Batman (1989): Burton’s Oscar Winning Superhero Starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Top Form

In its dark, noirish theme, tone, and style Tim Burton’s “Batman” was removed from most other big-screen adaptations of superheroes to date, such as “Superman” and “Flash Gordon.”

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Going back to the source elements of the cartoon figure, which made his debut in 1939 for Detective Comics, Burton conveys the visual style of the original Bob Kane comics, while stamping the production with his own signature. Set in crime-ridden, debris-strewn Gotham City, with allusions to the state of New York City in the late 1980s, the slender plot centers on its crime fighters, the Mayor (Lee Wallace, who looks like real-life mayor Ed Koch) and District Attorney Billy Dee Williams), posit against scary crime boss Carl Grisson (Jack Palance, turning in a tame performance, for a change) and his top henchman, Jack Napier.

Unevenly scripted by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, the film, lacks dramatic locus and narrative coherence, unfolding as a series of impressive set-pieces. And it doesn’t help that the central romantic story between Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) and photojournalist Vicki Vale (the beautiful Kim Basinger, who looks and acts like a model) is bland and uninvolving.

In a departure from the usual amiable comic-style, Batman is scripted by Hamm and acted by Keaton as a lonely, obsessive man of haunted intensity, devoid of the company of Robin. Were the filmmakers concerned about the homoerotic overtones in the relationship between the two men (“Robin” will appear as a major character in the fourth Batman picture, in 1997)

The film’s subversive nature is best embodies in the dual character of Jack Napier/the Joker, flamboyantly played by Jack Nicholson. A memorable scene depicts the Joker commandeering an art museum and destroying great art works just for the fun of it. One of the Joker’s scariest lines was, “I’m the world’s first fully functional homicidal artist.” Intentionally or not, but rather dangerously, “Batman” encouraged the audience to join the Joker in thoroughly enjoying the culture of destruction.

The story’s main characters, both the Caped Crusader and the Joker, are both conceptualized as unquestionably and irredeemably diabolical, with one exception, one is obsessive and vengeful believing he’s ser4ving justice, whereas the other is Evil incarnate.

The movie begins with a brief tragic scene, in which the young Bruce Wayne loses both of his parents in a random street crime, which is fully recreated in greater detail later on in an extended flashback. Horrifyingly witnessing the murder of his parents is meant to explain Bruce Wayne/Batman’s revenge-driven conduct and his adoption of his butler Alfred as his surrogate parent.

Moreover, the true antagonist is an eternally nocturnal Gotham City, a campy Fritz Langian revision” of New York City, conjured by designer Anton Furst, who deservedly won an Oscar for his art direction. Unlike the New York City-inspired utopia of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece “Metropolis,” Furst’s Big Apple is visibly corrupt and full of worms. The art museum (the “Fluegelheim”) is depicted as a spectacular pile mixing Gothic, stripped-down Classicism and industrial architecture, as it might have been designed if the W.P.A. had built it during the Depression.

It’s the industrial edge to Furst’s sets that makes the images of sunless New York hit close to home. The allusions to New York were certainly deliberate. The Gotham City Hall, for instance, is a dead ringer for New York’s Criminal Courts Building. Moreover, in the picture, Gotham has run out of money for its Bicentennial celebrations!

If the 1966-1968 “Bat-Man” TV series destroyed the comic-book hero, leaving in its place campy and glorified superheroes like Christopher Reeves’s “Superman” of the early 1980s, “Batman,” in turn, destroyed this second phase. As a result, director Burton and star Michael Keaton, cast-against-type, found themselves at the center of a moral debate.

The genius of Burton’s conception was in decentralizing the superhero. By closely pairing Batman with the Joker, Burton showed two halves of same obsession. The strong similarities between hero and villain became the new movie’s focus. Burton realize what the makers of the “Superman” movies did not, that “Star Wars” Darth Vader was as, if not more, interesting, than Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo. A Manhattan bank employee told Newsweek: “Batman is the best of both worlds, a hero who looks like a villain.” To be honest, the Joker was far more interesting than Batmanas a character and as a performance.

The movie’s most “hilarious” sequence involves the Joker’s plot to distribute poisoned cosmetics, which freeze a person’s face into an everlasting Joker smile. While the film had fun with its “shopper’s nightmare,” “Batman” the movie became a shopper’s nightmare itself.

Despite mixed reviews, “Batman” was the biggest commercial hit of 1989, grossing domestically over $250 million and another $150 million or so internationally, thus making it one of the top-grossing films of all time to date.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 1

Art Direction-Set Decoration: Anton Furst; Peter Young

Oscar Awards: 1

Art Direction-Set Decoration

In 1989, the other nominees for Art Direction were James Cameron’s “The Abyss,” Terry Gilliam’s “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, “Driving Miss Daisy,” and “Glory.”


Bruce Wayne/Batman (Michael Keaton)
Jack Napier/the Joker (Jack Nicholson)
Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger)
Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl)
Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle)
District Attorney Harvey Dent (Blly Dee Williams)
Alfred (Michael Gough)
Carl Grissom (Jack Palance)
Alicia (Jerry Hall)
Mayor (Lee Wallace)


Guber-Peters production
Directed by Tim Burton.
Producers: Jon Peters, Peter Guber.
Screenplay: Sam Hamm, Warren Skaaren.
Camera: Roger Pratt.
Editor: Ray Lovejoy.
Music: Danny Elfman.
Art Director: Anton Furst
Costumes: Bob Ringwood, Linda Henrikson

Running time: 126 Minutes