Batman (1989) Setting the Bar for Superhero Movies
A Film Review of Batman (1989) by Christopher Wostenberg
Recently, the great living filmmaker Martin Scorsese was quoted as saying of Marvel movies “…that’s not cinema.” The attention garnered by the quote in the film industry got me thinking about superhero/comic-book movies and my favorite one in this sub-genre, which is Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989. I don’t want to get into the debate about movies versus cinema as many popular movies are now considered great cinema, e.g. Casablanca (1942), Star Wars (1977), Jaws (1975), City Lights (1931), and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) to name a few. Instead, I will stick to what I like about Batman (1989), which centers on the self contained world of Gotham City occupied by its characters Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jack Napier/the Joker with Vicki Vale as an outsider.
Batman focuses on Batman coming to prominence in Gotham City during its bicentennial celebration. During this time Jack Napier, originally a henchman to the main mob boss of Gotham, starts a crime wave after he is transformed into the Joker. Vicki Vale, a photojournalist, is caught between the two as she investigates the rumors of Batman and dates his alter-ego Bruce Wayne, while being romantically pursued by the Joker. Overall, it is the basic good versus evil plot, common to classic superhero comic books and westerns.
After the opening credits, the movie shows what appears to be a painting of Gotham City. Next, the audience is shown the center of the city, which is similar to New York’s Time Square but there is something slightly off. There is a sense of anachronism. The architecture is all Art Deco from early 1900s, while the people are dressed more mid-1900s and the cars are more modern 1970s and 1980s models. This clearly shows Gotham City as outside normal time or place, a unique world unto itself. This is carried on throughout the film with the use of 1920s style gangsters using tommy guns set against technology from the late part of the 1900s, e.g. televisions and cameras. These details create Gotham city to be a distinct world of its own, standing apart from the real world and any of the Batman comic books that came before it, but still embodying the feel of Batman as the “Dark Knight”, a contrast to the campy Batman of the 1960s television series that was still running in syndication at the time. While it does not match the comic book scenery specifically, its artistry is in line with the overall nature of comic books in general, which are their own fantasy world where it is plausible that superheroes roam to save the innocent.
The film has three main characters: Batman, the Joker, and Vicki Vale. Batman is introduced a shadowy, mysterious character without much background at first. Through short flashbacks the audience gets a small glimpse into his motivation. This was done intentionally, as the writer, Sam Hamm, wanted the viewers to unlock the mystery as the story progressed instead of giving an origin story. This provides interest for the viewer, especially ones unaware of the Batman comics and prior adaptations.
While there is no origin story for Batman, the movie creates an origin story for the Joker. It is important to note, no origin story truly exists for the Joker in the comic book canon. The origin story created for the Joker in the movie, has him fall into a vat of chemicals while Batman is breaking up a raid on a chemical factory. This links the characters early on in the film as Batman is responsible for the Joker’s creation. The linkage is continually expanded upon throughout the movie raising the tension between the characters. The characters are shown continually as opposites. Batman is dark, while the Joker is bright and colorful. Batman stays hidden in the shadows, while the Joke makes a public display of his actions. Batman tries to keep Gotham City safe and orderly, while the Joker tries to make Gotham city chaotic and in his own image. The strong linkage between them sets the characters up for more confrontation than just the standard good versus evil dichotomy. At the core of this confrontation is that the two personas, Batman and the Joker, are responsible for creating each other.
Due to Jack Napier being a criminal and Batman being a mystery, a third character is needed that acts as a proxy for the audience. The character should preferably be an outsider to Gotham City much like the audience, but someone invested in understanding what is going on. This character comes in the form of Vicki Vale, a initially a neutral observer in the form of photojournalist out to investigate what is going on in Gotham City. Vicki Vale is essential in understanding the other two as she fleshes out their nuances by acting as a romantic interest for both. The viewer is able to see how similar and different Batman and the Joker are through their interactions with Vicki Vale. She has a dinner date of sorts with both characters; Bruce Wayne alone in his manor and the Joker in public at the art museum. She feels Batman’s isolation and loneliness due to a troubled past. While the Joker demonstrates his psychic side by trying to deface her in his desire to make art that mirrors his own disfigured look.
Each of these characters gets a secondary character to aid them as well to better fill out the cast and the world of Gotham City. Batman has Alfred, the Joker has Bob his loyal minion, and Vicki Vale has the local reporter Knox. These characters are interesting as well even if less important, but they never feel like they are taking away from either the main characters or the plot, a major critique of comic-book movies in general, and later Batman movies, specifically.
The interactions between the characters are what drive the plot of the movie. The Joker is created due to Batman trying to stop crime while working from the shadows. Vicki Vale investigates the rumors of Batman and his vigilante ways. As the Joker goes public with his desire to transform Gotham City into his twisted image, Batman steps up to be more public as well. Vicki Vale continues to be caught in between the two as she gets photos of the events for the newspaper. All this climaxes in the final battle between the Joker and Batman, where only one can survive.
Favorite Scene: While the movie is titled Batman, my favorite scene showcases the Joker in all his chaotic glory as he bursts onto Gotham City’s elite art scene in the Gotham Museum of Art where he proceeds to make his own form of art over the classics while henchmen blast Prince’s “Partyman” from a boombox. This scene is all about the Joker from the bright colors that contrast against the rest of Gotham City and other characters to the lively party music. While other scenes feature the Joker, this is the scene that lets the audience know what he is all about, which is not just about being in control of Gotham City’s underworld of crime, but re-imaging Gotham City as a whole. Earlier scenes have him killing rival gang bosses to usurp power and get revenge. Instead, this scene shows a different side of the Joker, where he is bold and in your face. It causes the audience to be pulled into the psychotic mind of the Joker by having us almost wanting to jump up and dance to the music along with him. We, the audience, come close to forgetting that right before the party started, the Joker gassed the whole museum, murdering the patrons. His interactions with Vicky Vale at the end of the scene brings us fully back to realizing that the Joker is an insane villain. Visually this is punctuated by the acid-filled flower the Joker uses eating through the wall. It contrasts with the dark look of the rest of the movie up until this point, even in other scenes with the Joker. Thus, it clearly shows him as outsider from the rest of Gotham City, unlike any other character. Much like the art in the museum, the Joker is going to make Gotham City into his own unique image. If you want more about the scene, there is a great article that dissects this scene and the Joker as an iconoclast that I recommend reading if you are into symbolism and the deeper meaning from an artistic point of view.
We are now in a saturated age of superhero movies such that they seem more like a theme park then real cinema, at least in Scorsese’s viewpoint, but go back roughly thirty years and watch Tim Burton’s Batman. If you do, I think you might be like me and see great storytelling and artistry on the screen. For my next review, I will look at a sub-genre of comedy, the parody film. Before I leave you, here is the ultimate superhero quote that comes from the Spiderman comics and movies, “With great power comes great responsibility.”