Batman (1989, Tim Burton)

Batman89

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In Gotham City, the Caped Crusader comes up against a maniacal master criminal called The Joker…

Good guys: Bruce Wayne – a multimillionaire philanthropist who has a secret crime-fighting alter ego – is played by Michael Keaton. It’s a quirky casting choice and is all the more interesting for it. Keaton can do both light and pensive. Early on in the story, Bruce meets photographer Vicki Vale and falls for her. After they sleep together, she wakes to find him hanging upside-down from a metal bar – it’s almost like he wants her to guess his secret identity. He’s tempted to just tell her, but she works it out before he plucks up the courage. Bruce is haunted by a childhood memory of his parents being killed in front of him. In a clever twist on the established Batman continuity, he soon works out the Joker was the murderer. We see Batman in action a fair amount, usually with ingenious gadgets and cool vehicles. Vicki, meanwhile, is played by Kim Basinger. (Sean Young was originally cast, but was injured early into filming and couldn’t continue.) We first see her legs, propped up on a desk as she reads a copy of the Gotham Globe. She’s come to the city to investigate the rumours about the Batman and teams up with a journalist called Knox, who ticks the friend-who-fancies-the-girl-but-isn’t-a-serious-option-for-romance box. Vicki meets Bruce Wayne at a benefit party and, after an initially awkward date, they spend the night together. The Joker develops an obsession with Vicki and she’s often in danger.

Bad guys: Jack Napier, aka the Joker, is played by Jack Nicholson, who gets top billing and was paid tens of millions of dollars. He’s fantastic. “Wait until they get a load of me!” Jack boasts at one point: he’s off-the-chart mental, unpredictable, dangerous and dominates the frame. When we meet Napier, he’s a gangster who’s sleeping with his boss’s girlfriend and bribing cops. After he’s set up to be killed by his angry boss, he falls into a vat of corrosive chemicals. He survives, but with a reconstructed face now stuck in a rictus grin and his skin burnt white. Driven insane by his experience, he kills his boss, reinvents himself as the Joker, and takes over the mob business. His diabolical plan involves flooding the consumer market with toxic beauty and health products. (In the flashback scene to Jack as a young man, he’s played by Hugo Blick, who went on to write TV shows Operation Good Guys, Marion & Geoff, The Shadow Line and The Honourable Woman.)

Other guys: Michael Gough plays Bruce’s butler, father figure and general confidant, Alfred. Pat Hingle appears as Commissioner Gordon. Jack Palance plays mob lord Grissom. Billy Dee Williams cameos as District Attorney Harvey Dent, a character deliberately being seeded for a larger role in a sequel (when, in the event, he was recast). Robert Wuhl plays journalist Knox and Jerry Hall plays the Joker’s moll, Alicia.

Best bits:

* Danny Elfman’s macabre incidental music.

* The title sequence: sweeping camera moves across an ornate Batman logo, which I learnt last week my friend Fraser’s housemate helped build.

* The realisation of Gotham City. It’s an Art Deco/Gothic/retro/futuristic/industrial masterpiece, an equal of Blade Runner’s LA in terms of how darkly beautiful it is. It’s fascinating, textured, detailed and strange. The film’s art direction won an Oscar.

* Oh, look: it’s Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter from Star Wars) playing a bloke struggling to find a taxi. I met Hagon once and pestered him with questions about Star Wars.

* Batman glides silently into view in the background as two muggers divide their loot.

* “What are you?!” “I’m Batman!”

* Jack admires himself in the mirror. His girlfriend says, “You look fine.” He glares at her: “I didn’t ask.”

* Oh, look: it’s Denis Lill playing a newspaper hack.

* Our first sight of Vicki Vale. Wowzers.

* Vicki and Knox ridiculing Bruce Wayne as he listens behind them.

* Jack’s acid-burnt hand reaching out of the water.

* Bruce and Vicki having dinner while sitting at a different ends of a ridiculously long table. When Vicki asks if he likes eating in this room, Bruce admits he’s never been in it before.

* Jack at the back-street plastic surgeon. When he sees his rebuilt face, he wanders off laughing uncontrollably.

* The reveal of the Joker as he gleefully shoots Grissom dead.

* Jerry Hall’s faint when she sees that Jack’s not dead.

* The Joker shaking a colleague’s hand and electrocuting him to a crisp. (“I got a live one here!”)

* Oh, look: it’s Red Dwarf’s Mac MacDonald as one of the Joker’s henchmen.

* The Joker throws a tantrum: “Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed as a bat gets all my publicity?!”

* Oh, look: it’s Trinity Wells from Doctor Who as a TV director.

* The scene at the museum/restaurant. Vicki thinks she’s meeting Bruce, but a waiter brings a box to her table. In it is a gas mask and note that reads: “Put this on right now.” Smoke fills the room, knocking everyone out (or killing them?), then the Joker and his goons burst in. They hit play on a ghetto blaster and, to the sound of a Prince song, delight in defacing the museum’s artwork.

* Vicki throws water in the Joker’s face and he acts like he’s in agony, then turns to her and says, “Boo!”

* The Batmobile.

* Bruce’s ham-fisted attempt to tell Vicki who he really is.

* Bruce confronts the Joker in Vicki’s flat. The Joker simply doesn’t know what to make of him.

* The flashback to Bruce’s parents being murdered – and the revelation that Jack Napier was the shooter.

* Vicki turns up in the Batcave.

* The Joker refers to Batman as the ‘junior birdman’. Apt, given Keaton’s most recent film.

* The Joker dancing away to a Prince track on the carnival float.

* The Batwing.

* Forcing Vicki to dance with him, the Joker says into her ear: “It’s as though we were made for each other. Beauty and the Beast. Course, if anyone else calls you Beast, I’ll rip their lungs out.”

* Trying to distract the Joker, Vicki pretends to flirt with him and even ducks down towards his trouser department. The Joker has an expression of serene expectation… until Batman punches him in the mouth.

Review: Nineteen-eighty-nine was a busy year for geek cinema. There were new adventures for Indiana Jones, Marty McFly, James Bond, the crew of the Enterprise, the Karate Kid, Riggs & Murtaugh and the Ghostbusters: manna from heaven for a 10-year-old fanboy like me. But Batman still stood out and felt like an *enormous* event. There was a smart advertising campaign built around an ubiquitous logo and a tie-in album from Prince. There was talk of a dark, serious take on a character I only knew as campy and cartoony. And there was a sense of danger from the fact the film was one of the first to get the new ‘12’ certificate. Well, over a quarter of a century later (Jesus, really?), it absolutely stands the test of time. It sweeps you along right from the start. The dialogue’s crisp and the story’s never dull. It’s an origin story, but done economically with flashbacks and illusions rather than a drawn-out opening act. It’s dark, but also has a huge sense of fun. What especially impresses me is the film’s sense of timelessness. It partly looks like the past – men wear 1950s suits, coats and hats; there are newspaper hacks in busy, vibrant offices; and the cars look retro. But it’s all mixed in with 1980s glamour, technology and TV news crews. It’s also mostly a black-and-white world, so any splashes of colour – especially when connected to the Joker – pop out. Director Tim Burton may have been coasting lately (last great film? Sleepy Hollow?), but he used to be something special. And this is one of his best.

Ten wonderful toys out of 10.

Next time: Miaow!

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