Perhaps it's fate that I've always loved Batman. Growing up, I never read comics but I watched this movie religiously, tuned in for the legendary Batman: The Animated Series whenever it was on, and my bedroom was decorated with all things Batman: Batman wallpaper, Batman bedspreads, Batman toys. And I was born only a few weeks after Batman premiered, so I like to think that the ubiquitous advertising imprinted my fetal brain. In fact, considering how my mom always waits two weeks to see every new film anyway, I'm convinced that I was so excited to see the film for myself that, soon after she left the theater, I decided it was time. And then the stork came to deliver me because that's the only way this theory can be more absurd.
Regardless, Batman is likely the single biggest icon of my youth, which makes it all the stranger that I have not revisited this film in, oh dear, nearly six years. I hadn't sat down with it since before Batman Begins came out, so I spent a good 10 minutes in the store holding the Blu-Ray in my hands wondering if I should shell out the cash. How would Burton's film stack up now that the frame of reference included Christopher Nolan's superb installments and not just Joel Schumacher's travesties? I finally caved and timidly loaded the disc into my player.
To my great surprise, Batman holds up, albeit in ways I could have never expected. As a Batman film, it's almost laughable: it retcons the backstories of both Batman and the Joker to entwine their fates at the expense of any plausibility. The Joker's backstory as a whole grates; clearly Burton, openly averse to comics, based it on the backstory given in Alan Moore's seminal book The Killing Joke, but what he and writer Sam Hamm failed to take into account is that the book openly reveals that past to be a figment of the Joker's mad imagination, and he's a character who should never be explained. Hamm pleads innocent, however, to the Joker being tied into the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents and cites a writers' strike for him not being able to stop this nonsense from happening.
Batman also suffers from some weak supporting characters. Kim Basinger works well within an extremely narrow range, but Meryl Streep couldn't have given Vicki Vale enough of a personality to hang a hat on. Women have long been fabricated in Batman movies expressly to provide a love interest to a man who is too absorbed in his own pathos to ever hold down a steady relationship -- not even Nolan handled this aspect well, though at least he found a way to make Rachel important to the story -- but Vale just sucks the life out of scenes. Even worse is Robert Wuhl's Knox, a snobbish reporter who smacks of the clinging third wheel Albert Brooks played to Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver, only not nearly as funny.
Nonetheless, the film succeeds, and it succeeds brilliantly. Not as a Batman or even a comic book movie, mind you, but as a demented slice of neo-noir. Burton's Gotham City is neither a realistic city nor a comic book city; instead, it is a glorious hybrid of German expressionism, Gothic architecture and Art Deco. As with Taxi Driver, colored steam hisses out of vents and manholes at all times, the streets are wet with fetid, stagnant water and the city as a whole almost feels like a criminal.
Michael Keaton's casting caused a great deal of controversy at the time, but he proves to be a great Batman, the best of the entire series, in fact. He can alter his voice and body language between Bruce Wayne and the Bat without lapsing into death metal growls (sorry, Christian), and this comedic actor brings serious intimidation to the part. He's such a natural in the role that he almost overcomes the complete lack of writing on the Bruce Wayne side of the character. The film's chief flaw, Bruce isn't so much mild-mannered as downright milquetoast.
I'd wager that's because Burton put all of his energy into capturing the Joker. He never nails down what makes the character so interesting -- that he reflects the sort of person Batman has to struggle daily to prevent himself from being -- and the closest he comes is a simplistic equation of the two as "freaks." But Jack Nicholson is the reason remember the film: of all the roles in which Jack Nicholson plays Jack Nicholson, none benefits as much as the Joker. A synecdoche of the film proper, he straddles the line between the campy, over-the-top nature of the old serial (which bears more similarities to the film than any of the makers would care to admit) and a more serious tone that Burton and everyone else involved with the project. While I find Keaton's performance far more of a revelation than Nicholson's, his Joker leaps off the screen with his gleeful, prankster insanity.
Burton obviously designed the film around his set pieces, but that makes for a visually resplendent noir, one that you can't help but love. Audiences in 1989 certainly did, as Batman was the biggest phenomenon ever, even bigger than Star Wars. Where movies like Star Wars or The Exorcist became mass hits through word of mouth and saturation booking, Batman became the first film to make a spectacle out of the marketing itself. A retrospective documentary of the entire first run of Batman films, broken up over the four movies, discusses the marketing, and images of fans buying merchandise months before release, of vandals stealing posters from bus stops and entire walls plastered with that simple, effective logo are staggering.
I wasn't there -- well, I guess I kind of was, but it's impossible to fondly recollect fetal memories -- but Batman is as much a nostalgic experience for me as it must be for all those who worked themselves into a frenzy for this movie. As such, perhaps my opinion is weighted by fond remembrances of my childhood. I do see the flaws, however, and they are glaring. I simply don't think they detract enough from the experience of walking through Tim Burton's world. It's actually better than I remember, because now I don't feel the need to hold it to rigid continuity (as if comic books only follow one set timeline anyway). While Basinger and Wuhl take away from the film, the two leads as well as strong actors such as Michael Gough, Pat Hingle, William Hootkins and Jack Palance keep you paying attention to them, which is impressive considering how tempting it is to simply sit back and admire the sets. Not even Prince's dated, ill-fitting soundtrack ruins it thanks to it playing second fiddle to Danny Elfman's excellent score (and that theme...oh, that theme). While it's nowhere near the best of 1989 I've seen, it remains a personal favorite and a film I'd care to re-watch just as many times as I would Nolan's franchise.