What Are You: Comics Alliance Reviews ‘Batman’ (1989), Part One
On the occasion of the film's 25th anniversary, ComicsAlliance represents our in-depth commentary and review of Tim Burton's Batman '89, the father of modern superhero cinema. Originally published in 2011 as part of our exhaustive Cinematic Batmanology series (which also included a massive five-part analysis of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight), this piece by Chris Sims and David Uzumeri strips the fan favorite Batman '89 down to the bone to get at what works, what doesn't work, and what's just plain crazy about Burton's enduringly influential film.
Chris Sims: Remedial Batmanology, ComicsAlliance's in-depth look at the Batman film franchise! This week, we're kicking thing off with one of the most successful and influential super-hero movies ever: 1989's Batman, directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton.
David Uzumeri: Now, I've got a lot of personal history with this flick.
Chris: You and me both, brother.
David: This is the first time I've seen it since I was around ... eight or so, but you have to understand, I watched this movie I believe eight times in the theater, including once in Turkey where I dragged my entire family. This was during a visit to Turkey in which I actually brought an official licensed Batman cape and cowl, and wore it in every single cave we went to, as well as the beach.
Chris: Turkey? Were you in... the city of Batman?
David: I did not go to Batman, because it wasn't on the trail. I did attempt, repeatedly, to force my parents to go, even though they kept pointing out it was just a tiny town with nothing to do.
Chris: So I think it's safe to say you enjoyed it.
David: It was tied with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Oh, and I saw an advance screening for college students that my dad got me into because he was a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic at the time. I think my mom still has my VHS tape of it, which is like 90% static at this point, so coming back to it again as an adult was utterly fascinating.
Chris: I'm sort of the same way, except that I've spent at least two decades absolutely hating this movie. I remember seeing it when it came out when I was about to turn 7 and loving it, and then when it came out on VHS, I didn't watch it right away. I saved it, until one day I was home sick from school, so I brought my pillows and blankets out to the couch, got set up, and put it in the VCR. I think I made it about 20 minutes in before giving up on it and going back to Super Mario 3. I haven't really watched it again in at least ten years, though, so I'd like to think that I came at it as fresh as I could, and I honestly tried to give it the benefit of the doubt this time.
David: Here's the deal: This is a pretty good Tim Burton movie. It's an awful Batman movie. It misunderstands basically every aspect of the character. It's the product of, quite possibly, the most Hollywood-eccentric creative team of all time: Jon Peters, Tim Burton and PRINCE.
Chris: Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is a pretty good Tim Burton movie, Uzi. This thing has some stuff to like, but it's a mess.
David: It's a hard movie for a kid not to love, really. Which is funny, since it's a fairly hard PG-13. I'd forgotten they even threw "s***" in there -- it's funny that the film has less stringent content regulations than the actual Batman comics. I imagine this was largely because Tim Burton ended every conversation with "F*** you, I'm Tim F***ing Burton and I can do whatever I want." Which is really the movie's main problem, because Tim Burton does not understand the mythos of Batman whatsoever. If you asked me to tell you what this movie is about, I couldn't. There isn't a single theme. It's not even that he got the themes wrong; there just isn't a theme. It's a series of events that occur with the flimsiest of motivations. Batman and the Joker are competing for a girl, for Christ's sake!
Chris: This movie really does get everything it possibly can wrong about Batman. And what a lot of people don't realize is that it's the direct descendent of the 1966 TV show, as filtered through Tim Burton. It's not the comics that are the primary source material for this movie, it's Adam West.
David: If I had to give this movie a genre, I'd go with "noir camp."
Chris: Looking back on it, it's so strange that people thought this movie -- and especially Batman Returns, which we'll get to next week -- were so much darker than Batman '66. I mean, there's less light involved, but thematically, they're just as silly, and even more inconsistent. Jack Palance alone, man.
David: It's also, and this word is overused a lot, but it's incredibly toyetic, far more so than the Nolan films.
Chris: It also cannot be overstated how huge this movie was.
David: Which brings me to my first major criticism: In 1989, the Bat-Symbol was everywhere. It was a sigil that wormed itself into every aspect of the collective unconscious. You could not go anywhere without seeing it on a T-shirt, a billboard, graffiti, anything. This movie made an absolutely vulgar amount of money.
