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Summer of ’89: Batman

June 25, 2009

Each Thursday this summer we’ll hop in the time machine and jump back twenty years to see what was new and exciting at the neighborhood moviehouse this week in…The Summer of ’89!


Release Date: June 23, 1989

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Jack Palance, Billy Dee Williams

The Buzz: Hot young visionary director of Beetlejuice brings America’s favorite comic book hero to the big screen

Keywords: Vigilante, Joker, Gadget Car, Christ Allegory, Urban Renewal, Evil Clown

The Plot: A vigilante patrols the Gotham City night. Is he man or bat? Or man dressed as bat? (SPOILER: He’s man dressed as bat.) Gotham crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) learns his mistress is two-timing him with his right-hand man Jack (Jack Nicholson), so he sets him up by notifying the cops of Jack’s raid-in-progress on a chemical plant. The Batman arrives on the scene, there’s a struggle and Jack gets dropped into a vat of chemical waste. His skin and hair are discolored, his mind is warped, and thus is born the clown prince of crime, the Joker. Even as he romances reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) in his civilian guise as billionaire Bruce Wayne, Batman must find a way to foil the Joker’s reign of terror.

The Test of Time: As I mentioned when I launched this feature back at the Screengrab, I spent the summer of 1989 driving around the country with a friend, seeing America as well as a shit-ton of movies. The most anticipated of these was, of course, Batman; as a lifelong Bat-freak, I’d been eagerly awaiting the movie for more than a year. (In fact, as I wrote here, I’d been waiting for any Batman movie for most of my life.) I was not disappointed; in fact, my cohort Jim and I saw Batman three or four times during our summer-long sojourn (I have an especially fond memory of seeing it at a drive-in somewhere in the southwest on a double bill with the long-forgotten Don Johnson action spectacular Dead Bang). So I was somewhat taken aback when I finally returned home after three months and discovered that every single person I knew had hated it. My attempts at defending it were met with derision. “It’s deliberately unexciting!” I was informed. How could I have been so wrong?

I’d like to be able to tell you that the test of time has proved me right, but well…not so much. I’ll still defend Burton’s expressionistic Gotham City, Nicholson has a few moments of inspired insanity (but in truth, only a few), and for at least the first half-hour or so, Burton has a firm handle on the material – the story unfolds in a satisfyingly spare, comic book-y fashion. Once the Joker stops woop-wooping at himself while reading the paper and actually puts his silly schemes into motion, however, the movie becomes harder to defend. For one thing, it has way too much Robert Wuhl. No movie needs this much Wuhl. The Bruce Wayne/Vicky Vale romance is painfully dull, the “we made each other” duality dance between Batman and the Joker is woefully undeveloped, Gotham City appears to have about seventy-five residents, the script has more clunkers than a Yugo dealership, and the Prince songs, it must now be admitted, are horrible. (Apparently Burton thought so, too, since they’re buried so deep in the sound mix.) Of course, what really makes Batman look bad from a 2009 vantage point is The Dark Knight, in which Heath Ledger’s Joker proved to be the lightning to Nicholson’s lightning bug. It’s hard to imagine now that Burton’s Batman played as a “dark” take on the material, but I guess everything’s relative. Anyway, to all you people who tried to set me straight back in 1989…okay, you may have had a point.

Quotable Quote: “This town needs an enema!”

2009 Equivalent: This summer’s superhero origin story, Wolverine.

Previously on Summer of ’89: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

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