Millionaire by day, caped superhero by night; Bruce Wayne is forced to don the cowl and take on a familiar maniacal face from his past in Tim Burton’s unique take on DC’s Dark Knight.
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough
Run Time: 126 Minutes
Release Date: 23 June 1989 (US)
23 years after Adam West and his colourful ensemble kept Bats fan entertained, Tim Burton was given the green-light to bring the Caped Crusader into the modern day, while also adding his particular touch to a character that needed a revitalization. And minutes into the film you realise he has indeed done that, Gotham looking significantly dark and Gothic. But a director can only direct a film, it needs a cast to succeed. And back in 1989, there was an awful lot of controversy over the cast.
It’s fair to say Michael Keaton’s appointment as Batman was not met with widespread acclaim; considering his CV entries prior to donning the cowl included such outings as Mr Mom, The Dream Team and Beetlejuice, fans were not too excited about seeing their comic book hero being portrayed by a comedy actor. At least the confirmation that Jack Nicholson would be The Joker brought some solace and confidence that Burton’s vision would not be a total loss. It became quite clear early on, however, that the studio were banking on Nicholson to make this a success, with him getting top billing – almost unheard of considering he was the villain to the titular hero – and a reported mega contract guaranteeing him a $6 million dollar salary, specific contract clauses and a percentage of the movie’s box office gross. Following the film’s mammoth success, Nicholson pocketed between $60 and $90 million.
With Nicholson heading the billing as Jack Napier (pre-acid bath, and the negative reception to his hiring, all eyes were on Keaton to see if he could prove Burton right. Thankfully Keaton delivers in spades, delivering what are essentially two world-class performances as Batman and Bruce Wayne. It’s a shame, then, that the writers and Burton himself fail him when it comes to presentation. Whether a directive from above or a natural leaning to an established name, the focus on Nicholson’s Joker does Keaton a great disservice. And Batman as well, who should never be a supporting character in his own movie. We are never given a real insight into Wayne’s psyche or motivation, with only a short flashback showing a young Jack Napier murdering the elder Waynes. Many took umbrage with this movie development, pointing out that Napier does not kill Bruce’s parents in the comics, and while we can accept movie adaptations taking creative license with source material, this change seemed to exist solely to put even more focus on Nicholson’s (now virtually lead) character. And while on the subject of destroying Bat-origins, the scene featuring Alfred bringing Basinger’s Vicky Vale into the Batcave would never have existed in the comics. For Wayne’s trusty butler to do that would surely lead to Mr Pennyworth seeking alternative employment.
That set piece also highlights one of the movie’s more strange scenes. Vale finds out here for the first time that Wayne is Batman, and her reaction is stunningly absent. As in, there is no reaction. Shock, confusion, maybe even betrayal that he kept this from her? Nothing. Not a word. Again, this seems almost unforgivable given the deep level of secrecy that Wayne’s alter ego maintains. This is one of those moments you encounter in this film that makes you wonder if Burton was so concerned with presenting both his vision of Gotham and Nicholson’s Joker that he neglected things such as development for the other characters.
As well as the magnificent set design a word of praise must also be kept aside for the costumes. Of course, every Batman film was have a focus on what the suit will look like, and here it does not disappoint. Classic black with a dash of yellow, the suit matches the film’s noir look perfectly, and for a long time was the best Batsuit seen on film. Attention was also paid to Joker’s get-up (naturally) with his outfits looking vibrant and right at home in the world Burton was building. Same goes for the iconic Batmobile, which still holds up today as one of the best designs seen on film.
A dramatic and action-packed final act do their best to paper over the cracks that exist, and does establish Batman as – to go several years into the future – the hero we need…and deserve. Nicholson undoubtedly steals the show, but Keaton makes Batman his own and does enough to justify the faith in him under the cowl, and Burton behind the camera.
[tabgroup][tab title=”The Good“]
Nicholson puts forward as good a show-stealing performance as you will see
Keaton proves everyone wrong to become an excellent Batman
[/tab][tab title=”The Bad“]
Batman is underplayed and feels like a supporting character
Over-reliance and focus on Joker leaves other parts of the film to suffer
Significant deviation from the character’s comic origins