Some of you out there may remember what it was like when Batman was released to a drooling public back in 1989. Yes, the grumbles of the casting of Beetlejuice and Mr. Mom had stirred the ire of pre-internet fanboys but that didn’t stop the ensuing release taking the world utterly by storm. For those of you who weren’t there, Batman became an international phenomenon and a fairly irritating fashion icon as people who had never picked up a comic book in their life wandered around openly coated with merchandising based around a rich guy renouned for back-handing criminals while dressed as an airborne rodent.
Thankfully Tim Burton’s introduction to the big time still feels every inch the comic book classic I remember eagerly queueing to see back in my childhood and even if it’s not the most accurate Batman movie in existence (or the most Tim Burton-y Tim Burton movie either) it’s still a hugely entertaining slice of brow-furrowed crime fighting that influences to this day.
Gotham city is a monolithic shit-hole; a claustrophobic metropolis that breeds crime on almost every level of it’s infrastructure and the law men who strive to turn the time are either hopelessly outgunned or ruthlessly corrupt. However, rumours of a giant man-sized bat swooping down on criminals and pounding them until they’re hysterical, blubbering wrecks are starting to surface despite the police and the press shrugging their shoulders at such ridiculousness. But the Batman IS real and actually is millionaire Bruce Wayne who is using his considerable fortune to wage a one man vigilante war on crime due to that comic book childhood trauma that we all know and love: dead parents.
During a gangland robbery he attempts to thwart, Batman inadvertently sends career criminal and all-round psycho boy Jack Napier tumbling into a vat of chemicals with a bullet through his cheeks who is reborn as The Joker; a clown faced maniac who plans to flamboyantly hold the entire city hostage. But not only does Bruce have to go head to head with a man who openly hopes to become the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist, but he has to contend with tenacious photo journalist Vicki Vale who is determined to deduce The Dark Knight’s secret identity.
I don’t know whether it’s the old James Bond gun sound effects or the big gassy Thunderbirds style explosions but so many things about this movie give me warm nostalgia every time I watch it and because of such “old timey” film techniques it just looks and feels like a classic on sound and visuals alone.
And WHAT visuals!
Combining funky, James Bond gadgets, fashions from the 1920’s and architecture that boasts influences from gothic German expressionism, Batman’s stylistic mish mash felt essentially timeless, both nicely familiar and thrillingly new.
The leads prove their worth too what with Michael Keaton’s triple-layered performance winning over the original geeky complaints to rank him as one of the best to ever don the cowl, with the Bat portrayed as a whispering enigma, and Bruce Wayne as alternating between a wide eyed buffoon show for the public and a roll-neck wearing brooder in private.
“WHAT ARE YOU!?” shrieks an hysterical thug in the hero’s grip at one point. “I’m Batman.” comes the terse, measured reply. And we believe him. Oh, and let’s not forget Jack Nicholson’s anything-goes scenery chewing, building on and enhancing Caesar Romero’s original whooping and cackling into much more dangerous territory, creating a spiteful child with full on lunatic tendencies and cementing an endearing legacy that only Heath Leager could top.
In fact the only cracks in Batman’s armour are skin deep but still affecting. Action REALLY isn’t Burton’s forte with some of the fights stiffly staged and edited and some will feel their jaw clench everytime The Dark Knight straight up flatlines one of the Joker’s goons, also Danny Elfman’s admittedly fantastic and majestic themes hew way too close to his score for Dick Tracy for comfort but time has sanded down these rough edges so that they’re not really a problem anymore. There’s also that problem that became such a bane to Batman movies (see what I did there?) where the reserved hero always seems to take the Bat-back seat to the increasingly flamboyant villians with Keaton offered little opportunity to employ some of his own manic personality into proceedings – his “Let’s get nuts!” outburst being the real example.
However, more than just a product of it’s time, Batman pumped temporary new life into the Superhero movie after Superman IV had left it face down in a gutter and gave movie goers a new action character to obsessively recast into oblivion after James Bond, something that continues decades later.
There are “grittier” Batman movies, there are funnier Batman movies, there are even more Tim Burton-y Batman movies but there is only one true, proper, first Batman movie (sorry Adam West) and this is it. How can I tell? Always judge a Batman on his Batmobile, that’s what I always say…