Shining the Bat Signal on the biggest blockbuster of 1989
It seems there were fewer summers in film history more crammed than 1989. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Ghostbusters II. Lethal Weapon 2. Star Trek V. Licence to Kill. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The Abyss. And those were just the BIG films. There were also sleeper hits like Dead Poets Society, When Harry Met Sally, Do the Right Thing, Turner and Hooch and Parenthood. There were also past-it sequels like A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, Friday the 13th Part VIII and The Karate Kid Part III. And yet, despite all of that, in the end one film beat them all to become not only the biggest of the year, but one of the biggest of the decade. Batman.
Before 1989, the only Batman I knew was Adam West. You know; camp, colour, comedy and WHAM! BOW! BOP! silliness. I was certainly not aware of the original comics, or Frank Miller’s recent, landmark The Dark Knight Returns. The thought of there being a Batman which was dark, moody and violent was unimaginable. And yet here it was, coming soon to cinemas. That’s when the playground rumours started, the most common one being that everyone’s favourite boy wonder Robin was going to be murdered in the first ten minutes. That turned out to be nonsense (he isn’t even referred to in the film) but still, I heard that there was like, a prostitute in Gotham City in the opening scene! A family get mugged straight afterwards! One of the muggers said ‘shit’! This sounded like incredibly edgy stuff for someone like me back then, and too much for a PG, you may think.
And you’d be right. Batman was the first film in the UK to be classified with the new ’12’ rating. This came five years after Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, both classified ‘PG’ in the States, were problematic enough for the MPAA to create the ‘PG-13’ rating, intended as a happy medium between the PG and R-ratings. In the UK, the controversial content of these films were either sidestepped (Gremlins was classified ’15’) or eviscerated (Temple of Doom was cut by over a minute to get a ‘PG’) and for the next few years, plenty of PG-13 films suffered similar outcomes, be it a cut ‘PG’, or an uncut but audience-restricting ’15’. In some cases a film would be cut for a PG on cinema release, and then released uncut as 15 on video. However, Batman was something else entirely. Potentially bigger even than Temple of Doom, it got a PG-13 without any bother in the US, but how would it fare in the UK? Like Temple of Doom, giving it a ’15’ would have incurred the wrath of children everywhere, so instead of cutting it to oblivion like they had done with the earlier film, the BBFC accepted that a new intermediate certificate was necessary.
The Joker : Tell me something, my friend. You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?
Bruce Wayne : What?
The Joker : I always ask that of all my prey. I just… like the sound of it.
Interestingly, there was another film that summer that was causing all manner of certification problems – the 16th James Bond film Licence to Kill – with the BBFC demanding a multitude of cuts before they were even considering giving it a ’15’. So that’s not one but two formerly family-friendly institutions that children were being prohibited watching that summer. Ultimately, Batman does make sense as a ’12’ and is probably the perfect example of the rating — not adult enough to warrant a ’15’ or an ’18’, but genuinely macabre and edgy enough to appeal to the middle ground. So yes, compared to the Caped Crusader’s on-screen antics of yore, this new Batman seemed more suited for grown-ups, or at the very least, older brothers and sisters. Nowadays, it seems like every reboot promises a darker take on old material, but this approach felt entirely new back in 1989. As an eight-year old, Batman might as well have been an ’18’ for all the likelihood that I was going to be able to see it, so I had to make do with the trading cards, the most striking of which was the ‘Bruised But Not Beaten’ one of Batman having emerged from the destroyed Batwing with a bloody face — I mean, Batman wasn’t meant to bleed! If he could bleed, he could be killed!
Batman on many levels was a bold move — where was the precedent that this film would actually succeed? Tim Burton had no track record in action or adventure. Before this he’d given us the offbeat, wild comedy of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. Michael Keaton was also a truly leftfield choice for Batman and Bruce Wayne; aside from the previous year’s Clean and Sober, he hadn’t acted outside of the comedy genre. And then there was the fact that before Batman, the only major comic-book film of any real note was Superman, and by 1989 that series had well and truly fizzled out, embarrassingly so. Whereas the first film was one of the brightest successes in Warner Bros.’ legacy, by the time of The Quest for Peace, the property had been sold off to Cannon films and had resorted to bargain-basement special effects, location filming in Milton Keynes and scriptwriting so in contempt for its audience that the writers figured having one of its characters breathe unaided in space was, on any level, acceptable logic. And yet the marketing behind Batman was so shrewd, so canny and so perfect that at the very least ignoring it was not an option. Warners meant business. 1989, for better or worse, was going to be the Year of the Bat, and once those lights had darkened in cinemas across the world and the film began, all fears were put to rest.
