June 23 is a special date for me. To be specific June 23, 1989. Thirty-One years ago, I had an experience that forever has changed my life. On June 23, 1989 I watched Tim Burton’s masterpiece, Batman, for the first time. My anticipation for the movie was stifling as it was becoming nearly impossible for me to wait. Batman had long been a core part of my comic existence, having read his adventures for years at that point but as news creeped out, much more slowly in 1989, that there was going to be a new Batman movie I could not wait. Other than the ‘60s camp classic I had had little experience with Batman other than the monthly comic books and by 1989 my extensive back issues of the ‘70s that I had pieced together from second hand stores and comic shops. I was not a fan of the television show, I know that is sacrilegious to some in the comic community, but to me Batman wasn’t a joke nor should he be treated as such. But as I read about the film in the limited comic press of the time period, I had hopes that Tim Burton had a different vision. I was worried when a comedic actor, Michael Keaton, was cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman but then I saw that slick black suit and I didn’t know what to think but I had hope.
It wasn’t a guarantee I was going to see Batman on opening day. My family at the time was living in rural Indiana and the largest city close to us only had a lone movie theater and they were not able to secure a copy for that weekend. I was fourteen and my older brother, who could drive was out of town with my father so that avenue was shot. Luckily my mother knew how important seeing Batman was to me so she, unbeknownst to me, called all the theaters near us and found one that was going to be showing the film. To my surprise and glee she drove me nearly an hour away so that I could have the experience of seeing the movie on June 23 and it did not disappoint. Since that that June day in 1989 I’ve watched Batman hundreds of times but I make sure that around June 23 I watch it again and this year was a special year as I watched it with my son for his very first time. He thankfully has followed in his old man’s footsteps and has become a fan of Batman and as he turns seven this week, I thought it was a good time for him to have the experience.
I my opinion the 1989 Batman is still a great movie. One of my students told me its dated but I disagree, yes, its aged but it was filmed with in an absence of time period that still works today. Yes, there are contemporary issues that I will touch on later but on a whole I still love this film.
First and foremost, on my mind at that time and today was that this was my vision of Batman. Gone was the campy buffoonish Adam West version and instead was an actual Dark Knight. Batman was a vigilante, operating outside the law and with a vengeance toward the crime ridden streets of Gotham City. Yet Batman wasn’t inhuman. There was a personality to him that was reminiscent of what DC had done in the ‘70s by transforming Batman into a master detective, a dark knight avenger, but not the emotionless wraith he became in later years. It’s where the genius of casting Michael Keaton really comes into focus as Keaton does an amazing job of giving both Bruce Wayne and Batman distinct personalities. Unlike later actors who use Bruce Wayne as a mask Keaton gives depth and heart to Bruce Wayne and it is without a doubt the best representation of Bruce Wayne in any Batman film. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne feels likes a well-rounded individual, not just a caricature like he is often portrayed. Keaton might not be the most threatening man in the Bat suit but he doesn’t need to be. With his arsenal of gadgets and weapons he doesn’t need to be a hulking brute or a growling beast of the night. His Batman is intelligent and formidable, doing the research and detective work necessary to stay ahead of his adversaries. It’s Batman’s detective skills that save Gotham from the Joker’s poisons, not his fists or fighting prowess, rather it is his mind and intellect that keep him one step ahead of the Joker throughout the entire film. I loved that intelligent portrayal.
The plot for Batman is tight. Where comic movies today branch into sub plot after sub plot Batman is one focused story with rich character development but never light on action. Its pacing is near perfect as there is no wasted time in the film. There isn’t wasted time on an origin story as both the Joker and Batman’s births are done in a fluid manner that fits into the narrative. Sam Hamm’s script, that of which made it to the screen, hits all the rights beats for a Batman story but is accessible to the millions who went to see the film who had either never picked up a Batman comic or at least hadn’t in years. For comic fans like myself it was a joyous occasion to finally see a comic book on the big screen. I’d been too young to see the 1978 Superman or its 1980 follow up Superman II but I had seen both on VHS and Batman gave me that same feeling but felt even more like a comic book due to the set design and more stylistic costumes.
