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It has dated quite badly
on 27 June 2013
Wow, this film seemed so impressive and mystical when it was released in 1989. Clearly heavily-influenced by Frank Miller's efforts to turn Batman into a mature man's superhero, but also with an added surreal twist that was plainly all director Tim Burton's own, beyond doubt there was nothing quite like it in the realm of superhero movies, at least back then.
Alas, a couple of decades on, the hype that surrounded the movie back in the day no longer seems convincing. Part of the problem is that the series that this film spawned very quickly deteriorated into increasingly mindless and incoherent run-arounds and set-piece stories with each passing sequel; it is almost impossible to believe that Batman & Robin is even part of the same continuity. Also, the correct decision to 'reboot' the series, with Chris Nolan taking over the reins, does this film no favours, for the simple reason that Batman Begins and its successors were so obviously, effortlessly, and intellectually superior, that in hindsight, the Burton/Schumacher series seems shallow and childish.
But also, the sad fact is that this movie has many aspects to it that have dated in their own right. Batman's physical stunts seemed exciting in their time, and many scales more impressive than Adam West's campathons in the 1960's TV series, but nowadays they look rather static and stilted. (Tim Burton was never much kop at directing action anyway.) Michael Keaton's performance as Bruce Wayne is okay in a quirky way, but in the batsuit, his attempts to appear brooding and mysterious instead come across as lazy boredom, reducing the Batman to a characterless 'Well-we-need-someone-to-beat-up-the-baddies-don't-we?' figure. He isn't helped by not really being big enough to play the part, and so sometimes looking like he's almost 'drowning' in the costume. Kim Basinger is utterly wasted as Vicki Vale, who is the sort of stereotype 'helpess female' character who would never get near a movie script today. She falls in love far too easily, she is unintelligent, she becomes obsessed with Bruce Wayne's activities for no reason when she is supposed to be investigating the Batman, and she is all screams and squeals and (inadvertently-suggestive-sounding) yelps any time anything scary happens, just waiting for the big brave hero to come running to rescue her. She is there simply to give Batman someone to save, and Bruce Wayne and the Joker someone sexy to fight over. While Jack Nicholson's performance as the Joker is engaging, once again he is retroactively upstaged by the breathtaking display by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight about twenty years later (and indeed Mark Hamill's brilliant take on the character in the cartoons from the 1990's). In the end, Nicholson is less playing the Joker, more doing a self-parody, and again, you come away unsure that an actor would be allowed to do that today.
The late Michael Gough, always an actor of distinctive stature, is a redeeming feature as Alfred Pennyworth, and it is in the relationship between Bruce Wayne and his butler/surrogate parent that the film is probably at its strongest. It is perhaps unfortunate that this wasn't focused on more, but the film shows an odd reluctance to make explicit who the man behind the mask really is, even though everyone already knows before the titles begin. Instead, it keeps offering coaxing hints hither and thither. Bizarrely, in the second half, the film almost seems to shrug its shoulders and acknowledge that the whole world has known the secret for decades, by acting like it had been revealed ages earlier in the story, when it casually just shows Alfred putting the batsuit away while Bruce looks on.
Much was made in the media back in 1989 about what a fascinating character study and contrast the film was when comparing the two mentally-unstable lead characters - one a brooding, revenge-driven half-psychotic who makes himself as dark and menacing as possible in order to intimidate his enemies, the other a ruthless, greedy killer who makes himself into a clown in the apparent hope of making the world laugh itself to death. In fact, while this contrast is genuine, it is not nearly as interesting as it might have been, chiefly because the Batman gets very little dialogue. Most of what he gets is very functional e.g. a lot of flat instructions such as, "Hold tight", "Come with me", "Shields open", "Tell all your friends about me", "Let's go", "Take that to the press" and so on. I suppose this might be intended to imply that the Batman is all-business, no humour, but at the same time it conveys no implication at all of a man teetering close to insanity. Compared with how Christian Bale was able to explore all sides of Bruce Wayne's/Batman's personality in the rebooted series, in which he was at least as fearsome and menacing but also allowed to display gritty humour (NOT campy humour, a la Batman Forever) and a kinder side to the man, this script really does leave Michael Keaton badly short-changed. There is supposed to be very stark light and darkness in the character, but only the darkness comes across here, leaving the impression of a very one-dimensional personality.
The 'story', as with all the other films in the Burton/Schumacher series, is largely plotless and incoherent. There is very little to connect any of the Joker's activities beyond the fact that it is the Joker who does all of them, while the Batman's 'investigations' also seem very haphazard and ad hoc. The way that Bruce discovers that the Joker is the man who once murdered his parents only carries the plot forward by coincidence, rather than by the hero's shrewdness; had the Joker not recited his utterly meaningless and pointless "dance with the Devil" slogan during their confrontation in Vicki's apartment, Bruce would never have found out. And no one would have cared either, as his parents' deaths in fact have very little to do with the story at all.
On the plus side, there remains considerable merit in the Danny Elfman soundtrack for this film, especially the very stirring title music, which has rightly earned its status as one of the most iconic themes in superhero movie history. The music is about the only aspect of the original series that can be said to be superior to what is in the Nolan series, whose soundtracks are comparatively monotonous.
As for this DVD-release itself, it is utterly devoid of extra features, meaning it is very much a bare-bones package. And as the film in that package has faded into much-of-a-muchness, it can only really be recommended by virtue of the fact that it is easy to obtain very cheaply.
Sad. I used to really enjoy this movie, but the onset of time has not been kind.