Batman came about at a most curious time. If people thought of Batman at all, it was that of a campy television show, one that had made the Dark Knight into a figure of fun (the film version did not help dispel the idea that Batman was camp at best). Also, comic book-based films had suffered a beating after the horrors of Superman III AND Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. As such, Batman was already facing a tough fight. Through in the casting of Michael Keaton, an actor best known for comedies like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice, as the Dark Knight and many in the fanbase were prepared for a disaster. And did I mention that the director of Batman was the same guy who made Beetlejuice?
However, Batman did what few thought possible: it created a brilliant adaptation that has stood the test of time, coupled with great performances and an iconic theme that I think is still held as THE Batman theme (even if most Batman fans have worshipped at the altar of newer adaptations).
There's a myth spreading about the criminals in Gotham City of a strange creature who targets wrongdoers, a large bat. It doesn't take long to discover that there is such a creature, who when asked who he is, replies coldly, "I'm Batman". Not believing or caring about the growing rumors is one Jack Napier, second-in-command to Gotham mobster Gus Grissom (Jack Palance). Napier has been secretly involved with Grissom's mistress, Alicia (Jerri Hall), oddly the least dangerous and unhinged thing Napier is involved with. Grissom sends Jack to eliminate evidence at a chemical factory, but Jack discovers that he's been set-up by Grissom to be killed by the corrupt police in his payroll.
Fortunately for him, Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle), the rare honest cop, shows up to insist Napier be caught alive. Unfortunately for him, so does Batman. Napier's efforts at escape fail, and he falls into a vat of acid. Everyone believes Napier is dead, but he's got a few tricks up his sleeve. The first one is his new name to go with the disfigured face. You can call him, "Joker" (Jack Nicholson).
The only person who is convinced that there is a six-foot-bat harassing Gotham's criminals is Gotham Gazette reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl). Into this comes photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), best known for her glamorous images but who has earned praise for covering a violent political revolution. She too is convinced there's a story here, and teams up with Knox.
It isn't long before both encounter millionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), and his loyal manservant, Alfred (Michael Gough). Wayne takes an instant interest in Vale...as does Joker, who now has unleashed his merry madness upon Gotham. A war now begins between the two, with Vale caught in the middle.
The mad Joker terrorizes Gotham with his own brand of chemical warfare, which does not please the Mayor of Gotham or the new, honest District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams). The City is determined to have Gotham's Bicentennial, but ultimately give up for security reasons.
In sweeps Joker, who offers Gothamites a beautiful offer: he will throw a big party for Gotham, and throw out $20 million. In exchange, he demands a duel with The Batman.
The war between Joker and Batman is intensified when Wayne discovers that Napier is responsible for the murder of Bruce's parents so long ago.
At the Bicentennial Celebration, Joker taunts Batman, until Vale and Knox find that Joker is unleashing his Smylex poison gas and plans to kill everyone. Batman sweeps in and is brought down by The Joker, who thinks he's killed his hated rival...and managed to capture the luscious Miss Vale to boot. It's up to Gotham Cathedral for one last final confrontation between these two foes.
In the end, Batman is triumphant, and gives Gotham a gift should they need his help again: the Bat-Signal.
Batman has so much going for it, that with the passage of almost 30 (!) years, we forget just how good it is. At the top of the list are the performances.
Keaton had a great deal to prove. As stated, he was known primarily for comedy, so his casting was controversial to say the least. However, Keaton did a fantastic job as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. One of his best scenes was when he goes to Vale to admit his secret identity. Keaton brings a mixture of lightness and hesitancy with some seriousness, bridging some if not humor at least levity from the somewhat oppressive nature of the Batman world.
His Batman is perfectly serious without being overwhelmingly dour. His Bruce Wayne has a slight awkwardness that makes it plausible to imagine people haven't put two-and-two together.
Batman, however, has a total ace up its sleeve: Jack Nicholson as The Joker. It is hard for Millennials and many people to imagine anyone other than Heath Ledger as the Clown Prince of Crime, but for most GenXers, it's Nicholson who defined this brilliantly bonkers master-criminal. Nicholson makes the Joker into a believable character, one who is dangerous but also outlandish, in keeping with how the character was before he became, in my view, too psychotic and murderous.
Nicholson reminds me of how another serious and brilliant actor (Gene Hackman) made his own comic book villain (Lex Luthor) into someone who was both humorous and dangerous. Their enormous talent has something to do with it. Nicholson, not to get sidetracked, latches on to the unhinged danger of Joker while bringing his demonic humor to life.
I think that this is because Burton made this version of Gotham City into one that works within its world. It is outlandish but it works within the generally fantasy world of Batman. In other words, the world of Batman appears real but not too real where we cannot note the comic book trappings. It is oppressive without being depressing and devoid of any sense of hope. There wasn't much humor if any really (though a few bits were allowed, such as Batman's complaint after rescuing Vale that despite her claim, "You weigh more than 108"), but it wasn't overly dark and gloomy.
As a side note, at first I thought the 'death by beauty products' was silly, but having re-seen Batman, it does keep to how demented and outrageous the Joker was.
I can't fault Basinger for being a bit of a damsel-in-distress, and she was at times a bit blank. Still, she did a respectable job. Won't go after Wuhl either, but part of me thinks he could have been dropped and let Vale take a more commanding role.
Now, while many Batman fans objected to having Napier be the Wayne's killers, I don't think it's a dealbreaker. I'd rather object to the sometimes silly moments (such as how dumb/egocentric Joker must be to believe Vale would so quickly find him desirable). That bit would bother me only in that it is hard to believe a.) Wayne would not realize Jack was his parent's killer when first seeing him, and b.) no one in Gotham would know the Wayne Family tragedy.
Part of me also thinks Batman expect you to know a lot of the mythos already (the opening is a nod to Batman's origin story, so whether they were teasing us or not we cannot say).
Still, so much of the film works that what flaws it has pretty much can be ignored or forgiven. Throw in Danny Elfman's iconic Batman theme and you have one of the best comic book-based films around.
Great performances, a plausible world, and Elfman's score combine to make Batman a standard to judge other comic book adaptations. Dark without being overwhelming gloomy, Batman revived the comic book genre...a genre where we'd see the Batman franchise itself fall and rise.
That, however, is in the future.
Next Batman Film: Batman Returns