Batman ( 1989 United States)

batmnBlooming out of the mind of oddball director Tim Burton, this Batman version was one of the first films to introduce the general public to the darker and more psychologically complex world of comic book super-heroes that had replaced the wholesome, square-jawed, morally correct characters of the 1940s and 50s.

That a DC character like Batman is the one who exposed America to the changes actually brought to the super-hero genre by Stan Lee and company at Marvel is one of those quirks of history. This Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is an odd fellow, disconnected from other people and real life, with genuine pain lingering just under his skin. Keaton’s Wayne and Batman are probably the most interesting version of the character to ever appear in a film, which makes it especially strange and regrettable that this story really isn’t about him.

First and foremost, it’s about the Joker (Jack Nicholson). His transformation from slightly disturbed mob enforcer to larger than life, mass murdering super-villain is at the heart of the story. Everyone else is really part of an ensemble supporting Nicholson, with Bruce Wayne not being that much bigger a part than Knox (Robert Wuhl), the muckraking reporter out to break the story of Batman, or Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), the photojournalist who comes to Gotham because she read Knox’s stories and likes bats. Knox and Vale are really more important characters to the story than Wayne or Batman for the first half of the film. It’s not until the second half that the title character plays a major role in what’s going on.

It’s to Burton’s credit and the actors’ that the story doesn’t really suffer because of its contrary focus. As you rewatch it, it makes less and less sense that Batman is largely about everyone except Batman. It’s hard to understand why they thought the Knox character was necessary, for example. But Nicholson carries the movie on his back, Basinger brings more than you’d expect to the girlfriend/damsel in distress role and Keaton’s performance is so quietly intriguing that you don’t realize how little he’s actually in the film.

Batman

Gotham City is a crowded, dirty, urban hell, like a 17th century city that grew and metastasized without any planning or zoning considerations. The Batmobile in this film supplanted the look of the 1960s version, becoming the standard template for how the vehicle would look for over 20 years. The Batsuit here is probably the best looking version of the costume ever on film, certainly more aesthetically pleasing than the more recent versions, though it did give us the thick, rubber Bat-helmet look that has burdened the character ever since. Burton doesn’t really know how to shoot a great action sequence, but at least he keeps the camera steady so you can see what’s going on. And there are a few times when Burton seems to lose focus and shoots scenes in a confusing manner.

It is the question of realism that most divides this film from the more recent movie incarnations of Batman. This movie is very much a work of fantasy where the filmmakers and actors don’t expect it to conform to the rules and needs of the real world. It has an internal logic and sense of its own reality, but there’s virtually no effort made to explain or justify how this stuff could happen in the real world. Batman is certainly more spectacle than substance. But when you’re telling a story about a guy who puts on a cape and pointy-eared mask to beat the crap out of a murderer who looks like a clown…how much substance should you really want out of it? Tim Burton has a bizarre visual eye, a gift that works wonders in Batman.

This whole feature looks incredible. Burton creates a Gotham City that the viewer can get lost in. Shot in England, Tim Burton gives us a Gothic Fantasy of the highest order.  A comic book motion picture. He elevates the medium of film. Yes. I believe Batman changed the face of film, altered the practice of film-making, and raised the bar indefinitely. I have no doubt whatsoever that Batman is one of the finest Blockbusters ever assembled. The older I get, the more important this film becomes. This becomes an event every time I lie on the couch to to watch it. Classic Good vs. Evil, rich design, completely unforgettable.

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