Looking back at Tim Burton’s Batman

Our look back at the work of Tim Burton arrives at the film that launched the modern day blockbuster as we know it: Batman...

“You made me. Remember? You dropped me into that vat of chemicals. That wasn’t easy to get over, and don’t think that I didn’t try.” – The Joker

By the time 1989 rolled around Tim Burton was riding high on his successes with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, the latter of which would lead to him getting the green light to push ahead with a project he had been working on for some time previously. Little could Burton have imagined that his next film, and only his third studio directed picture, would become one of the most successful movies of the decade and re-launch the superhero movie for a new generation of cinema goers.

From the 60s to the early 80s the fate of superheroes seemed to lie in the land of over the top camp TV shows. Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and Superman (being paraded around as Superboy) were all victims of this and none more so than Batman. Each week Adam West and Burt Ward took on their foes in bright Technicolor with a BOW, BAM, WHAM! as Batman and Robin, but by 1989 things had changed and Batman was due for a re-vamp. And Mr Burton was the man charged with doing it.

After witnessing his parents’ brutal murder as a child, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), multi-millionaire playboy and owner of Wayne Enterprises, decides to avenge their death by taking to the streets of his home city Gotham at night as Batman.

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Gotham is in the middle of a war against criminals that it is not winning, with the city being controlled by Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) and even with the efforts of Police Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) and newly elected district attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), corruption throughout the system is rife. With this in mind, Gotham Globe journalists Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) and Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) decide to investigate the phantom bat that has been scaring the criminals of the city.

While attending a party at Wayne Manor that night, Vicki and Alexander meet Bruce who is automatically attracted to Vicki but is soon called away when there is a raid at Axis Chemicals, which is being lead by Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). When the police come to arrest him, Jack realises he has been set up by Grissom due to his extra-curricular activates with his mistress.

As the bullets fly, Batman arrives, taking out Jack’s men and in a face-to-face between the two, Jack shoots at Batman but the bullet ricochets off the bat suit and back at Jack. Injured, he falls over the platform he is standing on. Trying to save him, Batman grabs his hand but he loses grip and Jack falls into a vat of chemicals.

While everybody believes Jack is dead, he has survived and with his hair and skin discoloured he turns to a back-street surgeon, whose only choice is to give Jack a permanent, twisted grin, thus giving birth to the Joker.

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With revenge on his mind, the Joker firstly takes on Grissom and then takes over his empire. As head of the biggest criminal gang in Gotham, he holds the city hostage by altering an array of personal hygiene products, which kills anybody who uses them by making them laugh to death.

Bruce tries to trace the Joker’s location but has bigger things to worry about when the Joker takes an interest in Vicki, who since their meeting at his party have grown closer together.

It is revealed that the Joker was, in fact, the criminal that killed Bruce’s parents and after destroying the chemical factory creating the deadly products, Batman goes solely after the Joker who is in the process of attempting to kill the occupants of Gotham by luring them out of their homes with the promise of free cash and then poisoning them with his lethal laughing gas.

Batman manages to come in time to foil his ultimate plan but the Joker takes off with Vicki and a climatic chase takes place up the spire of Gotham Cathedral. In a final showdown, the Joker falls to his death and the city can rest easy again, for a while at least.

Thankful for his help, Police Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent unveil the Bat-Signal, a call for help when the city needs it (which would be around three years later).

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When news of an all action re-vamped Batman movie came to light, fans of the caped crusader were less than impressed with the casting of Michael Keaton in the lead (50,000 letters to Warner Bros unimpressed), but nothing could stop the machine that was Batman and with pre-release hype, it became the first movie to earn $100 million in its first ten days of release.

Taking a much darker tone than any previous superhero movie (just look at the stunning set designs), Batman wasn’t afraid to make its lead less than perfect. Like his counterpart, the Joker, both men were hiding behind masks and their fate would be to face each other. This very dysfunctional relationship is the centre of the movie and everything else really revolves around it, and although various plot strands evolve from it, it all ties into the main story.

Although slightly criticised at the time for focusing too much on the Joker rather than the movie’s lead namesake, it would be an impossible task for it to go any other way. The Joker is a big in-your-face character, as we have seen more recently in The Dark Knight. The thought and presence of him is enough to make you sit up in your seat and pay attention, and although Heath Ledger’s performance may be the award winning one, Jack Nicholson does a great job in a role that defined him many years after. He also, to me, is a fitting embodiment of the time. I am hardly calling him a yuppie Joker but there is something just so 80s about him that, in many ways, he is an embodiment of the decade.

Michael Keaton plays the lead of Bruce Wayne/Batman admirably. Studying the character through The Dark Knight Returns comic series rather than any previous live action incarnations, Bruce is more of a tortured soul than anything else. He can feel his need to keep putting on the bat suit and trying to save the city, but the cost can also be seen: what real life can he really have with such a dark secret?

Both men are supported well by the surrounding cast, but you can’t help but feel they are mostly pawns in the bigger game. Basinger does well as the love interest for Bruce and special mention to Robert Wuhl whose Alexander Knox brings some light-hearted moments when required.

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Comic book fans are the hardest to please when it comes to adapting graphic novels and legendary characters to the screen and Batman was no exception. As mentioned above, they were highly against the casting of Michael Keaton but they were soon appeased once they saw his portrayal. That said, a few gripes were brought up, including the fact the Joker killed Bruce’s parents, when, in fact, a character called Joe Chill was behind it, as well as the fact Alfred allowed Vicki into the Bat Cave, a travesty that would never have been allowed.

Burton’s style again seeps through this movie and the gothic ambience of Gotham is wonderful. His pacing is great; there is never any moment that you wish would stop dragging until something else happens. Each scene melds and blends into each other in glorious comic book style. His interpretation of Bruce Wayne is just dark enough you don’t feel depressed while watching and his use of special effects is limited, focusing more on make-up, costumes and props to tell the story, something I do sometimes wish more directors would do.

The success of Batman ensured that a sequel was quickly green lit, but first Burton would release a movie that would in many ways prove to be his calling card, a tale of a boy with scissors for hands, next time I’ll be taking a visit to the magical Edward Scissorhands.

Batman Key Info:Released: 23rd June 1989 (US) / 11TH August 1989 (UK)Distributed By: Warner Bros. PicturesBudget: $48,000,000Box Office Gross: $411,350,000Best DVD Edition: Batman Two Disc Special Edition