After 30 years, what makes Batman (1989) truly unique within the franchise? Despite the movie’s title, this isn’t a Batman movie. A pretty bold claim, I know. I’ll admit that it had been about a decade since I’d last watched this movie, so before writing this article, I decided to stick it on. After all, it was released before I was born! Something that stood out to me was that the Joker is undoubtedly the main character of this story.
Let’s Discuss Batman (1989)’s Structure
Within any superhero movie, you have the hero and the villain. There is no denying that Batman is the hero of this tale while Joker is the villain. Interestingly though, an argument could be made that where the superhero is typically the protagonist and the villain the antagonist, in Batman (1989) the roles are reversed. In the first act of Batman, Jack Napier (played by Jack Nicholson) is a protagonist. It’s likely that Tim Burton did this on purpose as the start of the movie shows very little of Batman or Bruce Wayne. The “two” characters are the focus point of many discussions, but even at his own party Wayne is just a face in the crowd. This reflects the nature of Batman as a mysterious and elusive hero who clings to the shadows. Even in his own movie, he stays out of the spotlight.
Let’s consider Batman’s role.
The Story of Batman
You’re all familiar with Batman/Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton). If you’re a fan of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, then this movie may seem a little strange in comparison. His tech is outdated and clunky (for obvious reasons). His fighting skills are verging on non-existent. Even the way he catches bad guys is straight out of a comic book. In the opening scene, we see Batman throw a bat-grapple hook (a batrapple hook?) around a criminal’s legs, despite the fact he’s only 3 or 4 steps away.
There are a few moments that really stood out for me when you compare Batman (1989) to The Dark Knight. For starters, Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) asks questions about the existence of a 6ft tall bat who flies around Gotham drinking people’s blood. Are people actually unaware that it’s just a man in a mask?
A slightly more curious moment happens later in the movie. Bruce Wayne…sleeps upside down…like a bat. Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a reporter, sees this and, despite investigating Batman, doesn’t question a man sleeping upside down. There is never an explanation for this scene.
From the start of the movie to the end, Batman’s arc only involves two major changes. Firstly, he comes to terms with the idea that he can let people into his life and share his secrets with them. Secondly, he discovers the identity of his parent’s murderer and kills him. His arc is essentially about love, trust, and revenge. But we don’t actually see any growth or major character development. Batman doesn’t even have an origin story in this movie, at least not beyond it being briefly mentioned in a similar manner to Spider-Man: Homecoming.
The Story of Joker
Batman (1989) is nothing short of a tragedy with Joker as the main character. Joker, previously Jack Napier, begins his story as a criminal of Gotham: the right-hand man of the notorious Carl Grissom. Jack’s story may not involve a change in his moral compass, but he is literally the only character in this entire movie who develops significantly.
Jack is a relatively simple man. He states at the start of the movie that decent people shouldn’t live in Gotham. In his mind, the city is a wilderness; a criminal wasteland. After facing Batman, he finds himself with a scarred faced and bleached skin. Lo and behold, Joker is born. This Joker and Ledger’s share a similar objective: unmask society and reveal the monster hidden beneath.
Granted, Ledger’s Joker takes a slightly more serious approach than Nicholson’s, but that’s what makes this version so entertaining to watch. Joker, realizing that he’s no longer considered conventionally attractive, and having been scarred by a near-death experience (literally), emerges reborn. Now he sees the funny side; now he’s always smiling!
Jack’s goals shift drastically throughout the movie, but his reasoning for going up against Batman is obvious: Batman is trying to make Gotham “decent”, which is the polar opposite of what Joker believes it to be. There’s also the whole underlying element of creation killing creator, much like Frankenstein’s monster. Joker knows that Batman is responsible for the “death” of Jack Napier, but he’s unaware that he’s responsible for creating Batman to begin with.
The movie ends in a beautiful, yet haunting manner. Joker falls to his death as a result of Batman’s actions. Lying surprisingly clean and intact on the ground, an unsettling and almost robotic laugh repeats as the camera spirals down onto Joker’s smiling face.
Jack Nicholson is really the only enjoyable aspect of this cast, much in the same way that the Joker is the only interesting character. He molds this version of Joker into his own creation. The craziness, the grin, the laughs, and the presentation of certain quotes really sells the act. “Wait until they get a load of me”, is a moment that gives me chills, despite being incredibly simplistic in nature. Michael Keaton is always a good actor, but I found this version of Batman to be rather dull to watch. Maybe this movie could have used more scenes with Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent!
The on-screen chemistry with the cast is also a major issue. It seems like Michael Keaton is the common denominator within these interactions. Whether this is the result of his acting or the instructions of Tim Burton is beyond my understanding. Watching Bruce Wayne interact with Vicki Vale, Alfred (Michael Gough), and Joker was just uncomfortable for all involved. The lack of chemistry was particularly noticeable during any romantic moments that Bruce and Vicki were apparently having. Saying that, Kim Basinger’s interactions also felt rather hollow with other characters, including Joker and Alexander Knox.
