Monday, May 27, 2013

DVD Review: Batman (1989)

Sometimes I revisit older movies even though I know they aren't as good as what replaced them. I saw the DVD of the 1989 version of Batman starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson at my local library and figured "what the heck". At the time, it was the only live action film made about the Dark Knight (the 1943 Batman movie serial doesn't count). Just because Heath Ledger totally owned the role of the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) doesn't mean I can't appreciate Nicholson's interpretation.

It wasn't bad. It wasn't great. I remembered all of the controversy about Keaton being cast at Bruce Wayne/Batman (and my own confusion about why Burton would go with Keaton). At the time, Nicholson's Joker was just menacing enough without being truly frightening for younger audiences. Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) was a Lois Lane copy, both in the comic books and in the film. Michael Gough competently played the faithful Alfred, always there to pick up after Bruce, but I missed the chemistry between Christian Bale's Bruce and Michael Caine's Alfred.

I'm trying not to compare this Batman against the Dark Knight Trilogy, but it's tough.

In the 1989 film, we come across Batman who is already well into his career. The origin story, the death of Bruce's parents, are shown in flashbacks, but we don't get the full treatment of how Bruce "develops" Batman as we see in Batman Begins (2005). Keaton's Bruce is absent-minded and distracted most of the time, like a child with an attentional disorder. I suppose this was to "disguise" him so he wouldn't be suspected of being Batman, but one wonders who is making money at Wayne Enterprises if Bruce isn't in that game (not that Wayne Enterprises is ever mentioned in the film).

Much more attention was paid to the origin of the Joker and his original relationship to crime syndicate head "Boss" Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). Feeling the heat from the new D.A. in Gotham, Harvey Dent (played by Billy Dee Williams in a role that was a waste of his time and talent), Grissom orders Jack Napier (the Joker's "real name") to break into a chemical company and destroy records that implicate their gang in some sort of crime (just exactly what the threat is to Grissom isn't made clear).

Jack and the boys find out that there are no records. It's a set up. Grissom has used his connections to corrupt cop Eckhart (William Hootens) to arrange a police raid of the plant with orders to shoot to kill. All this is over Grissom's girlfriend Alicia (Jerry Hall) who is two-timing him with Jack. The old man doesn't like his "sugarplums" being "sugarplummed" by another man, especially his "right-hand man".

Batman gets wind of the raid (Commissioner Gordon was at a party at Bruce's mansion earlier and had to "leave suddenly" because he finds out about Eckhart's raid) and shows up to help out. Batman and Napier tangle and one slip later, Jack falls into a vat of toxic chemicals and is flushed out to a nearby river (Gotham must have a horrible environmental safety record).

The Joker kills Grissom, takes over the mobs, invents Smilex, a chemical that kills through inducing laughing seizures, and competes with Bruce over the attentions of Vicki Vale.

I used to watch this movie a lot, so I can't tell if it feels predictable because it was written that way or because I remember it so well. The movie was a "so-what" at the theater (really, that's all there is?) but plays better on the small screen. Maybe it reminds me more of a made-for-TV movie than a major motion picture release. That doesn't say much for director Tim Burton, but then he was early in his career, and even Jack Palance became irritated with the young and inexperienced Burton on the set.

Batman was made in an era when Hollywood still hadn't figured out how to take costumed heroes seriously. It wasn't exactly "campy" but it didn't feel "real" either. The film tries to be dark and gritty and styles mimic the 1930s and 40s to some degree (Batman's natural habitat apparently) but in the end, the costumes and sets still look like a comic book come to life.

I have to remember though, that if it wasn't for this film, the Batman animated series of the 1990s probably wouldn't have happened. Up until Christian Bale's performance of Batman, I considered the animated series the best presentation of Batman not in a comic book or graphic novel. A fact I was reminded of in the first few minutes of Burton's Batman film when Danny Elfman's opening theme plays and I recognized it from the animated series. If that was the only legacy of Burton's Batman, then it did it's job.

I'm probably being too hard on Burton's film. It has the benefit of being the first serious film on Batman and it sailed uncharted waters. There's even this:

In an interview with, Christopher Nolan (director of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) described this film as "...a brilliant film, visionary and extraordinarily idiosyncratic...".

 I think it was for its time, though it was certainly flawed as I've already described.

Tim Burton's Batman has a well deserved place of honor in the history of the Dark Knight in film, but it was somewhat "damaged goods" when it was new. Now that nearly a quarter of a century has passed since its original theatrical release, it has aged, much like "Boss" Grissom. Another Batman has come to Gotham and it is his time to reign.

And should Warner Bros. decide to pursue a Justice League film, they'll need yet another Batman. Who will inherit the mantle of the Bat and how will be wear it in comparison to Keaton and Bale?

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