The Bat’s out of the bag: I’ve never seen Tim Burton’s late ‘80s classic. Without the quirky helmer’s boundary-breaking superhero flick, there’s every chance the MCU wouldn’t exist in its current form. Neither would the DCEU, come to think of it. But hey, I love Beetlejuice, so I’ll let ol’ Timmy off the hook on that one.
So yes, Batman (1989). It’s pretty good, huh? If I’m being entirely honest, I have seen the odd clip of Burton’s Bat, but until a week or so ago, I’d never watched the movie in its entirety.
Release year: 1989
Run time: 2 hrs 6 min
Box office: $411.6 million (unadjusted)
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 76%
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Where to watch: VOD
I'm baffled it took me so long to finally get around to watching Batman. As a kid growing up in the early ‘90s, I was obsessed with Batman: The Animated Series — RIP Kevin Conroy, the world is a darker place without your leathery larynx. I was also semi into 1995’s Batman: Forever, mainly because it was the first Dark Knight film I’d seen at the cinema… and partially due to that end credits SEAL song being an absolute banger.
Hell, I even paid actual human currency to watch George Clooney’s Bat Nipples and his ‘GothCard’ in 1997’s Batman & Robin. Although I’m pretty sure no reputable Gotham retailer would accept the latter as a form of payment.
So it’s not exactly a ‘Bruce Wayne is Batman’ sized shocker that Burton’s Batsy is waaaaaay better than the late Joel Schumacher’s two Gotham Capers.
I’d even go as far to say Joel’s second crack at the cowl makes Batman ‘89 look like Citizen Kane. Not that I can make that statement with full conviction, seeing as I haven’t actually seen Orson Welles' milestone drama. Judging by a Simpsons episode though, I’m pretty sure it involves something to do with a sled.
Anyway, back to Batman. It’s pretty damn good. While Christopher Nolan’s rebooted trilogy will always be my go-to Caped Crusader fix, I now have a better appreciation for the groundwork Burton laid down in a comic book movie that’s legacy is still keenly felt to this very day.
With all that Gotham Guardian rambling out of the way, here are three reasons I think 1989’s Batman is mostly a heroic effort.
Spoiler alert: Mild spoilers for Batman (1989) to follow
It’s hysterical just how good Jack Nicholson is
Here’s a revelation it wouldn’t take the World’s Greatest Detective to stumble upon: Jack Nicholson is pretty good at this whole acting thing. The three time Academy Award winner was born to play the Clown Prince of Crime with those eyebrows, and it’s no surprise that his Joker devours every scene he graces in Batman.
Playfully unhinged and clearly gobbling up every last line of dialogue with utter relish, he’s a force of nature throughout this seminal superhero flick. Admittedly, I don’t love the fact the filmmakers choose to give away his backstory or his real name, but when Jack is having so much fun, I can get over my canon-centric snobbery.
Does his performance match Heath Ledger’s electrifying turn in 2008’s The Dark Knight? Hell no. The late, great Aussie actor hands in a tour-de-force performance that’s brimming with chaos, creativity and healthy dollops of menace.
Poor Jack will just have to settle for the silver prize of being the second best big screen Joker. Hardly an insult, considering I rate Ledger’s performance as perhaps the most charismatic in the history of cinema.
Michael Keaton is a surprisingly strong Dark Knight
I love Keaton. I consider him to be one of the finest actors of his generation, and I’ve enjoyed his performances in everything from Birdman and Jackie Brown to the sensitively handled, Oscar-winning Spotlight. He’s a gifted, versatile performer with a slightly manic streak that makes him perfect for Batman.
Not that audiences felt the same pre-release back in 1989. For context, his casting was as universally an unpopular decision as Daniel Craig getting the nod to play 007 in 2006’s expertly judged Casino Royale reboot.
What makes Keaton so good in Batman is his duplicity. He’s shy, unrestrained and witty as Bruce Wayne, but when it’s time to don the cowl, he’s a menacingly feral entity you absolutely believe would give the goons of Gotham night terrors.
Tonally, Batman ‘89 is right on the money
Nothing will ever beat the grit and gravitas Chris Nolan instils into his Dark Knight trilogy for me, but I gotta say, I have newfound appreciation for the tone Burton strikes with his first Batman movie.
Compared to the campy exploits of Adam West’s Caped Crusader, the gothic production design and moody cinematography instantly instil a believable bite and credible edge to this Gotham adventure.
Are elements of it deliberately campy? No doubt. Just look at Joker making it rain dollar bills during that absurd third act parade. Still, this isn’t the same brand of buffoonery that Schumacher made his Gotham calling card.
1989’s Batman strikes a good balance of being slightly silly while also delivering introspective work from Keaton that gives the whole film layers of tonal texture.
Verdict: Batman is a fun time and definitely worth a watch
Would I label Batman (1989) a true classic? Not quite. But I will happily give the movie its flowers when it comes to the influence it’s had over the last three decades of blockbuster cinema.
Batman gave credibility to the genre 11 years before the first X-Men movie resuscitated superhero movies, and it gave us an all-time star turn from Jack Nicholson into the bargain.
For me though, there’s only one Batman film truly worth of being hailed a genuine classic: The Dark Knight. Nolan’s Heat-aping masterpiece blurs the lines of what a superhero movie can be. For me, it kicks seven shades of stuffing out of Burton’s Caped Crusader.
After being 34 years late to the party, I am glad I’ve finally watched Tim Burton’s Batman properly. This is a fun movie with some terrific production design, a spine-tingling Danny Elfman score and two granite-strong central performances. Although as much as I love Keaton, I still have zero desire to watch his cameos in The Flash. Mainly because Erza Miller sucks on many levels.
And with that, Bat’s all, folks!