Wed
Feb 2 2011 10:27am

Big Screen Batman: Batman (1989)

Dance with the devil in the pale moonlight...

Following the success of his first feature Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, Tim Burton was hired by Warner Bros to direct a new Batman feature. Burton, not a particularly big fan of Batman or of comic books in general (this will be important later), displayed a degree of indifference to the first several treatments that were written; one of his main worries was that the studio wanted a movie along the lines of the 60s TV show, which was not one he cared to make.

In 1988 several factors converged: one, Burton’s Beetlejuice, with Michael Keaton as the title role, was released to great success, and two, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke was released to great acclaim. The Killing Joke followed in the footsteps of Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns, and Burton, reading both books, discovered an angle to Batman that interested him. Coincidentally, Warner Bros saw the success of the comics as an indicator that a movie version could succeed, and greenlit Burton’s movie.

Now, because Burton was neither a writer nor a particularly knowledgeable comics fan, he began working with screenwriter Sam Hamm for no particular reason other than Hamm’s greater comics fandom. To cast his leading man, Burton chose Keaton, which led to outraged reaction from many fans of the comic; Burton dismissed this as the fans assuming that he would be aping the comic tone of the TV show. Whether or not this was the real reason for the outrage, the casting of Michael Keaton would prove to be the second biggest problem with the movie, with the first being Hamm’s script, which featured some of the most embarrassing dialogue ever allowed in a major release.

The shame of those two crippling flaws is that there is so much to love in Burton’s Batman. It is one of the most visually beautiful movies ever made, with Burton and production designer Anton Furst creating a Gotham City like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as designed by a Gothic monumentalist—creating the sense that the city itself, much like its corrupt institutions, oppresses the citizenry—with cinematographer Roger Pratt shooting it in a manner suggesting film noir, a form built around the very shadows Batman uses to lay in wait for criminals.

Bridging the gap between asset and flaw is the legendary performance by Jack Nicholson as The Joker, one of a handful of performances in the history of cinema that actually became a problem by being too good. This is not Jack’s fault. Never an actor known for his underplaying, Jack pulls out all the stops here, giving a performance so large it has gravitational pull (he is, after all, a star). He is flamboyant, funny, grotesque, and terrifying, often simultaneously, in one of the all-time great villainous performances. The strain on Jack’s psyche was reportedly so great that he (possibly apocryphally) advised Heath Ledger not to take the role as the Joker, but he was well compensated: on top of a salary of $6 million, Jack received a percentage of the gross that was reportedly close to $50 million.

It is the size and power of Jack’s Joker than makes Michael Keaton’s strong-but-wrong choice to portray Bruce Wayne as a dotty eccentric look even weaker. Michael Keaton is a fine actor—his failure in Burton’s Batman pictures is an aberration, the rest of his career features almost exclusively very good work—but a Batman movie is not one where the audience should be rooting for the bad guy, and that is what, by default, the audience ends up doing in Batman.

The fault for this can be laid at Tim Burton’s feet, for as brilliant a job as he did constructing a physical Gotham City, the way in which he populated that city is highly suspect. Burton explicitly stated that he was not interested in making a silly, comedic picture a la the 1966 iteration, which makes it odd to say the least that the cast is populated so heavily with comedians and comic actors. The choice of Jack as the Joker is above reproach, but Michael Keaton’s entire previous body of work was comedic. Robert Wuhl. Kim Basinger (whose acting, by and large, was itself the joke most of her career). Jack Palance, while not usually a comic actor in name, was nonetheless such a ham as to be a de facto comedian. With the exception of the genuinely inspired choice of Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, the majority of the principal cast of Batman would have been, ironically, more at home in a comedy of the sort Burton professed to not want to make.

It is not just because of the lousy script and weird acting that Batman is the template of the modern blockbuster, though. It has a genuine feeling of excitement, of being an event, that makes it possible, more often than not, to overlook its flaws. Most of the conversations I’ve had in which I’ve advanced the above views have ended with the other person telling me, “Yeah, but it’s Batman.” As irrational an argument as that certainly is, it is nonetheless one for which I have no rebuttal. Warts and all, this is Batman. That means something.

Batman builds on the foundation of The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke to get back to the basics of Batman as a character; whatever Michael Keaton’s portrayal got wrong, the one thing it got absolutely right was the sense of Batman as a loner, someone apart from other people, who relied on intellect and ingenuity rather than superpowers. This is why, though Batman drew its more serious tone from the comics of the past several years, the fact that it reached such a considerably wider audience made it arguably the more important force in getting society at large to take Batman seriously again. And this is why, any flaws aside, Tim Burton’s Batman is such an important entry in the Bat-canon.

