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Batman (1989) Review
"I'm Batman" - Batman


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Sometimes, I literally have no idea where the time goes.

One minute, you’re watching a film that you’ve wanted for years, eagerly having bought every last bit of merchandise in the run-up to just this moment. Next thing you know, POW! Thirty years have somehow slipped by and you’re taking your seat to watch a one night only anniversary screening of that very same film with your 27-year-old son.

That we were there to watch Michael Keaton don the cape and cowl was no surprise. What was a surprise was the tsunami sized wave of nostalgia that came with watching the film at a cinema again. This is a film I’ve watched on VHS, DVD and most recently Blu-ray. But this screening had a resonance that I just didn’t expect.

Let’s turn the clock back a bit. 1989 – I was 29 years old, about to get married. It was a crazy summer. My last one being single. I drove my trusty red Ford Capri, my films were VHS, my music was a mixture of vinyl and cassette. My parents were alive. I worked in an office. And other than getting married, my main concern was that there was a Batman film on its way.

I was six the last time Batman was on cinema screens. I have a very clear memory of being taken to see the Adam West and Burt Ward movie to a Wednesday afternoon matinee in the summer. In the UK, we saw the film before the TV series that spawned it.  I had already become aware of the character, purely by my mother buying me a pack of bubble gum with trading cards earlier that year – and from that moment, I was hooked. Most people, it’s sports teams, but I bypassed all that. With me, it was Batman.

It’s always been Batman.

From Batman came my first DC Comics. I had some of the toys, I watched the show. You get the picture. Adam West became the ideal role model, strong, moral, resolute. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be his sidekick? He was like the coolest parent ever. Batmania, as it was called struck in 1966 and that merchandise was everywhere. I was a little too young to really understand it, but I remember it. Naturally, I didn’t have much money to spend on it and was limited to the occasional comic book. I was pretty much at the mercy of parents and older sisters.

In 1989, I got another chance when Batmania hit again, with better collectibles. I remember hardly being able to wait until the inevitable novelisation of the film was released. There was a heatwave at the time, and I lay awake until the early hours reading the book, unable to sleep because of the heat.

Then there was the Making of the Film book, the comic book adaptation. There were a lot of books and comic book anthologies around, because the character was celebrating fifty years of continuous publication. Now, of course, the old guy’s eighty this year.

I still have the commemorative magazines, two of them in French, bought on honeymoon (with apologies to the long-suffering Mrs Pierce) I’d stay up late waiting to record little snippets of the movie shown on film programmes on our four meagre TV channels. Oh, and of course, t-shirts. Batman may have been the first film that I went out and bought the commemorative shirt to go with the film. Because the film’s UK release was about two and a half months behind the US premiere, I knew the movie inside out before I had seen it. Seeing it was actually just the cherry on top.

Now, here’s the strange thing that in retrospect I can’t help but smile at.  For years, I had wanted a straightforward Batman movie, not like the bright, gaudy comical series we had seen in the sixties. The seventies, eighties and nineties had given us a very different, darker Batman and THAT was what I wanted to see. Plus, a new Batmobile of course.

When Batman was announced – I was dead set against it, convinced it was going to be a total disaster. Tim Burton – totally wrong choice, I said.  How can the director of Beetlejuice direct Batman? Michael Keaton – absurd. He’s too short, too slight and…. he’s Beetlejuice. But worse was to come – Prince working on the soundtrack? They’re obviously just trying to annoy me on purpose now. None of it was ever going to work, and my dream of seeing my hero represented as I wanted on the big screen was evaporating fast. (See, I get over protective and over possessive of Batman. I always have.)

Yes, well, I was wrong. On all counts. Absolutely incorrect. The film became a classic, and for me, a powerful and potent reminder of that last summer of my single years.

Sitting in the multiplex as the titles rolled, I couldn’t help but think that the last time I saw that sequence theatrically, I had no idea that my mother only had six months to live and that two years later, my son would be born.

I was struck by the realisation that I knew the film better than I thought, and I really have to recollection how many times I’ve watched it at home on various formats. Thirty? Forty? Who knows? Enough to know exactly what line comes next in any given scene. I’d never thought of it before, but I know this Batman film as well as I know Star Wars.

For all that, it’s not a perfect film. I thought it was that night I first saw it, but the massive amount of repeat screenings has exposed a few plot holes – but, I guess there are imperfections in everything.

If there’s anybody out there who hasn’t seen the film, in a nutshell, gangster Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) becomes the Joker after accidentally falling into a vat of chemicals and goes on a crime spree with the ultimate intention of killing just about everyone in Gotham City with his new Smilex nerve gas. Gotham has a protector in Batman (Michael Keaton) who has to stop him.

The cast is damn near perfect. Keaton hits the right note as the distracted and tortured Bruce Wayne. It made sense to me that Bruce Wayne, not being particularly muscular would wear bulking body armour to alter his body shape and help his disguise. Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale was just absolutely the hottest leading lady of the eighties. Jack Nicholson was an incredible Joker but maybe could’ve dropped a few pounds. The Joker doesn’t have a middle age spread – but Jeez, the manic energy he brought to the role.  Robert Wuhl as Alexander Knox is like having a cheese grater rubbed on my exposed nerves in every scene he’s in. Michael Gough is a good, fatherly Alfred (except with his penchant for letting people into the Batcave, Alfred is clearly a security risk). Pat Hingle is good as Commissioner Gordon, but Billy Dee Williams seems to channel Lando Calrissian in his scenes as Harvey Dent.

My problems with the film come toward the final confrontation with the Joker in the Notre Dame-like tower. Batman crashes the Batwing on the steps of the old cathedral and is presumed dead by Vicki Vale. Fair enough. Joker takes her prisoner and orders a getaway chopper to pick both himself and Vale up from the tower of the building. That’s a decision made right there and then on the spur of the moment. Naturally, Batman has survived, and slowly and painfully makes his was up the stone steps of the gothic structure to the bell tower in pursuit. Question – how were there three of Joker’s hoods waiting already in the bell tower to ambush him? Joker had no time to set anything up and wouldn’t have known to send anybody ahead. In any event we see him and Vicki arrive first, and he makes attempts to block off Batman’s pursuit by dropping the bell.

My other gripe – a few seconds later, Batman accuses Joker of killing his parents. Joker says he was only a kid when he did that. Now, this implies Joker knows Batman’s identity. Bruce’s parents are no way the only people he ever shot, because he has a little saying he likes to recite before killing people. The guy’s a mob enforcer before he becomes Joker. And if, by some means he knows Batman and Wayne are the same person, why didn’t he mention it when he and Wayne confronted each other at Vicki’s apartment and he shot Wayne? BUT – earlier in the film, it’s established that Joker didn’t know Wayne at all.

But, as I sat there, enjoying the show, riding that breaker of a wave of times gone by, those criticisms seemed petty and inconsequential. It was more a time to enjoy a film that I have loved for thirty years, one that I took for granted never realising how much of a seminal film it had been in my adult life. It still holds up, thirty years later – and that, my friends, comes from a Batman fan of 53 years standing.  


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