Chris: That's your first criticism? Because I didn't think either one of us would mind Batman being popular.
David: It was the traditional Bat-Symbol, too. So why, in the movie, does he wear that ridiculous barbed variant?
Chris: Oh man. I try not to get fannish about stuff, Uzi, but I hate that movie Bat-symbol with a burning passion. For me, it's a metaphor for the entire movie: They took something simple, classic, streamlined and great, and then just added some nonsense on it for no reason.
David: Exactly. Why would you mess with that? What made someone think, "You know what we should do? Change one of the most iconic logos of all time."
Chris: Especially since they didn't do it for any of the merchandise, or even the movie poster.
David: Because the marketing department realized, I imagine, it was a terrible idea.
Chris: Regardless, it was an absolutely massive success, both monetarily and culturally. My favorite story about how big this thing is comes from my friend Phil, who sent away for a holofoil Batman t-shirt from a cereal box or something, and demand was so great that it didn't get to him for an entire year.
David: I know that Morrison has said that the power of the Bat-Symbol used in this movie's marketing is the reason why he brought it back. The big black bat just isn't the same, especially when the intent is corporate branding.
Chris: And no joke, that is a great poster. Just a big ol' huge Batman logo, all shiny and jumping out at you. You knew just from seeing it that it was going to be massive. Massively what, we'll see.
David: The movie kicks off with a kid and his parents leaving the Monarch Theater, where they watched Footlight Frenzy, which you will notice apparently was also playing twenty years earlier when Bruce's parents died as we see later in flashback, because they didn't think to replace the posters on the set.
Chris: Apparently Footlight Frenzy is an actual movie.
David: Or, at least, a real play.
Chris: I wonder why it never really overtook Mark of Zorro in Batman's origin story.
David: It's better than Bruce being scared s***less at Die Fledermaus. I never liked that part of the Nolan version.
Chris: Yeah, I'll admit that's weak, and way too on the nose, but that's a column for another day. In any case, it's nowhere near as weak as what we're about to see.
David: So anyway, a family comes out of there, and Hamm and Burton are clearly attempting to make us think that this is Bruce Wayne, since it very clearly mirrors his origin. I remember this led five-year-old me to exclaim in the theater, "Bruce's dad's name is Thomas, not Robert!"
Chris: You think that's the intent? They don't look rich at all, and they talk about being tourists to Gotham, not residents. I thought they were setting up the obvious parallel, not a fakeout.
David: They don't, but it's just close enough, you know? Either way, this family decides to take a shortcut through Crime Alley, because they're idiots, and predictably, they get mugged. Now, you'd think this would be a great chance for Batman to swoop down and actually save the family, but instead the muggers are completely successful, so they go to a rooftop and trade stories about the freaky Bat. Of course, Batman then shows up to beat the crap out of them and then, as far as I can tell, never actually returns the valuables to that family.
Chris: Batman just chilling on the roof while watching the mugging go down and only intervening whenever he got around to it? That was strike one. But you missed the most important part.
David: His ridiculous move where he just spreads his wings while walking towards people like that makes him scarier?
Chris: No, but man, talk about being a direct line from Adam West. I'm talking about how the very first thing we see from Batman in this movie is that he gets shot and falls down.
Chris: Steeeeerike two.
David: Oh yeah! Batman gets the crap kicked out of him a LOT in this movie. He also gets shot and falls down, at least, like, three or four times. Like, Batman's idea of going up against a gunman here isn't to dodge the bullet, it's to stand there and let his body armor take the hit.
Chris: It's probably best to address this right off the, uh, bat: Michael Keaton is not exactly believable as Batman.
David: Well, Keaton isn't exactly cut. I don't think Bruce should be the hulking Frank Miller man-mountain all the time, but he should look way more fit than Keaton does here. I mean, Bruce Wayne looks like a dude in decent shape. Batman is supposed to be peak human.
Chris: Sam Hamm's script actually describes Batman as being "muscles on top of muscles." And when I hear those words, I immediately think "Michael Keaton."
David: They could have at least used makeup to give him some scars, but no go.
