Batman ★★½

Gotham Gets a Makeover

This "Batman" must've seemed more spectacular in its day, when there was a relative dearth of superhero flicks (especially good ones) and when the most recent popular memory of the titular caped crusader derived from the 1960s camp of the "Batman" TV series and accompanying movie. The "Superman" series starring Christopher Reeve had already floundered disastrously to its end in "Superman IV: The Quest for Peace" (1987). What else was there to see? "Howard the Duck" (1986) or "The Return of the Swamp Thing" (1989)? That may explain how "Batman" became the second highest-grossing film of 1989 (only coming up short of that third Indian Jones picture at the box office). Plus, like "Superman" (1978), the cast includes some bankable stars to lend the appearance of gravitas to its comic-book fantasy. But, today, with comic-book (or "graphic-novel") superheroes vastly more ingrained in our movie culture and in the wake of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and all the other iterations of the nocturnal anti-hero, it's perhaps easier to see how significantly this "Batman" comes up short.

Parts of it work, but as a kind of overlong and slowly-paced hodgepodge. It's darkly composed, and there are canted angles, but the camerawork is mostly prosaic. The production design is striking in a grimy imitation of "Brazil" (1985) sort of way, but this Gotham is too obviously and incongruously a collage of matted cityscapes and backlot constructions, with most of the action taking place on what appears to be little more than one or two strategically-obscured and relatively sparsely-populated city blocks, while the cityscapes imply a New York-sized metropolis. Finally, there's a bell tower straight out of "Vertigo" for no apparent rhyme or reason, although I would like to think it neatly reflects the staircase ending of the 1931 "Dracula," given that Michael Keaton repeatedly poses like that other batman as portrayed by Bela Lugosi. Heck, both bat-men even have dual identities--one a suave aristocratic type enjoying parties in the evening and the other posturing with his cape to give the appearance of outstretched wings before attacking people at night. But, I'm afraid that Tim Burton and company, instead, merely imitated haphazardly what they liked from other films--and a lot of it, as usual for Burton, is from 1930s studio shockers and 1920s Weimar cinema. Thus, there's "Dracula," as well as bits from "Metropolis" (1927) or "Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933), which are mixed with stuff from "Vertigo" to "Brazil," as well.

There's also the newspaper investigation subplot, which usually is more integral to the Superman franchise. Sometimes this works as a meta-narrative on the storytelling of Superman (the original Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s were especially adept at this, although the Reeve films have their moments, too). Here, in "Batman," it's entirely superfluous, and Robert Wuhl is annoying, to boot, with Kim Basinger as a generic damsel-in-distress love interest being none too appealing, either. I much prefer the surveillance business in Wayne Manor. Had this adaptation been more akin to film noir (the crime and detective stuff, along with the low-key lighting, are already there, after all), like the Dark Knight trilogy, or included a femme fatale like Catwoman in "Batman Returns" (1992), then it would've been another matter. Likewise, I think the dualism or doppelgänger theme between Bruce Wayne and Batman and Batman and the Joker would've worked had it not seemingly been rushed and tacked-on at the end. The incongruity of Keaton playing it rather low-key for a costumed vigilante while Jack Nicholson gives one of the most gleefully over-the-top performances of his career while giving Gotham a makeover doesn't help, either. It's a mess.

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