Time exposes cracks in all of us. The imperfections are all the more obvious the brighter the light, and no light shines brighter than those in Tinseltown. Twenty-five years ago, Tim Burton’s “Batman” hit movie theaters. Tonight, the good folks at Hollywood Blvd in Woodridge, IL excavated it for their Throwback Thursday promotion. Fans were once again treated to the then-most accurate live action portrayal of the Dark Knight.
With Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy a little further in the rear view mirror, Burton’s film can be judged on its own merits rather than against the Caped Crusader’s more recent vintage. There is so much to love about the 1989 version. The movie expertly moves bank-and-forth between bombastic and intimate. Much of the story is told by two people in rooms. It’s like watching a play with arch camera angles. Bruce Wayne and Vicki Vale’s interactions are especially dramatically staged. Following that can be explosions or other violent outbursts.
Danny Elfman was a regular Burton collaborator after his stellar work on “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Beetlejuice”. He managed to compose an iconic theme fitting of Batman. Starting slow and eerie and then soaring up and down, it provided the perfect accompaniment to the myth the Batman was trying to perpetrate. The rest of the score also accented the mood. Add in the then-still relevant musical contributions of Prince and you have an oddly fitting mix.
Then, there is the obvious, the look of the film. It’s extremely dark, the way Gotham should be portrayed. It has an older city feel, something that the recent comic books have exploited to great success. The mood that created has influenced not just the animated series but the “Arkham” video game series. The only real use of color is the Joker. The stark contrast of this technicolor villain against the blacks of Batman and Gotham make his presence all the more striking.
Speaking of the Joker, it’s difficult to imagine a role more tailor-made for Jack Nicholson. Ten minutes in, the reins are removed completely. This is Jack at 11 for the duration of the film. For any other part or any other actor, all the mugging for the camera would come off as ridiculous (see “Batman Forever”). For Nicholson’s Joker, nothing he says or does can be viewed as out-of-bounds. He is the embodiment of maniacal whimsy, a true god of mischief, the other side of the same coin as Batman.
Here is where the film falters. For pitch perfect as the Joker, Elfman, and the cinematography (wonderfully done by Roger Pratt) are, the Batman/Bruce Wayne character doesn’t ring nearly as true. Maybe that impression is made because Michael Keaton’s performance is so understated that he rarely dominates a scene. The one time he amps up the energy is when he, as Wayne, threatens the Joker and gets shot. It’s just difficult to imagine Bruce Wayne taunting anyone in that way. There’s also the fact that Batman kills several people, all bad guys, but still. This isn’t Keaton’s fault as Batman isn’t usually verbose. He tends to silently brood and intimidate.
That the depiction of Batman is the lone misstep in the film should be catastrophic but, as it is, the issue is barely a speed bump. It’s just so easy to enjoy. Maybe it isn’t the perfect Batman film it was thought to be a quarter century ago but it sure is still a lot of fun. The charm permeates every frame and all of its exemplary components allow it to age well. Who knows? Maybe Keaton will get the chance to reclaim the cowl and be the best Batman ever. That would only happen if Tim Burton took the helm. “Dark Knight Returns”, anyone?