Batman isn’t my favorite movie of all time but it may be the film I’ve seen the most times and thus had the biggest influence on my young mind.
I don’t think that makes me as fucked as a kid whose Bat-proselytization came from the ponderous Chris Nolan movies or mindless Arkham Asylum video games. Tim Burton’s animation background gave him the command of visual language necessary to make the film feel like a living comic book, which besides encouraging kids like myself to explore comic books also instilled a love for the graphic mythology of these larger-than-life characters: Batman the noble vampire clashing with the malevolent demon called The Joker against the backdrop of Gotham City, which isn’t anything like a real city but instead the ultimate hallucination of urban hell. To take this rich iconography and vulgarize it into a guy wearing black body armor fighting a guy in wet Juggalo makeup on a Chicago location shoot really wastes all that storytelling potential.
The secret of the 1989 film’s appeal is that like most superhero comics, its subtext is adolescent sexual frustration, and what’s more universal than that?
For the last 15 years Hollywood has systematically taken the fantastic aspects of every superhero comic book character and made them more mundane, to legitimize the experience for grownups feeling residual, repressed shame about their continuing indulgence in a genre created for children and hormonal teenagers.
Batman was not a “Superhero Movie” because that genre and its tropes weren’t yet codified. It was a movie about Batman, and doesn’t really follow any of the rules or expectations of today’s Marvel or DC films. Like Richard Donner’s Superman ten years earlier, the filmmakers sought to create a great movie with a timeless feeling that could appeal to all ages, and although both films bear some marks of trends and fashions from their times, they were for the most part successful in their artistic goals. They each share an underlying interest in how their tales reflect the human experience of attraction between men and women, and although Superman‘s love story between Clark Kent and Lois Lane is a more straightforward picture of romance, the neurotic psychology of Batman is sincere on a level that is impossible for any superhero film today.
This isn’t to say that the film’s not occasionally full of shit, but almost every step of its conception came from an authentic place. For one thing, all of its lead actors were pushing at least 40. It also wasn’t made with a globalized market, precluding too much English dialogue that Chinese audiences would impatiently have to read in subtitles. And as meticulously designed as the look of the film was, it was pre-CGI and without the use of green screens, every special effect had to have a purpose. It was, to be stodgy about it, a real film, with a story conveyed by actors and only a couple of gratuitous studio-mandated fight scenes interrupting the atmosphere.
So what’s the point of all that atmosphere, character and their story? I would contest that the film is about a nerd and a bully who both want the same girl, and this simple interpretation encapsulates more emotional truths on repeat viewings than all the Nolan movies’ meandering metaphors about the War on Terror and Occupy Wall Street, or platitudes about justice or chaos. Stupid people think a movie with artifice can’t be about anything “realistic”, but Batman ’89 is about alphas and betas, nerds and bullies, weirdos and normies, men and women. If you want to fixate on how impractical it is that Michael Keaton can’t turn his head inside the Batman costume I swear I will toss you from the top of Gotham Cathedral.
The murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents has become a cliché requisite in every Batman movie, yet Batman plays on this expectation right the first sequence. We see a hapless nuclear family, tourists in the big scary city, whom Batman fans might assume are the Wayne family right up until their mugging does not end fatally. The reason Thomas and MARTHAAAAA Wayne’s murders have been elevated to Batman lore pornography is that losing your parents is the most primal childhood fear, and marks the finality of childhood.
Batman is a scared little kid hiding inside a suit of armor who never grew up, just like his biggest fans are scared little kids hiding inside their ironic adult costumes.
Tim Burton understood this innately, and regularly had to defend casting Michael Keaton by pointing out that a strong and handsome man wouldn’t feel compelled to wear a bat costume. In one unguarded interview, he pointed out that with Keaton, “all you got to do is look at him, and he looks fucked up.”
Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne needs this. Beating up bad guys isn’t a selfless virtuous quest, he just can’t help himself. This dynamic is all over the early, best Tim Burton movies: the outsider who can only be himself: Pee-Wee Herman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood. Biographies of Tim Burton allude to a childhood of internalized alienation, of experimentation with gothic and punk subcultures that provided costumes as declarations of independence from the outside world.
By not taking Batman seriously at face value he recognized the character’s essential insecurity, the desperate need to be taken seriously by the criminals he scares – the same way a moody teenager wishes his black trenchcoat and eyeliner to horrify cheerleaders.
