Batman (1989)
April 19, 2018 4:02 PM - Subscribe

The Dark Knight of Gotham City begins his war on crime with his first major enemy being the clownishly homicidal Joker.

WaPo: From its opening shots, as the camera descends into the grim, teeming streets of Gotham City, the movie fixes you in its gravitational pull. It's an enveloping, walk-in vision. You enter into it as you would a magical forest in a fairy tale, and the deeper you're drawn into it, the more frighteningly vivid it becomes.

Ultimately, that's what "Batman" is -- a violent urban fairy tale. And it's as rich and satisfying a movie as you're likely to see all year. But though it springs from American pulp origins and provides comic book pleasures, it expands upon them as well, transmuting the raw material into operatic gold. Burton's pop vitality and his ability to make the world over in surreal cartoon terms could have been predicted from "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Beetlejuice," but nowhere in those films is there a sign of the muscularity and emotion he shows here.

NYTimes: Not since Lang's ''Dr. Mabuse: the Gambler'' (1922), ''Metropolis'' (1926) and ''The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse'' (1933) have so much talent and money gone into the creation of an expressionistic world so determinedly corrupt.

Yet nothing in the movie sustains this vision. The wit is all pictorial. The film meanders mindlessly from one image to the next, as does a comic book. It doesn't help that the title character remains such a wimp even when played by Michael Keaton. Nobody could do anything with this ridiculous conceit, but asking Mr. Keaton, one of our most volatile actors, to play Bruce Wayne/Batman is like asking him to put on an ape suit and play the title role in ''King Kong.''

Empire: Jack Nicholson provides the colour in this gloomy expressionist world, which has since become a Burton trademark. About as unrestrained a performance as he's ever been allowed to get away with, Jack cuts a showboating swathe that pretty much dominates the movie. "Where did he get those wonderful toys?"

The Guardian: Once doused in what looks like a giant vat of avocado mousse, crooked Jack Napier becomes visually much like an extremely constipated pelican desperately trying to do its business on the sea-shore with the tide coming in. If you don't laugh, you've never enjoyed good old British pantomime. If you do, it's game, set and match against poor Tim Burton 's concept. Did I say poor? I have to be joking too.

The net effect is to make Michael Keaton's Batman into a pale shadow of Kane's modestly likeable amalgam of Zorro and Superman who, when finally attacked by the wide and luscious lips of Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale, looks like he might disappear altogether. At this point the Dolby stereo emits a sucking noise that provides one of the most scary moments of the film.

But, really, it is mostly Nicholson's fault. He's away there having a whale of a time, like an old ham finally in his element and looking forward to his ovation at curtain call. It would need Donald Wolfit as Batman to compete, and what a good idea that might have been. Alas, Mr Keaton is totally gobbled up, by Nicholson if not by Basinger.

Roger Ebert: The Gotham City created in “Batman” is one of the most distinctive and atmospheric places I’ve seen in the movies. It’s a shame something more memorable doesn’t happen there. “Batman” is a triumph of design over story, style over substance - a great-looking movie with a plot you can’t care much about. All of the big moments in the movie are pounded home with ear-shattering sound effects and a jackhammer cutting style, but that just serves to underline the movie’s problem, which is a curious lack of suspense and intrinsic interest.


Art of the Title

Tim Burton's Batman (1989) 25 Years Later

Batman: Tim Burton's 1989 classic has (almost) everything modern superhero films are missing

Tim Burton's 'Batman' At 25, And Its Wonderful, Terrible Legacy

How ‘Batman’ Changed the Summer Blockbuster Forever

How Burton's Batman Changed Hollywood

Tim Burton played fast and loose with the caped crusader in his visionary blockbuster Batman

Why Tim Burton's Batman Is Still the Best

Revisiting 1989's "Batman" With Someone Born In 1990

The Making Of Batman

How the 1989 Batman logo helped set the course for superhero movies

What did Critics Say the First Time Michael Keaton Played a Superhero?
posted by MoonOrb (33 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I saw this in '89, and I really only remember two things about it:

1) People were ready to take to the streets in protest over Keaton's casting when it was first announced. But he was perfect in the role.
2) "Where does he get those wonderful toys?"
posted by Frayed Knot at 4:10 PM on April 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

I saw this in '89 as well, and I'm kind of ashamed to say that I thought it was deadly serious and missed most of the fun of it. Hey, whatever, I was ten, I still thought that the crappy War of the Worlds syndicated Canadian SF drama was a documentary.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:15 PM on April 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

The logo was everywhere that year. I thought it was teeth.
posted by mochapickle at 4:19 PM on April 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

I went to this with a group of friends, fully expecting that I would come out mocking it; I had extremely low expectations, figuring I was in for a bunch of stupid camp.