Next, Tim Burton negotiates near-complete artistic control and makes Batman Returns.


Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.

18 comments
critter42
1. critter42
I'm impressed - you didn't even mention "BatDance" (or Prince's so-called "soundtrack") once!
critter42
2. JoeNotCharles
Uh, no. Keaton was brilliant as both Batman and Bruce Wayne, while Nicholson was too obviously Nicholson to be interesting as the Joker.
Alan Stallings
3. astacvi
You never actually get around to stating what your problem with Keaton's performance is, just that you have one. I personally thought he was an interesting choice, and pulled it off rather well, with one exception: his lack of physical size isn't fully disguised by the film.

I remember specifically that Burton claimed at the time he cast Keaton because of his eyes, and that that made sense to me then and now. There's a certain amount of crazy in the character, and I think Keaton's eyes bring that right through the cowl.
Michael Burke
4. Ludon
I remember being pleased when I had heard that Keaton had been cast as Batman. I had seen him in an earlier film - Touch and Go (1986) - playing a role that was more dramatic than comedic. While Touch and Go was hardly a good film, I had been pleased with Keaton's performance and looked forward to seeing him in more dramatic roles.

I agree with astacvi's comment about Keaton's ability to perform with his eyes. However, I disagree on the point of Keaton's stature - which didn't bother me when watching the movie.
Eric Griffith
5. egriffith
Also see Clean and Sober and Pacific Heights-- Keaton was not just a funny man.
Noneo Yourbusiness
6. Longtimefan
Keaton's Batman threw me a little the first time I saw the movie I will admit. But I really liked what he did with the character in the second movie and that has adjusted my opinion to Keaton's over all interpretation of the character.

I think his first outing as Batman is a little stiff which made it difficult for me to suspend my disbelief in the action scenes but there is a charm to the Bruce Wayne character while still being distant and reserved.

The dialouge was terrible though.

I will not comment on Nicholson's Joker as I have nothing nice to say.

Visually though the movie is dreamy. I do wish Burton could have remained for the 4 movie run if for no other reason than to save the last two from bad art design.

And I wish Billy Dee Williams could have stayed as Harvey Dent to see what kind of Two Face he would have become.

Oh well, the past is the past. :)
critter42
7. TheAdlerian
I love when people who are twelve write articles about time periods they didn't live in.

I much prefer the modern Batman films because they took the next step and made the films completely serious, which is wonderful. However, at the time EVERYONE LOVED Keaton BEYOND BELIEF!

Even non-Batman fans loved him and the film because a serious (it was semi) superhero film hadn't been done in a long time. The Superman films were enjoyed but most people hated the comedy and weird power changes and desired a straight up action and dramatic story. Keaton was loved at the time as a cool guy and so he was welcomed and most people were impressed. No one thought he was off in any way and his hushed "I'm Batman!" became a catch phrase when you did something cool.

But, you are correct that Jack was amazing and people were surprised that he took the role. I recall those who didn't like him enjoyed his performance after they saw the film.

Do some research next time you write.

Thanks.
j p
8. sps49
I was not impressed when I heard that Keaton had been chosen for the role, but thought that the producers wanted someone who could act first and fill out the costume second. It wasn't a bad idea.

Although not perfect (CGI armored Batmobile = blecch, blabbermouth Alfred), the movie succeeded in everything I could reasonably desire at the time.
Mimi Epstein
9. hummingrose
@ TheAdlerian,

Many people liked Keaton after the movie came out, it's true, and there are reasons that '89 has become known as "The Summer of Batman." But when he was originally cast, a lot of fans were pretty upset. Will Brookner has a good discussion of fan response to the news in his book Batman Unmasked, pp. 282-289, listing complaints sent to the comics press, the L.A. Times, and Premier Magazine; the Wall Street Journal reported at the time that the protests against the casting were causing financial issues for the movie.

For the record, I was fourteen when this movie came out, and I'm not by any means a huge Bat-fan (I'm not much of a comics reader, but I liked both Keaton and the more recent movies), but I've been doing some Batman research for an academic article lately, so the Brookner book is right in front of me.
Joe Romano
10. Drunes
I agree with JoeNotCharles: Keaton was brilliant as Batman and Bruce Wayne. Yes, a lot of people rolled their eyes at the time his participation was announced, but, if I remember correctly, a lot of fans also shrugged and said "let's wait and see."