Right from the get-go we get to see Batman doing his thing because as screenwriter Sam Hamm was quoted, “You totally destroy your credibility if you show the literal process by which Bruce Wayne becomes Batman.” Unlike modern audiences, people in 1989 didn’t need hand-holding. They just wanted to have fun seeing Batman being cool.
The film also presumes you know that Jack Nicholson is destined for white skin and green hair: before his chemical accident he wears a purple suit, and eyes his Joker playing card at an ominous moment, inferring the forces of destiny and fate which enhance the mythical quality of the story. The casual confidence of this movie has more maturity than a thousand fatherly speeches from Michael Caine doing his best Churchill imitation.
Batman and Joker’s symbiotic relationship has been expounded upon endlessly over the years, but Burton carried the idea even further by having Joker kill Bruce’s parents. This used to annoy me until I realized it works to make the story more self-contained, and could have only been done in a film where the actor playing Joker was 15 years older than whomever was playing Batman. Sam Hamm had intended them to be the same age in his original screenplay and protested the decision, but it’s a choice that employs their age difference in a way that’s logical. Pauline Kael noted the age difference also effectively pits two different generations of hipsters against each other.
In the context of Hollywood circa 1989, Jack Nicholson’s casting was considered “perfect” based on his persona as a wild man, raconteur and womanizer. As a child, I didn’t know Jack Nicholson from Jack Nicklaus. As far as I was concerned, he was only The Joker. From a business standpoint, Nicholson’s stardom demanded his name came before Keaton’s on posters and in the opening credits, but part of the serendipity of this film’s creation is how that power imbalance corresponds to the characters: Nicholson/Napier the top dog of Gotham, and Keaton/Wayne its underdog.
Batman’s struggle against Joker isn’t oedipal – the age gap is slightly too narrow – but it’s akin to a moody, withdrawn younger kid overcoming a callous older boy.
Nicholson’s introduction taught me, as a five year old, what an adult who was both aspirational AND evil looked like. Unlike the young family man knocked out in the opening scene on his family’s behalf, Nicholson is a mature bachelor wearing finely tailored suits, surrounded by luxury and tended to by a woman young enough to be his daughter. He speaks pridefully of his criminal profession and the deck of cards he shuffles in one hand signals his dedication to vice. The scene concludes on a note of smug narcissism as he admires his own reflection.
Like Batman, he too is obsessed with his image and the motif of mirrors continues throughout the rest of the film. At the end of the story’s first act he’s driven insane by the sight of his own reflection: his own irrevocably transformed self-image.
Before the introduction of Bruce Wayne comes the introductions of Alex Knox and Vicki Vale, which are less arresting. They’re newspaper reporters, doing snappy patter in a busy newsroom like a 1940s screwball comedy. The film’s various matte paintings, sets and costumes have so far been successful in establishing Gotham City as a version New York City that’s half 40s and half 80s, but this component of that aesthetic has dated the worst – sometimes timelessness doesn’t age well. What remains potent is their sexual give-and-take; how Robert Wuhl doesn’t stand a chance but tries anyway, and how the film tries to underplay Kim Basinger’s hotness at first – even though Burton’s camera is immediately complicit in Wuhl’s objectification of her; introducing her with a shot of her legs.
In her first scene Basinger is wearing the professional work attire of a ponytail and glasses. This is one of a few details I could give today’s audiences a pass for laughing at – she looks like the cliché of the beautiful girl whose beauty is hidden by glasses and lack of fashion sense until she lets her hair down. Today, glasses for girls have never been hipper, but it’s under the same silly pretense that glasses are always a sign of intelligence. She certainly looks more natural in her subsequent scene at Wayne Manor, where she’s dressed like a fairy princess. Wuhl’s presence in this film is still bizarre to me. He’s just this dorky schlub Jew who has no chance with Kim Basinger and that’s his entire purpose.
Taking another comparative look at Sam Hamm’s script, Knox was originally intended as a worthy romantic rival to Bruce Wayne – who himself was also written to at least look like a handsome hunk and not…well, Michael Keaton. But with Keaton as Bruce it seems they decided to cast someone even less conventionally attractive as Knox, to try making him look better. Kim Basinger is this beautiful woman and here you have these two unappealing dwarves sparring for her in the first act. Keaton is only marginally less unattractive than Wuhl but at least he doesn’t do the dancing monkey routine the constantly wisecracking Knox does.
Keaton charms the girl, successfully, in spite of his looks because he’s also rich and disturbed.
