when Wayne frantically provokes the Joker at Vale’s house or when he jokes with Vale and Knox at his own party. Yet Wayne fades a bit into the background when Nicholson’s electric Joker comes on screen. In arguably one of the best Joker portrayals the world has seen, Nicholson creates a chaotic and unstoppable mess in Gotham city. His Joker is unafraid of spontaneous homicide and putting his life on the line to wreak unparalleled havoc. Combining the “world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist” and an unstable vigilante billionaire transforms the movie from a triumphant superhero film to a struggle for survival. At the end of the film, Batman reigns victorious over the Joker, yet there is infinitely more work to be done.

Batman became a well-rounded, stylized film not just due to its actors, but also because of the artistic team behind it. Burton’s usual flair in the film is unmistakable, coming across in the dramatic gothic sets and bright costumes. Batman set the stage for the darker movies of the Christopher Nolan trilogy. It proved that audiences would enjoy darker superhero films instead of the campy heroics of the 1960s Batman television show. The choice to introduce the Batman, then flashback to his origins allows the audience to discover his twisted backstory with the characters, which envelops them into his world. He is also less of a morally conflicted individual, as it seems he is more okay with killing than Christian Bale’s Batman incarnation. The death of the Joker came as a surprise to me. While it obliterated the potential for a Joker sequel, it did prevent a tireless rehash of the same motifs while also opening the way for the Penguin to take the stage in the next movie and become an icon in Batman history. I can’t really complain about that.

Batman was a great start. It cultivated that dark tone while adding a frenzied, lawless atmosphere to a deteriorating Gotham. We saw how the criminal minds of Gotham controlled it and how much they needed a hero to emerge from the darkness. After such a box office success, a Batman sequel was a certainty. The question was, what direction would it take next?


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