Batman (1989)

© Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures

Thought I’ve never much cared for it, Tim Burton’s Batman is sure to please those willing to overlook its adolescent excesses. The motion picture is very much a product of its time, the “bigger is better” eighties, but it’s got gorgeous set designs, inventive action sequences, and an awful lot of angst, the sort comic book fans typically confuse with emotional depth. I just find it unfortunate the filmmakers forgot to include Batman in their production.

In fairness, the movie does feature a costumed crime fighter wielding bat-themed weapons, but the character bears little resemblance to the DC Comics super-hero, who actually values human life. Portrayed by Michael Keaton as an angry piece of cardboard (the stiff Bat Suit doesn’t help), this Dark Knight guns down henchmen by the factory load and fires weapons of mass destruction in populated areas. How Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) can approve of the homicidal maniac, let alone use his Bat Signal, is beyond me.

The Bruce Wayne persona is equally bland. Instead of the confident playboy from the comic book, whose indulgences mask an intense sense of duty, we get an introverted egotist: awkward with women and strangely unaccustomed to his own wealth. When asked about Alfred (Michael Gough), the loyal butler who brought him up after his parents’ murder, all the ingrate jerk can think to say is, “I couldn’t find my socks without him.” Is it any wonder his nemesis is given more screen time? He’s a ripe bastard too, but at least he knows it.

I’m a bit torn about Jack Nicholson’s take on the Joker. On the one hand, he gets the way the villain uses comedy to excuse his depravity: deep down, the crackpot just wants to kill people, and that comes across nicely. On the other, he’s chosen to add a layer of sarcasm to all his lines, which makes them more menacing but the character less disturbing. Batman’s arch foe is a psychopath, not a smartass. Nicholson’s performance doesn’t capture the Joker’s spirit so much as it does the veteran actor’s cheekiness during Oscar telecasts.

I just realised I still haven’t addressed the plot. That’s because there isn’t any. The movie spends an eternity introducing the Joker, then Batman fights him, and the credits roll. Hurray. There’s also some convoluted nonsense about the two having met before, which is meant to give the conflict significance (“This time, it’s personal!”), but the whole thing is terribly puerile and uninteresting. Besides, it’s just one in a long list of story elements that lead absolutely nowhere, like Nox (Robert Wuhl), the point-of-view character who doesn’t view anything.

© Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures
© Copyright Warner Bros. Pictures

Consider as well the romantic subplot with his partner Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), an inept photojournalist who enthrals both Batman and the Joker by squealing every time she hears a loud noise and asking for a deep commitment after one date. The villain eventually kidnaps the stupid tart, not because of his infatuation with her but because she was just standing there (she wasn’t even taking pictures), forcing the caped crusader into a final… Wait. The two were already in the middle of their final confrontation. What was the point of all this?

Maybe I’m asking too much of Batman, which falters on a basic story level but provides beautiful imagery, and I’m not just referring to the depiction of Gotham City or the subtle bits of animation. There’s an underlying theme of grotesqueness adding much needed complexity to the narrative: Batman is often called “the bat” to emphasise his inhuman appearance, and, in a particularly inspired bit, he uses a literal monster to defeat his adversary. Of course, one has to wonder what obscure symbols like these are doing in a mainstream super-hero flick.

My theory is that the film is meant as an impressionist exploration of Burton’s psyche. Batman, whose civilian identity sports the same haircut as the director, is a misunderstood loner who uses his goth inclinations to make the world a better place. Opposing him is the Joker, a deranged artist who sees beauty in horror and wants to share his vision at the audience’s expense. The central conflict in Batman is between two creative impulses, and if that strikes you as self-indulgent, then you don’t truly understand the genius of Tim Burton. I don’t either.

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Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."