Like Bruce Wayne’s neuroses, no other Batman film since this one has placed so much importance on Bruce Wayne’s wealth as a guarantor of his oddness, as Wuhl’s character grouses in one of the film’s most class-conscious moments. Wayne’s loaded, he’s a recluse from the public eye, and inherited high status plus mystery gives him the right game to hook up with Kim Basinger.
As a kid the fact Bruce Wayne was rich was equally compelling to the fact he was secretly Batman – part of the coolness of being Batman included coming home to your own mansion and butler and everything. People have completely willingly ignored that this is a crucial part of the character’s appeal now that we live a pop culture landscape dominated, bafflingly, by both consumer avarice AND pseudo-Marxist sentimentality, but luckily there’s one 80s Batman movie to unashamedly remind us that Bruce Wayne is rich and being rich is awesome. It’s Japanese because I bought it in Japan.
By the time I hit late adolescence, the clear influence of Bruce’s wealth on his ability to bed Vicki on their first date made me feel very cynical towards women. Earlier, as a child tone-deaf to sexual politics (as children ought to be, of course) it didn’t even register with me that they’d had sex, I saw them in bed together and figured it was a sleepover after their first kiss. There’s a period in early adolescence where you don’t make much of a distinction between sexual attraction and love, so prior to considering Vicki a gold digger I actually considered her an aspirational romantic figure in the sense that her beauty matched her innate goodness, and she was able to immediately sense the innate goodness in Bruce Wayne. The reductive cynicism of a teenager, especially an unattractive one excluded from the high school dating game, often decides that “the beautiful people” are inherently shallow and incapable of empathy, but that’s no more true than concluding every Michael Keaton-lookin’ dude is sensitive and intelligent.
Over the years I’ve experienced more cruelty from girls who were self-styled intellectuals with problem glasses than the Disney-Princess Kim Basinger types.
Keaton’s Wayne, of course, also wears glasses when working at his Bat-computer, not to mention black turtleneck sweaters, underscoring those bookworm qualities inside the shell of armored musculature. What’s hackneyed choices for humanizing a beauty queen are radical for humanizing a superhero because Keaton was, controversially, not a traditionally masculine leading man for the part. Basinger’s work glasses are the more superficial in the sense that glasses on a pretty girl are the laziest costuming shorthand to indicate that a pretty girl also has brains.
In the fullness of time life’s unfairness can produce unexpected harmonies, and if you don’t believe me look up a picture of Christina Hendricks’ goofy husband. Vicki Vale and Bruce Wayne are both inheritors of privilege – beauty and money, respectively – and they’re attracted to each other’s mutual desire to use their privilege for good. It’s the kind of romantic scenario that seems naive to adolescents but is better understood by adults. The fact Keaton and Basinger don’t have chemistry together as actors isn’t the script’s fault, which by all accounts was being constantly rewritten during the production anyway – but the kernel of this idea for an unusual love story remains.
How would Vicki Vale and Alexander Knox be written today? I don’t think Knox would even be there, it would just be Vicki kicking ass as the sassy investigative reporter whose chauvinistic male colleagues won’t listen to her about The Batman, who critically aids Batman in his defeat of The Joker, who winks at Bruce before the credits and quips “You owe me dinner for all the trouble you’ve put me through, buster!” In 1989 she comments how drunk she is while Bruce isn’t, then he fucks her and blows her off the next day, which at most universities would probably land him rape charges.
There’s also a hilarious rape joke later in the batcave when Batman ominously tells Vicki she has “something” he wants, then throws his cape over her and upon her waking up at her apartment, the punchline is that she clutches her breast – and realizes he took the photos she’d snapped of him. No less a sign of the time this film was made is a little earlier when he reprimands her for lying about her weight when he needed to adjust his grappling hook. WOMEN!
Bruce’s inability to balance his new girlfriend with being Batman is the only narrative thrust in the plot besides Joker’s shenanigans, but it never goes anywhere. What should be the big climax between them when Alfred lets Vale into the batcave and she confronts Bruce without his batsuit just fizzles out – they sound like they’re making up their dialogue on the spot. He just batsplains about why they can’t have date night because The Joker and as the third act begins, she’s reduced solely to a spectator and damsel in distress.
An innocent person being fought over by a hero and villain is symbolically important in adventure stories but you’ll never see another female protagonist be so walked over and abused in a comic book movie as Vicki Vale. To give Kim Basinger some credit, she is convincing as a damsel in distress. She screams like 500 times in 120 minutes and somehow it always sounds genuine.