Chris: I don't even think he has to be super ripped, but the costume they've got him in is so bulky and restrictive that he just sort of lumbers around like an 8th grader in his third karate lesson. Like, go watch the opening to Batman: The Animated Series. There's a fluidity to movement that -- while exaggerated for the cartoon -- is just completely impossible for Keaton here. And I don't even blame him for it, you know? He does a decent job with the weird, goofy Bruce Wayne character he's given, but I don't think he's anywhere near being the right guy to play Batman. He's just an actor Tim Burton liked to work with, I think, which makes me wonder what would've happened if this movie had been made a few years later, when Burton's leading man of choice had switched over to Johnny Depp.
David: Honestly, I think he does a great job as Bruce.
Chris: I think he does a decent job as Bruce Wayne, the character in this movie who shares a name with Batman's alter ego completely by coincidence.
David: In any case, after this opening sequence, we also have the 200th Anniversary Celebration coming, with a press conference featuring new District Attorney Harvey Dent, played by Billy Dee Williams, and I still think it's a tragedy he never got to become Two-Face. Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face is just a hilarious idea to me. Also at the press conference is Commissioner Gordon, and an empty seat for one Bruce Wayne.
Chris: Nobody got screwed by these movies harder than William December Williams Jr. Not even the viewing audience.
Chris: They even introduce him with this huge Citizen Kane setup, right down to old-timey photographers with flashbulbs. Uh, those were old-timey in 1989, right? It's so hard to tell here in our future world of digital informatioscopes.
David: That's absolutely true. They brought him on for a role basically guaranteed to lead to a bigger role later, and he got completely sidelined. Is he even in Returns at all?
Chris: I think he's in Returns and gets cut out by Forever so that Tommy Lee Jones can chew so much scenery that if you watch it on BluRay, you can see the tooth marks in the Batcave. Again, we'll get to it, but what a huge waste.
David: Williams's Dent here is a high roller; he's committed to rooting out crime, but he also constantly chomps cigars and wears sweet suits. In any case, they announce that Gotham's bicentennial celebration is coming and will happen no matter what, even though Boss Carl Grissom (who we'll later see played by Jack Palance) has a strangehold over the city, pretending to be a legitimate businessman. His number one enforcer is Jack Napier, played by Jack Nicholson, and he's basically just your standard bullying psychopath.
Chris: I'd actually disagree with your description there. One of the weird things about this movie for me is that I find Jack Napier, the psychotic triple-crossed mob enforcer to actually be way more interesting than Burton and Nicholson's take on the Joker.
David: Napier's banging Alicia, who's Grissom's main squeeze, behind Grissom's back, believing Grissom doesn't know. A reporter named Alexander Knox starts harassing Lieutenant Eckhart about Batman, but Eckhart (who's basically your standard corrupt cop a la Lieutnant Flass) tells Knox that he's "full of s***", and that Knox can quote him on that. He then goes for a meeting with Napier, who gives him a bunch of cash and tells him to stop Billy Dee Williams from looking into "one of their front companies," which we later see is Axis Chemicals. Now, here I have to ask you: Is Axis new to this movie, or actually from the comics? I honestly forget.
Chris: Let's see... The plant doesn't have a name in the Red Hood's first appearance in Detective Comics #168, but in The Killing Joke, Moore has it written as "Ace." I'm pretty sure "Axis" was new for the movie.
David: No problem. I know that Axis eventually KIND OF became part of the books -- if nothing else, it was mentioned repeatedly during Last Rites.
Chris: Although Ed Brubaker still used "Ace" for The Man Who Laughs.
David: And yeah, it wasn't even a chemical plant originally, was it? They made playing cards. I never understood why a playing card manufacturer had vats of toxic chemicals, but here we are.
Chris: No, see, the playing card company was next door to a chemical plant.
David: Oh, right! Monarch was the playing card company. God, I love/hate the quote on the cover of the deluxe edition of Killing Joke: "I loved THE KILLING JOKE... It's my favorite. It's the first comic I've ever loved." -- Tim Burton. So, you know: In case you wonder why he misunderstood Batman so badly, keep in mind his favorite Batman comic is Alan Moore's least favorite of his own works. And the entire "maybe Batman is just as crazy as the Joker" thing is something Burton hits on again and again and again in this movie. That said, Killing Joke came out in 1988, so there's no way it could have actually influenced Burton, since the movie must have been in production by then at least.
