This Cinematic Century project first started life several years ago when a stupid fad was sweeping through Twitter. Basically, people were tasked with picking a favorite film from each year they’ve been alive, and then sharing it so people could mock their choices and marvel at how old they are. I had a wonderful time doing this, and ended up realizing that I could easily accomplish this task for almost a hundred years, setting up this whole insane goal. And, it all began with me selecting my favorite film of 1989, the year I was born, and finding a shockingly difficult decision. There really weren’t many rules for that initial Twitter thing, but I took it to mean my favorite film, not what I felt was the best film, which went on to define the choices I made for this entire project. And, weirdly, picking a favorite film of 1989 was kind of hard. If I was tasked with picking a “best” movie of the year, I feel like I would have gone with Spike Lee’s revelatory Do the Right Thing, a movie that should certainly have received all the typical critical accolades for he year. But, it’s not a movies that I personally love, and would consider a favorite of mine. Which, opened up a can of worms. 1989 features an Indiana Jones movie, one of my favorite series’, but up until Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released, the Last Crusade was my least favorite of the series, so it felt weird to select that as a favorite film. Likewise, I may have liked Back to the Future Part II a lot more when I was a kid, but it’s impossible to argue that it would be my favorite film of the year. I had kind of been tempted to really lean into nostalgia and talk about Christmas Vacation, a movie my family watch religiously and whose various lines have entered a shocking amount of our lexicon. Or, hey, we could have talked about the madcap suburban weirdness of the ‘Burbs, a movie that I really do adore, and highly recommend people checking out, especially if they aren’t overly familiar with Tom Hanks’ more comedic work. But, at the end of this quest, I found myself having to confront Tim Burton’s Batman, a movie that has wildly changed in my estimations over the years. When I was a little kid, I loved it. I’ve always been a superhero fan, but didn’t get into comics for quite a long time, leaving movies and cartoons as my primary source of superhero media, and this movie was the end all be all for me. But, as time went on, that estimation took a steep dive. And yet, over the last few years it’s had a real resurgence with me, to the point that I feel comfortable picking it as my favorite film of 1989, warts and all. But, we’ll get to all of that later.
The story of Batman begins in the late seventies, when producers Benjamin Melniker and Michael E Uslan purchased the film rights for Batman, in perpetuity, from DC Comics after interest in the character had fallen after the Adam West show. Melnkiker and Uslan had a dream to create a more “dark and gritty” version of the character, and began unsuccessfully pitching various Batman scripts around Hollywood for years, gaining no traction due to people’s associations with the West show. Uslan finally wrote an entire script which he hoped to use as a demonstration for the type of film he was envisioning, which then continued to bounce around Hollywood, with no real success. Which eventually brought us the late 1980’s, when director Tim Burton was coming off the success of his first live-action feature, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Warner Bros. approached Burton to give his spin on the character of Batman, which was finally getting some new attention due to popular and dark stories like the Dark Knight Returns and the Killing Joke. Burton wasn’t initially interested in the project, but after reading some of the contemporary and dark comics, he felt like he could give the film a spin, and got to work bringing it to life, while hammering down what the script would actually be. Eventually it was decided to tell a story that eschewed a traditional origin format, instead just telling a story featuring Batman and the Joker. Which meant it was time to cast these lead roles. It was initially assumed that the role of Batman would go to a major Hollywood star, but eventually it was given to Michael Keaton, a still relative new-comer who was mostly known for comedies. Which people did not accept. Because nerds have always been petulant. But the real shock of casting was the fact that they managed to land Jack Nicholson as the Joker, albeit by making some rather insane concessions and giving him an absolutely staggering amount of money. So, with a cast set Burton began bringing the larger than life world of Gotham City to life, aided by the production design of Anton Furst, which created the film’s trademark look. It was an incredibly strange project, but shockingly, the public caught on. “Batmania” took over the country in the summer before the film was released, drumming up a massive amount of interest and merchandise money, that was able to translate to an absolutely massive box office success, breaking records and setting up a franchise that would run for a decade. And, while initial reactions were a little mixed, primarily from people thinking it was either too dark or not faithful enough to the source material, it has lived on as a very popular film, while perhaps getting a little derided as tastes have changed. But, despite some wavering opinions on it over the years, it’s still a movie that I love.
Batman takes place before the rapid approaching bicentennial celebration of Gotham City, which has caused Mayor Borg to demand a crack down on crime, specifically against a crime boss known as Carl Grissom. This dovetails with the recent appearances of a costumed vigilante known as Batman, who most citizens assume is a myth. Most citizens except a reporter named Alexander Knox and a photojournalist named Vicki Vale. The pair begin traveling around Gotham, looking for leads on Batman, which they hope to gain at a large party celebrating the bicentennial hosted by local reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne. While at this party, hobnobbing and seeking information, Vicki meets the strangely aloof Wayne, who is just drifting around his own party, until he overhears police Commissioner Gordon discuss the fact that Grissom’s mob is removing evidence of their crimes from a local chemical plant that night. Which is when Bruce excuses himself, and suits up as Batman, ready to go aid the police. And, when he gets to Axis Chemicals he finds that Grissom’s second-in-command, a man named Jack Napier, is preparing to escape with all evidence of Grissom’s criminal enterprises there. Batman attempts to stop Napier, and in the process the man is dropped into a vat of chemicals, and is presumed head.