I’m still in awe of Vicki Vale’s presence in the film to the degree that she IS a sexual being and validates Bruce Wayne as one. Red Letter Media observed of Star Wars: The Force Awakens how for all the hip diversity in the cast, sexual energy between the characters was watered down compared to the more prominent love triangle in the original film. Modern superhero movies are much the same, especially after Disney bought Marvel. Chaste love interests are allowed, but no one behaves like blood is actually reaching their genitals in these Superhero Movies which are supposedly more “serious” and “adult” than Batman. Even throughout Chris Nolan’s trilogy there are these arbitrary romantic leads for Bruce Wayne / Batman who seem neutered compared to Kim Basinger. Christian Bale plays Bruce Wayne as a straightforward determined hero with chiseled pecs and you can’t imagine him having any sex life whatsoever.
While Bruce Wayne’s sexuality merely conflicts with his alter ego, Jack Napier’s sexuality starts the chain reaction to alter his ego permanently.
Yes, Jack Palance set up Jack Nicholson over a woman. “A WOMAN!” Jack roars. “You must be insane.” This exchange made an impression on me as a child: the bad guys think women are worthless and this is part of what Jack embraces in his post-human, post-sexual identity. He’s “died once already,” he tells his former boss, and “it’s very liberating.” His white clown skin and smile are the grinning skull of a dead man.
What does the man who is already dead now live for? The immortality of art. Making The Joker a self-styled “homicidal artist” is a clever take on the character and a lot more appropriate than making him an anarchist terrorist – anarchism and terrorism are already inherent in what Nicholson’s Joker does. There’s nothing in Heath Ledger’s rambling sociology lectures as morbidly funny or chilling as Nicholson’s assertion that he now does what other people only dream of doing – he “makes art until someone dies.”
This is also Burton’s personal path to the character’s psychology: if Batman is a silent goth in black insulating himself from the outside world, the Joker is an artist’s dark fantasy of remaking that world in your own twisted image. The vandalism of paintings, gassing of a public parade and poisoning of cosmetics are all homicidal pranks taking mass murder as a perverse comic art form – the unholy intersection of Andy Kaufman and Mao Tse-tung. One of the cleverest costume designs in the film comes after Jack turns Joker, and his goons go from being dressed as 1940s gangsters to 1960s Black Panthers; urban guerrillas with sunglasses and berets. The destruction of a museum’s classical European art by a 20th century American comic book villain is, more or less, the most potent auto-critique any Superhero Movie has ever dared.
Joker’s first act of avant-garde mayhem, the poisoning of beauty products, begins with the death of a female news anchor, that peculiar institution more accurately called a “News Reader” in the UK, where looks are everything but they act like reading teleprompters is just another form of journalism. It’s not an explicitly misogynist attack, except insofar as women do use more makeup than men – the first two casualties are female models, women for whom image is life, whose grinning deaths are then mocked in the Joker’s pirate broadcast TV commercial.
Joker’s subversion of vanity makes his own vanity the center of the universe, with a narcissism that transcends gender – he’s branding his own face upon the faces of male and female victims alike, as the final, fatal attainment of what he considers his own physical perfection. Near the end of the film he makes a corny joke to Vicki Vale about which of them is really Beauty or the Beast. In one of the film’s subtlest ironies, Joker is seen applying flesh colored makeup prior to his art museum siege because thanks to his sabotage, only he is allowed to alter his appearance any further. These attacks on painted femininity reach their apotheosis with the disfigurement of his old girlfriend’s face – played by real life model Jerry Hall.
Watching the film for the first time as a child I understood the Joker’s impulsive infatuation with Vicki Vale (after correctly observing that Robert Wuhl has a “bad tie” and “no style”) as a classic cartoon love triangle, analogous to Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto. This simplifies their conflict on an instinctive level for children, but around the same time I was revisiting the film with cynicism towards Bruce’s wealth, I also felt Batman and Joker’s pussy pursuit invalidated the characters and therefore the whole movie. The Joker shouldn’t care about women – he’s in love with himself and Batman, in that order. But:
Vicki symbolizes the soul of Gotham City which Batman wants to save and Joker wants to possess her for the thrill of conquest and eventually, creative destruction.
On their “date” at the museum he squirts acid from a lapel flower at her face, moments after showing off the mutilated face of his last girlfriend (“I’m no Picasso, but do you like it?”) Showing up uninvited at her apartment, he giggles over how said girlfriend jumped to her death from a window – or, we gather, could just as likely have been pushed. By the time of his final showdown with Batman, he has no hesitancy about letting Vicki drop to her death for the sake of a lame gag (“Let me lend you a hand!”) A true macho art-sadist, he’ll humiliate and destroy any woman for the sake of his craft.