Instead, I was impressed by Keaton and blown away by Jack.
posted by nubs at 4:50 PM on April 19, 2018

The Batman soundtrack was the first CD I ever owned. It was a hell of an album.

Batdance music video by Prince.
posted by ODiV at 4:52 PM on April 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

And can't forget the Batdance
posted by nubs at 4:53 PM on April 19, 2018

"Where does he get those wonderful toys?"

Also, the moment when the Joker pulls the long-barreled pistol out of his waistband -- a brilliant visual gag -- and shoots down the Batwing.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 5:20 PM on April 19, 2018 [9 favorites]

Anton Furst was the absolute greatest.
posted by entropicamericana at 5:34 PM on April 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Is it true this is the version most faithful to the comic book mood, Bruce Wayne's eccentricity, etc.?
posted by rhizome at 7:37 PM on April 19, 2018

The Batman soundtrack was the first CD I ever owned. It was a hell of an album.

Yes same! This film was an obsession for me from the very second it came out, all the way through to Returns. Keaton was one of my favourite actors when I was a kid and the sheer spectacle of the thing blew my mind. And that was back when movies were in the cinema for like a year, and then you waited another year for VHS. Well, not me! My brother was over in Kuala Lumpur and sent me a pirated cam on tape. It was the worst quality of anything on earth but I watched it what must have been daily.

I picked up everything and anything with Batman on it. I had the full run of trading cards, something like a thousand of them, which had stuff on them that wasn't even in the movie, which, whoa! It's like a double-movie!

The real reward was it sparking my interest in Batman comics, and I started picking them up smack-bang in the middle of Norm Breyfogle's run on Detective. Norm Breyfogle was and remains the Best Ever Batman artist.
posted by turbid dahlia at 7:56 PM on April 19, 2018

Is it true this is the version most faithful to the comic book mood, Bruce Wayne's eccentricity, etc.?

I mean, there are at least twice as many takes on Batman as there have been Batman writers. This movie is definitely true to at least one of those.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:51 PM on April 19, 2018 [8 favorites]

More than once in my life I have taken someone by the shoulders and told them: "Remember ... you ... are my number one ... a-guy."
posted by komara at 9:32 PM on April 19, 2018 [9 favorites]

Keaton's pretty good; the fanboys bitched endlessly pre-release because they were stuck on the idea of a Bruce Wayne who could pass for Superman if he greased his forelock into a spit-curl, but Keaton looks like the kind of guy who would go out and beat people up in his hybrid leatherman/furry outfit (the best version of the costume in any medium up to that point) because he couldn't not do it. And you knew without a doubt that Batman was crazy, because after seeing the Batmobile in action, it was unclear why he'd ever bother to get out of it to fight crime.

But Nicholson owns the movie, making the Joker more than just a gimmicky villain. Jack Napier is a preening, egotistical misogynist even before his acid bath, and his rant right before the big reveal shows that he's most furious that his boss tried to kill him over a woman, of all the things. And his "oh, what a day" is the perfect capper to the scene. Nicholson said once that it was impossible to go over the top with the Joker because there was no top, but it's some of those little grace notes that really make the character, such as imitating Jack Palance's "number one guy" thing with the shoulder-squeezing, or the way that he matter-of-factly asks his sidekick for a gun which he then shoots him with.

The movie is oddly choppy in parts; during the parade scene, I kept waiting to see if they'd show that the money that he was showering the crowd with was fake, with his face on it (because he'd previously told Vicki Vale that he wanted his face on the one dollar bill); I found out later that there indeed was a scene of that, and that for some inexplicable reason it was cut. Batman Returns is a better movie overall than its predecessor, more coherent, visually unified, and in general more Burtonesque. But it wasn't first and it didn't have Jack.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:06 PM on April 19, 2018 [10 favorites]

Batman Returns is a better movie overall than its predecessor, more coherent, visually unified, and in general more Burtonesque. But it wasn't first and it didn't have Jack.

Tough call there. It's funnier, and it had a better soundtrack (THAT's the one I wore out), but it also had the now-common problem of Too Many Villains, which hurts its structure and dramatic stakes. (It's not the first, of course; Batman '66 also had three villains, but it wasn't aspiring to dramatic stakes.) Both films have several moments of weird dialogue, but the ones in Batman '89 somehow feel more fitting. And, not insignificantly, the first one's overall darker in tone—excepting, perhaps, the excellent Cobblepot Family opening of Returns.

