Why I Love Batman (1989)
"Don't kill me! Don't kill me, man! Don't kill me! Don't kill me, man! "I'm not going to kill you. I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me." "What are you?" "I'm Batman."
Tim Burton's Batman, released in 1989, was the thing that began my love affair with The Batman, from the comic books to the wonderful Animated Series and of course the many cinematic adaptations over the year. I used to believe that Christopher Nolan did Batman best, and while he did some amazing work, these days I am inclined to believe that Tim Burton did it first and did it better. While Richard Donner's Superman was a big hit and laid the groundwork for every comic book movie to follow, the importance of Burton's Batman to the comic book movie cannot be overstated. A huge hit, with a killer soundtrack from Danny Elfman - that is still THE definitive sound of the character - along with a concept album about the characters from Prince, and a cast of incredible talents, Batman established the character as perhaps the greatest in all of comic books.
Let's start with that cast: Michael Keaton is magnetic as Bruce Wayne and Batman and even while I love and admire the work of Christian Bale, Ben Affleck, Kevin Conroy and of course the legendary Adam West, Keaton will always be my Batman. Alongside Keaton, as his nemesis and greatest comic book villain of all time, is Jack Nicholson as The Joker. I know Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his role as The Joker in Nolan's The Dark Knight, and I also respect the work put in by the great Jared Leto in Suicide Squad (and hopefully its sequels), and Mark Hamill in the Animated Series, but there is no-one who is as iconic and on point as Jack Nicholson. Jack Nicholson is perfect for the Noir inspired movie, as he starred in perhaps the greatest Noir ever made, Chinatown, tied with Sunset Boulevard and In a Lonely Place. He is menacing and hilarious at the same time, just as The Joker should be.
This is one reason why I love Batman so much: it understands that the characters are Noir, and that the story of Bruce Wayne is ultimately a tragic tale of fated destruction. Jack Nicholson is easily one of the greatest actors of his or any other generation and he is at his best here. The charisma he has is off the charts. Watching him dance to Prince's Partyman is one of the great joys in any comic book movie. This ability to marry a dark, intense and very Noir story with the pure joy and sense of fun of a comic book movie is a remedy in an age where seemingly every comic book movie needs to be dark and serious, in spite of how that suits the characters involved. Burton treats the story seriously but not too seriously. It is ultimately a work of childlike imagination - in the best sense of that word - and doesn't need to heap incredible suffering on the character and the viewer to make its point.
As with the rest of the characters and their portrayals, there is no Alfred as iconic as Michael Gough. His scenes with Bruce Wayne are sweet, funny and well observed. When he lets Vicki Vale - more on her in a moment - in to the Batcave because he knows that Bruce loves her, and because he wants him to have a full life and move on from his grief, it is one of the truest to the characters of any comic book movie. It is just as meaningful as anything in Nolan's pictures with Michael Caine and Christian Bale, but doesn't get nearly enough credit. Kim Basinger who won an Oscar for her role in L.A. Confidential - and who deserved it the most of anyone that year - is brilliant and beautiful as photo journalist Vicki Vale. Her chemistry with Keaton is electric, just as compelling as that of another amazing actor Michelle Pfeiffer in the sequel Batman Returns. You want her and Bruce to stay together, because you truly believe they love one another.
Let's take a few moments to talk about Prince's concept album, because it remains one of my favourite albums by The Artist. It holds up incredibly well today, especially the songs The Future - a bleak and brilliant track reminiscent of The Black Album - Vicki Waiting and of course Partyman. Prince was upset at the time that he wasn't being tasked with crafting the soundtrack to the movie, and was just getting a couple of songs featured, but his work complements Danny Elfman's incredible score very well. As a massive Prince fan, I would place Batman alongside Camille and The Black Album as a deliciously dark and funky album.
Batman is a very important and influential movie, that cannot be disputed. It is also though one of my favourite comic book movies of all time, and on a very short list of best ever in the genre. If we admit that we love comic book movies - and why the hell not? - then it is folly to not appreciate Burton's work on Batman '89. Jack Nicholson alone makes it worth a viewing, but the film has so much more to it, including Michael Keaton's definitive performance as Batman and Bruce Wayne, Michael Gough's dead on interpretation of Alfred and Kim Basinger's beautiful performance as Vicki Vale. More appreciation for one of the originals please! Bring back Tim Burton to the comic book movie!