“You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” asks a grinning Jack Napier.
The comic book character known as Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. Created by Bob Kane, the character was a superhero without any superpowers, having to rely on his physical prowess, intellect, detective skills, and weapons to take down the criminals of Gotham City. The character has gone through several incarnations over the decades (including a campy 1960s TV series), and it was in the 1980s that Batman was finally returned to his dark roots (thanks to Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns). Attempts were made for several years to properly bring Batman to the big screen, and Tim Burton was the director to help make that happen with 1989’s Batman. Up until seeing the film, my only exposure to Batman had been seeing some comics and action figures in a few stores, but mostly it was from the 1960s show with Adam West. Batman wasn’t just the first Tim Burton film I saw on the big screen; it was the very first film I ever saw on the big screen. I was five when it came out in the summer of ’89, and I still remember it well (including which Long Island theater I saw it in). And of course, I would get to see the film on the big screen again 14 years later at the Museum of the Moving Image.
Batman starts with an alley way mugging that draws the attention of a mysterious new vigilante called Batman (Michael Keaton). The Gotham City police continue to dismiss the allegations of a six-foot bat fighting criminals, while investigative reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) is the only one who is determined to prove it. The Batman sightings bring photojournalist Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) to Gotham, where she teams up with Knox to get the story. Meanwhile, an altercation between Batman and a group of mobsters led by Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) at Axis Chemicals leaves Napier disfigured after Batman accidentally drops him into a giant vat of chemical waste. Napier soon resurfaces as the Joker, and begins a reign of terror on Gotham that only Batman can stop. Things get complicated as Vicky Vale falls in love with millionaire Bruce Wayne (who is Batman) and also becomes the obsession of the Joker. Wayne must contend with the idea of revealing who he is to Vale (if their relationship is to last) as well as stopping the Joker’s master plan.
Seeing Tim Burton’s movie showed me a completely new Batman, one that would resonate with me for years to come. Bruce Wayne devoted himself to an ideal to become something more, and that’s something that’s always inspired me. This version of Batman starts off as more of an antihero who pushes the boundaries of the law in order to deal with certain criminals, but eventually comes to accept his role as a hero. Keaton brilliantly portrayed the haunted Bruce Wayne and Batman (overcoming the controversy created by fans who were initially distraught by his casting as the Caped Crusader). Nicholson portrayed an unforgettable Joker (matched only or barely surpassed by Mark Hamill in Batman: The Animated Series and Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning portrayal in 2008′s The Dark Knight). The stunning production design by Anton Furst was recognized with a much-deserved Academy Award win (I loved the Art Deco approach taken to designing the very bleak-looking Gotham City).
The design of the Batmobile was just perfect (and justifiably remains a fan-favorite), and the design of the Batcave was awesome. Roger Pratt’s cinematography was first-rate and appropriately dark. The costume designs by Bob Ringwood were terrific, especially the redesigned Batsuit, and the influence of 1940s-style clothing was noticeable on the costumes for the citizens of Gotham. The classic score by Danny Elfman was one of his early efforts and remains one of his best ever (it was a shame that it didn’t receive an Oscar nomination). There is no question that it is his music that remains THE standard for Batman music (Elliot Goldenthal came close with 1995′s Batman Forever and 1997′s Batman and Robin, but Hans Zimmer’s music for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, while okay, failed to properly represent Batman musically). Burton’s film has held up well after 25 years, and it will continue to do so for years to come.