Viking Night: Batman (1989)
By Bruce Hall
June 7, 2016
The first thing you notice about Tim Burton’s Batman (aside from Danny Elfman’s unforgettable score) is that Gotham City looks like something HP Lovecraft and MC Escher came up with after a wild night of peyote and tequila. It’s a hideous, Gothic nightmare whose grotesque spires blot out the sun during the day, and the stars at night. Looking at it evokes the same feelings I get looking at photographs of Victorian London.
It’s a noirish hellscape, just as it should be.
The next thing I noticed is that Michael Keaton makes a fine Batman. This iteration of the character is less physically demanding than later ones, so I doubt he was required to log any serious time in the gym. Keaton’s success in the suit comes from his bearing as an actor. It seems stupid now, but at the time Keaton was known primarily as a comedic talent and the backlash against his casting is something only Daniel Craig and Ben Affleck can truly understand. Not only did Keaton prove them wrong, but he did it in a cool suit that made him look six inches taller. Of course, watching him lurch around in it you wonder if it’s the fact he couldn’t move his head that made it so intimidating.
The next pleasant surprise (aside from Billy Dee Williams’ ability to rock that ‘stache so far away from the 1970s) was the way the film wastes no time in getting started. One minute you’re reading the opening credits, and the next minute Batman is stomping a meth freak on a rooftop. It was nostalgia that drew me to this film, and now I know what for. Not only does Batman start fast, but unlike far too many of its descendants, it reserves no time for an origin story. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know how Batman Begins? I didn’t think so. His parents were murdered,. he was raised by his butler Alfred, he became a ninja or something, and then...nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh Batman!
And while the whole Dead Parent thing does figure into the story, it’s more of a plot point and less something that takes up the whole damn first act and make you want to slam your head in a car door. Superhero films of today tend to try and exist in some version of our own universe. Often, they also attempt to grapple with the real world ramifications of a guy who can punch down skyscrapers and shoot lasers from his face. Tim Burton’s Batman does no such thing, preferring to exist in that uniquely Burtonesque dimension that’s part “childlike whimsy” and part “something you’d expect to find scrawled in the diary of a serial killer." That’s fine with me, because it makes for the kind of straightforward storytelling comic books are known for.
One person asks Bruce Wayne what the hell he does for a living, and he never gets a chance to answer. It never comes up again. Although it should be pointed out that this version of Wayne is a paranoid recluse who hosts social events at his luxurious mansion...primarily so he can monitor his guests’ conversations for information he can use when he prowls the night in a rubber suit beating the crap out of people. The Joker (Jack Nicholson) is a mob enforcer who zigs when he should have zagged during his first encounter with Batman, and falls into a vat of chemicals. Then he decides to kill everyone in Gotham City, because “poor me,” I guess. It works out just fine, because I get the impression Nicholson didn’t have to stretch himself very far. His Joker is a nihilistic pleasure seeker for whom life is just one big party.