There are fewer opening title sequences as thrilling as the one for Batman. The famous Warner Bros. logo — the ‘WB’ shield in front of a blue sky — began the film as expected, but then the skies turned dark, the shield faded and we moved towards and through a strange, Gothic stone structure, with Danny Elfman’s extraordinary score rumbling and building towards the inevitable, grand reveal of the title. And when it came, when that music rose to its peak…we were all ready. And so began one of the all-time great film themes, the main Batman theme, the one that took no prisoners, the one that instantly announced this as the blockbuster to end them all. The credits continued and we remained intrigued — just what was it we were inside here? A building? A maze? No… of course, it was the famous Batman logo, more foreboding, scary and awe-inspiring that it had ever been before. And then we fade in on Gotham City, where crime, instigated by the evil mob boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) runs rampant, where the police are compromised by corruption and/or ineffectiveness, a place where you can’t even hope to stage a bicentennial without fear of chaos.
The plot, to be fair, is nothing special, but what I do love about this first Batman film is that it doesn’t get bogged down in exposition or an origin story for the hero — here Batman, the alter-ego of reclusive millionaire Bruce Wayne, already exists as a fully fledged, (in)famous vigilante in Gotham, albeit one that both bad guys and good guys are wary about and who is not yet working in co-operation with the police. Regarded as a menace by both sides, it takes a truly monstrous antagonist for everyone to realise that Batman is really the good guy, and if there is any kind of origin story here, it’s that of the villain, and of course we’re talking about The Joker, who for many remains the first and foremost of Batman’s adversaries. After hoodlum Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) falls into a vat of toxic chemicals and remerges born again as a perma-grinned, ghost-white and flamboyant psychotic (although to be fair, he always was a bit of an ‘A-1 nutball) the film becomes a tug-of-war between good and evil, with things like storyline clearing the way for spectacular set-pieces, magnificent imagery and even the odd comedy routine. Seriously, there’s a whole bit where The Joker and his goons vandalise a museum to the sounds of Prince’s ‘Partyman’ just for the fun of it!
The Joker : Where does he get those wonderful toys?
There are some side-plots, such as Bruce Wayne’s romance with photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), that, despite starting off with a sexual bang ends up on shaky ground thanks to the whole secret-identity business, and in a controversial move, the hitherto never-solved case of the murder of Bruce’s parents is given a culprit in the form of Jack Napier himself, which turns Batman’s quest for justice into a personal matter of revenge. It all leads to a fantastic ending that seems to take place atop a cathedral for no other reason than it’s an amazing location to stage a final confrontation (seriously, why didn’t the Joker’s helicopter just land on street level?) between Batman and The Joker, with the latter spectacularly vanquished and the streets safe from crime… at least until 1992‘s Batman Returns.
Despite the film’s enormous success and popularity, Batman still has an off-kilter, artistic approach that (along with its sequel), makes it stand out amongst the crowd as one of the most unusual and individual monster hits of all time. Rare was the blockbuster that was this stylised, this Gothic and this…well, dark. There’s barely any daylight in the film at all. This results in a claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere, but like Blade Runner before it, the darkness has a kind of dystopian beauty — put simply, Gotham City is not the kind of place you’d want to live in, but it’s great to walk on the wild side within the safe confines of a cinema screening. Also, the violence has a macabre, ghoulish and grotesque impact that still shocks — the ghastly fixed grins of the victims of the Joker’s poisonous gas, the deaths by hand buzzer and poisoned quill, the acid-burning of Jack’s lover Alicia (Jerry Hall) and those shots of corpses falling face-first into their meals at the museum — it’s all very wicked and yet not without a sense of absurd black humour. Then you have Batman himself, an insecure, haunted and obsessed loner who dresses up as a scary, taciturn and violent vigilante. Okay, we’ve had stern-faced, monosyllabic crime fighters in the past before like those played by Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson, but never in the confines of a superhero movie or mega-blockbuster. This was as far from the likes of Superman as imaginable. And yet that was all part of the appeal. For all its relatively daring content, the film’s very risks were what made it huge.
Not that this was a completely uncompromising film. One apparent concession was the decision to add an album’s worth of songs by Prince on the soundtrack, who at that time was still a seriously hot property, albeit not on the world-conquering level of his Purple Rain heyday. Okay, we didn’t know it at the time, but he’d already peaked as an artist, yet Prince was still cool as fuck, and while, if we put his Batman soundtrack in the context of his other albums, it was the weakest thing he’d released in nearly a decade, it was still a commercial juggernaut, crammed with fun songs and hit singles, the most surprising and insane of which was ‘Batdance’. Not actually heard in the film, it remains one of the weirdest and unconventional #1 singles of the Eighties. Closer in approximation to the Jive Bunny-branded medley hit singles of that time, it’s pretty much made up of dialogue samples of the movie laid over a Prince beat that the man probably knocked off in a matter of minutes, but as an encapsulation of the film’s commercial juggernaut, it can’t be beat.
