Batman (1989)

This is where it all began, with Tim Burton’s muggy Gothic-Gotham standing as an astounding feat in world building. Surprisingly dark and gritty for its time Batman holds up surprisingly well 25 years later, primarily due to its kinetic sense of excitement, Michael Keaton, and Jack Nicholson.

The former is an interesting casting decision, but it pays off. Keaton brings a weighty humanity to the role, turning Bruce Wayne into much more a man than a superhero. This Bruce Wayne occasionally betrays his emotions (“Now you wanna get nuts!? Come on! Let’s get nuts!”) and Keaton exhibits the duality inherent to the character with great precision.  Indeed, this was the first incarnation of the Dark Knight to suggest Bruce Wayne’s mental and psychological struggles, setting up an effective mirror for Jack Nicholson’s Joker.

Nicholson puts on his biggest pair of theatrical boots for the role, diving in and chewing any and all scenery. But it works. The film starts as a gangster picture. Napier is a loose-cannon gangster, full of pent up aggression and instability, and his accident merely allows him to unleash his inner beast, becoming The Joker. Nicholson embodies the classic villain appropriately, turning him into the ultimate incarnation of anarchy and instinctual insanity. The scenes in which the two (who hold comparative screen time) share the frame together are the film’s best, showcasing the similarities and differences of these incredibly complex characters.

Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale is easy on the eyes but light on character. Bruce, naturally, is attracted to her and the two spark up a relationship but it never really holds any weight and Basinger is forced to deliver a mediocre performance due to the poor writing. Fortunately director Tim Burton keeps everything moving at a breakneck pace, Danny Elfman’s sweeping atmospheric score behind him, painting a dark, smoky, and Gothic world that he would expand in his 1992 sequel. He certainly gets his moments to inject his own inimitable mood into the film but Batman is ultimately a more faithful and more restrained beast when compared to its successor. It stands as one of the greatest superhero films period. “You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

★★★★½

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