Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Batman (1989) (1st Movie Review of 11)

     This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, a month dedicated to individual reviews of every theatrical installment in the Batman franchise. Okay, the truth is I previously did this years ago but I’ve wanted to update these posts, as well as include new reviews of the more resent theatrical Batman movies. Also, I won’t be reviewing these movies in any particular order, I’ll just be posting them in my own arrangement. In general, I love me some Batman, he’s my favorite standalone superhero, and I have been a long-time fan of this film series for years. Personally, I find Batman's series to be the most unique superhero series, as each movie has it's own distinct style and it makes this film series so much more fun to review. Now every legend begins somewhere, and as for Batman, his true fame began with the classic 1989 motion picture “Batman”. It technically wasn’t the very first theatrical Batman picture, but it is the classic movie that got the ball rolling.

     Fans who grew up with this film couldn’t praise it enough, and often it gets regarded as a favorite movie in cinema. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it's certainly one of the most important game changers of the superhero genera. I still wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but obviously I love it, and I think has only gotten better with age. Before this film, Batman was just part of the campy 1960’s pop culture. Of cores he already had a fan base with the 30’s serials and the campy 60’s show, but this was the film that introduced the dark, complex and ass kicking superhero fans have been waiting for. Also, while comic book movies make money all the time theses days, it was actually kind of a surprise back in the late 80's when this film became one of the very first superhero movies to make mainstream success. Beforehand, there was a graphic novel called “The Dark Knight Returns”, which laid the ground work for Batman to transition from campy fun to dark and intimidating. So, it was about time the hero was shown the way he was meant to be, and the director was dark visionary mastermind Tim Burton. He did movies like no other, with dark, elaborate looks and themes, so he was the perfect choice for this film. However, Tim Burton has never been one for telling a story, his movies have been built on amazing visuals, strong atmosphere, and in this regard the film works. While not one of my absolute favorite superhero movies, it definitely ranks as one of my favorite Tim Burton films.  

     The opening credit sequence is one of the best of the series as a whole. The camera travels through a lot of dark tunnels, the music builds and then in a big pull back shot it’s revealed to be the Batman logo. It gives me chills every time, and the classic score by Danny Elfman is one of the greatest music themes ever composed for a superhero movie. It fits the character perfectly, and it’s one of Elfman’s greatest achievements. One of the most inspiring moments of the film is the scene that follows after the opening. We see a family leaving the theater, they wander into a dark ally, and eventually get mugged by some crooks. This was a great way to tease the audience into thinking we were watching a flashback to the origin of Batman, when really, it’s present day, and the hero is already in costume. The best thing about this movie by far is that it wasn’t a strait forward origin film, it’s really just a Batman venture that happens to be his first. That was so brilliant, and it gives the character a lot more mystery. Even if you’re not a fan of Batman, you’re probably familiar with his backstory on some level. He was the son of two billionaire parents, who were tragically killed by criminals, which left a traumatizing impact on the young Bruce Wayne. Now as an adult, he tackles the night as a costumed vigilante called Batman, who is either setting out to protect the people of Gotham City or maybe he’s just venting out his personal demons with no real care for anyone else. Now his test of character is soon challenged when the city is terrorized by a colorful villain calling himself the Joker. 

    Let’s start by look at the characters. Batman is played by Michael Keaton, who previously stared in Tim Burton's “BeetleJuice” and has a great range of acting talents. Fans where very upset with this decision because he was an actor who did comedies like “Mr. Mom”. People wanted action stars like Sylvester Stallone, but Burton wanted someone unassuming for the role, and it works very well. As far as casting goes, Keaton is hands down my favorite live-action Batman. As Bruce Wayne he was sly, unassuming, but you can always see that little twitch, like he's hiding some personal pain. As Batman he was intimidating, and just plain cool. The costume also looked really good, fitting the classic image of Batman, while still looking very threatening. I also feel that this portrayal of Batman is more true to the source of the character than any other rendition. When he goes out fighting crime, he's really battling his own personal daemons, and when he inters a room ... the fights instantly over, he just hasn’t done anything yet. There's also a confidence and mystique to the character that thrills me every time he's on screen. I will admit that the actual "story" of the characters journey isn't nearly as multilayered as in other works like either the animated 90's series or the Dark Knight film trilogy. Because of this, I think this movies version of Batman has the most exciting screen presence, but doesn't have quiet as much under the surface ... at least when compared to other really compelling tales of a hero's journey. I'll admit I prefer my superhero movies to center around the journey of the hero, but I have four other Batman films that accomplish that. So lets just enjoy this stunning portrayal of the character, just for different reasons.

