Superhero movies seem to be in the middle of a renaissance of late. They are as popular now as Westerns in the 60s and 70s, or Cop films after that, and big action movies in the 80s and 90s. However, these movies had to start somewhere. The debate can rage on as to where those earlier genres “caught on” but for superhero movies it is down to two, Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Tim Burton’s Batman. Batman seems the clear choice, as it came out almost 10 years before X-Men and it is a solid decision, Burton crafted a world that would become a blueprint for the franchise after it lost its way at the hands of Joel Schumacher with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. The franchise would soon be rebooted and retooled by little known director Christopher Nolan with his Dark Knight Trilogy, which would launch his career and spawn three successful films about the Caped Crusader.
But for now, we focus on the parent and original, Tim Burton’s original to be exact. As it premiered on this date all the way back in 1989, 25 years ago.
For many months, Gotham had been plagued by crime, Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Pat Hingle) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) ramp up police presence to try to keep it at a minimum. Meanwhile, a vigilante known as “The Batman” has roamed the streets of Gotham taking care of crime as well. Reporters Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basigner) try to investigate the masked man to little success.
Also, mobster Carl Grisson (Jack Palance) has concocted a great scheme to rid himself of his second in command, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), but getting him murdered during a raid at a chemical plant. The two story lines converge at that raid, as police, Napier and his men as well as Batman fight it out. In the ensuing fight, Napier is accidentally knocked into a vat of chemicals and is assumed dead. Batman also gets away, and is revealed to the audience as billionaire industrialist and playboy Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton).
However, Napier survives the incident, despite it leaving him disfigured and his skin white. Napier is also driven insane over the accident, and gives himself new purpose, as a super villain known as The Joker…
Burton’s movie enjoyed critical and financial success when it was released, and it can be seen why. The movie is faithful to the comics in some respects and takes liberties with others that end up being a great asset to the story. The script might have a few bumps in it, but a sense of fun and action smooths over most flaws.
The acting by Keaton is also to be noted, as he was not a very popular choice for the role. Many fans sent letters of complaint to Warner Bros. demanding answers and removal, only to be floored themselves when Keaton delivered a fantastic Caped Crusader more fitting of comparison to Frank Miller than Adam West. Oh how history repeats itself from time to time.
Nicholson also is great as the Joker, he gives his all to the role and is very memorable, laughing and inflicting pain with glee. His makeup is also amazing, and really adds to the character. Nicholson was only cast to soothe fans distraught over the casting of Keaton, and he still delivered.
The supporting cast is great as well, Kim Basinger gives a great performance as Vicki, capturing the allure and strength of a comic book heroine and not just some damsel in distress (though she does get into distress). Wuhl adds good support and Michael Gough is magnificent as Alfred Pennyworth.
Burton’s direction is also great. This was a time before Nighmare before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow, or Corpse Bride where we could see his macabre best (however Beetlejuice had been released before) and this was the first movie that showed how Burton succeeded in darkness and dark material. It seems like the reveal of a new master of cinema in repeat viewing.
The cultural impact of this movie was huge, as it spawned a sequel directed by Burton and again starring Keaton, and afterwards a whole franchise. It was also led to the renewal of interest in this genre of films. If you can, watch it, it is available on many formats and is frequently on television. Maybe you’ll agree that it holds up.