Welcome back to another FlashBack Friday (a day early)! I know, I still haven't caught up with my Star Wars reviews... but I'll get to them eventually. For now, I have another massive blockbuster to build towards. You may have heard of it... So, with the anticipation of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hitting critical levels, I felt I needed to go back and fill in the gaps of Batman films I haven't yet covered. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to experience the hype for the first ever theatrical Batman film. Not only was I far too young to see it when it was released in theaters, but my mom wasn't entirely keen on me watching what was then considered to be a dark, gritty version of the caped crusader for quite some time after it was released on home video. Ever since it came out on VHS, I developed a fascination with this movie, trying to piece together the mysterious story from video games and re-tellings of the more famous plot points from friends who had already seen it. Because of that, I don't remember the first time I properly sat down to watch this from beginning to end, but I feel I've forever missed out on the experience of those who saw the film while it was a pop-culture phenomenon. So with that introduction, let's get into the plot.
Gotham City is ruled by crime, with mob bosses running the show from their secret hideouts without anyone willing or able to stop them. However, a new player arrives on the scene, striking fear in the hearts of criminals everywhere. Dressed in black and seemingly supernatural, rumors have been circulating about the "Batman" for a while now, with no one quite knowing the whole story. Curious about these varied reports, journalist Vicky Vale starts investigating, not only falling in love with billionaire playboy (and secretly Batman) Bruce Wayne, but also inadvertently entangling herself with Jack Napier. Following a raid gone wrong, Batman pushed Napier into a vat of chemical waste which disfigured the mobster with a white face and a permanent, unsettling smile. Having gone insane as a result of the accident, Napier embraces his disfigurement and calls himself "The Joker", taking up a crusade of crime against the citizens of Gotham that only Batman can stop.
One of the first things I noticed right off the bat (no pun intended) is that the art direction is really impressive (and Oscar-winning), especially for the time. It went on to not only inspire the subsequent sequels, but also the entire Batman animated series that followed. Say what you will about director Tim Burton as a story-teller, but there's no denying that he has a very unique and fascinating visual style. His vision of Gotham doesn't entirely feel like a real city by today's standards, but the craftsmanship of the massive sets and matte paintings is brilliant and unlike anything we had seen up to that point. It's an interesting combination of period and modern techniques, with a deeply Gothic undertone to every design we see. The character design is great as well, with the iconic Batmobile and Batsuit as the obvious standouts (regardless of their impracticality). So much of this movie has become iconic over the last 27 years, so I have to pay respect to the pioneering that took place with this seminal superhero film.
Like the visuals, the acting in this movie is something that hasn't aged entirely well, but still maintains most of its appeal even today. It's funny to think how everyone was so against the casting of Michael Keaton prior to this film's release, especially given the similar reaction to Ben Affleck's recent casting as the Dark Knight. Everyone cooled off their burning hatred once they saw the film, however, realizing that a talented actor can make a character come to life regardless of the audience's first impression. There are a few moments where his performance doesn't work for me, and I still think he's a little small to pull off the caped crusader as we've seen him in recent years, but kudos to Keaton for succeeding in the face of overwhelming skepticism. A lot of people still consider him to be the best Batman ever, and while I don't share that opinion, I can definitely appreciate what Keaton brings to the role.
Of course, the biggest part of the film (and Tim Burton's true point of focus) is Jack Nicholson's take on The Joker. It's a little hard to remember how maniacal and menacing this character once was in the wake of Heath Ledger's jaw-dropping performance in The Dark Knight, but Nicholson took the goofy version perpetuated by Caesar Romero in the 1960's TV show and gave it a dark and psychotic twist that was much more reminiscent of what was in the comics at the time. Sure, some of his jokes are a little goofy by today's standards, and he doesn't really have that brilliant of a plan to attack Gotham (killer balloons...? Really?), but his presence is undeniably powerful to a child and his performance has clearly resonated with generations of fans.
Another thing I'd be remiss not to mention is the brilliant score by Danny Elfman. As a longtime collaborator with Tim Burton (and one of my favorite composers), Elfman brings something very distinct to the table whenever he's involved with a project. His scores do tend to sound a bit similar, but his dark and brooding melody is so good here that it's no wonder that it was recycled for the Batman animated series. The opening credits sequence where the bat sign is gradually unveiled to the theme music does a great job of setting the mood for what we're about to see, and Elfman is an integral part of that sight/sound coalescence.
So far I've given a lot of compliments to this movie, but it's time to explain why I took a star off of my rating. Part of it has to do with the plot. While it's kind of gutsy to avoid the origin story of Batman in this film, I think the eventual revelation of Bruce Wayne's turn into the vigilante is given short shrift and therefore shouldn't have been introduced at all. Shoehorning Joker into the role of Thomas and Martha Wayne's killer doesn't really work for me either, and other than the obvious parallel of the hero and villain being instrumental in each other's creation, it plays no part in their character arcs in this movie. Vicky Vale is also a pretty insignificant part of the story, replaying the Louis Lane role from 1978's Superman of the damsel in distress. Even the Joker's motivations are pretty nebulous, and his plot is only tenuously connected with the character we saw prior to his transformation. I mean, what was that whole artist stuff about?
Despite its narrative problems, Batman is still a fascinating and haunting experience that ushered in a new era of superhero movies. It's both old-fashioned and ahead of its time, and were it not for the plot and character hiccups, I would have enjoyed this movie's brilliant imagery and music much more. As it stands, I still give Batman a solid three stars. This movie put the Batman franchise on very solid ground, but there are towering heights and treacherous cliffs in the future for this series. Since we don't have much time between now and Batman v Superman's theatrical release, I'll be putting these reviews out every couple of days to catch up. Next up is the 1992 sequel to this enormous blockbuster, Batman Returns! I'm excited to cover that one. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you thought of Batman in the comments below!