In the late 1980s, Batman was enjoying quite a renaissance, mostly on the strength of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, along with Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke which rescued the character from the campy 1960s television show and returned him to the dark, gritty streets from which he came. When it was announced that Warner Brothers was producing a motion picture version, the comic’s legions of fans could scarcely contain themselves. The film attracted A-List talent, most notably Jack Nicholson as the Joker and was Warner’s big film of 1989.
What the fans got, however, was a bit of a mixed bag. It was handsomely produced, with a production values that surpassed the Superman films of the late 1970s. The set design was a deeply textured mixture of the gothic and Art Deco. The problem is that you have a hero that, quite frankly, doesn’t do more for those two hours than fill a rubber suit. That’s not Michael Keaton’s fault. The script simply doesn’t give him much to do, either as Batman or Bruce Wayne. The other problem is that you have a villain whose motives are also sketchy at best, unless you count giving Jack Nicholson the chance to chew the scenery like a sumo wrestler at an all-night Vegas buffet. Once he makes the transition from mobster Jack Napier to the Joker, Nicholson is always entertaining, but the character never amounts to much more than a series of setpieces and punchlines.
Kim Basinger is also on hand as dogged photographer, Vicky Vale. Unfortunately, we mostly know she’s dogged because Alfred (Michael Gough) tells Bruce Wayne that she is, not from any characterization in the story. She spends the movie going from being flustered by Bruce Wayne to playing straight person to Robert Wuhl‘s Alexander Knox. Pat Hingle and Billy Dee Williams, as Commissioner Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent, respectively, aren’t given much to do either.
On the plus side, we’re treated to one of Danny Elfman’s finest film scores as well as Tim Burton’s unique visual style. Batman is interesting to look at and won’t put you to sleep, but if you were looking for the Batman of the comics to hit the big screen, in 1989 you still had 16 years to wait.