      It's interesting to note that this is the only Batman movie to date that only features one villain and surprise, surprise ... it’s The Joker, played in this film by Jack Nicholson. Unlike Michael Keaton, this was a very obvious casting choice, but Jack is still great in the role. He’s completely crazy, entertaining, unpredictable, funny and has a captivating screen presence of his own. It may seem strange that a clown is Batman’s greatest enemy, but if you think about it, they’re a perfect match. 

One is a noble hero who hides in a dark, monstrous form, while the other actually is a heartless monster that hides in a bright and colorful form. Sense he’s the only villain, there’s a lot of room for a good hero villain rivalry, which for me comes off as a mixed bag. It’s a very standard setup with Batman learning Joker killed his parents, while Joker in return is angry at the hero for ruining his plans and former life. Personally, I find this kind of a cheat to make Joker the killer of Batman’s parents, as that makes him our hero’s nemesis by default, and not because of a built rivalry. Having said that, it all balances out by having Batman unintentionally create the Joker, because now we have the duality of the hero and villain forging their own greatest enemies. I find that very intriguing indeed, and it leads to one of Batman's best lines ... "I made you, but you made me first". Unfortunately, one of the films biggest missteps was giving more focus, and even a bigger character story to the Joker then our main hero. Also, Joker in this film comes off more like someone just looking for attention, rather than a villain with a deeper, sinister plan. With all that said, Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker can still be regarded as iconic in its own right, and he definitely has his shining moments. I think his most memorable kill is with the hand buzzer that he uses to electrify one of his enemy's. Not only does the guy get reduced to an electrified skeleton, but he also talks to his fried corps afterword, and then strangles it with a neck tie for good measure … now that's crazy! 

     The supporting cast is small but functional, and each player adds a special ingredient to the film. The butler Alfred is played very well by Michael Gough, who continued his role throughout “Batman Returns”, “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin”, just like the reliable butler that he is. Pat Hingle also continued his role as Commissioner Gordon throughout the 4 90’s Batman movies, but while the actor is good, he just doesn't stand out as anything more than an extra most of the time. Billy Dee Williams, whose best known for playing Lando Calrissian from the Star Wars series, makes select appearances as Harvey Dent. This is the man who would later become Batman’s arch foe Two Face. Unfortunately, the actor became less and less popular, and for whatever reason he never returned to the series. There's also this very random moment with Harvey Deny giving a speech in front of his own promotional billboard, which is a visual call back to "Citizen Kane", but what's the point when the character amounts to so little. One cast member that really doesn't get enough credit is Robert Wuhl as a reporter named Alexander Knox, who is externally charismatic. It's also hard to explain, but even supporting characters like this help make this comic book world feel all the more real. Finally, there's the late great Jack Palance in a small role as a crime boss, and while not in the movie for long, it's somehow one of his most memorable roles. 

    Now unlike Superman or Spider-Man, Batman has never had a stand-out girlfriend, in fact the girl friends change in every movie, much like the James Boned women. Our lead girlfriend in this film is Vicki Vale played by the lovely Kim Basinger. She’s a surprisingly likable, albeit cliched damsel in distress, always in need of rescuing, always losing her shoes and always screaming. However, despite being such an obvious cliché, she could still stick up for herself, she was supportive, yet had her limits, and it just made her a really fun character to have present. As for the girl always loosing her shoes, Kim Basinger was actually the tallest person on set, so she always had to go around either bare foot or sock footed in order to appear shorter then either Michael Keaton or Jack Nicholson. One side note, I really like Vales wardrobe, as most of Batman’s girl friends are always in black attire, but Vale was always in white, and that was a much cooler contrast to both Batman and the dark, Gothic surroundings.

    Here's a fun piece of trivia, before Michael Gough's Alfred was tending to a man that dresses like a bat, he also aided Van Helsing slay vampires in 1958’s “Horror of Dracula”. Coincidence or a clever choice by Tim Burton? In 2005 there was an animated crossover movie titled “The Batman vs. Dracula” and the lead girl that Dracula captures in that film was none other than Vicky Vail from Tim Burton's "Batman". Here’s another fun bit of trivia, in a latter Tim Burton movie “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, Wonka's dad works at a dental place called “Smilex”, and in “Batman”, “Smilex” was also the name of the poison the Joker used to kill people with permanent smiles. One really random tradition that started here and continued throughout the remaining 90's films is that every villain makes an off handed reference to "Beauty and the Beast". I don't know if that was intentional, but it's something that always stood out to me. One of the better traditions that also began in this film was Batman crashing through a glass ceiling ... which is always awesome! I will say that the action on display in general is very standard, but there's a simple appeal to them. It's cool to see Batman take out goons, and I always loved that little sword fight in the ally.  

