Superhero movies may be the go to gig these days for the major film studios, but back in the late 1980s, they weren’t exactly popular. With Superman IV: The Quest for Peace still a bad aftertaste in the movie-going public’s mouth, it’s a miracle really that Warner Brothers decided to fund a Batman movie. Even more astounding is that they set the picture in the lap of young director Tim Burton. With only a few films under his belt, including Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetle Juice, Burton seemed like an eclectic choice to helm a big budget Batman film.
Burton proved up to the challenge however, and delivered one of the best takes on The Dark Knight ever with 1989’s Batman. The film chiefly succeeds because of the atmosphere and vibe of Gotham City that Burton conjures up. Gotham becomes another character in the film, blending contemporary and classic themes into a unique look that has yet to be recreated in the Batman universe. The film has a distinct comic feel, with slightly exaggerated action set pieces and classic character archetypes.
The story revolves around the rise of The Joker (Jack Nicholson) and his chemical war on Gotham City via his poisoning of personal hygiene products. Batman (Michael Keaton) steps up to stop him, but is hindered by the developing relationship Bruce Wayne has with young reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger). Batman manages to balance the Bruce Wayne and Batman sides of the central character, with Burton and Keaton giving each side equal face time. Michael Keaton is superb as both characters: A looming, unnerving presence as Batman and a quirky, slightly befuddled Bruce Wayne. Jack Nicholson’s Joker portrayal is as boisterous as you’d expect from the veteran actor, and he embraces the maniacal side of the villain wholeheartedly. As a result, The Joker character lacks some depth, but Nicholson is so gung-ho in his performance that it never becomes an issue.
Obviously, comparisons between Burton’s Batman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight are impossible to avoid. The movies share many similarities story wise, and which actors are better in the roles comes down to personal preference. After watching both films though, it’s clear that Nolan studied Burton’s film as a point of reference, and for good reason: It’s a well balanced film with fantastic art/set direction (Oscar winning actually) that understands the importance of treating Batman and Bruce Wayne as two sides of the same coin. Throw in a great score by Danny Elfman, an awesome looking Bat Mobile and Jack Nicholson cackling like a lunatic, and you have one of the best Batman films ever.