Batman (1989)

It’s easy now to laugh at the studio’s pre-release paranoia (Mr. Mom as Batman? $40 million budget? Are we gonna die here?) that led to a marketing Bat-blitz not seen since the ’60s. But this project, which Warner sat on for years, was considered a big gamble. As everyone knows, it paid off. Tim Burton’s spectacularly depressed vision took a page from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and restored Batman to his dark pulp roots, with added elements of opera and German silent films (the latter would be much more evident in the first sequel). Narratively, it doesn’t make much sense; almost petulantly, Burton skimps on plot basics. For example, when is the moment that crusading photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) discovers Batman’s identity as Bruce Wayne? Burton never tells us.

By his own account, Burton was miserable during the making of Batman, and the anxious exhaustion shows; the movie isn’t an effervescent cartoon like Burton’s previous features. But it’s a fascinating watercolor in purple and black, with a surprisingly subtle performance by Michael Keaton, who plays Batman/Bruce as a borderline case who needs to climb into a bat-suit and kick some ass. And, of course, there’s the top-billed Jack Nicholson hamming it up as the Joker — though his admittedly crowd-pleasing turn isn’t quite as brilliant as everyone said; he’s antic and loud without being especially funny (or scary). Burton sees himself in both Batman and the Joker, which is what gives Batman the complex duality the comic books generally lack. This gloomy opera isn’t so much heroic as it is bitter and wounded. Many critics expecting an ordinary adventure movie had no idea what to make of it.

Murky, eye-punishing cinematography (which looks sharper on video) by Roger Pratt; Oscar-winning sets by Anton Furst; costumes by Bob Ringwood; great score by Danny Elfman, with some mewling background things (one hesitates to call them songs) by Prince. With Michael Gough as Alfred, Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, Robert Wuhl, Tracey Walter, a hambone Jack Palance, Jerry Hall, Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, and William Hootkins. You might remember (uncredited) co-screenwriter Charles McKeown as the guy who occupies the office (and desk) next to Jonathan Pryce in Brazil. Followed by Batman Returns; Burton’s next was Edward Scissorhands.

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