Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson*, Kim Basinger, Michael Gough
Have I Seen it Before: Let’s put it this way. There was a time when if you were to say any series of words that happened to be a line from the movie, like, say “Better be sure,” I would feel compelled to perform the next ten minutes of the movie. “See? You can make a good decision when you try. Hehehehehe. Where you been spending your nights? Well, welcome Count Dracula… Etc.”
I’ve gotten better in my advancing age, but not by much. I still perform the rest of the movie in my head, I just don’t make you watch it.
So, yes. I’ve seen it before.
Did I Like It: Is it even possible to offer criticism of a film that has lived in your head since your earliest memories? Can I ever watch this movie without watching the Michael Gough-staring Diet Coke Commercial and Bugs and Daffy demanding I call a 1-900 number for a Warner Bros. catalog (the traditional manner, as both ads appear before this film on the initial VHS release)? Is there room in the world for both a Batusi and a Batdance?
These are just some of the thrilling questions I will attempt to answer here.
The film’s production design is second to none. The film is clearly being filmed on a backlot, where every moment of action that isn’t in Stately Wayne Manor, The Gotham Globe, or Axis Chemicals**, seems to take place on the same street corner in Gotham. And yet, with matte paintings and other tricks of the camera, one is almost fooled into believing that Gotham is an actual city. Batman’s (Keaton) vehicles are wrought metal creations so indelible that while they were originally meant to adapt the then-fifty years of comics that had preceded it, but ended up becoming the ur-template for the next thirty years of interpretations of the character.
The makeup is pretty special as well, but without the man behind it, all you’re essentially left with is Jared Leto. While Nicholson doesn’t quite pull off the same job that Heath Ledger does in The Dark Knight (2008), but he doesn’t need to. Ledger disappeared into a character so slithery and despicable that there was incredibly little left of the actor. Nicholson chews scenery with aplomb, but isn’t the least bit interested in jettisoning the movie-star persona that had gotten him the role.
And then there’s Michael Keaton. He was shamed on spec for even approaching the role of the World’s Greatest Detective, because, I dunno Beelejuices and Messrs. Mom can’t kick ass? Once the movie actually came out—indeed, by the time the first trailer artificially inflated the box office of Deepstar Six (1989) or The January Man (1989)—he became Batman for an entire—read: my—generation. I’d love to see him reclaim the role in a Batman Beyond/The Dark Knight Returns adaption, but what really makes his performance stand out is that Keaton, as Bruce Wayne, is a stellar nerd. He’s never been able to be Bruce Wayne with any reliable success, but when he is at work, he is his best self. It also helps that he has a car that’s essentially a jet engine on wheels. Between his performance in these films and Bill Murray as Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters (1984), I had most of the attainable pillars of masculinity that I would ever need.
That probably says more about me than anything else, but I digress.
I have been effusive with praise for the film up until this point, but there is plenty that doesn’t work, and I’m not just talking about Robert Wuhl***. My generation is pretty in love with Prince, but since this film was my first exposure to his work, I’ve never found him—dare I speak ill of the dead—anything more than distracting. Also, the screenplay doesn’t hold up under even minimal scrutiny, buried as it is under the whizbang circus that Burton is far more interested in. And, here I’m not talking about Jack Napier/The Joker (Nicholson) usurping Joe Chill’s rightful place as the the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents. In fact, I’m only kind of talking about how eager Batman is to kill those that stand in his way. The rest of the plot is far too wobbly for its own good., too. And, on spec, it isn’t a bad plot, either! The idea of the mob getting a hold of CIA-abandoned nerve toxins and unleashing them on a city’s cosmetic product supply could make a pretty good movie, but it just isn’t particularly allowed to breathe here. The closest thing to a traditional goal-oriented story arc is handed to Vicki Vale (Basinger), but her dogged sleuthing of just what is up with both Batman and Bruce Wayne always rings a little hollow, because we have come into the film with the mystery all wrapped up in our heads. Honestly, I’ve thought a superhero story where the secret identity element becomes the back-bone of a whodunit has always appealed to me, and I may yet write it one day.
The film is chicken soup, just like mom (or, in this case, Tim Burton) used to make. I went into this screening nursing the tail end of a head cold and a stomach ache, and now I’m thrilled to say I can enjoy the films more medicinal properties the next time I don’t feel well.
So, sure, it’s worth watching, I guess. It’ll probably take upwards of thirty years for the film to reach the same level for you as it does for me, but I think you can get there.
*Some confusion about who should get top billing on this one, but I choose to go in alphabetical order. Some eagle-eyed readers will think I am giving way to bias and putting Keaton ahead of Nicholson. I’m reasonably sure that’s not what I am doing here.
**Which themselves are re-used sets from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986).
***I’m supremely confident Mr. Wuhl is a decent guy, and wouldn’t have made that crack about him if I didn’t think he was in on the joke. I once saw an interview with him where he called some other film I’ve now forgotten, “So bad, that I thought I was in it.” He seems like he knows what’s up.