It’s almost hard to imagine that superhero movies were ever a novelty, or anything but leading box office contenders, but it happened.
They’d pop up from time to time, and they’d be hits or flops, but they’d coexist right alongside everything else. What it could be argued they lacked, to a certain extent, would be the element of vision, the artistic spark that would change the film from just an action movie where someone can fly into an entire universe with a look and rules all its’ own.
What a pretentious film geek might call the “mise en scene”. Nowadays this is some pretty paint-by-numbers stuff when it comes to spinning a mythology and developing battle sequences, costume design, and atmosphere, but somebody had to do it first. Somebody had to do a lot more than just phone it in.
As I’m sure you know, the first person to do this was Tim Burton, and that film was 1989’s Batman. Spring-boarding heavily off of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, (but pulling in plenty of other stuff from who the hell knows where), Batman set the standard. No more was this disposable kiddie stuff. No shark repellent, no boy wonder, no pajamas. Instead, foreboding dilapidated cities, widespread corruption, filth, fear, and murder. Plus a whole lot of Prince music.
This thirty year old classic looks quaint today when held up against its’ modern, mega budget contemporaries, but there is still plenty to enjoy in this totally unique vision of what would become the new Batman. Urban decay and widespread crime were unleashed in a grandiose, art deco fantasy Gotham right out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
It seemed the setting was taken from this very same time period, but the technology and style collide with this idea. It looks like the 1930s, but Batman clearly owns an Amazon Echo, which was still not even going to be invented until a couple of decades after the movie came out. (This timelessness is a long standing Batman tradition, continued in Todd Phillips’ Joker.) Heavy, dark shadows obscure faces and alleyways, letting the movies’ thugs creep in and out of a lawless city where the police and mayor can’t seem to do anything but stand around and talk about how much they don’t like it.
Somewhere between classic noir and sci-fi, Gotham was a fantastic place to look at, one of the most beautiful dystopias since Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles. The characters, however, stepped squarely out of the radio serial 30s. Besides our Batman filling in as a stealthy detective, Jack Napier (soon to be Joker) and his co-workers are the kind of classic gangsters that could have rode with Cagney or Robinson.
That casting, by the way, was some pretty brilliant business. Jack Nicholson seemed born to play the Joker role, with decades of unstable onscreen lunatics behind him.
He seemed to turn any film he stepped into right into a comic book by his mere presence, and seeing him cut loose as the madcap villain is a throw down that anyone who’s taken on the role since then has had the burden of trying to live up to. They rarely let anyone less than an absolutely brilliant actor even try it. On the flip side of that, Michael Keaton was a far less obvious choice for the caped crusader and his tormented alter ego Bruce Wayne.
If anything, his appearance in Beetlejuice might have recommended him for the Joker, but Mr. Mom as the Dark Knight? To everyone’s continued amazement, yes indeed. In fact, I think he’s without a doubt the best Batman we’ve ever seen, and I appreciate his work in this movie more and more with each subsequent Batman that I see fall short. Let’s also not forget Jack Palance in his brief but unforgettable role as the vengeful mob boss Grissom.
This film valued performances just as much as fight choreography, and it paid off. There was a method of delivering camp with a straight face here that only worked this time around as well. Humor was integrated without disrupting the brooding tone or making Nicholson’s Joker any less menacing.
This was some pretty weird stuff, but it held together under pressure. It was followed by the lesser, but sporadically entertaining sequel Batman Returns, but it’s most notable offshoot is the show it gave birth to. Batman: The Animated Series took its’ cues from the Tim Burton films while venturing into a groundbreaking style all its’ own. There seems to be a goldmine of stories within the Batman legend that filmmakers will continue to pick through for a long time to come. It was in 1989, however, that the story first found its’ bat-legs.