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Tim Burton played fast and loose with the Caped Crusader in his inventive blockbuster Batman

It’s oddly thrilling to see a big-budget superhero movie that’s so clearly a single person’s vision
Michael Keaton in Batman (1989)
Michael Keaton in Batman (1989)
Photo: Murray Close/Sygma/Sygma (Getty Images)
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In honor of The Batman opening this week, we are rerunning some of our favorite features about the Caped Crusader. This article originally ran on February 9, 2018.

Batman (1989)

For a little while there, people were shaving the Batman insignia into their hair. That’s the level of cultural dominance that Tim Burton’s Batman had going for it in the summer of 1989. Batman made a ton of money—over $400 million globally, in 1989 dollars—but that’s really only the half of it.

People were so fired up about this movie that they wanted to become the movie somehow. Kids were quoting lines from the movie at each other on playgrounds before the movie had even come out, just from the TV commercials. Event movies arrive pretty routinely these days, but none of them feel like actual cultural events the way that Batman did. And as someone who was a kid at the time, I don’t even remember why. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade made more money internationally that year, and I loved that movie, saw it twice in the theater. But it didn’t capture society’s imagination the same way, and it didn’t capture mine either.

The funny thing about it—and now that I think about it, probably a big part of the reason for the excitement—was what a weird and personal movie Batman was. Burton didn’t grow up reading comic books, and so the Batman movie didn’t represent some childhood dream fulfilled for him. It was a job, a logical next step after he’d made visually distinctive hits out of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. And yet Batman gave Burton a perfect excuse to go all the way big with his deeply inventive visual sensibility, to build a whole world out of it.

In a lot of ways, Batman represents fairly pedestrian blockbuster filmmaking. The pacing is slow, the plotting occasionally incoherent. Too many of the action scenes are people wearing black clothes fighting in the dark, and you can’t see shit. There are plenty of sharp, fun character moments, but the movie still feels like it’s lumbering along to its inevitable explosive conclusion—a problem that’s haunted superhero movies ever since. But the thing that makes the movie stand out—the thing that all the critics at the time immediately commented on—was how the movie looked. Because no movie had ever really looked like that before.

Burton’s version of Gotham City was a mad tangle of gothic architecture, a colossus designed by lunatics. Every building looms menacingly, and it’s hard to picture actual human beings living or working in any of those edifices. That works fine for Burton, who’s never, for the most part, been concerned with actual human beings. (That would change in Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, but looking at the now-vast Burton filmography, those are the exceptions.) In Batman, characters talk like they know they’re in a movie, and Burton obligingly throws noir shadows over their faces, making them look as filmic and unreal as possible. And Jack Nicholson’s Joker makeup moves things into a whole new dimension of unreality, especially during the scenes when his Joker wears flesh-toned face paint to falsely give the idea that he’s a normal person.

Batman came after a period of great inventiveness within comics, with writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller using old, familiar characters to tell heady, transgressive stories about darkness and obsession and evil. Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman story The Killing Joke was a key influence, and Burton has said it was what woke him up to the creative possibilities in comic book stories. In that story, the Joker kidnaps, injures, and humiliates Chief Gordon’s daughter in the hope that it’ll help drag Gordon into insanity. Batman ultimately stops him, but not before making it clear that Batman himself shares a healthy dose of that insanity. Burton, in turn, makes Batman into a figure of darkness and obsession, one with no concern for his own safety or even happiness. And he turns the Joker into a cackling, nearly motiveless agent of chaos. “I am the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist,” Joker brags at one point, clearly proud of himself. For a movie explicitly marketed to children, this was pretty heavy stuff.

But Batman is still, in a lot of ways, a genuine kids’ movie. In the opening scene, Batman breaks up a robbery and scares a couple of bumbling central-casting mugs, and as visually striking as it may be, it’s also deeply hokey. While Michael Keaton knew how to hit intimidating Batman poses, the fights themselves weren’t too much more elaborate than what Adam West had done on the deliberately silly old Batman TV show. And it’s full of slapsticky visual jokes that, as an actual child, I thought were pretty funny; I loved when the Joker took down the Batwing by pulling a revolver with a four-foot barrel out of his pants.

Burton gave Jack Nicholson top billing, and watching the movie today, this was the right call. Nicholson’s Joker suffers in comparison to the iconic Heath Ledger version that came along years later, but he still absolutely eats up the screen. Early on, as sneering gangster Jack Napier, Nicholson grounds the movie, giving it a palpable real-world menace; his icy physicality is perfect. (I always loved that screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren invented a character named Jack for Nicholson to play. It reminds me of all the movies where Jackie Chan plays a character named Jackie.)