The vestigial horndog part of Jack Napier is turned on by Kim Basinger, but his new Joker persona filters it into a performance, a parody of romance. First through the theatricality of their museum “date” and finally by his kidnapping her to a church, to be his bride in a wedding waltz of death. Many inferior artists are dull and ugly men feigning depth in order to get laid, but hideous as Joker is during these scenes, he’s still a twisted power fantasy – the genius who doesn’t need anyone’s approval as he makes mockery of bourgeois conventions. Most artists are sociopaths regardless of their skill or originality, so either way you might as well have fun.
Arguably, Bruce Wayne’s non-committal courtship of Vicki could also be taken as an ego trip rather than true love. Not from desire to possess her, but as an exercise in the duplicity he practices as masked vigilante: at the Wayne Manor party she stumbles into him and, immediately attracted, he lies to her face and pretends not to be himself. Minutes later he’s creeping up behind her and Robert Wuhl and upon revealing himself, he cockily lords his status over them. During their date at Wayne Manor he jokes about how large the dining hall is and takes her to eat in the kitchen with Alfred, the help – you get the sense he’s trying to convince himself as much as her that he’s just a relatable regular guy in spite of being THE Bruce Wayne.
If he didn’t have to protect her from Joker throughout the rest of the film, he’d probably be completely done with her. At one point he scoffs at Alfred’s repeated needling to keep them together: “Alfred, why don’t YOU marry her?”
I’ve seen the film several times with an audience and the biggest laugh of the movie every time is Bruce putting Vicki in her place, a blunt rebuff to her valid exasperation at how he’s ignored her since their hookup:
The happy ending between these two is really the only bullshit in the film’s otherwise coherent point of view. Partially, the joke of their relationship drama is that maybe if Bruce Wayne had Kim Basinger to sleep with, he won’t need to work out his anger at the world by beating up men in dark alleys. This is why the lamest, most insincere scene isn’t any of the illogical, studio-mandated gratuitous fight scenes, but the last scene of the movie leading up to the iconic shot of Batman in front of the bat-signal, when Alfred pulls up a car to pick up Vicki. He tells her Master Wayne will be a bit late, to which she smiles knowingly and says she’s not surprised. Yeah, he’s far too busy admiring his own logo!
Sam Hamm’s original Batman II script can be found online and not only had he intended to keep Vicki around, but also introduce Robin into what would have been a makeshift Batman family – but that’s so ridiculous when any hope for a healthy relationship between her and Bruce has been a bleak delusion throughout this film, which the filmmakers still felt obligated to end with rote optimism. The honest ending would’ve been a sad scene where she thanks Bruce for saving her life, and Bruce admits there’s not room enough in his life for both her and Batman, sending her tearfully off as he lurks in the shadows, forever the lone avenger of the night. But hey, that’d be a downer. Appropriately, the love ballad on the Prince soundtrack is titled “Vicki Waiting.”
The retroactively maligned Prince soundtrack was forced upon Burton by Warner Bros. due to their recent success with the soundtrack album and film of Purple Rain. Burton also claims the initial idea was for Prince to write a theme song for The Joker, Michael Jackson to write a love theme and Danny Elfman to tie it all together, but workaholic Prince soon came back with an entire album’s worth of material instead. The two songs featured prominently within the film are both utilized by The Joker, as if he’s just a big Prince fan in this ambiguously dated world whose second and third most contemporary references are the 1954 Francis Bacon painting Figure With Meat (“I kind of like this one, Bob. Leave it”) and a newspaper clipping of a Popeye float in Robert Wuhl’s newsroom cubicle.
For a long time I felt Prince was the biggest impediment to the film’s timeless quality but they could have done worse. Like Elvis or David Bowie, Prince’s music isn’t specifically one style nor was his popularity limited to a few fleeting years or just one decade. His pop music has had as much longevity as pop music is capable of. And like most pop music but Prince’s in particular, his music is about sex.
I didn’t register as a five year old that Bruce and Vicki committed intercourse, let alone catch Jerry Hall’s reference to Jack Palance handing Nicholson’s dick to him, or that Basinger was faking the first stage of a beej on Joker in the bell tower – but I did notice the moment during Joker’s parade when we hear Prince sing Sex / It’s not that type of party and felt it was the most scandalous thing I’d ever heard. As a child I knew I was watching something meant for slightly older kids, but even hearing that word made me feel like I was watching the most sophisticated entertainment ever created. Batman was my first exposure to Prince, as it was for a lot of kids, and on some level I’ll always associate him with The Joker.
