Tim Burton’s “Batman” is often overlooked in favor of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, but the 1989 version is in many ways better, not to mention more light-hearted and fun. I think “Batman”‘s charm lies in the fact that it doesn’t try to be anything more than a goofy, campy superhero movie. It’s dark, sure, as is Burton’s incarnation of a bleak, crime-ridden Gotham, but it doesn’t try to be as ‘gritty’ and ‘edgy’ and ‘realistic’ as Nolan’s series.
Plus, Jack Nicholson as Joker! Now, I am not going to hate on the late Heath Ledger (it is Chris Nolan who kind of lost me after “Memento,”) but Nicholson is really boss as Batman’s nemesis and owned the role in a way that Ledger couldn’t quite muster (to be fair, picking between the performances is kind of like comparing apples and oranges.)
Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is an eccentric millionaire who uses his massive fortune to fight crime as Batman. Jack Napier (Nicholson) is a thug who is two-timed by his boss (Jack Palance) and left for dead, emerging from a vat of chemicals as the deformed, maniacal joker. Bruce is pursued by newspaper photographer and Batman enthusiast Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger,) who doesn’t know his true identity.
Unfortunately, he doesn’t know the first thing bout relationships- and the Joker is on the prowl, promising, in the spirit of generosity, to make Gotham’s 200th anniversary an occasion to remember (whether that memory will be regarded fondly is an entirely different matter.)
Michael Keaton is enjoyable as an obtuse vigilante who doesn’t know how to balance his love life and his self-appointed job as a crime-fighting superhero. I wasn’t too impressed with Vicki Vale. Kim Basinger was not too bad, but as with many superhero’s girlfriends, I felt very ‘meh’ about Vicki’s character. Unlike, say, Mary Jane Watson in “Spider-Man”, I never really felt like Vicki cared about either her boyfriend or his heroic alter ego. She seemed to only be after a good story for the newspaper.
She was also constantly doing stupid things like just standing there in the museum Joker besieged when she has an opportunity to get away (why don’t you take the oxygen mask with you) and reaching for the Joker’s hand to pull her up when he and Batman are dangling from a building (because the bad guy’s going to have a road to Damascus right halfway through trying to kill you, mmm-kay.)
Whereas Vicki is typically lifeless, passive female lead who suffers vague but persistent sexual threats from the baddie, Nicholson’s Joker is terrific- a villain worth cheering about (if not for.) His performance is a triumph of black comedy while still being frightening and sinister (I remember being scared by the “Love that Joker’ sequence with the smiling corpses of the models when I watched this movie as a kid.)
Keaton proves to be a more fun, lighter, and less self-serious Batman than Christian Bale (another plus the compete lack of Bale’s annoying growly Batman voice.) “Batman” features creative sets, great humor, and an outstanding turn by Jack Nicholson. I remain unsure whether to watch the sequels, as I’ve heard repeatedly that it’s all downhill from here, but the original should go down in history as a effective superhero movie that’s a cut above the rest.