Batman (1989)

CapeHalf a capeHalf a balding headTent

This has got to be the most overrated movie on this site. I went with a group of eight, and all of us were disappointed. Now, I dig Tim Burton’s work — I’ve enjoyed and appreciated every Tim Burton film I’ve seen, from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure to Big Fish, with just two exceptions: his Batman films. By following a peculiar personal vision, Burton managed to lose both a sense of realism and the spirit of the comic books. The film, to me, is both too campy and too self-important at the same time: a fatal mix. It is much influenced by the eighties Batman of Frank Miller, which I was not a fan of, but Miller isn’t to blame for what doesn’t work here.

Michael Keaton is thoroughly inadequate for the part — he not only looks wrong, but he thinks he can communicate deep inner angst just by standing inertly like a waterlogged tree stump. But it’s not as if the behavior they’ve written for him makes sense. The characters act more as props for the visual set pieces than as representations of human beings. And so much of the action — and dialogue, for that matter — is not just campy, it’s stupid. Far, far stupider than any other Tim Burton movie.

The film’s look is very interesting. They create a cityscape and a general style of clothing and equipment that seems equally at home in both modern times and a time forty or fifty years earlier. Then in flashbacks, they create a look that suggests thirty years ago... or eighty years ago. And somehow it all fits smoothly together, without jarring you between different times. This is one of the most successfully handled aspects of the film. Yet, despite how well it works artistically, you have to question whether it was actually a good idea.

I have said that Hulk was the first real summer blockbuster art film. Some have given Batman that label, but I would call this, at best, the first failed attempt at a summer blockbuster art film.

On a psychological level, the film tries to be all adult and serious. (But not all that adult.) At the same time, there are action moments that are far too ludicrous for anyone to take seriously — like the scene where Batman empties a planeload of missiles and other weapons at the Joker and leaves him unscratched, and then the joker shoots down the Bat-plane with a large pistol. And the result is that each side of this dichotomy undermines the audience’s ability to go along with the other.

Danny Elfman has, since then, become a decent composer of orchestral film music, but he hadn’t become one yet when he did this movie: the score is a mess. The added songs by Prince are worse. (Elfman would go on to score many more comic book movies: Darkman, Dick Tracy, Men In Black, Spider-Man, Hulk, and the theme for The Flash on TV. If I ever meet him I’ll ask him if he still loves little girls.)

One question that comes up with this movie, of course, is: what about Jack Nicholson? Did it make any sense to cast him as the Joker? Perhaps surprisingly, it did. Sure, it was a silly bit of stunt casting, driven by the kind of blind financial allegience to star-power that ignores all artistic concerns, but the fact is, Jack pulls it off pretty well. Not well enough that you ever forget about Jack being Jack, though.