The song used at the museum, Partyman, is pretty much what you’d imagine Joker commissioning from Prince as his own theme song. “I am an artist…I love a good party” he states proudly at one point. Like Elvis and Bowie the message of Prince’s music is sexual liberation, and like The Joker he also takes artistic license to more dangerous places – Sister, Head, Jack U Off, et all. The only thing really missing from Batman and Joker’s relationship in the film are the little homoerotic flirtations usually found in the comics. The Dark Knight Returns, so frequently cited as a key influence by Warner Bros. publicity & marketing departments from 1989 all the way to 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, featured the most flagrantly homosexual Joker of all time – but that’s probably not a line any live action Batman movie will ever dare cross. There were a couple flirtatious lines in Hamm’s original script, but they didn’t make it. In any case, even if the Prince soundtrack album was nothing but a superfluous cash grab, Joker’s adoption of another diminutive purple suited revolutionary’s music is absolutely congruent to the overall piece.
Prince’s most stunning contribution to Batman lore isn’t in the film itself, but deserves a mention: the infamous Batdance, which has to be one of the worst songs to ever reach #1 on the Billboard Chart and whose music video was part of the film’s ubiquitous, inescapable marketing campaign. It’s much less an actual song than a mash-up of song snippets from throughout the album, barely held together by the beat and peppered with audio clips from the movie. The video features dozens of backup dancers dressed as Batmen and Jokers doing absurd choreography around a smokey batcave set with Prince in the center, dressed in a ludicrous half-Batman-half-Joker costume to literalize the characters’ duality. He dubbed this persona “Gemini” after his own astrological sign and in light of this fact you can almost forgive the silliness. The moment when the video becomes truly nightmarish is with the entrance of an armada of Vicki Vales, all Kim Basinger lookalikes behind sunglasses snapping their fingers and strutting in heels while Prince/Gemini cavorts lasciviously around her rapping that he wants to “bust that body.” Leave it to Prince to make a tawdry love story even tawdrier.
Vicky Prime has a t-shirt that reads ALL THIS AND BRAINS TOO, a popular 80s t-shirt which speaks to a post-feminist kind of materialist empowerment (see also: I MAY BE FLAT BROKE BUT AT LEAST I’M NOT FLAT BUSTED) and I can’t help interpreting it as his sarcastic dig on Kim Basinger. In closeup inserts we see that Vicki (Prime? Does it matter?) has tattoos of Batman and Joker – they’re fighting to brand her like a pimp brands his prostitute with a tramp stamp. Then the line of Vickis squat suggestively at the feet of the various Jokers. The key to this psychosexual phantasmogoria was the revelation earlier this year that Prince and Basinger were hooking up at the time, in what had to be the biggest star couple height discrepancy since Sylvester Stallone and Bridget Nielsen. Allegedly, the EP version of the soundtrack single Scandalous contains audio of their coupling. No wonder he was feeling inspired.
In terms of adapting the Batman character into live action, the film’s highest achievement is the shootout at the Axis chemical plant – but that’s not the scene which crystalizes whatever Burton was personally trying to express about ego and insanity. That accomplishment belongs to the skirmish in Vicki’s apartment.
It begins with the aforementioned effort by Bruce to explain himself to the hysterical Vicki, which at first she first takes as an attempt to confess that he’s married and leads to that oh-you-broads laugh line about how she needs to shut up. Stammering to declare “I’m Batman” to his girlfriend with the same ease he threatened a mugger, the doorbell rings and Joker arrives. This confrontation between the three of them isn’t something I think we’ll ever see in the Superhero Movie genre again because it’s an intense psychological fight scene with no special effects action or plot exposition. It was apparently the result of spontaneous creativity by the cast and actors after living inside the heads of these characters for a while, according to a biography of the film’s producer Jon Peters, Hit and Run (by Nancy Griffin & Kim Masters):
Peters summoned Burton to his hotel suite one night and the two improvised dialogue to expand the apartment scene. Jon played the role of Bruce Wayne and Burton was Vicki Vale. The next morning they blocked out the scene on the soundstage apartment set with screenwriter Warren Skaaren. Burton then rehearsed the new scene with the actors and all three contributed new ideas; it was shot the next day.