However, that turns out to be premature. Because the chemicals have actually warped Napier, giving him white skin, green hair, a permanent grin, and quite a bit of homicidal insanity. Napier decides to rebrand himself as the Joker, and usurp Grissom’s place as the head of Gotham crime. And, what’s more, he decides to do so in a very gimmicky manner, utilizing the chemicals from Axis to make a toxin that will both kill people, and give them the same horrible grin that he has. The Joker then has the poison laced into several different hygiene products throughout Gotham, throwing the city into chaos. And, in the middle of doing all of that, the Joker becomes interested in Vicki Vale, who has begun a relationship with Bruce Wayne. He orchestrates a meeting between himself and Vicki at a museum, tricking her into thinking it would actually be Bruce arriving, and attempts to woo her, while also telling her he plans on disfiguring her. Luckily, Batman arrives in the nick of time, and manages to save Vicki, while escaping the Joker’s clutches. And, what’s more, Batman reveals that he’s developed a cure for the Joker’s toxin, which he gives to Vicki so she can spread it through the town, saving them all.
But, while the Joker is mad that his first plan failed, he now throws himself into his plots to kill Batman, while also attempting to steal Vicki once more. This culminated in a showdown between Bruce Wayne and the Joker in Vicki’s apartment, where Vicki starts to piece together that Bruce is Batman, and Bruce realizes that jack Napier was the man who killed his parents when he was a child, pushing him down this path. So, recognizing that he can’t move on and start a life with Vicki without taking care of the Joker, Batman goes on the offensive, attempting to destroy Axis chemicals. Unfortunately, while Batman is doing this the Joker has crashed the bicentennial parade, and flooded the parade route with his deadly toxin, hoping to kill as many bystanders as possible. Batman is able to save the crowd from most of the toxin, and in the process the Joker is able to kidnap Vicki and bring her to the top of a cathedral in order to escape. Batman gives chase and fights his way up the cathedral before finally coming into conflict with the Joker. Batman reveals his past connection to the Joker, before the villain attempts to flee by helicopter. Unfortunately, Batman is able to attach the Joker to a gargoyle, causing the villain to fall from the cathedral to his death. The film then leaves us off with the possibility of Vicki and Bruce continuing their relationship, while Bruce also continues his life as Batman, protecting Gotham City from future crimes.
There have certainly been times in my life where this movie didn’t work for me. But, while I’ve gone though ebbs and flows with this film, I currently find myself in a period where I enjoy it quite a bit, and have a really great time with it. Is it a prefect Batman movie? Well, no, but I doubt that any movie could get that title. It has its issues, but I still maintain that this is a hell of a movie, a massive film that forever changed Hollywood, for better or for worse, and that still succeeds as being an incredibly entertaining movie. I’ve seen this movie more times than I can count, it’s been with me literally my entire life, and my opinions of it have changed over time, often being used a litmus test for my general taste in media. But, I think it’s impossible to deny what everyone involved with this movie accomplished. At the time they made quite a fuss over this movie being a more “accurate” version of Batman, eschewing the camp of the Adam West series to tell a more grounded and dark version of this story. And, as you probably can tell, that’s a ridiculous assessment, especially looking at future adaptations of Batman, which go much further into the dark and gloom of the character, leaving this movie feeling much more campy by comparison. And, it’s inside that strange tone that I find myself having a great time with this movie. It may be nostalgia, but there’s just something incredibly comforting about this movie, able to vacillate between the campier and sillier elements of the story and the darker and more brooding ones. Michael Keaton remains my absolute favorite portrayal of Bruce Wayne and Batman, giving us a haunted and broken man who is unable to live a normal life anymore, always thinking about the next time that he’ll be able to swing through the shadows and fight crime. And, while a tad unconventional, Jack Nicholson is honestly a fantastic version of the Joker. True, there’s a lot of comic book nerd quibbles to make over the character, but doing my best to divorce that from the performance, this is a Joker who is close to equal part whimsical nonsense and anarchic terror, taking the Joker as a character, in all his comic permutations, and forging him into one identity. That idea was done even better in the wonderful animated series of the 1990’s, but I think it really stemmed from this performance. It’s a gorgeous movie, full of insanely over the top sets and mood, telling a really solid story, all while legitimizing the idea that comic book stories can be brought to the big screen, and thus forever changing Hollywood.
I have talked about the character of Batman a staggering amount on this website. Perhaps to an extreme, but I really do find him a fascinating entity, both as a character and a cultural phenomenon. I don’t think there’s any character that I’ve had such a tumultuous and evolving relationship with over my lifetime, especially in regards to what I consider “real Batman.” When I was younger, this film was kind of everything I wanted from Batman. It was big, crazy, dark, and fun. And, because it proved the validity of superhero stories in cinema, I have spent the rest of my life seeing other attempts at recreating the magic of this film, getting a lifetime of superhero adaptations, for better or for worse. And, at a time in my life when I started to find the appeal of darker, more “mature,” stories, I really stopped caring for this movie. It was too silly, it took too many liberties with the characters, and it just wasn’t a solemn enough adaptation. But, adolescence ends, and I found myself appreciating the full breadth of Batman once more. I started reading more stories featuring the character, and started to appreciate the near hundred years that this character has existed, and the numerous changes that have been made to him. And, in that evolution, I’ve kind of realized that there’s a version of Batman for everyone. The character has gone through so many changes, become such different things, that somewhere out there there’s bound of be a version of the character that speaks to you. This movie still works for me, maybe not as well as it did when I was a kid and this was my Batman, but that’s kind of the beauty of the character. If you can accept all of the permutations, there’s always a fun Batman story out there waiting for you, and who knows, maybe this movie is your perfect Batman story.
Batman was written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, directed by Tim Burton, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 1989.
Categories: Cinematic Century