    Not only was the darker side of Batman brought to life in this movie, but every classic trade mark of the character was perfected in this film. “Batman” rightfully won the Academy Award for best art direction, and even though the effects are dated by today’s standards, there’s still a charm from seeing all these models that brought the city to life. Gotham is grand and larger than life, with buildings that look like they can reach the stars. On a side note, this is actually one of the phew Batman films that didn't have the color scheme based around the main villain. Most other films to follow would have a color themed around whoever the antagonist is. "Batman Forever" would feature The Riddler, thus the dominant color was green. "Batman Begins" featured Scarecrow, thus the dominant color was orange. I'm just grateful that this film wasn't draped in purple filters. The bat-mobeal also looked slick, cool, dangerous, and in my opinion it’s the greatest portrayal of the Batmobile on film. Another tradition that took shape with 1989's "Batman" is the mandatory Batmobile car chase. This first car chase is good, but looms in the shadow of the majority of great car chases to follow. The bat cave was also perfected in this film, with less technology on display, and more of a massive cave appearance. There’s bats flying around, and every detail is just right on the dot. The only thing missing is that giant penny that’s always seen in the comics and TV shows. 

     Then there's the Bat-Wing, which Batman uses to fly through Gotham city. I don’t know if this movie is what introduced use to the bat-wing, but it did introduce me to it, and it looked amazing. That shot of it flying in front of the moon is something I’ll always remember, honestly even more memorable than in “E.T. The Extraterrestrial”. The bat-wing would be featured in three more Batman films, “Batman Mask of the Phantasm”, “Batman Forever” and "The Dark Knight Rises". Some may argue that it’s too unrealistic to have Batman flying something that “NASA” hasn’t been able to construct yet, but all the same, it's a trade mark vehicle of the character and probably my favorite of his. Now, every Batman film has its own unique strengths. For some films, it’s compelling characters and for others it’s a strong story. For me, the greatest strength of “Batman” is the experience. No other Batman film makes me feel this submersed in a comic book world, with a strong atmosphere, and such creative visuals. My favorite scene of the movie by far is when Batman and Vicky Vale are riding in the Bat mobile to the cave. There's hardly any lines, the shots combine with the music beautifully, I love those skeleton trees in the background, and it just feels like we're descending into a mysterious place. It's a moment that represents the power of film, and it once again highlights this movie as an experience.  

     Everything builds to a relatively strong climax, in which after the Joker fails to kill Gotham's people with his toxic gas, he takes Vicky Vale to the top of Gotham’s cathedral, with an injured Batman following close behind. Even though this finale is short on action, it still feels like a spectacle, with a heavy atmosphere, mood and growing tension as each scene gradually builds on top of the other. In many ways, this climax is like a classic medieval adventure finale. Batman is a metaphorical Knight climbing a tall tower to rescue a girl, Vicky Vale in her white dress resembles a princess, and the Joker is the evil that needs to be slayed. My only real issue with this ending is that the actual showdown between Batman and Joker isn’t that riveting, in fact Batman never once feels like he's rising against a challenging adversary. It all builds to one of the most memorable villain deaths in the Batman series, with the Joker falling from a helicopter, and dropping to his death. Obviously it’s one of the most common cliches to have a villain die from dropping like that, but the Batman movies actually make a tradition of it.    

     Finally, that closing shot of Batman on top of the building with the bat signal in the background is one of the most triumphant closing moments to any superhero movie I've ever seen. I'm not going to lie, but as a kid, I actually hatted this movie. Back then, I could never finish it all the way through, because I was so board. However, once I rediscovered it in my ladder teenage years, I really began to grow some admiration toured "Batman". This once again is what I like to call an experience film. I love being submersed in this comic book style world, and experiencing all the visuals, the sets, the music, the clichés, the film noir, and just the whole artistry of how the film is brought to life. It doesn’t need a strong script or intense character depth, it already makes for a worthwhile film on its own technical merits. Now that’s not to say that I don’t care about strong scripts or character structure, I love all that stuff too, and it’s the only reason why this film remains slightly beneath some of its successors. Tim Burton himself has even referred to this movie as "More of a cultural phenomenon, then a good film". Perhaps that's true, but for all its problems, I still look at this movie as a classic, and a great entry in the series. I still don’t think it’s a masterpiece by any means, but it doesn’t need to be, and it still did its job making an icon out of this character.

I give “Batman” 4 stars out of 5.  Stay tuned for part two, things are going to get more character focused with the cinematic masterpiece “Batman Begins”, which subsequently brought the hero back to the theater.

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