- Movie Rating -

Batman (1989)

| June 23, 1989 | 0 Comments

There are so many things to like about Tim Burton’s “Batman,” and yet just as much that annoys and frustrated me that I find myself in a state of praising and criticizing it almost in equal measure.  Here is a well-made action movie done with skill and great artistry, yet it tells a story that it is hard to care anything about.  It presents a wonderfully bizarre villain in The Joker, while pushing the hero into the shadows and never taking advantage of the opportunity to get inside his head.

That’s a major misstep because out of all the superheroes, Batman is the most interesting.  He is a figure of deep psychological complexity.  Unlike Superman, who sees the world from the air and possesses a body that is impervious to pain, Batman sees the world from the ground up, and hobbles home every night to nurse not only his wounds but his personal demons.  He is so deeply damaged by what he has experience that it traps him into a personal prison, a batsuit, to do a job that he knows will never be finished.

Approaching that deeply troubled soul might have seemed a reasonable assignment for a director like Tim Burton, whose films are dark and broody and often tilted in favor of the outsider.  He clearly wants to pull Batman out of light of the campy 60s TV series and put him back into the shadowy world of film noir, where he belongs.  Yet, his Batman is curiously muted.  Instead of telling a story about a troubled character, Burton’s film is a standard ordinary Batman adventure in which The Caped Crusader attempts to bring down The Joker.  Ho-hum.  We can read that in a comic book.

The film isn’t a complete waste.  It is evenly split between elements that work and elements that don’t.  To our surprise, the element that doesn’t work is Batman himself, and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne.  As played by Michael Keaton, Batman is a shadowy figure who appears from nowhere in a rubber suit to terrorize Gotham City’s criminal population and then disappear as quickly as he came.  As Bruce Wayne, Keaton seems way too calm for a man dealing with, as he calls it, “a head full of bad wiring.”  He doesn’t look much like a billionaire, more like a guy who works for one.

Jack Nicholson, however, is right on target.  He gives a splendid, virtuoso performance as The Joker, a role that he seems born to play.  He’s onscreen very soon and very often.  So often, in fact, that he really becomes the bulk of the movie.  There are moments when The Joker has so many scenes that we tend to forget that Batman is even around.  That might have something to do with the fact the scenes involving Bruce Wayne are kind of dry and dull.  Even his love story with press photographer Vicki Vale seems somewhat inevitable.  They’re drawn together by the plot, not by personality.  The scene in which she finds out his true identity is one of the dullest reveals that you’ve ever seen.  They don’t seem to really care about each other.  Vale, as a character is incomplete.  She’s introduced as a photographer who travels to war zones to record the carnage, but then she becomes just a damsel in distress.

As uninvolving as this story is, you can’t deny the craft involved.  Gotham City looks like a suburb of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.  Created by the last Anton Furst, the architecture of the city makes it look like it was put together out on the spur of the moment, not out of necessity.  It stands for the twisted nature of the corruption of the city itself.  You could only wish that the story and the cast of characters were as well designed.  This is a movie of great craft but of little characterization.  It’s not a bad movie, just an uneven and unsatisfying one

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.