30 Years On, Michael Keaton Remains the Best ‘Batman’

batman89 poster
The original 1989 poster for the “Batman” movie was simple, but effective.

I was a bit taken aback to read this past weekend that we’d reached the 30th anniversary of the release of Tim Burton’s “Batman,” a film that has been credited with creating the template for the modern superhero film, on which Hollywood now is so dependent.

Back when “Batman” was being developed, things were quite different. The downward spiral of the original Superman films had pretty much killed off interest in “comic book movies,” to the point that it took producer Michael Uslan a decade to get a studio on board with his vision of a dark, serious Batman film.

Uslan told CNN recently that he always had been a fan of the original vision of the Batman as a fearsome vigilante. Like me, he had been turned off by the campy mid-’60s TV version starring Adam West, with its “BIFF! POW!” word balloons and hokey dialogue.

Michael Keaton was a controversial choice to play Bruce Wayne and the Batman.

I remember being thrilled when I heard that a serious big-screen version of the Caped Crusader was in the works, though I was a bit apprehensive after word came out that Tim Burton, director of “Beetlejuice” and “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” was making “Batman,” and that he’d cast Michael Keaton, known mainly for comedic roles, in the title role.

I wasn’t alone. DC Comics was inundated with letters complaining about the casting decision, but Warner Bros. held firm. I shudder to think what their reaction might have been in the face of the sort of kneejerk social media uproar that’s become all too commonplace today.

Anyway, the advance word on the film was that it was “dark,” and that was good enough for me. Plus, the fact that one of the hottest stars of that time, Jack Nicholson, was on board as the Joker did indicate that this wasn’t going to be some throwaway B-movie.

So, on the afternoon of June 23, 1989, Leslie and I traveled out to a suburban cinema with our comic book-loving 4-year-old son Bill, and our friend John Sosebee, for one of the first showings of Burton’s “Batman.”

I remember loving the mood set by Danny Elfman’s brooding, unforgettable theme music, and the film’s opening vision of Gotham City as a grimy, menacing gothic skyline (designed by art director Anton Furst, who ended up winning an Oscar).

keaton bruce wayne
Burton made a wise choice in focusing primarily on the damaged Bruce Wayne character.

Keaton was a revelation. His Batman was as menacing as I’d hoped, and his Bruce Wayne was a nice blend of sardonic introvert and a touch of crazy lurking beneath the surface — just off-center enough to make his Bat-alter ego more believable. One of the smartest things Burton did was make the emotionally stunted Bruce Wayne character the center of the film.

The only real problem with his Batman was the body-armor and rubber cowl, which weren’t as flexible as in later films, meaning he couldn’t turn his head, giving him a rather stiff-necked Frankenstein’s monster walk.

As for Nicholson, while he hammed it up with abandon as an ambitious mid-level hood who gets knocked into a vat of acid and survives as a grotesquely scarred homicidal maniac, the fact that he was playing the Joker as malevolently insane kept his over-the-top performance from tilting the balance away from the film’s pervading darkness.

In fact, for younger members of the audience, Nicholson’s Joker was downright scary. I remember during the movie looking over at young Bill, who was sitting in John’s lap. He was absolutely frozen with fear and excitement, scared and enthralled at the same time.

joker batman
Jack Nicholson played the Joker as a homicidal lunatic.

(Not so enthralled, though, that he didn’t skip over the Joker’s month on his bedroom “Batman” calendar a year later.)

Until the 30th anniversary prompted me to watch the film again, it had been quite a few years since I last had viewed Burton’s “Batman.” So, I watched it again this week, and much of the film still held up, though the director’s operatic tendencies sometimes got in the way of his storytelling.

Nicholson’s Joker pales considerably in comparison with the later interpretation by the late Heath Ledger (now, that’s how you play crazy), and, as appealing as my old high school classmate Kim Basinger was, her Vicki Vale character didn’t really add much to the proceedings other than a damsel in distress. (Burton’s flawed but wildly entertaining 1992 sequel, “Batman Returns,” had a much more interesting romantic subplot involving the Batman, Catwoman and their psychologically battered secret identities, with Keaton and Pfeiffer having tons more chemistry than he had with Basinger).

batman vicki vale
Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale character mainly served as a romantic interest and damsel in distress.

After three decades, the score by Elfman (of the band Oingo Boingo) is as majestic and forboding as ever, but the Prince funk-pop tunes scattered throughout the film sound more than a little dated now.

Speaking of dated, the film actually isn’t overall, thanks in part to its rather indeterminate setting. The Batmobile is quite futuristic (especially with its slightly primitive CGI “shielding”), and the movie appears to be set in the era in which it came out, but the newspaper  newsroom where Vale is working looks like something out of “The Front Page,” and the mobsters’ pin-stripe suits are amusingly anachronistic.

The sequence where the Batman gets rid of the Joker’s poisonous balloons with his one-man Batwing plane — and the subsequent cathedral bell tower showdown between the two toward the end — both are refreshingly low-tech compared with today’s bombastic super hero films (and lacking in the requisite explosions and mass destruction of surrounding buildings that are de rigueur nowadays).

And, the film’s iconic final shot, with the camera panning slowly upward until it finally lands on a silhouetted Batman standing vigil atop a Gotham skyscraper, is as effective as ever.

The 30th anniversary poster for “Batman.”

My biggest complaint still is with Keaton’s opening line, where he introduces himself to a couple of hoods on a rooftop by saying, “I’m Batman.” True devotees know that he should have said, “I’m the Batman.”

The Batman always has been my favorite comic book hero (Superman’s near-invincibility made him somewhat less appealing to me, and I found the Marvel characters’ many neuroses tiresome), and I passed that love of the Dark Knight on to my son, who grew up on Batman movies starting with Burton’s two entries.

Through the years, our Batman devotion managed to survive the two awful wink-wink campy Joel Schumacher disasters (starring Val Kilmer and George Clooney) that followed the Burton-Keaton films — and which briefly put the franchise on hiatus. (Keaton declined to continue the role in 1995’s “Batman Forever” after Burton left, because, he later said, he read the script and “It sucked.” He was right.)

Eventually, though, we were rewarded with the magnificent trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan — “Batman Begins” (2005), The Dark Knight” (2008) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) — featuring Welshman Christian Bale as the Batman.

I agree completely with my son, who once said that “The Dark Knight” was “about as close to a flawless Batman movie as I think is possible.”

Burton’s original two movies, “Batman” and “Batman Returns,” certainly aren’t as good overall as the Nolan films, but, 30 years later, I do think Keaton remains my all-time favorite in the role.

For me, he definitely is the Batman.

(To read Quick Cuts entries from before September, 2018, please go to https://billking.livejournal.com.)

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