Paragon Pundit Hero Movie Review #4

Paragon Pundit Hero Movie Review
#4: Batman (1989 Movie)

Following up on my scathing review of the 1966 film, it’s time to take a look at the next attempt at doing the Dark Knight some justice with the 1989 Warner Brothers release of “Batman”, directed by Tim Burton, and starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Bassinger, Robert Wuhl, Jack Palance, Michael Gough, Billy Dee Williams, Tracey Walter, Pat Hingle, and Jerry Hall.

The movie starts with a young family lost in the mean streets of Gotham City. They quickly find themselves lost in an alley and mugged by two thugs. Unbeknownst to them, their actions were observed by a shadowy figure. That figure would become the infamous Batman (Keaton), who tells one of the thugs to spread the word that he’s around.

The story of Batman is easily dismissed as urban legend, though, despite the efforts of investigative reporter Alexander Knox (Wuhl). Gotham Police, split between honest cops loyal to Commissioner Gordon (Hingle) and DA Harvey Dent (Williams) and corrupt cops loyal to Mob Boss Carl Grissom (Palance), both dismiss the reports of the Batman and his exploits. Knox is joined by famed photojournalist Vicky Vale (Bassinger) who believes that Batman exists and the two go off to Bruce Wayne’s party to talk with Gordon and Dent.

Meanwhile Boss Grissom has decided that he needs to get rid of his right-hand man. Jack Napier (Nicholson) has been fooling around with his girlfriend (Hall) and needs to be eliminated. He arranges the corrupt police to have Napier killed.

Gordon finds out about the attempted hit and moves to arrest Napier. His conversation is overheard by Wayne’s elaborate security system, and soon the raid is joined by Gordon’s police, and by Batman. During the battle, Batman confronts Napier, and in a quick gunfire, a ricochet bullet cuts Napier’s face open and tosses him over a railing. Batman reaches out to Napier, but loses his grip and the gangster falls into a vat of chemicals and disappears.

The next night Wayne meets with Vale and the two end up getting drunk and having sex. At the same time, a disfigured and deranged Napier shows up at Grissom’s penthouse and announces that “Jack is dead… call me… JOKER!” Grissom is then shot to death by the perpetually grinning white-skinned lunatic.

Joker assumes control of the whole criminal operation, much to the shock of Wayne. Joker is also smitten by Vale and plans to meet with her, bringing his equally disfigured girlfriend in tow. Meanwhile, people are dropping like flies in Gotham because of the Joker’s deadly drug known as “Smilex”, which causes people to laugh to death as their skin turns white and their hair turns green.

The movie at this point becomes a game of cat-and-mouse as the Joker finds ways to kill everyone in Gotham, Batman tries to find the Joker, and Vale wants to know what the connection is between Wayne, Batman, and the Joker. Oh, and Knox wants a grant. And an admission that he was right.

This movie was a welcomed re-introduction of the Batman legend, especially after the camp buffoonery of the 60’s TV series, the 1966 movie, and subsequent TV spin-offs which cast Batman more as an overly-dramatic Bat-fix-it-man, with a specific Bat-device for any kind of problem. Whereas the campy Batman would pull out a “Bat-anti-thug-immobilizer”, the movie Batman would rather just punch the criminal’s lights out. It helped that the movie was made not long after the publishing of Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns”, which had an aging Batman returning from retirement to reclaim Gotham, and Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke”, in which the Joker cripples Barbara Gordon and tries to drive her father insane. In fact it is said that “The Killing Joke” was the story that inspired Director Burton to take the needed overall dark tone of the story.

The casting of Keaton as the Caped Crusader came a complete surprise, since Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in movies like “Beatlejuice” and “Mr. Mom”. Yet he played the character dangerously and maintained the proper balance between Wayne and Batman. Nicholson, on the other hand, played the role of the Joker as over-the-top as he could, which fit the character nicely.

Burton’s surreal view of Gotham does add a certain level of cheesiness to the movie. But rather than playing up on the surreal elements and going camp, Burton rightly adopted a serious tone to legitimatize the look, and thus kept the cheese factor contained. This is the important element that separated this movie from subsequent sequels, especially coming from people like Joel Shoemacher, who single-handedly destroyed the Batman film run for about a decade. But that is another review for another time.

As a hero movie, though, this stands out as one of the best.

Capes: This film earned all 5 capes. You have a clearly-visible iconic hero and a clear villain.

Burton’s surrealism gives it a necessary Swiss cheese (1), but fortunately it is contained.

Books: A good story with sufficient twists. The very last part could use some work so it only gets 4 books out of 5.

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