Caped Crusader Cinema: Batman (1989)

For those of you who thought you were getting off with only a Batman poll in anticipation of The Dark Knight, you were sorely mistaken. No, I am pulling out all the stops. Over the next few weeks, I will be doling out wistful retrospective musings, completely biased critical analysis, and meaningless final grades for each Bat Movie. And there was much rejoicing.

In Retrospect

I was in 4th grade when Batman came out. Bat logo t-shirts were plentiful in the halls at school. My friend Matthew Avery bragged about having seen the movie upwards of five times, and would quote the Joker often. Yes, Batman was a certifiable cultural phenomenon, yet I never saw it in the theater. I suppose at that point of my existence I was more interested in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

It wasn't until Batman was released on home video the next year that I finally got around to watching it for myself. After the infamous Diet Coke commercial from the original VHS release, the sky behind the Warner Brothers shield darkened, and the opening credits gradually panned to reveal the bat symbol. From the first action sequence, where Batman pummels a pair of small time crooks on a rooftop and vanishes into thin air, I was hooked.

We got the movie tie-in cereal (mini bat symbols that tasted suspiciously like Captain Crunch), and I carefully cut the logo out from the front of the box to tape on my bedroom wall. Now a 5th grader, it was me who was quoting the Joker in the lunch room, only my friends were probably scratching their heads and laughing behind my back that I was a year behind.

Critical Analysis

Unlike some of the other memorable movies of my childhood (like the aforementioned Ninja Turtles—sorry Mom for making you take me to see it), Batman holds up rather well today. In my mind, the visual dialect that director Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton establish is what all other cinematic interpretations of the character must be measured against. Burton, who was just starting to hone his signature expressionistic approach, establishes a deliberate pace and forgoes excessive exposition for strong visuals and perception. He also eschews the conventional origin movie boilerplate. Much of Bruce Wayne's back story is implied rather than fully explained. We don't even see a flashback of the Thomas and Martha Wayne murders until the 90 minute mark.

However, once the movie reaches the final half hour, the lapses in the narrative start to pile up. Jack Napier is revealed to be the real killer of Bruce Wayne's parents (a twist that comic book nerds still get worked up about). Alfred lets Vicki Vale into the Batcave (they only went on one date for heaven's sake). The Joker shoots down the Batwing with a handgun (sorry, I just don't buy that, ridiculously long barrel notwithstanding). And the only thing that saves the final confrontation in the cathedral from being a total snoozefest is Danny Elfman's unforgettable score.

In fact, Batman was the first movie in which I became aware of the score, thanks to Elfman's grandiose, gothic masterpiece. Like the best film scores, it helps to elevate many scenes to an iconic level. It was one of the first cassettes I ever owned. The unquestionable highlight is "Descent Into Mystery," which accompanies Batman and Vicki Vale's mid-film ride to the batcave. And then there are the Prince songs. It baffles me how the filmmakers could go to such great lengths to instill the movie with a timeless quality, encompassing the production design, costumes, and score, but as soon as "Partyman" starts blaring on the boombox during the museum scene, we are firmly yanked back to the late '80s.

While it is easy to point out the flaws, we musn't forget that Batman was really the first movie of its kind—a dark, serious comic adaptation. Those might be a dime a dozen these days, but back then they were really making it up as they went along. You have to give credit where credit is due. For the few things that they got wrong, there was so much more that they got right.

Grade: B+


Ben said...

My Batman memories:

I as well was not allowed to see this in the theaters, since I was only 10 and my mom decided to enforce the PG-13 rule (although she didn't deem it necessary for Last Crusade). I did always like this version, mostly because for some reason I was a big Michael Keaton fan...could it have been the Beetlejuice and Mr. Mom influences? I think so.

Krissy said...

Whatever happened to Michael Keaton anyways? It seems like after Multiplicity, his career really tanked. I don't understand why.

Ben said...

Don't forget Jack Frost! Oh right, that sucked...

Debbie said...

So Kristen, we just made the connection, but guess what?! Jesse, who plays Mario Kart with Dave is my cousin.

robmba said...

A fun Batman video mashup.

Dave said...

That is awesome. That would have been perfect for the Batman poll a few weeks ago, if only Adam West had made an appearance. My favorite part is when Michael Keaton lights Christian Bale on fire.