Batman turned 75 years old earlier this year (2014). In recognition, we are rebranding our site for one week to Now Very Bat… and focusing on the blockbusters, the smaller films, the comics and the video games that feature the Dark Knight.
140 Character Movie Review – #140RVW
Released 25 years ago today, Batman kicked off a golden age for comic books & comic book movies that has yet to end. It’s still pretty good.
Spoiler-free Movie Review of Batman:
In 1988-89 I was a sophomore in high school and a huge comic book fan. My friend Bill got me into the hobby by lending me then relatively new copies of the graphic novels Watchmen & The Dark Knight Returns and I was hooked. We would go to local convenience stores and buy whatever titles they stocked, but things didn’t really pick up until he told me about New England Comics (NEC), a local chain based out of Norwood, Massachusetts. We’d pile into our friend Seth’s brown Hornet after school and drive up to their Quincy Center shop, stopping only to buy some very mediocre American Chinese food and then would hit NEC. New England Comics in its first location in Quincy was everything you could want in a comic shop. It was small, narrow and absolutely jammed with longboxes & bins filled with back issues. Things hung on the shelves, on the walls, from the ceiling and seemingly underfoot as well. They would later move to their current location a bit further up on Hancock Street, into a larger and much better space, with more room, organization and good lighting. I retain a fondness for the original spot, though. It was the right amount of overwhelming, with brightly colored displays and covers all vying for your attention (and cash).
I started collecting at the perfect time, as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic had just come out – I picked it up simply because it looked promising, along with fistfuls of copies of Aliens, Animal Man, The Demon, and The Tick (an NEC title written by a friend of a friend). (Another friend of ours, Benn, would later run a few different locations – and write a Tick comic.)
But Batman was unquestionably the king. I collected every title he appeared in and as many back issues as I could afford. Simply everyone was excited about the upcoming movie and every other inch of the shop had some promo or reminder about the first big comic book movie we could remember.
Comic books were not well thought of at this point, but had begun to find a respectability with books like Watchmen & Dark Knight. But comic book movies were a non-starter. No one could remember the success of Superman: The Movie after the sequels sputtered to a not early enough grave. The only properties that had made it to film were also-rans that flopped like Sheena, Red Sonja and Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing. The genre wasn’t a genre – it was a death sentence.
And when a Batman film was announced, most everyone’s minds turned immediately to the most indelible portrayal of the character from the camp 1960’s tv show and companion movie Batman (1966). This was not the image the producers wanted potential audiences to fixate on. Instead producers Peter Guber, Jon Peters, Benjamin Melniker & Michael Uslan turned to the recently successful graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller & Klaus Janson) & The Killing Joke (Alan Moore & Brian Bolland) for the look and tone they were going for: DARK.
When released on June 23, 1989, Batman was a blockbuster success, breaking attendance records everywhere and setting off a worldwide Batman merchandising phenomenon. Bat-saturation would be complete by summer’s end and the comic shop was flooded with new customers. Some of us probably grumbled, but it was great for the industry and launched comic books and their film adaptations into not only viable properties but massive success stories. It was a cultural shift and far from being in danger of shifting back, comics and their film counterparts are more successful now than could have been previously imagined.
So, how is the actual film? How was it then and how is it 25 years later?
Well, at the time, it was an unqualified success. No one had seen anything like it. It was dark and moody and nothing like they had been led to expect from this former Saturday morning cartoon character. Director Tim Burton had created a new vision of the character by enlisting extremely talented creators like production designer Anton Furst, composer Danny Elfman and writer Sam Hamm.
With the confidence that comes from having one of the world’s most famous actors, Jack Nicholson, already in hand as the Joker, Burton made the controversial decision to cast his Beetlejuice star Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight. Everyone thought he had lost his mind, and everyone was proven wrong when Keaton crushed it.
In 1989 it was a hit and an instant classic. In 2014, it shows some wear. Even at the time there was some criticism that the Joker dominated the movie. That probably would have happened with any actor in the role, but with notorious ball-hog Nicholson, it was very nearly a one-man show. He is certainly captivating, and it helps that being over-the-top is actually appropriate for this character. My problem then and now is a simple and perhaps petty one: he’s too old and fat. The Joker of my comics is tall and stick-thin with an angular face. Sorry, that’s what I’m looking for. A younger Nicholson would have been much more pleasing. But he really did deliver here and if the script is gratuitous in its use of him (it is), it’s easy to understand why.
Keaton’s performance is timeless, and Kim Basinger’s didn’t get any worse (if only because it was pretty thin on the ground to begin with). The worst thing about looking at this cast is the slight twinge when you reflect on the missed opportunity with Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent. It would have been so fascinating to see his take on Two-Face, but the producers lost their nerve come sequel-time.
The story was never really that much to write about; it definitely is a style over substance film. While I found it riveting at the time, I have to say I find the movie kind of boring now. There’s a stilted quality to the dialogue and the scene changes are abrupt and jagged.
Also, the film simply looks lousy. It was always a very cold look by DP Roger Pratt, and it hasn’t aged well. It’s very rough and flat, with darkness sitting in for clarity.
The production design is simply marvelous, with the 1940’s era suits and the confused architecture. The look of the production still plays, even if the mattes and effects now look poor by comparison.
Batman was a hugely successful and important film. The best thing about it may be that it set up the sequel Batman Returns, which I consider better in every way. (Although many violently disagree.) In the end it’s more notable for the impact it had than for it’s own merit. But don’t misunderstand – Batman is a very good movie.
The Representation Test Score: C (4 pts)
|Main Cast||Michael Keaton Batman/Bruce Wayne, Jack Nicholson Joker/Jack Napier, Kim Basinger Vicki Vale, Robert Wuhl Alexander Knox|
|Release Date||Fri 23 Jun 1989 UTC|
|Plot||The Dark Knight of Gotham City begins his war on crime with his first major enemy being the clownishly homicidal Joker.|
|Writers||Bob Kane (Batman characters), Sam Hamm (story)|