Batman (1989)


It's that time again! Welcome back to The Tagline, where movies are queen and I'm also a queen and we're all queens I guess. I don't know look... it's been a long week okay guys? Don't worry about that stuff though with queens, because really what it's all about today? Is fucking bats. Listen, I know it's an upsetting subject no one wants to talk about, but bats are all around us. Flying around at night? Those aren't just weird night birds, those are fucking bats okay? That guy driving the weird car he parked in the middle of traffic? Bat. The weird airplane shooting missiles at parade floats? Also a bat. That's right, those the Batmans are all around us, and we don't even notice it all the time! Recent years have been good to the Dark Knight, but it wasn't always that way. I can direct you to my grisly review of Joel Schumacher's war crime Batman & Robin. Then again, Batman Begins wasn't the first good Batman that ever happened either. There were some very different, but still good times with the Batman under the direction of Tim Burton believe it or not. I know I find it tough to believe too. Even more surprising is that neither of the Batman movies directed by Burton feature like... a Riddler played by Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham-Carter as... Poison Ivy? Catwoman? I don't know I'm gonna try to put it out of my mind. At any rate, today I want to talk about the very first Batman, starring Michael Keaton as the Bat, and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. This movie just recently found its way to Netflix, and so naturally I wanted to check it out and see how it stood up after all these years.

You wouldn't hit a guy with glasses would you?
The first thing I realized is that there is a similar amount of scaling back of action between these and the newer batman movies, much like what you might see between the original Star Wars trilogy and newer iterations of the series (including later adaptations like the Clone Wars cartoon). What I mean by that is, in Batman Begins Bruce Wayne is a deadly super ninja master of martial arts and deception trained by the League of Assassins (or League of Shadows in that movie) and he uses this training to beat the ever-loving hell out of everyone he comes into conflict with. He is also thanks to his training intensely in control of his emotions, and very pragmatic. Most of his strange behavior and his playboy persona are merely distractions to deceive people while he goes about his vigilante mission. In contrast, the Batman of 1989 is displayed as a much more eccentric individual, for the most part even more reclusive, and while he is more than capable of beating dudes up he relies a lot more heavily on his gadgets and also the impossible degree of bulletproof that his suit is. He displays a similar theatricality, and is intent on using his bat identity to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, but he comes off as more of a thinker than a warrior in this incarnation. He still is a fighter (just as Christian Bale's Batman is still a thinker) but the emphasis is clearly on deduction and study over raw combat skill.

What a nerrdddd.
Opposite Batman in this film is the Joker, portrayed in actually still pretty freaky fashion by Jack Nicholson, a man who I find almost as frightening as the Joker himself. Again this is a very different Joker than that of Nolan's The Dark Knight, but he is still very much the character. He is a more conventional kind of villain at first, the murderous and backstabbing Jack Napier. After a run-in with Batman leaves him hideously disfigured, Napier becomes the Joker, violently ousting the other crime bosses and launching a campaign of seemingly random terror and death against the people of Gotham. In particular, this incarnation seems more obsessed with disfiguring his victims than Heath Ledger's Joker was (he just wanted to watch the world burn remember) and in general he's much more of a cartoonish villain (there's nothing cartoony about a maniac in clown makeup threatening you with a knife and then blowing up a hospital). Much as Batman is all about that utility belt in this movie, so too is the Joker full of... let's call it prop humor. The most evil humor of all, as anyone who has seen Chairman of the Board is well aware of.

You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?
While this movie is clearly a product both of Tim Burton and the late 80s, it is still a pretty great film, and while it is a very different Batman, it is still very Batman. The portrayal of Batman as an individual almost as damaged as the villains he hunts is really interesting, and Keaton made for a really intense and nuanced Bruce Wayne, who was in a lot of ways a more vulnerable and human character. Christian Bale's Batman is practically invincible, and only increasingly stacked odds can present a challenge for him. In this movie, Bruce Wayne is one very capable man with considerable resources, but still just one man. I would also be really out of line if I didn't mention that this movie has the best possible cast Harvey Dent ever. Oh sure, Aaron Eckhart did a great job, but could he possibly be as suave and charismatic as BILLY DEE WILLIAMS?! I don't think so. Who doesn't want a Gotham where Lando is the District Attorney? No one I want to associate with.

If you have not had the pleasure of watching this movie yet, I definitely think you should, especially if this kind of thing is your bag baby (what? what year is this?!) Join me again next week, when I will slip further into a sleep deprived delirium.

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