Tim Burton, a former Disney animator and director of a wild horror comedy called Beetle Juice (1988), suddenly found himself helming a major blockbuster. He carried a heavy burden of responsibility. His job was to make everyone forget the old 1960s TV series that turned Bob Kane’s Batman into an out-of-shape moralist. Burton’s film would introduce a Batman that was dark, introvert and vengeful. And then came Jack Nicholson, grabbing a hefty paycheck and upstaging everything and everyone as the Joker.
A huge, depressing metropolis
The movie looks pretty astounding. Production designer Anton Furst has truly put the “goth” back in Gotham City. What he has created for this film is a huge, depressing metropolis, a modern city with features that kind of resemble German Expressionism – the audience must be made to believe that this is a sinister place. The only one capable of fighting crime here is a masked demon with a fast, sleek car that can resist any bullet or bomb. Behind the mask is a slightly eccentric billionaire, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who always looks like he’s got something on his mind. Batman’s latest nemesis is hit man Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) whose face has been destroyed by chemical waste. He has not only lost his looks but his mind as well and turned into the Joker, a grinning, white-faced monster with green hair and a very brutal sense of humor.
Screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren have not been so kind as to actually give him an evil plan that makes sense, but he does get to kill a lot of people, using a gas that makes the victims die of laughter. As Bruce realizes that Napier is the same man who killed his parents thirty years ago, the battle between the Bat and the Joker becomes a very personal one.
A surprising move
Tim Burton worked with Keaton in Beetle Juice (1988) and must have seen something beyond the comedy in his performance. Casting him as Batman was truly a surprising move, but also a bold one. Keaton turned out to be a pensive but charismatic Bruce Wayne. But when your subdued performance is competing with Jack Nicholson it is not easy to get noticed. This is the most outrageous character he has ever played. We’re talking no holds barred here. Frankly, we’re talking overkill. But at the same time it is always hard to take your eyes off of Nicholson and it is so obvious that he had a grand time portraying this über-villain. All you can do is lean back and enjoy his lunacy. Kim Basinger is satisfying enough as the love interest, a photographer who catches the Joker’s fancy, Michael Gough is comforting as Bruce’s steadfastly loyal butler, and Jack Palance tries to rival Nicholson’s performance, as Gotham’s deadliest mafia boss.
Prince does not make an appearance (even though he might fit in this milieu), but contributes several songs that failed to garner as much attention as Danny Elfman’s outstanding music score. In the same tradition of John Williams writing for Superman, Elfman has come up with an exhilarating theme for the Dark Knight.
It’s nice to see Burton finish the movie in a way that is typical of him, with two freaks battling it out high up in a Gothic cathedral. This was his first multi-million dollar blockbuster, a sensational cinematic event at the time, but Tim Burton stayed true to his style.
Batman 1989-U.S. 126 min. Color. Produced by Peter Guber, Jon Peters. Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay: Sam Hamm, Warren Skaaren. Music: Danny Elfman. Songs: Prince. Production Design: Anton Furst. Cast: Jack Nicholson (Jack Napier/The Joker), Michael Keaton (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Kim Basinger (Vicki Vale), Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams… Jack Palance.
Trivia: Sean Young was originally cast as Vicki Vale, but an injury forced her to bow out; Robin Williams was allegedly considered for the part of the Joker. Followed by three sequels, starting with Batman Returns (1992). The superhero was reinvented in 2005 for Batman Begins; his origins were explored in the TV series Gotham (2014-2019).
Oscar: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration.
Quote: “As though we were made for each other… Beauty and the Beast. Of course, if anyone else calls you beast, I’ll rip their lungs out.” (Nicholson to Basinger)
Last word: “I grew up with a fascination for people that were dangerous. Why a fascination with clowns? Why do I like clowns so much? Why are they so powerful to children? Probably because they are dangerous. That kind of danger is really what it’s all about. It’s that kind of stuff that I think gets you through life. Those are the only things worth expressing, in some ways: danger and presenting subversive subject matter in a fun way. I link this stuff to the power of fairy tales. All roads lead to them, for me, because of what I think their purpose is.” (Burton, The Tim Burton Collective)