Jack Nicholson as the Joker was almost as inevitable as him playing the Devil in The Witches of Eastwick a couple of years earlier. Here we have Jack playing Jack, playing up to his Jackness and absolutely devouring the screen. He was paid a tremendous amount of money, and just like 1978‘s Superman, such extravagance resulted in the actor playing the title character being relegated to second-billing! Still, the money was well spent, because Nicholson gives it absolutely everything, delivering a hysterically energised performance that is truly, truly insane. As Napier, he simmers and grins and barely keeps it together, but as soon as he sees what his plastic surgeon has done to him, he’s on an express train to hell and back.
Vicki Vale : What do you want?
The Joker : My face on the one dollar bill.
Vicki Vale : You must be joking.
The Joker : Do I look like I’m joking?
Whether he’s talking to corpses, dancing atop a cathedral, taking over the airwaves, vandalising art or wooing terrified victims, Nicholson inhabits the role with such gusto and joy that he truly became an all-time great screen villain. Yeah, we’ve had a more complex Joker since with Heath Ledger’s incredible, hypnotic and disturbing take, but for sheer malevolent flair, hilarity and unhinged theatricality, Nicholson’s Joker remains the most fun. Personal favourite moments include his dismissal of Batman as an ‘idiot’ for not realising that it is him who ‘made’ the Joker in the first place, the bit straight after when he attempts to punch the Caped Crusader in his armour-plated stomach, the absolutely crazy scene where he is ‘talked’ into killing off his business rivals by a ‘vicious bastard’ of a scorched corpse and of course, the ‘wait til they get a load of me’ moment, where he (most likely an ad-lib) starts making funny ‘ooop’ noises before laughing at his own insanity.
Not that it’s all laughs. His Joker is still pretty frightening and unpredictable. His indiscriminate and utterly meaningless killing spree scared the hell out of me when i was younger; just like Ledger’s Joker, he is a character who wants to watch the world burn, but unlike him, there’s a bizarre artistic method to his madness. He sees himself as the world’s first fully-functioning homicidal artist, above mere mortals or ‘little people’, who ‘makes art until someone dies’, even deliberately disfiguring his girlfriend to keep her in line with his ‘new aesthetic’. It may be presented as a laugh, but his unexpected dispatching of his faithful lackey Bob the Goon (Tracey Walter) always disturbed me as a child.
Michael Keaton, even today, feels like an offbeat choice for Bruce Wayne and Batman, and he’s still my favourite actor in both roles. As Wayne he has an eccentric (but never overplayed) remove that naturally sees him as a not-quite fit amongst Gotham’s glitterati and fat cats, a sense of humour and melancholic demeanour. He’s definitely the saddest of all the Bruce Wayne/Batmans we’ve seen on screen, and yet he’s also funny, tough, cool and fearsome. The new Batman costume is amazing too, even if logistics meant that Keaton could never turn his head, resulting in overtly-stylised and choreographed fight scenes, which to be honest, suit Burton’s static, comic-panel staging of the action sequences. Some may find Burton’s approach somewhat lacking in kinetic vibrancy, but I love their theatricality, and to be honest, it’s always nice to watch a blockbuster where the action scenes haven’t been edited to within an inch of their lives.
Not all of Batman works — the romantic subplot between Bruce and Vicki feels rudimentary and underdeveloped. Also, the plot is sketchy to say the least — the Joker’s plot to kill Gotham with his Smilex poison (hidden in everyday cosmetic products) seems to come out of absolutely nowhere. Still, such quibbles feel irrelevant when seen within the big picture, because more than anything, Batman felt and still feels like an event, maybe even more so than a movie. It’s an extraordinary achievement, of course, but the biggest thrill it exudes is the sheer presence of it all, the fact that all of this is actually happening on screen. That it was done with such artistry, character and uniqueness is all the more wonderful, and for that we must praise Tim Burton.
The Batman films are a massive collaborative effort of course, but one must praise Burton in particular for getting such a bold vision up on the screen with such confidence. What’s missing, I feel from many blockbusters today, is that sense of individual artistry. Burton not only made a Batman movie but he made it so ridiculously well and seemingly to his own design. Many comic book films followed in its wake, but aside from its immediate sequel, it would be a very long time before one captured the public imagination anywhere near as much, and that would be 2000’s X-Men, which heralded a new era of comic-book movie successes. By then, the Batman series had gone the way of Superman and had become a laughing stock, but for a few years, under Burton’s direction, it was an amazing thing indeed.