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Why the '89 Batman Is Still My Favorite

So… another Batman movie came out this year. And you know what? It was pretty good. And a sequel was announced. I’m not surprised a mega-hit will have a sequel. At this point, I’m a little surprised they’re not making another reboot. All kidding aside, we have seen a lot of Batman in the last 6 years now. The recent splurge of Batman is a mixed blessing. Yes, I’m a big fan of the Caped Crusader, and yes, I’ve enjoyed most of these movies. But it’s hard to deny that the market feels a little overstuffed. Though for me personally, one Batman film still towers above the rest: Tim Burton’s 1989 film.

I’m going to address the elephant in the room and admit that nostalgia is a big factor. For people of a certain age, the Burton Batman films and the animated series were our introductions to the Daffy Duck barking at me to get a Warner Bros. ball cap on the VHS from memory. But there are other factors – I can’t just say “It’s my favorite because I watched it a lot” without explaining WHY I watched it so much.

Michael Keaton

Many actors have put on the cowl to varying results. And while Kevin Conroy will always be THE VOICE of Batman (Full frontal, I’m a little biased), Micahel Keaton was just the total package. In recent memory, Bale and Pattinson were both good, but fell apart in some areas: Pattinson could be a little maudlin and Bale had THAT voice. (I actually have a lot of nice things to say about Affleck as Batman, but that’s an article for another day.)

Keaton just brought such a unique edge to the character. He said so much without actually saying so much. Bale and Pattinson had a lot of speeches and internal monologues. While the decision was controversial at the time, Burton said he liked Keaton because he had an intensity in his eyes. Keaton could communicate things with just a look or a facial expression. For example, when he delivers flowers to the spot where his parents were murdered, or even just his burning intensity when watching the Joker on TV.

A little bit of subtext in the Burton films is that Batman is his real identity and Wayne is just the cover. Keaton’s eccentric recluse very much communicates that idea. He’s in bed with a beautiful woman but for reasons even he can’t explain, he feels compelled to get out and sleep like a bat. When Keaton is in the suit, he looks like he always has something on his mind. His voice is spot on, but even if he had an easy to parody voice like Bale, it wouldn’t be a dealbreaker since Burton and Keaton knew to keep Batman quiet. Also, Keaton remains the only Batman to look cool while smiling.

Jack Nicholson

One of the big breaking stories of the Matt Reeves Batman was a deleted scene featuring the Joker. Much like cutting Harrison Ford’s cameo from ET, I respect Reeves for his dedication to perfection. But honestly, I’m not a huge fan of Reeves’s interpretation of the character. (And spoiler: The all-too-obvious cliffhanger revealed we’re going to get more of this.) One of my gut reactions was: remember when this character was funny? I’m a pretty big fan of Heath Ledger’s Joker, but I feel like people have honed in on the scariness of his performance and forgot that even Ledger was funny – really funny. Joaquin Phoenix at least took the unique approach of someone who wanted to be funny but wasn’t. The whole point of the character is that he’s Batman’s opposite – a colorful, humorous murderer to counteract Batman’s dark, stoic altruism.

I’ve heard a few criticisms of Nicholson’s performance – he’s over the top. He seems like a cartoon character. Um… no s#$@! The Joker IS all of those things. Nicholson actually has more screen time than Keaton, which works. Batman would be in the shadows while the Joker is just devouring the scenery. Nicholson’s performance is a bit of a perfect allegory for the film – equal parts dark, equal parts comical. Yes, he’s dancing to Prince, but he’s either murdered or about to murder dozens of innocent civilians. Nicholson said he wanted his Joker to be scary to kids because he knew they’d like it. And he was right! I distinctly remember being freaked out by scenes such as when he incinerated the gangster but in a fun way. But I also remember finding his makeup commercial hilarious and quotable.

