directed by Tim Burton
(Warner Brothers, 1989)

When it was announced that Michael Keaton had been chosen to play Batman in Tim Burton's adaptation of the comic book, there was a loud public outcry. Keaton had previously established himself as a comedic actor in movies like Night Shift and Beetlejuice (to say nothing of Mr. Mom). Fans were afraid that this casting indicated another campy interpretation of their beloved Dark Knight, much like the Adam West TV show of the '60s.

Burton and Keaton put all fears to rest early in the film. In the first scene, Batman fights some thugs on a rooftop. When the fight is over, Keaton grabs one of the thugs by the collar and holds him over the edge of the building. Pleading for his life, the panicked thug asks, "Who are you?" Keaton pulls him close and growls, "I'm Batman." And there was no doubt in anyone's mind after that point that Michael Keaton was Batman.

Burton wisely decided to cast the role by selecting an actor complex enough to portray Bruce Wayne. As the revolving door casting of the Batman sequels of have shown, almost anyone in a batsuit makes a convincing Caped Crusader. But none of the actors who followed in his footsteps have shown the dark intensity of Keaton as Bruce Wayne.

In the comics, Bruce Wayne is a frivolous playboy. He's a mask Batman wears to distract people from his secret identity. In the movie, Wayne is a different character altogether. Keaton's Wayne is a scared child. He is shy and vulnerable even when the beautiful Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) is throwing herself at him.

The real star of the movie, however, is Jack Nicholson as the Joker. The story centers around his transformation from mob hitman to psychotic clown. And Nicholson chews the scenery with delight. While Batman is dark and somber, the Joker gets to be colorful and funny. Nicholson makes the most of every line and sets the standard for super-villain one-liners.

Equally important to the success of the film is Burton's dark and surreal visual style. He creates a Gotham City that is scary, cartoonish and imposing all at the same time. The mood is complemented by Danny Elfman 's fantastic score. The music hits all the right notes, from eerie to inspiring.

The biggest problem with Batman is the story. Burton has never been especially good at telling a story with a strong narrative flow. By the time Nicholson has become the Joker, there's not much story left to tell. So, Burton flexes his stylish muscles until the climactic showdown at the film's finale.

Ultimately, Batman is not an entirely satisfying movie. But it is one of the few comic book adaptations that captured the mood and the spirit of the source material. That fact alone made it a runaway hit that spawned three sequels and an animated series.

[ by Greg Laber ]
Rambles: 25 May 2002

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