The criminals of Gotham City are running scared from a giant bat, however, the police don’t acknowledge that the Bat even exists. Gotham City’s criminal problems are about to get a whole lot worse when Jack Napier, a vicious criminal, is transformed into the Joker after a chemical bath, and sets about making the City burn.
Before watching this film I was familiar with The Animated Series but had never seen any previous Batman media with the exception of the odd episode of the 60s show starring Adam West. I am pretty sure that I initially caught this film on TV and after the opening sequence I was immediately hooked on the story of Batman.
After my review then I’m sure you will be too…
A father, son and mother are leaving the theatre and take a short cut through an alleyway (…when is that ever a good idea, seriously?...). The family are mugged by a pair of men who knock out the father, steal money before running into the night, above them an ominous shadow looms, and tracks the two muggers. The pair are attacked by a giant bat-like creature that gets up after being shot in the chest and still beats them both senseless. In his terror one asks “What are you?” to which the creature relies “I’m Batman”. Naturally the authorities dismiss the story; however, reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) believes that the Bat actually exists and despite being constantly ridiculed by his colleagues sets about to prove the Bat is real. He is later assisted by photo-journalist Vikki Vale (Kim Basinger) who has come to Gotham because she too is intrigued by the story of the giant Bat terrorising the criminals of the city.
Meanwhile, crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) learns that his ‘number one guy’ Jack Napier (Jack Nicolson) has been having an affair with his mistress and sends him to raid Axis Chemicals Plant before tipping off the police hoping Jack will be killed by a corrupt cop Grissom has in his employ.
The police arrive at the Plant and so does the Batman. It is here that Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) spots Batman as he takes down one member of Napier’s gang after another before the police can be injured. It is during a confrontation between Napier and Batman that Napier tumbles over a ledge and even as Batman tries to rescue him he falls into a vat of chemicals below.
The chemical bath drives him insane, stains him skin and changes the colour of his hair. He is reborn as the psychotic criminal known as the Joker. The criminals of the city are being terrorised by the “Winged Freak” namely Batman and Joker sets about taking over the criminal underworld himself and destroying the mysterious Batman.
Following the camp 60s version of the Batman, Tim Burton takes the reins with this gritty adaptation of the comic book superhero.
Tim Burton directs his cast flawlessly against the backdrop of a gothic city dripping with corrupted officials, dirty streets and a criminal element that is driving the city into further ruin. Gotham City is dark and polluted, and the prospect that there might be something supernatural about the Batman works to terrify the criminal underworld who are used to doing as they please.
Burton does his own take on the Batman universe, and some of the comic book fans might be annoyed by some of the changes. The most notable being that in the film, Wayne’s parents were murdered by Jack Napier, whereas in the comics they were killed during a mugging by a random petty criminal. This does seem to provoke some of Bruce Wayne’s final motivations when he realises that the Joker and the man who murdered his parents are one and the same. The other big difference is that Batman actually kills people; friends of my skin sack have argued this point with me but the fact remains that there is a moment when Batman grips a criminal around the neck with his legs before throwing him down a flight of stairs to certain death. Plus it is not made entirely clear if he deliberately drops Napier into the vat of chemicals or if he simply loses his grip and Napier falls by accident.
Michael Keaton and Jack Nicolson are perfectly cast as Batman and Joker.
Before this Keaton was mainly known for comedy roles. Here he does not spend much of his time out of his Batsuit and when he does he is brooding over the loss of his parents. His own life is consumed by his alter-ego and even though he does start a relationship with Vikki Vale it is his mission as Batman that motivates him. Wayne Enterprises does not feature and it is a little unclear how Wayne has his massive fortune. We learn about his parents murder through flashbacks, and all of Batman’s equipment is so badass especially the Batmobile.
One of my favourite moments in this film is when Batman rescues Vikki Vale and tells her to “Get in the car” to which she replies “Which one?” the camera cuts to reveal…
THAT one Vikki!!!
Plus Jack Nicolson’s performance as the Joker defined the character in film, gone are the campy days of the 60s series in which the Joker was a parody type character. Here the Joker is brutally violent, vicious, and has a single minded determination to bring chaos and destruction to Gotham. He uses various clown gadgets to dispatch his enemies including an electrified hand buzzer…if he offers to shake your hand then trust me refuse.
Basinger is the screaming damsel in distress that gets in trouble fairly frequently and is also Joker’s romantic interest. She has a relationship with Wayne, and struggles to understand why he asked her out only to disappear when she tries to get close to him. It is basically through her that we learn of his parents murder and why he decided to do everything he could to make sure such a thing never happens to anyone else in his city.
Burton’s strength is in making everyone in the film as ‘real’ as possible. It seems that superheroes and supervillains are made in similar ways and some become heroes and some become villains. Gotham could be a real city, and the actors are all just regular people. It is a bit of a shame that we don’t really get to see more of Bruce Wayne but if we’re honest we’re here to see Batman not Bruce Wayne so that small niggle can be easily forgiven.
Batman comes from a time when the origin stories were not the beginnings of the franchise, Wayne has already established the Batcave, Batmobile, and has a lot of fully developed equipment. His existence is still a mystery so it is not clear exactly how long he has been running around the streets of Gotham dressed as Batman. In addition we also do not ever find out how Bruce Wayne went from being orphaned to dressing up in a cape with pointed ears to battle crime under the cloak of darkness.
As far as I am concerned this film has not dated and is still great, Batman and Joker are perfectly suited for one another. This is a dark gritty, and violent portrayal of the Dark Knight and is one of the best superhero movies ever made. It should come as no surprise to anyone that my Thumb is Up because this is a great movie and is as great now as it was when it came out in 1989.
8/10 - Great gothic take on Batman, Burton moves the Dark Knight away from the campy 60s version of the character delivering magnificent performances from both Keaton and of course Nicolson as Batman and Joker respectively.