Batman rewatch: 1989's chaotic Joker showcase hides its weirdest instincts behind empty excess
Every Wednesday from now until The Batman hits theaters, we're watching Batman's theatrical films in chronological order. This week: the 1989 box office phenomenon that turned Tim Burton into a household name, available on HBO Max. Last week: the trained exploding shark. See you next Waynesday, when Batmen real and animated fall in crazy love.
Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) shoots models for Vogue and she shoots the revolution in Corto Maltese. "Pics by Vicky Vale," proclaims the latest Time magazine cover, her pretty white name above a pretty dead guy. Imagine if Annie Leibovitz was also David Halberstam, I guess, and then the brave chic photojournalist moves to Gotham to bonk the biggest story in town.
Basinger was just 3 years past the steamy 9 ½ Weeks, a feature the late Roger Ebert called "much more real and human" compared to other erotic films from that cinematic era. Despite the lukewarm '80s reception, from both audiences and reviewers, the sensual-driven film became a cult favorite. Jump to 1989, 9 years before she took the Oscar as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for L.A. Confidential, and It's evident the camera loves Basinger who took the her Batman role as photojournalist Vicki Vale--based on the DC Comics character--and made her Gotham City entry all her own in 1989's Batman. Vicki is often the viewpoint protagonist. Batman (Michael Keaton) is a mystery from her dawning perspective. In a flash of legs, we meet her first, before we ever really see Bruce Wayne. She is the lone civilian in a time when superhero movies still needed regular people.
Yet nothing about her is more fascinating than the doll she keeps on her vanity. It's a corroded little thing, dirty or just ancient, with a bare head beaten or burnt. It looks like an undead baby newsie, children who sold newspapers in the mid-19th century. We see it when Bruce flees into Vicki's bedroom, hunting for a weapon. The Joker (Jack Nicholson) is in the foyer, talking, talking, talking. Bruce doesn't notice the toy. We're left to ponder its origins. Is it a favorite artifact from Vicki's childhood? Or a memento from her latest war gig? A string of white pearls hangs around its head — and we're exactly ten minutes from seeing a pearl necklace ripped off Martha Wayne's neck. It's The other terrifying doll sits just opposite, staring right at us in the vanity mirror. It's a mesmerizing shot, a mere 10 seconds. It's a horror movie hidden away in a big bland apartment as Nicholson blathers on.
The cinematic detail of the Batman sets must be credited — or maybe your bored eyes want anything worth caring about. Massive grosses propelled director Tim Burton's goth-kilter sensibility into the mainstream, but there are long dull minutes that don't seem Burton-y at all. The director made this Batman between Beetlejuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), a live-action cartoon of twisted delight. Making this was miserable. He was an art school kid among alpha dogs.
Who deserves credit for the film's manic mood? I count four men with as much authorship claim as Burton. Nicholson was the resident legend, outranking Batman in the opening credits, and he dominates the camera's frame. Production designer Anton Furst made Gotham a magnificent ruin, so much Art Deco decomposing, all those piping and vents that look eerily biological. (It's an innards city.) Composer Danny Elfman's merry melodies move because Batman barely can. Freeze frames in the establishing shots while listening to the score, and you almost see the film Burton wanted to make, and later did. Don't forget ravenous producer Jon Peters, who wanted the star power of Keaton and Nicholson: they improvised dialogue with Burton, while the production went over budget. As recounted in the 1996 Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters' Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood (Simon & Schuster), Peters dated Basinger during the production. He claimed the two of them co-wrote the third act — which sounds like an empty credit grab, but why would anyone brag about writing this third act?
An early shot speaks volumes. Bruce ditches a gala at his manor to sit in front of a bank of screens, watching his guests from far away. He looks like a security guard who prefers night shifts — or a moody director. Keaton is great in these quiet moments, when the script's not asking him to juggle yuppie cuteness and gruff intimidation. He is the Bemused Batman — and is that furrowed brow channeling his Beetlejuice director's own frustrations? A tone of hesitation comes through in dialogue. "This house and all this stuff," Vicki tells Bruce, "It really doesn't seem like you at all." Later, Bruce has to explain Batman-ness, and what he says is: "Look, sometimes I don't even know what to think about this. It's just something I have to do." Is that a purposefully vague mission statement, or just rewrites running out of runway?
