Joker: You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight
Beware: Spoilers may follow
Before director Christopher Nolan surprised all of us with the Dark Knight in 2008, back in 1989 director Tim Burton established the first dark and gritty take on Batman and boy was it great. Not only was Burton able to channel elements of the campy 1960s Batman show toa remarkably dark and disturbing place but in doing so he also set precedents for these characters that remain relevant even to this day.
The story is as follows: When mafia boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) finds out that his right-hand man Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is fooling around with his girlfriend he sends Jack to clean out evidence of their work at a nearby chemical factory undergoing investigation by District attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) and tips off a corrupt police officer in order to have Napier killed. During a fight at the factory, Napier falls into a vat of chemicals and is presumed dead. However, he reemerges alive with his facial nerves severed, his skin chalk white, and his hair green thus turning him into the Joker. Shortly afterward he kills Grissom and takes control of the mafia and spreads chaos all throughout Gotham. When the police prove powerless to stop him it is up to Batman (Michael Keaton) to do so while also dealing with problems of his own as Bruce Wayne.
So as you could tell from that this isn’t the story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman but rather how Jack Napier became the Joker. The story shines very little about Bruce’s past with only a single flashback of his parents getting murdered. On the one hand, this might seem horrible to know all about Joker and very little about Batman given that Batman is the freaking title character (interestingly enough they would do it vice-versa in the Dark Knight) but honestly the amount of knowledge given to these characters helps tie into their characters.
Jack Nicholson as the Joker is the perfect mix of comical, threatening, and creepiness. He is chewing up the scenery in virtually every scene he’s in. As I stated before Burton channeled the elements of 60s Batman to a dark and disturbing place and nowhere is that shown clearer than with this character. Nicholson channels Caesar Romero’s Joker in the 60s right down to similar voice mannerisms, clown-like nature, and use of prankster weapons against his opponents. Joker is often in the spotlight throughout the movie, which helps bring about a strong contrast to his main foe and our protagonistBatman.
Michael Keaton is (in terms of live-action Batman movies) the definitive Batman. Keaton is the only Batman I know who can actually smile and look threatening. His Batman voice is gruff but soft which makes him quite intimidating. It’s easy to criticize him given that he is often in the shadows unlike Joker but it helps show how different they are from one another. Although we see little we see enough to keep us invested and give us a sense of mystery and fascination with him as Bruce Wayne.
Michael Gough as Alfred despite his small role gives it enough weight to be memorable and he is very fatherly towards Bruce which helps give an idea of Bruce Wayne’s close relationship with him as well as give an idea of the fact that Alfred and Bruce are essentially the only family they have.
It’s easy to hate Kim Basinger as the love interest Vicki Vale due to her constant screaming and admittedly it does get annoying but to be frank she does have character. She is very kind, cunning, insightful, and supportive and but at the same time, she does have her limits. Which makes her at least passable if nothing else.
This Batman movie may not be 100% action-packed but it does make up for it with its visuals and atmosphere emphasizing themes such as corruption without having to tell them which is often a good job for a movie: to be a visual story piece. Gotham’s design itself is very odd which ties into Batman’s words to Vicki about the world not being a normal place.
The movie, however, isn’t flawless and there are two flaws regarding this movie:
One is Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon. He really doesn’t bring that much to the movie and it could have done without him.
Two is Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent. Not that he did a bad job. If anything it was the opposite and unfortunately, it would be several years after these films before he would ever get to play Two-Face.
These flaws in no way drag down the movie, however. Batman(1989) blends camp, dark, and grittiness into a successful movie that not only would establish Batman movies for years to come but will no doubt continue to do so in the future.