I don't think it's possible for those who weren't alive, or old enough to remember, when this came out to really grasp what a tremendous movie event this was. It really was EVERYwhere; Keaton and Basinger were still top names, and of course Nicholson was marketed about equally with Batman himself. (Which is saying something; this is the last Batman movie I can remember where the marketing focused on Batman very much at all. After this, he's secondary to the villains.) And the MERCHANDISING, my god. We all like to rag on Lucas and Star Wars for starting the genre-movie-merch-machine, and while it's true that they did, it's Batman '89 that cemented it—that proved the machine could run on non-Lucas fuel. You still see the T-shirt around.

Not to mention, of course, that the only well-regarded superhero films prior to 1989 were (a couple of) Christopher Reeve's Superman installments. Here, too, Batman proved that it wasn't just a one-franchise phenomenon. Without this movie, Hollywood never would have given us The Crow or X-Men.

By the way, the younger generation thinks of this as "the old Batman" or "the first Batman"—likely because 1966 might as well be 1066 from their POV.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 3:45 AM on April 20, 2018 [8 favorites]

I work with a 24-year-old who is a huge Batman fan but doesn't know the Danny Elfman Batman theme at all. Even when I sang a few bars for him ("DAHHH DAHHH DAHHHH DAAAAAAAAAAAH DAAAAH DAAAAHHHHHHH") he didn't get it. Kids these days.
posted by Servo5678 at 5:17 AM on April 20, 2018

More than once in my life I have taken someone by the shoulders and told them: "Remember ... you ... are my number one ... a-guy."

This is always what I picture whenever I read the Donald Trump Praises Someone -> That Someone Then Gets Fired Via Tweet By Donald Trump cycle.

I saw this when it came out, too (or shortly thereafter on VHS, I can't remember, I was 14) and is basically my immutable Batman template. All other Batsmen feel wrong. The Nolan movies just bore the shit out of me. Lighten up, geeze! Why is everyone growling and whispering all the damn time? Where's Prince?
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:44 AM on April 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I watched it a couple weeks ago after not having seen it for 25+ years (back when it was the coolest shit imaginable to my pre-teen self). From today's vantage point, it feels like less of a break from the past than it used to. Jack Nicholson's Joker has as much in common with Cesar Romero's Joker as he does with Heath Ledger's. It's hard to imagine a comic book movie today with a villain who moves in such a conspicuously labored way -- like the somewhat pudgy 50 year old that Nicholson actually was. (Reminder of why the suddenness of the pencil scene in The Dark Knight was so shocking.) There were no fast cuts, no blood, and very limited damage to the city, which looked a lot more stage-y than I remember it -- whereas Marvel movies take pride in taking place in recognizable cities or completely unrecognizable fantasias. Overall, the vision is definitely Burton, but it owes a lot to Donner's blueprint as well.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 7:04 AM on April 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

I loved this as a kid, but Batman: the Animated Series has entirely displaced it in my affections, and Nicholson just feels, I dunno, aimless? next to Hamil. He feels like if Romero's Joker was more vicious, and I don't really like the whiplash.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:23 AM on April 20, 2018 [4 favorites]

What all these classic movie posts have (delightfully) hammered home for me was how pompous and erudite and downright academic movie critics used to be compared to today's more populist approach.

Like it's a thing "I know" but rereading these old reviews really takes me back to the days when nearly all popcorn flicks were just fucking dragged. The show "the critic" wouldn't even make sense these days.
posted by French Fry at 10:07 AM on April 20, 2018 [8 favorites]

Bale's ridiculous raspy voice knocks his movies way down below this one in terms of quality.
posted by Brocktoon at 1:40 PM on April 20, 2018

This movie also got us the best Batman video game soundtrack.
posted by curious nu at 7:12 AM on April 21, 2018

I liked this when it came out, but was disappointed that Basinger was such a Helpless Woman stereotype. Her entire role was Look Hot and Shriek.

Which is why Pfeiffer in Batman Returns was such a glorious thing. It was so, so satisfying the way she owned that movie.
posted by emjaybee at 1:03 PM on April 21, 2018 [6 favorites]

Batman Returns needs its own post because it still holds up in most parts.
posted by infinitewindow at 3:25 PM on April 21, 2018 [2 favorites]

I saw this on a Midnight Thursday showing that was the first time that I can recall theaters stretching "Opening Night" on technicalities of timekeeping (nowadays, it's a lot more common for the big event movies to open on a day other than a Friday, and in some cases, Wednesday is becoming the new Thursday.) The theater I saw it at probably broke a few firecodes by selling more tickets than they had seats, people were standing in the aisles to watch it that night. Which made it all the more exciting when the film snapped during the belfry staircase chase, just as the bell was tumbling down. Took the projectionist about 5 minutes to do the splice and get the film going again, I thought the crowd was going to riot.

