a critiQal film review Batman (1989)

Plot: Jack Napier (Nicholson), horribly scarred by acid, becomes the arch criminal known as The Joker and begins a reign of terror the likes of which Gotham City has never known. The only thing that may be able to stop him is a new hero on the scene, The Batman (Keaton).

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  • ...thanks in large part to Jack Nicholson's Joker, this original foray by Tim Burton is (somewhat campy) fun.

With all the hype this weekend surrounding (the 5th superhero film of the summer), it’s hard to believe that 19 years ago, audiences were getting their first taste of The Batman on the big screen with Tim Burton’s Batman.

Before going to see the new film later today, it seemed appropriate to take a look back at the earlier reincarnation, and see how Michael Keaton’s Batman and Jack Nicholson’s Joker have stood up over the years since they burst onto the screen back in ’89.

19 years – and an inundation of comic book films – later, would Tim Burton’s original vision be as impressive today as it was back in ’89, or have more recent comic book films delegated Batman to relic status?

Unlike the more recent films, Batman was more about the villain than the hero – and Jack Nicholson’s Joker easily captured center stage. With the Joker’s signature maniacal laugh and white face (a byproduct of his dip in acid, rather than makeup), Nicholson plays up his crazed character in an eye-catching performance.

Whether he’s going one-on-one with The Bat, or spending a bit of time “redecorating” classic art, Nicholson’s Joker does it all with a glee that’s almost catching. So many times actors say it’s freeing to play a bad guy – and with Nicholson’s performance, it shows. Refined, yet obviously off his rocker, Nicholson’s Joker is fun from the first moment he shows up on screen.

Michael Keaton as Batman is largely a secondary character in Batman, despite being the title role. While he is decent while in the rubberized costume, Keaton’s Bruce Wayne impersonation leaves a lot to be desired. He does have his moments (notably while getting to know Vicky Vale), but most of the time he comes off as more of an absent-minded professor than a millionaire playboy.

Watching the film, it’s easy to see how he would be easily replaceable with later Bruce Wayne/Batman reincarnations by Val Kilmer, George Clooney and now Christian Bale. He just doesn’t really endear himself to the viewers at all.

As the love interest of the film, Vicky Vale, Kim Basinger doesn’t really bring a whole lot to her role. She’s decent enough, but doesn’t connect with audiences as much as she would later in her role in LA Confidential.

The rest of the characters in the film go by hardly unnoticed, save for a few quick glimpses of a fun mob boss portrayal by Jack Palance.

Although Batman does have a lot of high-tech “wonderful toys,” Tim Burton seems to have decided to set Batman somewhere amidst the G-Men era – an era where¬† Bogey from Casablanca (1942) wouldn’t seem out of place. It’s an odd throwback, and dates the film quite a bit – even for a late 80’s film.

The special effects, thankfully, have withstood the test of time, looking as decent today as they did when the film was first released.

Tim Burton’s Batman relies on it’s villain to keep the movie running strong – a far cry from the recent , where the villain was a rather small secondary character. While Batman works thanks to Jack Nicholson’s Joker, there isn’t a lot of substance to Michael Keaton’s hero to make viewers want to stick around for more films.

This proved true even though the film produced 3 sequels, as each further sequel showcased that no matter who Batman was (Keaton, Kilmer or Clooney), it was always the villains that the viewers were coming to see, not the hero. Eventually, of course, viewers got sick of having the villains run the show – despite their ever-increasing numbers – and the series was run so far into the ground by Batman & Robin (1997), almost a decade passed before Hollywood was willing to resurrect The Batman.

While the film series did degenerate badly by the 4th film, this first big screen glimpse of Batman – made successful mostly by Jack Nicholson’s performance – is still a treat to watch. True, both Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton play The Joker and Batman rather well – and both seem to have lost sight of the Jack Napier/Bruce Wayne characters hiding beneath – but Joker especially is still enjoyable to watch even 19 years later.

Much more lighthearted than the more current resurrection, Batman – despite not having a whole lot of substance beneath the kooky exterior – is somewhat campy fun that viewers should enjoy going back to every now and again.

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