David: After that, we see more of Alexander Knox, the movie's real protagonist, most interesting character and the viewer identification character for sure. He's a reporter who's trying to report on Batman, except nobody believes him, including a dick cartoonist who draws a "HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN?" poster with a drawing of a bat, signed "Bob Kane." Bob Kane: a dick in every universe.
Chris: Seeing Bob Kane's signature on that drawing is pretty much a guarantee that it was actually drawn by Dick Sprang. Anyway, Knox is probably the best character in this movie. He's the only one who actually has clear motivation, and who totally wins in the end. He probably gets his Pulitzer for reporting on Batman before anyone else.
David: Wuhl does a great job with the character, and the idea of a Batman movie where we get to know him from the POV of a reporter investigating him is a good idea. To be completely honest, he's someone I'd like to see enter the Batman titles right now. He's likeable, he's funny, and I hate Vicki Vale for choosing Bruce over him. But we'll get to that.
David: Vale introduces herself as an award-winning photojournalist who actually believes Knox and wants to work with him on the Batman story. Now, this must be Knox's dream come true, except that Vale basically treats him terribly throughout this entire movie. He wants to go to a party at Wayne Manor to harass cops about Batman, but he can't get an invitation, so Vale invites him as her plus-one.
Chris: This is also about when we learn that Knox and Vale are actually the worst reporters alive. They're even worse than the guys who work at the Daily Planet but can't figure out why Clark is never around when Superman shows up.
David: Cut to Napier and Boss Grissom, who's played by a Jack Palance who couldn't possibly chew more scenery. Noticing his woman glancing at Napier, it's pretty clear that he's aware that they're banging, so he sends Napier to go to Axis Chemicals and destroy all the evidence of the illegal operations they're using it to front. He does this with one of the greatest hammy moments in movie history, where he grabs Napier by the shoulders and goes "you... are my number one... GUY."
Chris: It's exactly how I feel about you, Uzi. Seriously, after Smallville, you're lucky I don't own a chemical plant.
David: In all honesty, if you've never done it to a friend, I highly recommend it. There is nothing more fun than pretending to be Jack Palance. Honestly, I wish he was in more of this movie.
Chris: I wonder if anyone ever managed to drop one of those on Palance himself.
David: Oh man, that'd be fantastic.
Chris: Especially since his name was Jack.
David: At the very least, Daniel Stern could have done it to him in City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly's Gold.
David: Palance rules in this movie. Really, Palance rules in every movie.
Chris: Even Angels Revenge!
David: But yeah, as soon as Napier leaves, Grissom calls Eckhart and sells him out, since he wants him to stop banging his lady.
Chris: Right, the great thing about this movie is that you don't just get one long, drawn-out incomprehensible origin story, you get two!
David: Anyway, we cut to Wayne's fundraiser, and apparently Bruce Wayne lives on a Native reservation because for some reason he can operate a mini-casino in his mansion attended by basically the entire police department.
Chris: One more time for those of you in the back: Batman just straight up running a gambling operation in his house. It's Flashpoint all over again!
David: Vicki asks this random dude who Bruce Wayne is, and the random dude says he has no idea. Note: This random dude is Bruce Wayne. Smooth move, bro.
Chris: Seriously: What a dick move.
David: Meanwhile, Knox annoys the cops so much they straight up leave the craps table midgame. Seriously, Wuhl steals this movie for me. I love every scene he's in. Actually, sorry, he doesn't annoy Gordon, Gordon has to leave the table due to the "anonymous tip" sent in that Napier's cleaning out Axis. After finding out Eckhart's on the case, he leaves, presumably since he knows Eckhart's dirty and this is about to be a gigantic mess.
Chris: There's also a scene in this part where Bruce just sort of wanders around his house with Alfred cleaning up his mistakes after him. It's good, but unlike every other portrayal of the character, his distracted klutziness is never presented as any sort of act or facade. There's no reason to believe that Batman isn't just some weird dude.
David: That's very true, but Bruce is a remarkably ill-defined character in this movie in the first place.