Batman was a sensation. The franchise wouldn't improve on its $400 million box office for nearly two decades. It cemented a notion of "darkness" in Batman stories, though next to comics like The Dark Knight Returns or The Killing Joke it looks precisely as bleak as Ace Ventura. There was so much merchandise, the film itself contains inline ads. Joker on Batman: "Where does he get those wonderful toys?" Keaton wears the suit like someone just poured cement on him, so the editing cuts around his awkward motions with orgasmic gadget close-ups. Everyone wanted the Batarang. Connoisseurs sought out the grappling gun. The Batmobile is voice-activated, which was stunning before it was normal. "Stop," Batman tells his car: Keaton's finest moment.
This Batman does not have many fine moments. But it is bad in a lost organic way that movies used to be bad. The poor decisions feel inspired, not some algorithm guessing how best to service fans toward the next sequel. The sets are so huge, and so you remember that it was possible to stick a camera on a glorious set in all the wrong places. It turns out Joker killed Batman's parents, probably because at the 90-minute-mark the hero and villain barely seem to be in the same country. Nicholson gives a lame performance — Cesar Romero had more layers, his Joker wanted things — but his clowning is full-bodied. He is literally the whitest man to ever dance to Prince, and he dances to Prince twice. Robert Wuhl plays someone who only exists because Vicki needs a man to journalist with. It's the only Batman movie where Batman asks his love interest how much she weighs, and the only Batman movie where Batman angrily tells his love interest, "You weigh more than 108."
When I was a kid I loved it. As a parent, I now feel differently. "When I was a kid," "As a parent": Are those the two worst phrases to read in a review? Nostalgia is usually just a memory lapse. Diaper changing does not connote moral authority. 1989's Batman is a nasty movie in a lot of ways, yet that nastiness sets it apart from the series (and the whole genre) that followed. It's a kid's movie with zero instinct for censorship. There's poor Jerry Hall, years before she became very rich Jerry Hall, as Joker's moll. Her face gets mutilated. She commits suicide. She faints, and she's not even the only blonde to faint. Meanwhile, the Joker declares, "This town needs an enema!" There's a palpable atmosphere of white-flight anxiety, with the Ed Koch-looking Mayor (Lee Wallace) desperate to return businesses to a downtown full of homeless and hookers.
A bit more coherence (or maybe a sequel) might have found real room for Billy Dee Williams' Harvey Dent, a lawman theoretically chasing both Joker and Batman. Instead, the movie's outline is oddly reminiscent of RoboCop, where another masked super-victim seeks vengeance on the lunatic criminal who ruined his life. That 1987 techno-satire knew the enemy. It ends in a board room high above the grungy mean streets. The hero kills the executive who trickled down pain on regular people. Tough for the Dark Knight to take on big business, because he is the business, man. So Batman makes a case for heavily armed law and order, which means a whole unwatchable scene about a high-artillery Batplane.
Systematic overthrow of the underclass. Hollywood conjures images of the past. Both of those sentences are rock-solid critiques of 1989's Batman, and actual lines from Prince's tie-in Batman album. That LP needed just like two good songs to be interesting; I guess "Partyman" is the standout? That song plays when Joker and his goons deface an art museum. "You will join me in the avant-garde of the new aesthetic!" Joker tells Vicki: Such a bad line, but there's a stray notion that Nicholson's chemistry-genius gangster fancies himself some kind of Warhol. Everything I'm saying makes Batman sound successfully pretentious. I dunno. It feels like a movie the jerks made. When Batman blows up a whole chemical plant full of henchmen, he could be any Reaganite hero hurling explosions at villainous randoms. "You're a real nice girl and I like you a lot," Bruce tells Vicki, "But for right now, shut up." Context gives their chemistry-free romance a retroactive jolt. Of course they don't last.
Hit and Run quotes Burton calling this production "the worst period of my life." You can spot his new aesthetic, here and there. During the climax, the camera stares up at the Gotham Cathedral, which is 200-year-old skyscraper church or something. There's a brief long shot of the Joker dangling from his helicopter. A searchlight passes over Vicki and Batman, who are hanging off the roof. You can see that bodies are miniatures. (Vicki isn't even moving; Batman swings like a Muscle Man glued to a diorama.) It is somehow funny and scary and just more effective visually than a lot of the stunt-heavy shots in that mishmashed final fight. More of that was coming soon, but the first big-budget Batman is mostly inflated schtick. The Joker throws $20 million in the air right before he tries to gas downtown. That's the movie in a nutshell. Come for the money, stay for the poison.