There’s a hint that Batman and Joker are similar. Even Vikki Vale brings it up. Burton commented that Keaton and Nicholson had similar intensity and attack eyebrows. That is an interesting dynamic that the hero and villain feel like similar people split down the middle. One of the best scenes in the movie is when Batman simply drives Vikki Vale to the Batcave. It’s such a simple scene, but the shortage of dialogue, atmosphere, and the score makes one wonder if Batman is insane too.

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Though the scene in Vikki’s apartment proves he is a little nuts.

Atmosphere

One thing I liked about the Reeves film is its atmosphere. Not only was it immersive and unique, it feels like A LONG time since one of these movies absorbed us in a world like this. Meanwhile, the Burton film is a little hard to top in that department. Buildings look amazing, and I could just look at sets like Grissom’s office. The designs for the Batmobile and Batwing feel downright iconic. Once again, they split the difference between dark and light. There are so many colorful props and designs – Joker’s walkie talkies, the bright paint the Joker throws around, the greens in the chemical plant.

Gotham City in this movie is fantastical while also feeling like a real place. Streets are overcrowded, the world looks lived in. There’s a hint that even though Batman needs to fend off criminals like the Joker, the people of Gotham are kind of awful in their own right – a cop just watches TV while the Joker makes his big announcement. People are greedy and just line up to take the Joker’s money.

The Music

We need to talk about Danny Elfman’s score. Simply put, I love this score. This and Back to the Future duke it out for my favorite film score. The Batman Theme itself is memorable and hummable. There are pieces of music that give me goosebumps: Batman driving Vikki, the Batmobile storming Axis Chemicals, Batman surveying Gotham at the end. While a lot of superhero movie scores have been good, I don’t know if anything has been this good since the Reeves Batman. And no theme has been so memorable until the Wonder Woman theme in Batman v. Superman.

And then there are the Prince songs. This may be a controversial opinion, but I still dig Prince’s soundtrack. Admittedly, it’s not his A-game, but Prince could slink down the alphabet a little and still make good music. Yeah, these songs are the one part that date the film a little. But just as the movie was many people’s intro to Batman, it was also the intro to Prince for some of us. Our parents weren’t going to let us listen to “Darling Nikki” or “P*ssy Control”!

Any Flaws?

After going on about what I love about this movie, it’s time to admit there are a few problems. For one, despite being an intelligent, independent woman, Vikki screams way too much. Like A LOT! Also, for as much as I love Keaton’s Batman, he’s a mediocre fighter. Maxim once joked that he practically just lets people run into his fists… which he literally doe more than once! The limits of the costumes are definitely the culprit though. Luckily, Tim Burton had the wisdom not to put too much emphasis on this.

I also have mixed feelings about the Joker murdering Bruce Wayne’s parents. On one hand, did they really need to guild the lily? Batman already has reasons to stop the Joker. But there is a unique that Joker created Batman and vice versa. Not to mention, at various points the two meet each other at every combination of being in and out of costume.

There is an argument to be made that there are a lot of logical leaps, but I just consider that the nature of the beast. I feel like a lot of movies nowadays can be overthought – even some of the really good ones. In the year 2022, a blockbuster can spend 5 minutes explaining a plot hole. And we’ll still see Cracked articles dedicated to that single plot element. Tim Burton had the right idea by just appealing to the people who wanted to have fun.

The backlash against the Burton films has never been severe. Talking about them or defending them has never felt like enmity towards the Schumacher films. I do remember how after the Nolan films, there was this feeling that Nolan made the movies for adults and Burton made the movies for kids. Some of the hardcore edge lords may still feel that way, but in broad sweeps, a lot of people have come out with their love of this movie. Michael Keaton played up his reputation in Birdman and is even reprising his role in an upcoming Flash movie. A comic centering around this universe was recently published by DC. Keaton himself still clearly has affection for the role, talking about it in interviews, quoting it in speeches – at my alma matter no less. And it’s easy to see why there’s affection – the film has memorable characters, a great look, a great sound, and splits the difference the dark and comical side of Batman.

© 2022 Alex deCourville

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