25 years ago last week Tim Burton’s Batman was released in theaters across the U.S., forever shaping the way that that the American movie-going public thought about action movies and Batman, and really, it would probably be better if we all just left it at that.
In honor of this momentous quarter century landmark, I decided to give Batman a watch the other day. It had been a few years since I last saw this pop culture juggernaut and I was curious if it held up as well as I had remembered, and oh boy, it really doesn’t.
Batman is not a very good movie, folks.
Nostalgia has been incredibly kind to this movie (hence why I’m even writing a 25th anniversary retrospective review in the first place). The best elements of Batman are hoisted up in its defense whenever it comes up in discussion amongst fans who clearly haven’t watched this thing recently: Nicholson’s Joker, the amazing Gothic design, and Danny Elfman’s seminal score are a few of the talking points. And most of these are truly great and worthy of the praise they receive, but, alas, these do not make an enduring cinema classic. Behind these elements are some pretty glaring flaws.
Perhaps most puzzling about this film is its treatment of the Dark Knight Detective himself. While Michael Keaton’s squirrely, eccentric Bruce Wayne is all kinds of great, making for a uniquely spacey millionaire playboy, Batman feels underdeveloped and has no real character arc to speak of. The reveal of Batman’s tragic origins comes remarkably late in the film (spoiler: the Joker killed his parents, because of course he did) and when it does come, it doesn’t explain what drives Bruce Wayne to take up the molded-rubber mantle all too well. We don’t get the sense that this is a guy who has spent years honing himself into the peak of humanity to wage war on the general concept of crime so much as a weird rich guy who decided that fighting dudes in a bat costume could be pretty cool. I find it strange that a movie that cites the dark atmosphere of books like The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One as huge influences doesn’t pick up on any of Frank Miller’s complex examination Batman and his motivations, otherwise known as the things that make those books lasting classics. Rather, Tim Burton is content to view Batman from the outside and settles for the hackneyed “Batman is as crazy as his villains” concept that the annoying guy from your Psych 101 class thought was really cool. While this take might have seemed fresh in 1989, it does not make for an engaging character that the viewer can identify.
And while we’re on the subject of villains, this would be a good time to talk about Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker. Nicholson as the Joker is truly fun to watch; his performance is funny and menacing in equal parts, with Cesar Romero’s cackling laugh peppered in for good measure. While the character is a highlight of the film, the Joker’s plotline is a bit of a mess. Joker begins the film offing competing mob bosses with staged, theatrical clown-themed murders in a manner similar to old school Vincent Price horror movies such as the Abominable Dr. Phibes or the superior Much Ado About Murder, but this is abandoned in favor of the Joker deciding he’s a “homicidal artist,” before realizing he really just wants to get with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). By the end, his ultimate plot to kill Gotham’s citizens with deadly gas in parade balloons (which I guess is a return to the Wacky Clown Murder tangent) feels disconnected with his previous schemes. This comes across less as the fractured actions of an erratic madman and more as the writer not knowing where he wanted to take the character.
I’m kind of surprised that dark, brooding atmosphere has becomes this film’s lasting legacy, as so much of the film is pretty silly. Perhaps this is coming from a critic looking back from a pop culture perspective where “grittiness” is pretty much a given for Batman film, but a lot of Batman feels much closer to Adam West’s Batman than it does to The Dark Knight. Scenes like the Joker and his crew defacing works of art in Gotham’s Fleugelheim Museum (!) to the sweet sounds of late 80s Prince really isn’t far off from the antics of the 60s show, save for the fact that the Joker kills a room full of people before doing so. It’s actually in moments like these that the strengths of the film shine through. There’s a playfulness to these wackier scenes in which Burton is able to capture the comic book spectacle of the source material incredibly well. The final confrontation between Joker and Batman in an overwhelmingly large cathedral strikes the balance between fun and pulpy danger in a way that evokes the 70s Batman comics of Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams. Right up until Batman straight up kills a dude, which seems like a pretty glaring flaw for a movie about a guy whose whole deal is not killing people.
While the film may fundamentally misunderstand its main character, the supporting cast is, for the most part, pretty solid. Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale is a pretty engaging character, until the film decides to stop focusing on Vicki Vale as hard-hitting photojournalist in favor of her role as Batman’s Girlfriend. Michael Gough’s Alfred is played with sweetness instead of snark and gives a great performance; a fact that is reflected in Gough being one of the few actors not replaced when Joel Schumacher took over the franchise. Gordon is nowhere near as important or interesting as he should be, and Billy Dee William’s Harvey Dent doesn’t get to do nearly enough.
You probably shouldn’t watch Batman. Seriously, if you’re itching for some Batman, sip the 25th anniversary nostalgia and watch the wonderful 60s Batman movie instead or maybe just some The Animated Series and Brave and the Bold. It’s the guy’s 75th anniversary after all. Batman deserves to be remembered for the positive ways it’s shaped the character. Its score and art deco Gotham have left a positive mark on the Batman mythos that is still felt today, and more importantly, the movie gave us the aforementioned animated series, arguably the best adaptation of the character to date. After 25 years, Batman serves as a better icon than it does as a film.