If you ever watch an interview with Jon Peters, he really is the stereotypical Hollywood producer who dominates others through sheer volume and aggression. Hit & Run also quotes Peters as reprimanding Burton that “He’s supposed to be Batman, not Wussman.” The only thing better than imagining sensitive artiste Burton improvising as the beleaguered Vicki to Peters’ alpha jerk take on Bruce is knowing that before Basinger was dating Prince, she was also dating Peters. And so you have this scene where Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger are acting out what one of Peters and Basinger’s real life squabbles probably sounded like, as improvised by Peters and, in the role of the woman, Burton. Whew!
Keaton’s threatening whisper to The Joker – “I know who you are” – has the surface meaning of knowing that he’s Jack Napier, but is also the only threat that could throw off-balance a man who prides himself on sadistic unpredictability. Though they’re not the same kind of crazy person, Wayne still knows him as only one crazy person can truly know another. Napier is a bully, and what is the evil of a bully? To enjoy harming others and laughing at their pain. Wayne is a zealot, and what is the insanity of a zealot? To regard oneself as a righteous warrior, a holy avenger. Knowing the difference between them, he accurately assesses how nutty Napier’s ego will respond if he reveals that he, too, is nuts. And so you have Keaton’s unforgettable speech:
Let me tell you about this guy I know, Jack. Mean kid. Bad seed. Hurt people. You know what the problem was? He got sloppy. You know? Crazy. Started to lose it. Had a head full of bad wiring, I guess. Couldn’t keep it straight up here. He was the kind of guy who…couldn’t hear the train until it was two feet from him. You know what happened to this guy, Jack? Well. He made mistakes…and then he had his LIGHTS KNOCKED OUT! NOW YOU WANNA GET NUTS? COME ON! Let’s get nuts.
I feel sorry for anyone who doesn’t love this moment, when Keaton drops the pallid mask and lets all the frustration of being Batman erupt as a strategic distraction. Yeah, it’s not totally logical, but dramatically it works and is true to the character as Keaton has played him, all twitchy nerves and flinty eyes and reserved intensity bubbling underneath the surface.
This is the kind of anger every nerd who read Batman comics in high school secretly related to.
The smirking jock mocks you in front of his posse with their stupid matching jackets to out-alpha you in front your girlfriend whom he considers out of your league – hey baby, why don’t you dump that zero and get with a real man? Keaton’s rage is that breaking point where a nerd is pushed so hard he at last “snaps” and the nerd fantasy that this actually does something useful, instead of just compounding humiliation when you stand in the middle of the lunchroom and scream about how you’ve had it and you’re not take this anymore and GIVE ME BACK MY BACKPACK GOD DAMN IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I dunno, it’s a sad fantasy but it’s not as pathetic as wanting to people to be amazed when you rhapsodize like Heath Ledger about all the phonies in society, maaaaan. That’s how far we’ve degraded as a culture: from knowingly enjoying a dark comic opera about two cartoon characters’ yin and yang to regarding those same characters’ hack monologues as insightful philosophy. I think Batman is returning, at long last now, to the under-18 set where he belongs. My prediction is The Lego Batman Movie will be the most profitable Batman movie of all time and the official corporate style guide will find a comfortable middle ground between camp and grimdark where he’s basically Grumpy Cat in a cape. It had to happen. Thank God.
Look at any video of Batman fans waiting in line to see the 1989 film – a lot of them are comic book geeks but they understand they’re taking a trip to fantasyland, not hoping that fantasyland instills some meaning in their failed and useless lives.
Observe the spiritually emaciated current generation who anticipated The Dark Knight Rises or Captain America: Civil War and no one should be surprised when Batman paraphernalia is discovered in the home of a mass shooter, as with the guy who shot up that The Dark Knight Rises screening in Colorado, who also told the arresting officers that he was “The Joker.” Mass media doesn’t turn people into mass murderers, but it does give them an iconography, as one killer after another is glamorized by vultures who analyze their manifestos to get inside the mysterious, shocking mind of a killer – right after this! With Heath Ledger playing The Joker as a serial killer super genius, and the entertainment-industrial complex posthumously venerating his alluring performance after he died of a drug overdose, what’s the difference? Not much, if you’re a schizophrenic who’s off meds and are constantly being told that these totally unrealistic movies are “realistic.”
