Rated PG-13 and it absolutely should be. It's kind of funny. Batman kind of gets credit for being the first real superhero movie, but I really give that honor to Superman: The Movie. But Batman is the movie that established the PG-13 tone to superhero movies. There's a reason that all of the superhero movies have an edge to them after Batman. This is the movie that established that you needed to kill your primary villain, something that superhero movies up to The Dark Knight continued doing. (I know that the Riddler survives, but he's left as a husk.) I mean, Batman straight up kills people in this movie. Also, the Joker is actually a serial killer in this movie. It kind of a disturbing movie overall.
DIRECTOR: Tim Burton
I'm sure I'm like every other blogger or Letterboxder out there. I'm watching the 1989 Batman before seeing The Flash. Now, for a while, I was going to watch this in an ideal format. I had access to a personal movie theater room for a week and was watching the 4K version of this movie. But there were lots of kids who thought this movie looked old and boring, so I could only watch about twenty minutes at a time. I had access to a personal movie theater and I got one movie to myself for the week. It's a crime, I tell you. Honestly, I thought that Batman was going to be a crowd pleaser. But also, in the back of my head, I'm one of those people who doesn't love Batman.
I mean, I've seen this movie a lot of times. There were dark ages where the only real superhero movies we had coming out of any quality were the Batman films, pre-Batman Begins. Eventually Marvel would get on the bandwagon and release some rad Spider-Man films. But there was a short stretch where there were slim pickings. But even at my best, I only kind of liked Tim Burton's Batman. I'm a little ashamed of this, but I regularly compare the '89 Batman to complaints about less-than-perfect Marvel movies. (As in, "You think Black Widow is the worst movie ever made? If I showed that to you after showing you the OG Batman movies, Black Widow would have blown your mind with how good it was.") It's not that Batman is bad. It's more successful than it isn't. But I do think it is lauded as one of these perfect movies because of nostalgia.
The superficial thing in the movie is that Batman himself doesn't seem like he would do a very good job stopping crime. Infamously, Michael Keaton couldn't turn his neck in this suit. He looks cool as heck in this one. I can't deny that. He might have the coolest, most original Batsuit in the franchise. (Remember, Batman was blue and grey at the time. Even after that, he was never a single solid black.) But this light moment brings us to what caused a lot of problems for Batman. It's a Tim Burton thing. I am one of the five people who probably doesn't fawn over Tim Burton. I like Big Fish, but that's even just a movie to me. Tim Burton is all about putting all of his energy into atmosphere. It's a very cool (if getting a little old) atmosphere. Everything is gothic and dark and, for a lot of Batman, it's great. Burton had one chance to define what Gotham was going to be on screen (besides Schumacher's neon Gotham nightmare) and he got so much personality into the city that it's imagery is memorable.
But he's so busy making the movie look cool that he's not being practical about anything in the movie. Batman stands there a lot. The joke in Raiders is actually the solution to a lot of Batman's functionality problems. I'm talking about Indy shooting the swordsman joke. We all know that Harrison Ford had a fever that day and probably couldn't do the fight with full energy, so they let him shoot the swordsman. It's this memorable moment and I love it. That said, Indy just doesn't shoot everyone who walks his way. That would make a terrible action movie. I hate to say it, but Batman has to cop out of every fight because he can't turn his head. All of his fights are over with one easy to avoid punch. If it goes longer, we realize that Batman isn't that good of a vigilante because the lower echelon henchmen seem to get the drop on Batman all of the time. "But doesn't that make it more realistic?" Nothing about this movie is realistic. Those bad guys are doing flips and spin kicks and all this trampoline nonsense. That means that Batman should be doing the same thing. Instead, it's all his kevlar that keeps saving him.
But it's not just the suit that causes problems. This movie...doesn't have a story. I really wish that I rewatched The Dark Knight before writing this because it's been a minute. One of the key things that Burton brought that is smart is that the Joker is about chaos without motivation. He loves his own insanity. Nicholson is oddly great in this, even if his character doesn't make a lot of sense. (And his jokes aren't actually jokes. They're just words with an odd delivery and laughter.) I know that The Dark Knight embraces this element of chaos and that's great. But I dare you to tell me what Batman is about. What is Joker trying to do? I mean, he wants to gas Gotham, which is a thing, I guess? But that plot is a few minutes of the movie. Really, the Joker just glams onto Batman and they annoy each other for the bulk of the movie.
