Batman (Tim Burton, 1989)
Tim Burton’s third(!) feature film is a great piece of work that not only stunningly showcased his precise creative vision, but also provided a unique direction of heightened (albeit still deliciously campy) realism for the future of masked heroes on screen — ushering them into a whole new era of superhero and comic book-based films at a time where the Lundgren-starring The Punisher (1989) was coming out, Jim Wynorski was following Wes Craven with The Return of Swamp Thing (1989) and Christopher Reeve’s vehicle Superman franchise had just ended in 1987.
First film of Warner Bros.’ classic franchise, Burton’s Batman pitted its hero Bruce Wayne (embodied by Michael Keaton, in hindsight refreshingly older-looking compared to Clooney or Bale) against arch-nemesis and maker Jack Napier a.k.a. The Joker (Jach Nicholson, in a landmark performance).
Indeed, perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Burton’s highly expressionistic film, penned by Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaron, is how it revises Batman’s origin story and avoids making it the main focus of the story (see Nolan’s 2005 Batman Begins), rather focusing of Batman’s conflict with the Joker while weaving the origin into the central mystery through the main antagonist. The flashbacks to the fateful evening do open the film, but remain allusions until it is revealed that Jack Napier, the Joker, was indeed holding the gun as a young thug — portrayed by Hugo Blick, pictured above.
“I made you, you made me first.”
“Hey, bat-brain, I mean, I was a kid when I killed your parents. I mean, I say “I made you” you gotta say “you made me.” I mean, how childish can you get?”
This is break in canon that surely must have infuriated purists at the time, but ultimately makes for a stronger, and as time progresses, more original film — a decision heightening a fairly conventional conflict that otherwise fails to be particularly philosophical (the classic duality conundrum of chaos vs. order/dogma vs. anarchy to be much more richly explored in Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight in any case).
Past that, it’s classic damsel in distress (Kim Basinger), hero vs. villain narrative but the central maniacal plot of Nicholson’s The Joker becomes nicely tied to his physical appearance, his scenes of rampage also hilariously livened by songs from no other than Prince. Burton’s direction proves to be thorough and incredibly stylized throughout and Anton Furst’s standout production design (clearly finding inspiration in German Expressionism and all manners of Gothic and Fascist architecture) brings Gotham City to life in ways that haven’t been matched since on film — a look that would would be epitomized later in the superb Batman Returns (1992; review coming up) and gloriously turned on its head in Joel Schumacher’s exalted day-glo nonsense that were Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), two films I am actually quite fond of and will revisit later this week as part of this impromptu Bat-a-thon.