Friday, December 19, 2008

Movie Review : Batman (1989)

Let me take you back….way back, to the year 1989. The Sega Genesis was the must-have new gaming system, serial killer Ted Bundy is executed in Florida, the Exxon Valdez dumps tons of oil into Prince William Sound, and a young man is waiting in line along with some friends in Upper Darby Pennsylvania to see the much-anticipated Tim Burton film adaptation of his favorite comic book character. Click below for more :

I can remember almost every part of my first viewing of the Batman movie (except exactly who I went with, sorry whoever that was) at the now closed down Barclay Square Twin Cinema. I recall the excitement, the anticipation, the hope that they could do my favorite characters justice on the big screen. Back then, it delivered…BIG time. Does it still deliver today after seeing special effects like those found in Iron Man or Hulk, and does it seem cheesy after the uber-dark The Dark Knight? It’s still a great film, although it does have it’s issues, it remains very enjoyable.

Now I’m actually watching the movie while writing this so my comments may seem oddly chronological. One of the first thoughts that people seem to have about this movie is : “Michael Keaton as Batman, you mean the guy from Mr. Mom?” I thought this as well, but honestly, he pulls it off. He really nails the Bruce Wayne persona of a semi-disinterested playboy, then on the other hand he does one of the better Batman voices. By Batman voice I mean adding that gravely tone to Wayne’s voice so no one will know it’s him. Christian Bale sort of overdid this in The Dark Knight to the point that I was laughing whenever Batman spoke, luckily that movie was more about the Joker, who Heath Ledger pulled off with a surprising level of awesomeness. Yup…awesomeness, look it up.

Speaking of the Clown Prince of Crime, we have Jack Nicholson playing the iconic Joker, Batman’s main nemesis. He does a fantastic job of channeling one of the Joker’s personalities in this movie. I say one of them because Joker has many different personalities from goofy crime lord to frightening psychopath. This performance is definitely more of the Cesar Romero 1960s campy variety than Ledger’s scary-as-hell version, both of which are needed in the canon. The origin story of the Joker’s “birth” sticks close to the origin that I’m familiar with but does tweak a few things, which is to be expected in comic book movies. Nicholson does a good job of being Nicholson (something he excels at) and performs exactly how you would expect as the Joker.

Let’s talk about Gotham City itself. Dark, grey, void of color and sunlight, all of these characteristics are well represented here. Something I’m noticing here for the first time, and maybe it’s because I’m watching my older DVD copy on a new HiDef TV, but the movie looks VERY much like Frank Miller’s Sin City in retrospect. It looks as if the color was removed from the film and added back in, but only in certain places (a woman’s dress, the lettering on an ambulance, someone’s tie). For some reason this is annoying me right now, which is weird because I love Sin City but maybe I’m just not remembering that this was there the whole time and it seems fairly random.

The story functions as most origin comic book movies do, there is a lot of information to get out of the way in a short period of time. The origin of Batman bothers me in this instance. I know there are many versions of the origin but this one feels the need to tie Joker (pre-white skin and grin) to Wayne in the past by making him the murderer of Bruce’s parents. No big deal, I’ll move past it.

The other main performances are Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale, Robert Wuhl’s Knox, and Michael Gough’s Alfred. Basinger is her usual attractive but dull self, and seems like she was just thrown in to add another big name to the list. I’m not really a fan of hers so this may sound biased to begin with, but we could have had less Vale and more Joker. Robert Wuhl provides the comic relief as a fast talking noir-style reporter hot on Batman’s trail, good stuff. And last but not least, Michael Gough does a wonderful job as the dry witted, father-figure Alfred.

Batman’s various toys in the movie are excellent. The utility belt gadgets are well done and the Batsuit itself is great. One of my favorite Batmobiles appears in this movie, before they got a bit ridiculous with them. The thing looks like a fighter jet without wings. Speaking of wings, I love the Batwing plane. This is without a doubt one of my all-time favorite Bat-toys, although Bruce should have invested in some heavier armor because Joker takes it down with a handgun (I hear this is due to a deleted scene where Joker has a tank hidden beneath one of the floats). The Batcave itself is also well rendered and represented.

One big issue with the movie, and listen closely: YOU CAN NOT KILL THE BIG VILLAINS! I was so disappointed that they had no possibility that the Joker would return in a sequel. Although, they managed to screw up the sequels beyond belief (except for Batman Forever which I sort of enjoyed, mostly thanks to Jim Carrey). They did a great job of keeping the hope for a villain alive in Dark Knight (then through tragic irony that got screwed up), so they learned a lesson there. Arkham Asylum is there for a reason, although it is funny that you would house major psychopathic criminals in a facility that has the security of a small town bed and breakfast, but that’s one of the conceits that you have to accept. Besides some cheesy effects that are obvious now, that’s about my only gripe. Not bad.

So, to recap : Does it still stand up today as a good comic film? Absolutely. Is it better than The Dark Knight or Batman Begins? That’s comparing apples and oranges, because they are different animals. I can’t give a solid answer but I will say it holds up through time. This movie did spawn the atrocities that were Batman Returns and The Evil Whose Title Must Not Be Spoken (*looks around * Batman and Robin) but I can’t hold that against it because Batman did restart the mainstream’s interest in comic book adaptations and paved the way for great movies like Spider-Man, Iron Man and the current Bat-movies.

Now I’m just waiting for Christmas to roll around, I am hoping that there will be some form of BluRay capable device and a copy of Dark Knight hanging out under the tree :-)

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