This is perhaps less interesting as a film than Batman Returns, but kept in context it’s absolutely fascinating. Because Batman ’89 is the first movie in what you might call the modern age of superhero filmmaking. Every superhero movie made since 1989 owes something to what Tim Burton created here, for good or ill.
And this is Tim Burton before he was really TIM BURTON; before this he’d just made Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. The last big superhero movie in theaters was Superman IV, and that was a critical and financial disaster. The name “Batman” for a lot of people still primarily suggested comedy. And they throw this guy, barely thirty years old, pretty fresh meat, made some quirky movies, a bunch of money and say “Make it happen.”
And what comes out is a movie with an influence that continues to be felt today (the Batsuit is still black rubber, dude). And it’s all about style.
Style over substance, really. There is no story to this movie, I’d argue. I mean, what is the Joker’s plan, exactly? First it’s take over the criminal underworld, then it’s kill people with his chemicals, then it’s romance Vicki Vale, then it’s his “homicidal art,” then it’s kill people with poison gas, then it’s challenge Batman to a fight. And yeah, you might expect someone like the Joker to lack focus and randomly generate motivation in his madness, “Laughing Fish”-style, but there’s no sense of that in the text. There’s hardly any sequence of events, no first-act second-act third-act stuff. It’s just scene following scene. The Joker’s monologues are full of killer lines (har), real genuinely classic stuff, but they rarely add up to mean anything (the exception being “Decent people shouldn’t live here; they’d be happier someplace else,” which is the best description of Gotham City I have ever heard). These are characters who don’t seem to have any long-term plans; they just get up in the morning and say “Hm, I think I’ll poison Gotham today” or “Hm, I think I’ll blow up Axis Chemicals today.” (Is there a reason why Batman does not bomb the place right away? Am I forgetting it?)
But there’s a freedom in that. How does Burton choose to present his Batman? With logic and classical Hollywood structure and a strong, classically handsome leading man? Hell no; he knows a skeptical public would just laugh at Kevin Costner in a Batsuit reading from a straightforward script by the guy who wrote Richard Donner’s Superman; I don’t think you could have made Batman Begins in 1989 if you’d tried. Instead, Burton films an almost schizophrenic movie with expressionistic dialogue, and he gets the comedy actor who played Mr. Mom and Betelgeuse to be his superhero … and there’s a soundtrack by Prince. I mean, that is one insane omelet, you guys.
It serves its purpose, however, which is to give the audience something totally unexpected. I can poke holes in Batman Begins or The Dark Knight’s plots, but in this movie? It’d be like looking for errors of perspective in Picasso. (I will admit, however, that the whole cathedral scene absolutely drags as a climax, and I dislike just how brutal Batman becomes.) So without those regular Hollywood script beats to hit, you’re a little disoriented, and so you can just latch onto the stylishness of it all. You give up on story and begin to appreciate spectacle, and spectacle is something this movie excels at.
If you've got the time, have a click on this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FLqShpx6gw
This is a pretty long scene, actually, and the bulk of it doesn’t really serve any narrative purpose. And yet isn’t that scene with the Joker defacing the paintings while “Partyman” is playing memorable, even if you don’t like it? Isn’t it giving you something you were not quite expecting? And then … well, look, just queue it up to about 7:30 and let it run. We’re drifting back and forth from Jack Nicholson making jokes, to being legitimately threatening, and then he’s clowning around with the “I’m melting” stuff, and Danny Elfman’s wonderful score is getting really tense, and then … SILENCE! SCREAM! “Boo! Heh heh heh!”
But then Batman crashes through that skylight, and holy crap, you guys! Between the weird music video and the Nicholson schtick, didn’t you almost forget you were watching a Batman movie? And then he drops in at exactly the most dramatic possible time, accompanied by that rousing pseudofascist superhero theme song to remind you! (Seems like he could’ve showed up during the poisoning, or even the defacing sequence, but no. In fact … why does Batman show up at all? All Bruce knows is “Vicki thinks we’re meeting at the museum, but I never agreed to that. I guess I’d better … show up as Batman and crash through a skylight, just in case?” That’s quite a leap, except … Batman is absolutely right to be suspicious, as it turns out!)
And as he’s dropping through that skylight … well, he might not be blue and gray like he is in the comics and in my head (yellow oval 4-eva!), but I defy you to look at that and tell me that is not Batman. When he falls in that kind of slow sommersault, when he throws that smoke bomb or whatever it is, he becomes a Marshall Rogers drawing despite the clunkiness of that rubber suit.
And that is what I am attracted to here. That unexpectedness – switching gears between Prince music videos and rousing adventure, the transformation from unassuming Michael Keaton to ultracompetent Batman. This last bit I can’t emphasize enough; by distancing us from Bruce Wayne a bit, Burton ensures that Batman is always mysterious, always bizarre and thrilling. When Jack Nicholson sees Batman for the first time in Axis Chemicals, he loses his always-cool composure, and that shocked "Jesus!" sounds really sincere. Christopher Nolan lets us know Bruce Wayne a little too well in Batman Begins for Batman to hold that much power over us. But Michael Keaton, neurotic, erratic, obsessive, keeps us at arm’s length. I have watched this movie one kajillion times, and I still don’t know exactly what he’s thinking; what he means when he says “I tried to avoid all this,” where an outburst like “You wanna get nuts? C’mon! Let’s get nuts!” comes from all of a sudden, whether he really believes it when he tells that mugger "I'm Batman." I shouldn’t be able to completely understand Batman. You can’t. Psychological realism is wasted on Batman because there is nobody like that.
Part of the reason I like this movie is the kind of consumer of fiction I am; I like to have to do some work. When Knox tells Vicki about Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents’ murder, he asks, “What do you suppose something like that does to a kid?” Nolan just feeds that information to you, but Burton asks you a question, inviting you to think it over yourself. Why do I need to sit through Christian Bale perfecting his costume bit by bit when Keaton comes already certain of himself and his appearance? Do I really require more explanation for why he’s become a Bat-Man other than bats are “great survivors”? I get more out of the fact that Bruce Wayne has assembled esoteric armors from around the world than I do from Batman Begins writer David Goyer having his characters build and discuss Batman’s operating procedure; I can fill in the rest in my head. I can make that leap from Japanese armor to Batsuit myself. I am already there.
Less really, really is more in this movie.
Short version: This is not a movie, it is an experience built out of pure spectacle with enough intriguing ambiguity for you to chew on a while, if you so desire.
Next: And speaking of ambiguity...