Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, and Jack Palance
Academy Awards (1990):
Best Art Direction-Set Direction: Anton Furst, Peter Young
“Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?”
Batman explores Bruce Wayne’s past in a much darker, more realistic tone than had previously been used in film and television. Tim Burton created what has since become a bit of a standard-bearer for comic book heroes taken to the big screen. While Christopher Nolan has given a more modern take on Batman with his trilogy of films, it’s this foundational work that paved the way for it.
I’ve only seen this film a couple of times since I was too young to see it when it originally came out. Unfortunately, Batman Forever was the first Batman movie I saw. I will always remember it in a better light than I probably ought to as a result.
There is a lot that works in this film. Exploring Bruce Wayne’s past and the slow reveal throughout the film is well written. Since I already knew what caused Bruce Wayne to become Batman his parents’ death was no surprise, though I didn’t remember it being Jack Napier who pulled the trigger. I would imagine someone seeing this for the first time with little knowledge of Batman enjoying the slow crescendo leading to this reveal.
The film’s set design and costumes were on par with the time period. It seemed a little campy, though nowhere near the Adam West or Joel Schumacher. The only other film from the era that comes to mind is Dick Tracy (1990), and it was more comic-like, so it works.
Michael Keaton was a bit of a controversial pick for Batman. He nails the performance. I feel like with this and Batman Returns, Bruce Wayne doesn’t have nearly as much screen time, and while the movie is about him, as much time is spent developing the villain, something Burton does well. Keaton makes the most of his screen time, and especially in this one, he lays a strong foundation for Batman’s character. The thankless work and suspicion of government officials are things that can get a person down, but Keaton rises above those and gets to the heart of why Bruce Wayne became Batman.
Though Keaton did brilliant in his role, it’s Jack Nicholson who steals the show. Though it’s not much of a surprise, his over-the-top performance as The Joker is both uniquely his and faithful to the character. The man is crazy, but also brilliant. This character has the Nicholson touch, and though the over-the-top elements of The Joker aren’t what Jack usually does, he still pulls it off convincingly. I think he does a great job of giving Cesar Romero’s Joker a modern twist. It’s a little gaudy, but still entertaining. His one-liners are brilliant, and his matter-of-fact way of saying them makes it even better.
The supporting cast in this film do great. Kim Basinger is both strong and vulnerable, and Vicki Vale complements a conflicted Bruce Wayne. Basinger and Keaton have great on-screen chemistry. Robert Wuhl was just plain annoying. Though people in the press are more naturally annoying, his performance, though small, was more obnoxious and unnecessary in my opinion.
I would have been interested to see how Billy Dee Williams would have done as Two Face in the third Batman film, but no Burton means no Williams.
Alfred is a great character, and though Michael Gough has fairly limited screen time, he does fantastic in providing a moral compass for Batman and entertaining interactions with everyone else. He’s one of the few great elements on the 3rd and 4th movies in this series.
In its time, Batman was great. As one of the first comic book heroes to have as wide of success on the big screen, it remains a standard-bearer for all that have followed. Keaton and Nicholson do great as Tim Burton gives a much darker take on Batman than had been given in the past. Bringing these characters into a more realistic light and strong performances helped make this film as successful as it has been.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.