With The Dark Knight Rises heading into theaters next week, concluding Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, we here at Cinema Blend have decided to take a trip down memory lane and revisit some of the Caped Crusader’s previous films. We’ll be posting a new Batman Rewind article each day and we’re kicking things off with Eric’s take on Tim Burton’s 1989 classic Batman.
Tim Burton’s Batman is highly revered both as a classic blockbuster and as one of the better superhero movies ever made, but Burton’s take on the central characters is baffling to those who recognize them from the comics. Why is Bruce Wayne, a billionaire celebrity, portrayed as a quiet, funny little man who lives a tiny life inside of his giant mansion? How is it that neither Bob nor Joker have heard of Bruce Wayne? Why is Joker given a name? Who decided it was a good idea to make Joker kill Thomas and Martha Wayne? Every time I think about the movie it’s Burton’s infidelity to the characters that has always stuck out to me and caused me to have more contempt for it than most comic book fans. So how would it hold up on re-watch?
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time complaining about the problems with Batman that I’ve forgotten how much there is to like about it, but on I enjoyed the film during this viewing far more than I have previously. Putting aside the less glaring flaws – such as the geeky nitpicks – I found myself discovering a movie that has a brilliant hero vs. villain dynamic, a thrilling ending, and an impressive number of classic scenes that still hold up some 23 years later.
While I still maintain that Michael Keaton makes for a terrible Bruce Wayne, he really is arguably the best man to ever wear the Batsuit, and Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a terrific foil. Though the rubber costume is a bit silly, Keaton’s performance allows it to still be intimidating so that the audience still feels the same chills that the bad guys do. Likewise, Nicholson’s Joker manages to be the best of both worlds, perfectly balancing that line between funny and malevolent. He will now forever live in the shadow of Heath Ledger, who I would still argue has a better interpretation of the character, but it’s a turn that should never be forgotten.
The film is also fascinating to look at from a meta, pop culture standpoint as well. I loved watching the post-surgery scene with Joker and thinking about Lisa getting her head gear applied on The Simpsons. I smiled when Joker hissed, “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” my mind clicking back to Jay and Silent Bob hanging from a Batcable towards the end of Mallrats. My blood pumped as I watched the Batwing scoop up all the poisonous parade balloons and remembered zooming around with my toy Batwing in my backyard as a kid. More than just nostalgia, I felt like I was re-discovering roots of my memories, making the film almost self-referential. Few movies are as embedded in our culture as Batman and it’s something to be revered.
I will never love Burton’s first foray into the superhero genre as much as I love what Christopher Nolan has done with the Dark Knight series, though my most recent viewing has raised my opinion of it significantly. I still can’t figure out how Joker was able to shoot down the Batwing with a single shot from a long-muzzled pistol or why the director thought that Prince was the perfect artist for the soundtrack, but at least now I can also see the brighter side of Batman.
How Does It Lead To The Dark Knight Rises?
Christopher Nolan is known for lending legitimacy to superhero movies, particularly in the way he treats the material seriously and plays things dark and gritty, but without Tim Burton he may have never gotten that chance. While many saw Batman as a goofy, campy character thanks to the Adam West era, it was Burton’s film and Frank Miller’s comic book run The Dark Knight Returns that helped pave the way for Nolan’s Batman movies. Burton, staying within the confines of a PG-13 rating, wasn’t afraid to get a bit intense, whether it was having the Joker kill someone with a quill, painting terrifying smiles on the clown prince of crime’s make-up victims, or gunning down Bruce Wayne. I wouldn’t be surprised if the “magic trick” in The Dark Knight was directly inspired by the Joker electrocuting a gangster in this film.
It was also the 1989 movie that first created Batman: The Phenomenon. In addition to a ridiculous marketing push – you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the symbol on toys, t-shirts or carved into the back of people’s heads – the film was a monster blockbuster. While its opening weekend take of $40 million may look small by today’s standards - where The Avengers managed to open with $207 million – it was huge news in the late 80s and the film wound up making $251 million in the United States and $160 million in foreign sales. Even without adjusting for inflation Batman’s box office gross among all Caped Crusader movies is second only to The Dark Knight.
Burton changed the game with Batman and every film featuring the character since owes tribute to it, including the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises.
And A Few More Things…
Best Scene As mentioned earlier, Batman has more than a few scenes that have become the stuff of pop culture legend, but no scene from the film can top when Joker gets his bandages removed for the first time. Burton toys with the audience brilliantly, never showing us the villain’s disfigured face and the mix of fear from the doctor and laughter from the clown is brilliant. It’s a classic for a reason.
Most Jarring Piece Of Music Burton’s selection of Prince for the soundtrack is bizarre in every respect, but nowhere is it weirder than in the museum invasion with the song “Partyman.” It’s probably the closest we’ll ever get to a musical number in a respectable superhero movie and let’s hope it stays that way.
Best Quote I’m going to have to go with the simple, “I’m Batman.” Audiences have constantly made fun of Christian Bale’s growl in the Nolan movies, but Keaton nails it and this is by far his best quote under the cowl.
Best Use Of Batman As A Cultural Reference I grew up wearing braces and loving Batman and The Simpsons. Lisa getting braces in “Last Exit To Springfield” takes the cake here.