The Pros of Batman (1989)
Batman (1989) has many entertaining qualities. The fight scenes are funny, albeit ridiculous, which actually works well when viewing a 30-year old movie. On top of that, the dialogue often throws people head first into certain roles. For example, when Vicki Vale becomes the damsel in distress, her dialogue becomes ridiculously exaggerated to highlight this fact. Perhaps this is Burton’s way of making fun of the usual superhero tropes, or maybe it’s just poor writing. Regardless, I couldn’t help but laugh when watching this movie.
Unlike previous versions of the Joker, this one gets his own movie. At least until they release a Joker origin movie later this year. Everything about the film caters to the character, which is most noticeable in the music. Any scene where Joker is in the spotlight comes with a ridiculous, all be it appropriate, soundtrack. For example, the carnival music that plays as he fires random shots at his old boss. The romantic, puppy love music box sound that plays as he falls head over heels in love with Vicki Vale’s photograph. Let’s not forget the parade music towards the end of the movie. Of course, we have to mention the sound effects themselves. The gunshots sound like they’re straight out of a 1960s spaghetti Western! It’s hilarious!
The Joker might look like a Kardashian whose Botox went horribly wrong, but he’s still a great character! Some of the small details really sell it: the notes written in crayon, the jittering teeth in his final fight with Batman. Not to mention the art gallery scene where Joker and his thugs come dancing in with a doom box and begin finger painting over the art. Very little makes sense with this Joker, but that’s what is fun about it.
The Cons of Batman (1989)
There are of course a number of major flaws with Batman (1989), specifically within the plot. For starters, one moment was particularly questionable when viewed within today’s society. Batman, much in the style of movies from that era, skims over the topic of consent. We’ve heard similar outcries about other Hollywood movies, such as Ghostbusters. On the night of their date, a self-proclaimed and quite noticeably drunk Vicki Vale sleeps with an equally self-proclaimed and sober Bruce Wayne.
I also found myself asking a number of different questions about the movie:
How could a local Gotham reporter, who is attending a Bruce Wayne fundraiser, not know who Bruce Wayne is? Why is there a random guy who tries to fight Batman with swords? Is this the same guy who later jumps around like a psychotic gymnast with swords that come out of his shoes? Why was Joker so enamored over Vicki? Why didn’t Batman capture Joker when he rescued Vicki from the art gallery? How often does the Bat Wing need to use its wire cutters? Why does the Joker hunt Vicki down, only to leave without her? What is Vicki struggling to understand when she and Bruce are in THE BAT CAVE and she asks, “why won’t you let me in? why?” Why did Batman walk up the stairs of the bell tower?
I mentioned this already, but WHY DOES BATMAN SLEEP LIKE A BAT in this movie? Does he actually sleep like that or is he just trying to give Vicki clues about his identity? And if she’s meant to be a reporter investigating the Batman, wouldn’t a man who hangs upside down to sleep raise a couple of red flags?
Joker vs. Joker
Since people like to compare Jokers, how does Nicholson’s compare to Ledger’s? Both are undoubtedly insane, yet they feel like completely different characters. However, there are some interesting similarities. In this movie, Joker asks his victims, “did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” This plays as a plot device that leads Batman to realize that Jack is the man who killed his parents. Many people gloss over this quote, believing it to be rather meaningless, but Jack is asking a deep question: Have you ever stared into the abyss? Have you ever danced with fate? Have you ever had “one day” that was so traumatic that it changed your very being?
Jack is reaching out to his victims because long before he changed from Jack Napier to Joker, he had to become the merciless Jack Napier from whoever he was before. We see Ledger’s Joker come to a similar conclusion when he states: “you…complete me” and “this is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object…I think you and I are destined to do this forever!”
In Batman (1989), an art gallery scene shows Joker and his goons destroying art, stopping at a Francis Bacon piece named ‘Figure with Meat’. Bacon is associated with the idea of dualism: the division of something, in this case the human psyche, into two opposed or contrasted aspects. Batman and Joker represent this dualistic ideology as two opposing forces.
It’s interesting to note that Joker is surprisingly well equipped. He has a hand-held shocker that literally incinerates the victim, a high-tech gas mask, a flamethrower lighter, and chemicals that literally make people die laughing. He’s a bit better equipped than Ledger’s Joker who just had “a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets”.
Batman (1989) might not have quite the same flare as more recent Batman movies, but that’s not to say that it isn’t entertaining to watch. Jack Nicholson offers us an excellent and memorable version of Joker in a portrayal more akin to a comic book villain. The movie may be slightly outdated, at least in terms of special effects, gadgets, and consent issues, but it’s also a film that never takes itself too seriously. Sure, the plot might fluctuate as often as Joker’s mood, but it’s never overly complex. After 30 years, this movie is still enjoyable and offers us a more traditional comic book movie. Out of all the “old school” Batman films, I’d say that this is one of the best!
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