The sexual frustrations of serial killers, mass shooters and comic book readers are well documented. Looking back on the sexual politics of Batman ’89 has made me realize that the most sterile aspect of modern Superhero Movies – which began with X-Men (2000) – may not even be the abandonment of theatricality (“What would you prefer, yellow spandex?”) but the abandonment of all that delightfully kinky sexuality inherent in the genre’s theatricality. It’s all antiseptic Disney family entertainment now, they throw some bikini models around Robert Downey Jr to remind us that Tony Stark is supposed to be a ladies’ man, but it’s hollow. Warner Bros. / DC movies are even worse with their juvenile focus on phony edginess and coloring-book allegory.
These are all films for a new kind of anemic “adult” audience whose proliferation is the harbinger of cultural entropy, who feel guilty about their own fetishism toward muscles, costumes and masks, and overcompensate by pedantically taking these films’ storylines that much more seriously – oooh, whose hand was that in the post-credits teaser? – as the films’ spectacles grow bigger and more unwieldy. How many Marvel characters do they cram into each Avengers movie now? Fifty? This is why Deadpool made a billion dollars just by including a scene where the hero lets his girlfriend peg him.
Batman ’89 is positively quaint by today’s standards with its relatively modest scope and self-contained narrative of a twisted love triangle. The two men in the triangle are grotesque caricatures of the male ego, and completing that triangle is a woman whose idealized femininity makes her a bigger-than-life cartoon herself. What we’ve come to know as “Marvel” or “DC” movies can only appeal to the tastes of young children and adults whose emotional intelligence stopped developing somewhere in late adolescence – they provide action without violence, intelligence without wit, sometimes provide a little sex, but never with any frisson. It’s just so much deliberately bland mush, and:
Batman ’89 towers over them all by being a “superhero film” about the only three things human beings really care about: art, murder and sex, sex, sex.
If you enjoyed this essay, you may also enjoy my follow-up about the 1992 sequel, BATMAN RETURNS.
Also brilliant. Read this after ‘Unlimited Poontang’.
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Incredible. I’m pretty sure I’m older than you, but this is the kind of writing I want to do when I grow up. Looking forward to further reviews.
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Incredibly written. Thank you. I was 6 when Batman came out and was not allowed to see it in the theater. I had to wait for my first viewing on VHS at a friend’s house at 7-8. Despite that, I relate to everything you wrote about from not knowing Vic & Bruce even had sex to Napier/Grissom perfectly encapsulating the power hungry, women as 2nd class citizens, rich narcissistic elite of my grandfather’s generation. Well done.
I have one HUGE ‘what if’ question for you that would have changed the dynamics of the film and all the psychology you so brilliantly dissected. What if Sean Young had not broken her leg horseback riding and played Vicky Vale? She was all set to begin shooting most accounts say she’d have played Vale as a darker and more complex femme fatale. Basinger only got the role due to being immediately available to work when Young got injured (and now I realize also because she was dating a producer).
Just curious for your take on how many of the concepts you hit upon would have panned out with a different Vale. I’m left to presume a rough around the edges brunette who screamed less would have been a more likely romance target for Knox AND made us think less about Wayne getting girls due to his money but more about what type of women his emotionally damaged character was attracted to if Vale was not a blonde beauty queen type. Was Hamm’s original script penned woth that pitcome in mind and how would Young’s inclusion have changed the lasting image of this film in both the subconscious of people like us who first saw it as little kids and in the lastinh social impact of the movie in general?
Thanks again for writing this. It truly resonates and envokes deeper thinking.
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Hi Patrick! Glad you enjoyed the essay. I think if Sean Young had played Vicki as originally intended, the film would certainly be more aesthetically consistent but not necessarily much better, because the inclusion of many gratuitous and unnecessary action scenes would still have denied the Bruce / Vicki romantic plot the adequate screen time it needed. And in Basinger’s defense, her fairy-tale princess look probably worked on a more visceral emotional level for children (who don’t care about romantic plots anyway) than a more demure actress like Young’s persona would have.
Thanks for the response! I lost this article and only just recently found it again. Bookmarked now. I agree that Basinger as the gorgeous princess type makes the film work better for kids. It also makes Joker’s infatuation with her (when he already has Jerry Hall) make a lot more sense. I still think Sean Young would have played the character of Vale as she was meant to be better, and they’d have been wise to keep the love triangle part while casting someone better looking than Wuhl. Could’ve made for a more interesting subplot for adults, but the movie is obviously a masterpiece as is.
I think you’d enjoy the new “The Batman”. It acknowledges that Batman is a messed up person, that his one man war on crime is unhealthy and inspires killers, it has a sexual angle, and has allusions to high-art with the song Ave Maria being an important plot-point.
I haven’t seen it yet but I’m almost certain I’ll like it more than the Nolan films!