Film: If you have been enjoying all those Marvel movies, and other movies based on comic properties you basically have this film to thank.
Tim Burton’s Batman film, released in 1989, wasn’t just a film, it was a phenomenon. Today, the idea of making a super-hero film is an easy one, especially if you have the initials ‘DC’ or the world ‘Marvel’ attached to it. Even non-superhero comic based franchises have successfully launched with things like Riverdale (loosely based on Archie comics), The Walking Dead (based on the Image comics) and the Edgar Wright helmed Scott Pilgrim Vs the World (based on Brian Lee O’Malley’s comic) all finding various degrees of success. Back then, comics were ‘still for kids’ and the idea of making a film that would be successful, based on a comic, wasn’t something taken too seriously. The first two Superman films had set a standard, that like this series of films, the final two didn’t stand up to, and Batman was also a hard character to make a serious film of because most people remembered him as the character from the campy TV series of the 60s.
When the producers had decided to make a film more like the comics rather than the TV show, that was dark, and really tapped into the ideas of justice and fear, and they accidentally found that people who had grown up with both the comics and action films of the 80s were prepared to take it seriously, even though they had director Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton, both who gave us the comedy Beetlejuice. The announcement of character actor Jack Nicolson performing the role of the villain The Joker, a perennial favourite from the comics, made ‘proper’ film fans sit up and really take notice, as did the inclusion of other actors like Jack Palance, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough and Pat Hingle.
(NB: I remember being horrified by the casting of Keaton in the title role, and not until I saw him on the cover of an issue of American science fiction film magazine Starlog did I actually see that Warner Bros were taking this film seriously.)
I was already a comic fan when this came out, having been a fan since the early 1970s, and I saw it in a dingy little cinema in a small country called Orange in country New South Wales, and went in a skeptic, but emerged, reborn, as a lover, and I wasn’t alone, as Batmania hit and there possible wasn’t a man or woman on the planet who didn’t have at least one little tiny piece of Batman-based paraphernalia in their cupboards.
The film struck all the right chords at the right time, like Beatlemania before it, and Spicemania soon after… comic nerds weren’t the outcasts anymore, they became historians, and even the comic industry had a temporary boom, with new store and titles popping up all over the place.
…but what is this film about?
Well, (and I’m sure I don’t really have to tell you) this film tells of the Batman (Michael Keaton), a creature of the night who I stills fear into the heart of the crooks of Gotham City with a campaign of fear.
What no-one knows about the Batman is, is that he is actually millionaire playboy, Bruce Wayne, who has started this campaign of justice as he has suffered severe mental trauma as a child when he watched his parents, Thomas and Martha, brutally murdered in front of him.
There’s other shenanigans happening in Gotham city though, as crimelord Grissom (Jack Palance) has decided to have his second-in-charge, the extraordinarily vain Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) taken down by the police for bedding his girlfriend, Alicia (Jerry Hall).
The tip-off goes awry, and instead of being killed by corrupt cop Lieutenant Elkhart (William Hootkins), Napier falls into a vat of chemicals which damages his face so bad that it drives him mad, and he become a self described homicidal artist, The Joker, with an intention, and the means, of killing the citizens of Gotham City.
Batman has to stop his terrible plans, but the Joker isn’t his only problem, as investigative journalists Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) are hot on the tale of revealing his secret identity…
It’s a classic Batman tale, with the Joker having a nefarious scheme and the Batman requiring some detective work to figure out his game, something some more modern Bat-films have been lacking as he appears to be more a thug who beats up the mentally challenged before locking them up in an asylum where security is obviously lacklustre. It’s a shame these films don’t lean more into the Detective side, when you consider he is ‘the Dark Knight Detective’…
The cast is an interesting mix and are great together, Robert Wuhl providing some surpassingly non-annoying comedy relief, which is occasionally foiled brilliantly by Michael Keaton’s surprising straight man in Bruce Wayne: the ‘give Knox a grant’ line is a set-up that you don’t even know exists until the payoff. Great work from writer Sam Hamm.
Burton’s direction and style drips through the entire proceedings like molasses, sweet and dark, and in combination with Anton Furst’s spectacular design and Danny Elfman’s dark score, it’s like being front row and the sole occupant of a Cure concert. The juxtaposition of Prince’s songs throughout the film make for interesting pops of audible colour that suit the bright appearances of the Joker perfectly, which are both visually and rally appealing and a strange evil light in all the darkness of the good guys and the city in which they live.
One can’t comment on colour within this film without mentioning not just Basinger’s portrayal of Vicki Vale, which is not just another ‘straight man’ role for Wuhl, but also represents us in i converting Bruce Wayne’s tragic backstory. Her appearance in predominantly bright tones and white make her an Angel of salvation not just for the troubled Bruce, but a piece of forbidden fruit for the Joker also.
I could rave about this film forever. I simply love it, and it also reminds me of a time when even though a movie was based on a serialised comic book, which are essentially soap-operas, movies are more story driven and not everything needs to be squeezed into one two hour flick. Nor does it require a cavalcade of other heroes from within the comics to support the main character because they aren’t interesting enough, and most importantly, to watch one film, you don’t need to have seen 30 others and have 2 streaming subscription services to know what’s going on with superfluous characters… it’s doesn’t need to pander to the meme/ Instagram crowd for ‘lols’.
Extras: There really is an amazing bunch of extras on this Bluray disc:
Commentary by Tim Burton, which really looks at his creative process behind the film and a few little bits and pieces you may have missed upon your initial viewings. It’s an interesting look at his creative process.
On the Set with Bob Kane sees Batman creator Bob Kane on set of the Batman film, talking about his (and Bill Fingers) creations.
Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman sees interviews with comic book writers and artists, like Bob Kane, Stan Lee, Mike Mignola and Harlan Ellison, and comic book historians and filmmakers, including the driving force behind this film, Michael E. Uslan, who wrote The Boy Who Loved Batman.
Shadows of the Bat:The Cinematic Saga
Part 1: The Road to Gotham City looks at the genesis of this Batman film which dated all the way back to when the first Superman film came out in the late 70s.
Part 2: The Gathering Storm looks at the difficult decisions that needed to be made as far as the script and casting is concerned, and how they managed to fulfill them.
Part 3: The Legend Reborn has Tim Burton discuss how he created a legacy for Batman, and maybe even extended the life of the characters popularity.
Beyond Batman is the section all about the making of this particular film, divided into these mini-documentaries: Visualising Gotham: The Production Design of Batman, Building the Batmobile, Those Wonderful Toys: The Props and a gadgets of Batman, Designing the Batsuit, From Jack to the Joker and Nocturnal Overture: The Music of Batman. Individually, these make for fascinating featurettes but altogether they explore everything that makes the gothic design of this film so striking and memorable.
Batman: The Heroes and The Villains looks at all the characters individually, with analyses by actors, writers and fans.
Batman The Complete Robin Storyboard Sequence is a look at the obviously removed addition of Robin to the script, that was ultimately scrapped.
In addition, there is also the Trailer and music videos for Batdance, Partyman and Scandalous by Prince
WISIA: Its the ultimate comic book film that didn’t just spawn one comic book movie trend, but two. The film and the extras on this discs should be watched regularly by any movie or comic fan.