I just gave Burton so many points for designing Gotham to be this art deco gothic playground and he did that. Okay, he did that one street. The Monarch Theater is everywhere in that movie. But I'll ignore that. I'm talking about not the visual look of Gotham, which is untouchable. I'm talking about what Gotham is as a city. I'm going to tell you right now: Gotham City in the '89 Batman takes place in the Mad Max universe. No one in Gotham City, shy of some of the main characters, acts like a person. Lots of stories have treated the masses as the worst of humanity. It's probably true. But there are a lot of scenes where Gothamites are just there. Maybe this comes down to whoever was coralling the extras and giving them direction, but a lot of Gotham are just people spouting gibberish and putting their hands in the air. The climax of the film has the Joker co-opting the 200th Anniversary of Gotham City. Now, post-COVID, I get that the masses are idiots and are completely self-destructive. But the Joker just tried killing all of Gotham. When he says that he's going to drop 20 million dollars on Gotham, no one thinks that he might be up to his old shannanigans? I mean, it's got Adam West / Cesar Romero vibes with this whole plan. All of Gotham is totally cool with showing up at a party from the guy who, THAT DAY, tried poisoning them. Then they're all shocked when he, indeed, poisons all of them.
I genuinely think that Tim Burton doesn't really like Batman all that much. Tim Burton kind of feels like he's slumming it for this one. I mean, he does his best work here, but you can almost hear him gritting his teeth here. Tim Burton kind of hates other people telling him what to do. Sure, he gets a little carte blanche, shy of whatever Jon Peters is doing. (Golly, what if Jon Peters is the only thing that made this a watchable movie?) Maybe it's just that Tim Burton seems disappointed in himself and Hollywood all of the time that I get that vibe from the film.
But let's talk about the stuff that works. Nicholson does a lot with a pretty minimal script. I don't really get the idea that Jack Napier was a gangster before becoming The Joker. It's like, a really weird choice. (Okay, maybe I'm not ready to start talking about the good stuff yet.) Honestly, Joker doesn't make a lick of sense, but Jack Nicholson is giving his all towards this character. I don't love that theJoker is the man who killed Batman's parents. Batman has no moral scruples with killing the Joker once it's revealed that the Joker killed his parents. (Also, it's this movie that makes me cringe when people ask "Didn't the Joker kill Batman's parents?") But he looks super cool and sells jokes that don't work. He's also kind of scary as heck. I mean, he's not as scary as Ledger, but they're playing different versions of the character. Nicholson is probably a bit closer to the comics at the time and he's giving Cesar Romero a lot of credit. Nicholson's Joker is the guy Joker would be if Cesar Romero's Joker lived in a Mad Max hellscape.
I also kind of like the Vicky Vale / Bruce Wayne / Alexander Knox thing. Maybe it's because it's the only thing that makes it look like humanity does indeed exist in Gotham. We're left with so much bleak nonsense that something as silly as a love triangle does actually play pretty well. I like all three of them as characters. Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne is better than his Batman. It's weird, because I still don't imagine Keaton as Bruce Wayne in terms of looks. But I like that his Bruce Wayne is kind of silent. He has a hard time being a normal dude. It's why, when Vale enters his life, he's growing as this person. He can't be himself and he's still that messed up little kid, but there are moments where we almost had the Bruce Wayne from Mask of the Phantasm. Unfortunately, Hollywood needs to have a different leading lady in each movie. Also, the movie acknowledges that Batman can't really have a long term committed girlfriend.
Anyway, I still like the '89 Batman for nostalgic reasons. It's just that, as a movie, it's really loosey-goosey with what it is trying to do outside of establishing tone. Characters aren't real or effective. The plot doesn't make a lick of sense. Like most of Burton's works, it just looks cool. In terms of looking cool, nailed it in one. Also, the 4K transfer lets us see too much of the miniature work done in this movie and it comes across as silly.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.