Running time: 126 min.
Release date: June 23, 1989
Tim Burton's foray into the world of comic books was probably inevitable. If there is a director that can appreciate the gothic atmosphere of Gotham City, it is Burton. His prior film, Beetlejuice, delved into some gothic themes and with Batman, he has the opportunity to take a traditionally dark city and fully realize it on the screen. For the most part, he succeeds, especially from a production design and set decoration standpoint. Batman certainly looks good, however there are still plenty of aspects of the film that don't come off as well.
As the film begins, the underworld only whispers Batman's name, as some doubt that he even exists. We get a scene where Batman tackles two thugs who just made off with some loot, establishing Batman's presence in a Gotham City that looks like it did in the comics during the 1940s, except we are in the present. The setting is most definitely atmospheric and the set designs are quite unlike any other movie universe ever seen since possibly Blade Runner. Michael Keaton plays Batman and his true identity, millionaire Bruce Wayne. Bruce is haunted by memories of the night his parents were murdered by a thug before his young eyes, so there is a certain mysterious melancholy surrounding the character.
Gotham's mob boss, Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), discovers that his right-hand man, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) has been squeezing Grissom's own main squeeze, so he sets him up for a bust by the police. The set-up is raided by Batman, which inadvertently leads to Napier developing a new personality called The Joker, who we all know as Batman's main villainous rival. The backstory for Joker differs slightly from his origin in the comics, but since this is the movies, taking liberties like this is passable, since not everyone seeing the film will have read the comics. Joker gets his revenge on Grissom, takes over the Gotham City's underground and makes life miserable for Batman.
Meanwhile, there is a very slight romantic subplot between Bruce Wayne and photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). This romantic interlude is hampered by several things: Bruce Wayne attempts to balance his private life with his heroic life as Batman, and the chemistry between Basinger and Keaton is something that not even a Bunsen burner could heat up. Keaton and Basinger are just phoning it in during their scenes together. The Joker has also taken a liking to Ms. Vale, which leads to a most awkward face-off between Joker and Bruce in Vicki's apartment. Batman's backstory comes full circle with a convenient plot revelation that links The Joker with the murder of Bruce's parents.
From a casting viewpoint, Jack Nicholson provides all the energy to the movie. He plays it over-the-top but you never forget that it's Nicholson under all that makeup. It sometimes comes off as Jack Torrance from The Shining in Joker-face. Michael Keaton's performance never gets higher than second gear and Kim Basinger sleepwalks through the movie. Robert Wuhl as reporter Alexander Knox is probably the most useless character in the film, as you keep wondering what purpose he serves.
Tim Burton's vision of Gotham City is certainly special and a delight to behold. The cinematography by Roger Pratt catches the look and feel of the old Batman stories. It's just too bad that the story limps along from scene to scene waiting for Nicholson to appear. The score by Danny Elfman is certainly worth noting as a triumph, as well. In conclusion, Batman looks good and sounds good, but other than the typical manic performance from Nicholson, there just isn't any energy or urgency to the story.