Keaton has always been a kind of everyman -- whether doing comedy or drama -- the guy next door you wanted to hang out with. Why wouldn't he work as Batman? But Jack Nicholson as the Joker has always been problematic for me... too far over the top for most of the movie, but still nailing the role in other parts of it.
James Goetsch
11. Jedikalos
I totally disagree with you on this. Keaton was pitch perfect as Bruce Wayne and Batman in my eyes: I was totally blown away by his Batman. I think he just inches out Bale in the portrayal. The other actors you mention seem fine in their roles as well, except for Nicholson, who really overplayed it.
Dave Thompson
12. DKT
Kind of in line with other commenters: I respectfully disagree with both of what you call "the crippling flaws." Keaton was great both as Batman and Bruce Wayne, and played the part with all his cold, brooding restraint. And while some of the dialogue might've been corny, Hamm's script did so much right. His script gave both Batman and Joker equally interesting arcs and screen time, had all the gadgest and rogue gallery (Harvey Dent) and most of all: he made it feel like a comic book, in all it's splash-page glory. I think without Hamm, Burton's Batman would've been a mess.

I do agree with you Nicholson's performance. He stole the show as Jack/Joker and essentially set a new standard for Big Screen Villains. I just don't think that necessarily equals Keaton's performance as flawed or problematic. (See also: Ledger as Joker, Bale as Batman.)

I like the more recent movies more myself, but Burton's Batman is iconic.
critter42
13. Dorimant
I was 16 when this film first came out and it still has a grip on me, and is the standard by which I judge other superhero films.

I'm sorry, but like many people here, I have to disagree with you. While Keaton's Bruce Wayne is slightly bumbling, I would rather say that he is often quietly in control of his scenes rather than dominating them.

This makes the difference between Keaton's Batman so arresting. More than any other actor, I feel that Keaton portrayed Wayne/Batman as two different persona's rather than simply Batman forcing on the Wayne suit.

I do however, agree with you totally regarding Jack Nicholson's Joker. He portrays the menace in Joker's laughter better than anyone else, although I would say that Mark Hamill's Clown Prince of Crime is possibly my favourite.
critter42
14. makeda42
I was at Worldcon when the director announced that Keaton was chosen as Batman. The room groaned and grumbled because Keaton was considered to be only a comedian.

On seeing the movie, I was only to glad to admit that I was wrong. He aptly protrayed the madness that was just beneath the surface. I still enjoyed the movie. Hey - it made me buy the graphic novel. That's the true test of a good movie for me.
john mullen
15. johntheirishmongol
I saw your second post before your first, which is funny because I agree with everyone here pretty much and don't agree with you. Nicholson has a big rep and knows everyone and is a great host but as an actor he is almost always horrible. I was ok with him until I saw him in The Shining but after that I could never watch him with any seriousness again.

Keaton on the other hand, did a surprising and very good job. You can watch his face and see what is going on underneath but it is a much more subtle and nuanced performance than was thought possible.
critter42
16. JPP
I think you have it flipped. Jack way overplayed the Joker, WAYYYY. Keaton was really very good.

Plus, I think that movies has one of my favorite scenes in movie history. Where the Bat Plan is flying through the sky, break the cloud line, pauses in front of the moon for a moment and then free falls. Just an awesome scene!
Iain Cupples
17. NumberNone
Is there anything more annoying than people telling you whether you liked something or not?

I, for one, didn't like Keaton as Batman. Nor did many other people I know. Lots of people did, yes, but to say that EVERYONE did is just daft (and obviously incorrect).

Don't get me wrong, I'm not criticising Keaton himself as an actor. He did his best in a role for which he was miscast. That's commendable, but it doesn't change the fact that he was miscast. And primarily, he was miscast as Bruce Wayne. Putting aside the physical issues, he did an adequate job behind the mask, as others have said: but as Wayne, he failed to convince. It proved to be a poor casting decision, and that was Danny's point.
Scott Harris
18. vitruvian
I have to say I agree with the folks saying that Keaton's performance was absolutely great. The one place where it was a little less successful was in the action scenes, which I blame more on the costume choices made than on either Keaton or his stuntmen. For one thing, it would have been nice if he could turn his head in the thing! Had they gone with the idea that, yes, his costume was armored against bullets, but no, it was not entirely made of a Kevlar-like substance, and therefore designed the costume to be more flexible at the neck and joints, then Keaton or more likely his stunt doubles would have been able to move in a more dynamic way.

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