Also, every time I think of this film, I can't help but think about the big "What IF?" that's left hanging their with the fact that they cast Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, knowing that they wouldn't be getting to Two-Face until they'd at least done a few of the more popular entries from Batman's Rogues' Gallery, the ones that the studio executives would be comfortable with because they could remember them from Batman '66. By the time they did get there, the role went to Tommy Lee Jones instead, but I've always wondered how Billy would have handled it instead.
posted by radwolf76 at 5:33 PM on April 21, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is another one of those films that hit me at just the right time in my life. Remember that thread from a few days ago about loving things "too much?" That was me in 1989. I was always your standard-issue Weird Kid, all about monsters and bats and Dracula movies and such. (Proof positive that goths are born, not made.) Burton's Batman is where all of that sort of became the foundation of my weltanschauung.

And looking back, I'm sure it was this book, along with a similar book about Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, that taught me how to analyze things like production design and cinematography as aspects of media criticism.
posted by MrBadExample at 1:42 PM on April 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

We all like to rag on Lucas and Star Wars for starting the genre-movie-merch-machine, and while it's true that they did, it's Batman '89 that cemented it

This was the first time that the ad campaign took up more cultural space than the movie itself. This trend continued upward and less than a decade later we had the ridiculous over-the-top marketing for Godzilla and in my view, that level of hype really crested with Snakes on a Plane. That was so heavily pushed that the release of the movie was a mere afterthought that only hurt the brand.

But yes – if and when there is a movie or TV show set in the summer of 1989, the surest way to signify it clearly is with that ubiquitous logo. The original poster (no link; I am on my phone) was audacious in its starkness: a closeup of the logo in so tight that the edges disappeared off the sides of the poster. The background was Spinal Tap levels of black, relieved only by the tiny words at the bottom: June 23.

June 23, 1989, I was in Toronto with my then-sweetie as we were off to see the premiere at the now-demolished Uptown. We were not wearing any branded gear, but it seemed like half the city was. We did run into a friend of mine on Yonge Street. He is an iconoclast by nature, and he was somewhat pointedly wearing a Superman T-shirt that day.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:44 PM on April 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Ah yes, this poster. Audacious is a good word.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 2:39 AM on April 23, 2018

No, not that one: this one.

No title, no credits, and about 80% of an image.

Audacious, even if it did lead to mystery meat modern movie marketing where the teaser poster is three-fifths of Brad Pitt's face and an inscrutable tagline ("In summer 2019, you will learn to burn.")
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:57 AM on April 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

I work with a 24-year-old who is a huge Batman fan but doesn't know the Danny Elfman Batman theme at all.

That's bizarre, because the theme was reused for the animated series. More the pity because that series has the best Bruce Wayne and Joker.
posted by happyroach at 1:13 PM on April 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Not so bizarre, as BTAS ran 1992-1995.

But I'm much older than 24, and Edward Scissorhands and Batman cemented my love for Danny Elfman as a film composer.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:25 PM on April 23, 2018

This movie contains some of my earliest movie memories, and my earliest movie meta-memory: my family owned only a handful of VHS tapes, this one among them, and my dad loved this movie. However, he'd always fall asleep about 20 minutes in and wake up with a start during the museum scene (we'd turn the volume way up beforehand, because Prince).
posted by duffell at 5:34 PM on April 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was working for a now-defunct East Coast-based chain bookstore when the VHS for this came out. While there was a home video market, the majority of VHS sales were to rental places, not to home users, and the prices showed it. Batman on VHS had a retail price of $99 in 1990 dollars ($190 today). We were selling them at $75 ($142 today) each.

We Could Not keep it in stock, or reorder it fast enough to meet demand.
posted by hanov3r at 10:41 AM on April 25, 2018

That is odd, hanov3r — a friend of mine was managing a Jumbo Video in the late eighties and early nineties and he tells me that Batman was the first big movie to be released at a much lower retail price – $19.99, I thought – specifically because distributors felt they could now sell directly to home viewers (Who Framed Roger Rabbit? a year earlier was the first crack in the dam, but it was Batman that burst it).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:40 AM on May 17, 2018

« Older iZombie: Don't Hate the Player...   |  Atlanta: Woods... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments