It’s been 23 years since the pre-Christopher Nolan version of the Batman franchise launched into the boxoffice stratosphere, and a lot has changed in the movie landscape. (1989 is so long ago that it was a topical gag in the movie to cast Gotham City’s Mayor with an actor who looked like New York’s Ed Koch.) Tim Burton’s BATMAN (from a script by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren) was one of the last Hollywood blockbusters before the era of digitally generated imagery began–2 years later, Terminator 2 would jump-start the process–and Burton embraced an old-fashioned aesthetic for the film that was eras away from Nolan’s sleeker look. There was little attempt to hide the fact that the movie was shot on soundstages and studio backlot streets, and the enormous sets, strongly influenced by German expressionism and art deco, were backed by painted mattes.
The arrival of Burton’s Batman was a far greater phenomenon than the opening of Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005. At the time it opened, Batman was behind only Jaws, E.T. and the first Star Wars trilogy as the biggest hit in history, while Batman Begins was only the #8 performer of 2005. (Nolan’s films have accelerated in impact as his series has gone on, and his spectacular success with Inception between Batmans hasn’t hurt any.) Before the movie opened, it was widely believed that Warner Bros had lost its collective mind when it hired Burton to direct, considering that he only had the offbeat comedies Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice to his credit. Then when Burton brought in Michael Keaton to play Batman, fresh off Night Shift, Gung Ho, Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice, it seemed like the movie was going to be no more than a broad spoof, like the 1960s TV series.
Instead, Batman turned out to be far darker than anyone expected, and although it did have a great deal of campy humor, the jokes were often literally deadly. Revisited after several years, Burton’s film is a polarizingly mixed bag, with some aspects that have stood the test of time, and others that feel jarringly wrong. (The very ill-fitting songs by Prince on the soundtrack, for instance–which in Burton’s defense were forced on him by the producers.)
One problem with the 1989 movie is that it definitely wasn’t cast in depth, very unlike Nolan’s films. The romantic interests in Batman movies have never fared particularly well, and Kim Basinger, as photographer Vicky Vale, can’t even hold a camera convincingly. (Basinger had her own costume designer, and her 80s fashions make her seem like she was air-lifted in from a different era.) Robert Wuhl is supposed to be a reminder of the snappy, smart-aleck reporters of 1930s movies as Alexander Knox, but he just comes off as an ass. Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon and Billy Dee Williams as (pre-Two-Face) Harvey Dent have almost nothing to do, and the various goons and cops barely seem to be directed by Burton at all–they pose instead of act. The only strong presence in the supporting cast is Michael Gough as Alfred.
Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker, watched in the present day, is a different kind of problem. For one thing, it’s impossible not to compare his work with Heath Ledger’s extraordinary Joker in The Dark Knight, and Nicholson’s much more comedic turn (which, to be fair, was the way his Joker was written) barely has a fraction of Ledger’s terrifying, gleeful rage. Also, over the years Nicholson has become so identified with acting like “Jack” that when he deliberately overdoes it as a comic book character, it seems like he’s doing his own Jack Nicholson imitation. This Batman, too, gives The Joker only a moderately interesting origin story–he was Jack Napier, a two-bit gangster betrayed by his own boss (Jack Palance, briefly on hand as Carl Grissom) because Jack slept with Grissom’s girlfriend (Jerry Hall, not very good), and in the ensuing raid on the chemical plant he was robbing, he ended up dunked in a vat of toxic substance when Batman couldn’t hold on to his hand. There’s no scale or grandeur to this Joker. The decision to make Napier also the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents was more interesting, but it only livens up the last few minutes.
Michael Keaton, on the other hand, is still very impressive. He brings a lightness to his Bruce Wayne scenes that Christian Bale could have emulated, and yet there’s always something hidden about him (he’s masked even when he’s not wearing the cape) that translates well into his Batman. His stolid, haunted quality is a good match with Nicholson’s antic Joker.
Burton’s direction is uneven. His vision of the look of Gotham City (the remarkable sets were by Anton Furst), with skyscrapers that practically ooze out of the ground, is grandly grotesque, and he pulls off the big finale, with Nicholson and Keaton facing off against each other at the top of a cathedral. Some of the macabre touches, like Joker’s poisoning of Gotham City with cosmetics, and the sight of Nicholson wearing make-up to cover all but his ghastly smile, are brilliant (others, like Nicholson’s conversation with an electrocuted corpse, are too cartoony). Danny Elfman’s score, with a mix of booming spectacle and carnival music, feels exactly right. Once Burton is in his impressive settings, however, mostly he just plants the camera in front of the various actors with often awkward framing. Nor was he adept at staging action sequences (some would say he still isn’t), and they feel choppy more than exciting.
No one knew it at the time, of course, but Batman would be the most successful of its franchise by far. Both Burton and Warners delivered a massive hit to lead off the series, but each would make missteps in the years to come.