Chris: We haven't gotten to it yet, but nothing really says that better to me than the scene where Batman tells Vicki Vale that he doesn't understand what he's doing. Seriously? But anyway.
David: So yeah, Vicki and Knox walk into a room with a bunch of suits of armor, and after Knox makes fun of it for like three minutes Bruce finally decides to introduce himself. Knox jokingly asks for a grant, which Bruce gives him. Note: this is, like, the only decent thing Bruce does in this entire movie.
Chris: The thing with the grant was actually really fun, as is Keaton's delivery on "because I bought it in Japan." But remember when I said that Knox and Vale were terrible reporters?
Chris: Not only do they not recognize billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne, who presumably would have been in their newspaper at some point, but neither one of them ever once thinks: "Hey, this really weird, spacey rich dude who collects weapons... do you think he might be the one dressing up as a bat and fighting criminals? They're both around 5'1", right?"
David: God, I wish Batman was actually 5'1" in this movie. It's the only way my young self could have loved it more.
Chris: Was it comforting for you to know Batman wears glasses?
David: I didn't wear glasses until I was a teenager! Anyways, Bruce leaves the room and goes down to the Batcave to be a creepy voyeur over the entire proceedings, noticing Gordon being informed about the Axis situation before going off to basically completely screw up Gordon's entire operation.
Chris: This will be a recurring theme. Batman is responsible for every bad thing that happens in this movie.
David: Eckhart's there to try to get him shot on Grissom's orders, but Gordon wants him alive, and then, after a fairly protracted action sequence where Batman comes pretty damn close to killing a dude or two, he completely botches the entire thing and ends up tossing Napier into a vat of chemicals, where nobody thinks to look for his body.
Chris: There's a great (read: dumb) scene where Batman picks up Napier like he's going to punch him, then Bob the Goon -- the actual villain in this movie -- holds Gordon hostage and makes him gently set Napier down. And then Batman stands around watching while the Napier shoots a man.
David: Oh man, yeah, I totally glossed over that! He even yells "THINK ABOUT THE FUTURE!" since he shoots Eckhart basically as a screw-you for giving him guff earlier in the movie about being too crazy to ever take over Grissom's operation.
Chris: Also, it's never really clear whether Batman's trying to pull Napier back up or drop him into the vat himself. The way it's shot and the way other characters refer to it is really ambiguous, but given what Batman does in the rest of this movie, I'm going to go ahead and call this "Attempted Murder #1."
David: Man, Bob the Goon. Bob the Goon is really in more of this movie than I remember, although he barely had any lines. However, he did get his own action figure.
Chris: I know, I had one! Check this BAMF out:
David: POWER KICK! Man, I loved that figure.
Chris: Don't you wish this movie was about Alex Knox bringing down Jack Palance and Bob the Goon's criminal empire? That would be so much better.
David: God, I know. There's a good movie in here somewhere, it just has absolutely jack to do with Batman. Anyway, predictably, Napier survives, and they show this in the hammiest way, with his clawed hand reaching out of the reservoir outside.
Chris: To its credit, the scene where the Joker has his bandages taken off is really, really good, and justifiably iconic.
Chris: I remember being horrified at the shot of the surgeon's table of grotesque, bloody tools.
David: Knox and Vale are trying to track down Batman, and Knox proposes doing some actual work that night, but Vale turns him down so she can go have an awkward date with Bruce Wayne and the Worst Wingman Ever, Alfred Pennyworth. Now, I have to say, I think Michael Gough does a terrific job as Alfred in this flick.
Chris: He does really great with the dialogue, even though the character itself is kind of a massive dick to Bruce the entire time.
David: That's very true. Anyway, there's this honestly fantastic scene in an absolutely giant dining room in Wayne Manor, which Burton doesn't reveal until halfway through the scene - it's really funny when it switches from the closeups to the wide shot of that entire gigantic, impractical table. Honestly, this is one of my favorite parts of the movie. It's a really well-done scene showing how Bruce is uncomfortable with his opulence.
Chris: It's very good characterization but at the same time, it doesn't really have much to do with anything else in the movie, does it?