Even though I still love Batman today I can no longer say that it is as perfect as I once saw it. Now it might be contrarian but one of the weakness of the film, for me, is Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Where Keaton molds himself to the role Nicholson always feels like Nicholson in Joker makeup rather than Nicholson becoming the Joker. It doesn’t help that we witnessed Heath Ledger’s masterful emersion into the Joker in the Dark Knight but even before that it always felt that Nicholson took the role for the paycheck and never really became the Joker. His onscreen antics felt forced and it sometimes felt like he treated the role as if it was beneath his gravitas in Hollywood, and maybe it was. Maybe another actor would have become the Joker in the same way Keaton became Bruce Wayne but in 1989 you didn’t pass up on Jack Nicholson being in your film as the man was royalty of the silver screen. Another weakness, and one that has become even more glaring over the years is Vicki Vale, damsel in constant distress. I like Kim Bassinger as Vicki Vale but over the years I’ve really come to dislike her story beats. For a hardened war photo-journalist to often she wilts in the face of danger and her constant screams and waiting to be rescued is really dated and sadly screams of ‘80s action movie tropes where women are often seen and do littles else. Yet her connection with Bruce Wayne and her partnership with reporter Alexander Knox are two of the most underutilized portions of the film. I would have loved to have seen more of Vale and Knox’s partnership as sadly Knox feels more like comic relief then the award-winning reporter he could have been played as. Women as a whole are really underutilized and poorly treated throughout Batman, whether its Vicki Vale as I’ve already written about or the Jerry Hall’s Alicia Hunt who is first treated as an object and then as an abused victim of the Joker who tortures and disfigures her throughout the second act to then have her commit ‘suicide’ off screen with the heavily implication that her jumping from a window was not a personal choice. These are sadly the only two prominent female roles in 1989’s Batman and neither are iconic nor positive female roles.
On the other hand, the greatness of Batman are the visuals. Gotham is so distinctive. Anton Furst’s designs for Gotham City make it unique and timeless, an art deco inspired city trapped in a timeless aesthetic that looks as good today as it did in 1989. It’s this visual that also allows, again in my opinion, for the movie to hold up so well over the years. The vision that Tim Burton had for Batman is reminiscent of a comic book on film rather than a film using comic books as its basis. Batman looked cool in 1989 and it still looks cool today. The buildings are unique and stylish, the costumes are retro and cool, and the batmobile plus all the other ‘toys’ are as unique and fun today as they were in 1989. Batman is as much a visual joy today as it was when I saw it on that June evening thirty-one years ago. Thankfully my son agreed as he was mesmerized as we watched the movie. I’m lucky, so far, that my son doesn’t mind aged movies. I’m sure that will come later but right now he’s still ok with older movies and how film looks different then film and not everything is in HD. He was excited to see Batman and as he told me he really liked the fact that Batman was Batman at the beginning of the movie and they didn’t take half the movie to get him in the suit. I don’t know if I appreciated that in 1989 but he’s right, Batman doesn’t spend a lot of time on origin like many superhero movies do in their first outing. Every bit of the origin story is there but Burton trusts the viewer to know the details and he doesn’t feel the need to use the first part of the movie to get Batman into the suit. Sawyer also liked the toys and I have a deeper respect for the marketing campaign that Warner Brothers had with Batman and all of the toys and ancillary products that went along with it since if this movie came out today, I would be buying a lot of toys this summer.
Although not as perfect of a movie as I once thought I still have a warm feeling and a smile on my face every June 23 as I sit down to watch 1989’s Batman. It’s still one of my favorite super hero movies and Michael Keaton is still my favorite actor to portray Bruce Wayne/Batman. Thankfully its unique style has allowed it to age well and its even held up for another generation to enjoy. This year is the 31st anniversary of that fateful June night that and I will always be eternally grateful that my mother knew it was important for me to be there to witness Batman on opening night.