And as Joker, he does everything to not ground the movie, to push it into feverish insanity. He might rely on the frantic giggling a little too much, but the way he refuses to take the threat of Batman seriously is great. He’s in constant riff mode, but because it’s Nicholson, as opposed to someone like later riff-monster Batman villain Jim Carrey, the riffs carry a hint of menace and depravity. The scene in which the Joker and his boom-box goons invade an art museum and deface the paintings (a scene that Roger Ebert called “really vile”) is probably my favorite thing in the movie, mostly for the absurd chest-puffed dancing that the Joker does to Prince’s “Partyman.” (I also love the idea that the Joker used his crime-lord money to commission a Prince song about himself.)

As Batman, Michael Keaton wasn’t the casting slam dunk that Nicholson was, but he’s a whole hell of a lot better than the two Batmen who would follow. When Keaton was first announced for the role, comic fans freaked out. Keaton was a former stand-up comic who’d really only been in comedies up to that point, so people assumed that Burton was going for the same sort of Bat-silliness as the Adam West show. And it’s true that Keaton isn’t remotely physically imposing, even in the Batman costume. But the confidence in his voice is great; as Batman, he lowers his voice without turning it into the death-metal whisper-growl that Christian Bale would later employ. As Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, he relies on an unforced natural charm without overdoing it. Burton’s clearly nowhere near as enamored of Batman as he is of the Joker, so Keaton doesn’t get as much to do. But Burton does get the idea that Batman himself is half a maniac. And when Keaton cuts loose in Vicki Vale’s apartment, reacting to the Joker’s menace with his own, Keaton at least gets to call back to the lunacy of Beetlejuice, a movie in which he’d been the Joker figure.

Really, all three of the central performances are crucial to Batman’s success. Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale is an underwritten part, but Basinger holds the movie together by coming across as the only halfway genuine human being in it. She reacts to all the insanity around her by projecting both trepidation and intrigue. And she sells the idea that she’s falling in love with squirrely-looking Keaton, which is just good acting. The entire movie hinges on the idea of the Joker seeing a photo of Vale and becoming obsessed. It’s a stretch, but it’s Kim Basinger, so you halfway buy it. “It’s as though we were made for each other: beauty and the beast,” he tells her. “Of course, if anyone else calls you beast, I’ll rip their lungs out.”

Other than those three, all the characters are pretty one-note, and they come across with varying degrees of success. I like Jack Palance’s glib crime lord, mostly because it’s Palance, and Billy Dee Williams’ Lando-esque take on Harvey Dent, mostly because it’s Williams. I could do without Robert Wuhl’s motormouthed reporter, even though it’s fun to watch him spread the myth of Batman: “They say he can’t be killed! They say he drinks blood!” And Michael Gough’s fusty Alfred Pennyworth and Pat Hingle’s huffing Commissioner Gordon are total nonfactors in the movie.

As an early stab at a comic book superhero movie, one made by someone who hadn’t previously been a comic book fan, Batman gets a lot wrong. The scene in which Alfred, who seems to desperately want his boss to settle down, shows Vale into the Batcave is maybe the movie’s single greatest miscalculation. And one of the central tropes of Batman stories is that Batman refuses to kill people, so it’s a bit jarring to see the Batmobile raid on the chemical plant, where Batman appears to kill goons with bombs. Still, this wasn’t a case of a paychecking director treating his material with contempt, something that we’d see a whole lot more often in later years. It’s a great director—well, an at-the-time great director—zeroing in on the parts of the mythos that he finds fascinating and building a world out of those. With Marvel all but forcing directorial anonymity on its movies, at least until the past year or so, it’s oddly thrilling to see a big-budget superhero movie that’s so clearly a single person’s vision.

Other notable 1989 superhero movies: Marvel was a long way away from becoming a cinematic juggernaut in 1989, and the best it could do was to turn The Punisher into a cheesy ’80s action movie. The first of three big-screen Punisher adaptations, the 1989 version stars Dolph Lundgren as a version of Frank Castle who avenges his family by fighting both mobsters and ninjas. Lundgren’s dark hair dye, which looks fucking terrible, is the only real concession to the comic book version of the story; Lundgren never even wears the iconic Punisher skull. But as a cheesy ’80s action movie, it’s pretty fun. I can’t hate a movie in which a gang of ninjas attacks the hero by zooming down an enormous funhouse slide.

1989 also saw the release of the deeply silly sequel The Return Of The Swamp Thing, which ditched most of Wes Craven’s horror elements to tell a story about the Swamp Thing taking on an army of genetic-monster Un-Men. It’s a movie in which Heather Locklear falls in love with a giant plant-person, and the trailer includes the immortal line “He’s got a grudge because they turned him into sludge.”

And speaking of genetic monsters, Troma made two different gory Z-grade Toxic Avenger sequels in 1989. In The Toxic Avenger Part II, Toxie visits Japan to gruesomely kill martial artists and take on an evil corporation. And in The Toxic Avenger Part III: The Last Temptation Of Toxie, Toxie takes a job as a spokesman for the evil corporation and ends up fighting Satan. Also, a school bus full of kids explodes.