David: I might as well enjoy the little things, man. Halfway through the first entree they say to hell with it and go eat in the kitchen with Alfred, who proceeds to get Vicki absolutely smashed and embarrass Bruce as much as humanly possible.
Chris: Dude's rich and handsome and still needs his charming English butler to get his dates drunk and tell cute stories about his childhood to get them into bed. Mystery would be so disappointed.
David: So we cut to the Joker taking off his bandages, and you're right, this is another really great scene -- the thing is, I remembered him killing the surgeon. I'm surprised he didn't.
Chris: Yeah, that's another weird aspect. There's never any mystery to the Joker at all. You know exactly who he is, and he never makes any attempt to disguise it at all. He's just Jack Napier, only weirdly less threatening.
David: And yeah, after that, Batman proceeds to start date-raping Vicki and Napier shows up at Grissom's to shoot the hell out of him. I mean, seriously, Bruce: If you're dead sober, your date is dead drunk, and it's night one, that's basically date rape. Also, in one of the most absolutely, utterly stupid details in this movie, it's revealed that Bruce sleeps upside down, like a bat.
David: Tim Burton, I know that was your idea, and you suck.
Chris: Even at six years old, I thought that was dumb.
David: Is it even physically possible to sleep with all the blood rushing to your head?
Chris: Maybe he's not sleeping. Maybe that's his post-coital tradition, like how some people smoke a cigarette.
David: It was a ten-minute microsleep.
Chris: Also, pretty awesome how when they wake up the next morning, she's all "HEY COME OVER TO MY HOUSE AND HAVE A MEAL AND TALK ABOUT THINGS I LIKE" and he's like "You gotta get the f*** outta here." Our Hero, ladies and gentlemen.
David: Anyway, Joker starts to take control of Grissom's operation, scaring the crap out of everybody by shocking a dude to death with a buzzer mid-handshake. And yes, not only does Bruce kick Vicki out, he claims he's going out of town for a few days, a lie completely blown when Alfred goes "What? We aren't going anywhere."
Chris: Worst. Wingman. Ever.
David: Also, Joker gives Bob the Goon a recreation of the "You... are my number one... guy" thing from earlier, which is a nice reprise of one of the best parts of the movie.
Chris: I had to Netflix the DVD for this article. Is there a special feature on the BluRay or anything of the footage that I am absolutely sure exists where everyone in the cast does that line?
David: Not that I'm aware of, but if the entire movie was just that line repeated ad infinitum, I would not be disappointed.
Chris: There's also the part in this scene where the Joker puts on makeup to look normal, which seems really strange for the Joker to do. He's still trading on his old identity rather than, you know, being the Joker.
David: That's because this isn't the Joker, it's Jack Napier. He never really changes his methods when he becomes the Joker; he laughs a bit more and gets more theatrical, but he's still the crazy guy he was fifteen minutes ago. He still has the same motivations, none of which involve chaos. He just wants to get rich and stay rich and kill a lot of people. At least for now. He inexplicably turns to "homicidal art" later in the movie.
Chris: Which isn't an entirely off-kilter or unprecedented take on the Joker, but... why? Why use the Joker for this, and show his origin when there's no change in the character? Hell, why use Batman, since he's virtually unrecognizable apart from the pointy ears? If this thing were, I don't know, Tim Burton's The Black Terror, it'd make a lot more sense. And no one would remember it.
David: It's weird. People always say that Batman '66 was this really campy take and this restored things to the true vision of the character, but honestly, Batman '66 was pretty much identical to the Batman books being published at the time, and while DC certainly did narrative backflips to reimagine Gotham City to match this movie (especially with "Destroyer"), thematically it wasn't much like the comics of the time at all.
Chris: Like I said, it's the direct descendent of the '66 TV show, only with murders.
David: And with that, all of the major characters and conflicts are in place: Napier's taken control of the crime operation with Bob as his number one guy, Bruce is out patrolling the streets as Batman and being a dick to Vicki Vale, Knox is still trying to find out who Batman is, and Vale's using Knox to try to figure out more about Bruce, not knowing these are two sides of the same story. The bicentennial is coming closer as the Joker begins to hatch his plans. Join us for the next part of Remedial Batmanology, as we handle the second half of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman.