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Tim Burton's Batman was the second blockbuster superhero feature to both score with audiences and seed a series of sequels and reboots (ranging from uneven to terrible) in its wake. But unlike its 1978 predecessor (Richard Donner's Superman), Burton's movie treats its comic book source material completely seriously and with a far darker (for the time) tone. The grimmer, less comedic bent was fitting because, while Superman is an idealistically pure Godlike alien sent from another planet to fight for “truth, justice, and the American way,” Batman is a psychologically unstable human billionaire vigilante who goes out at night dressed up in a rubber suit to beat up street criminals. 

The first Batman movie (aside from the theatrical features made in conjunction with the campy Batman TV show starring Adam West) was in development for years, with various writers and directors attached. But nothing gained the kind of traction needed for a studio green light. It wasn’t until the publication of the successful graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: The Killing Joke that a new vision for a big-screen Batman began to come into sharp focus. Warner Bros. hired Burton whose first feature, Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985), had been an unexpected hit. The director dispensed with the tongue-in-cheek, Superman style scripts that had been developed to date and commissioned a screenplay more in line with these darker graphic novels. 

From the very first development announcements, this was a controversial picture. Long before internet fanboy culture, rabid fans lambasted Burton for casting his Beetlejuice star Michael Keaton as The Dark Knight. Keaton was then known for zany roles in light comedies like Night Shift and Mr. Mom, so comic book devotees feared Warner Bros. and Burton were going to make a campy Batman in the vein of the old TV show. And while Jack Nicholson, in the prime of his long career, seemed an ideal choice for the villainous Joker, his super-stardom and top billing also seemed to minimize the power of the titular hero.

But most naysayers quit their yappin’ when Warner Bros. released a rough, hastily assembled trailer into theaters that showcased the look, excitement, and dark tone of the picture. And Batman went on to become the second biggest hit of 1989 (after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Critics and fans praised the film, though some found it too dark, and some felt Nicholson upstaged Keaton. Indeed the Joker is given far more screen time, and Nicholson chews the scenery to a degree we’d never seen before or since from this already larger-than-life actor. The Joker not only gets his own origin story, but he plays a role in Batman’s beginnings—a deviation from the comic books that also didn’t sit well with many fans. 

But for my money, Keaton is the best part of Tim Burton's Batman. The gifted actor gets to showcase a quieter and more internal style of performance than anyone knew he was capable of—apart from the few of us who had seen his outstanding lead turn in the previous year’s Clean and Sober. Keaton brings layers of complexity to the bland role of the millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and doesn’t embarrass himself when he puts on the suit to play Wayne’s caped-crusader alter ego.

The rest of the cast, however, seems like they’re acting in different films. Kim Basinger (as photographer Vicki Vale) and Pat Hingle (as the Police Commissioner Gordon) play it straight but look confused as to what they're supposed to be doing from scene to scene. Robert Wuhl self-consciously plays a newspaper reporter named Alexander Knox strictly for laughs. Billy Dee Williams (as District Attorney Harvey Dent) only seems like he’s in the movie to establish his character for a possible sequel. And Jack Palance (as crime boss Carl Grissom) appears to be trying to one-up Nicholson’s overacting. 

The film was praised for Burton’s visuals and Anton Furst’s production design, but for all the money Warner Bros. poured into its Batman, the movie fails to create a believable world. The great Gotham City feels like a cavernous, poorly lit studio populated by about fifty English extras, and the special effects and sound design have a curiously unfinished quality. The thin score by Burton’s favorite composer Danny Elfman, and the sparsely produced songs by pop megastar Prince, only serve to emphasize these underdeveloped aspects. The screenplay underwent dozens of drafts with final credit going to Sam Hamm (Never Cry Wolf) and Warren Skaaren (Beverly Hills Cop II, Beetlejuice). While the script is overcrowded and doesn’t build to a very satisfying climax, it does an admirable job of staying coherent and incorporating intriguing themes relating to the power found in embracing one’s outcast status. 

Despite its serious flaws, this is, by far, the tightest, most logical, and best crafted of the original Batman series, and one of the few unique and creative entries in what would become an unimaginative and interchangeable genre. 

Twitter Capsule:
Flawed but uniquely inventive comic book picture aims at the widest possible audience and misses as much as it hits. Burton's embrace of the outcast, along with the scenery-chewing Nicholson and quietly reserved Keaton, keeps the picture interesting.

Directed by Tim Burton
Produced by Jon Peters and Peter Guber

Screenplay by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren
Story by Sam Hamm
Based on the comic book series created by Bob Kane

With: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance, Jerry Hall, Tracey Walter, Lee Wallace, and William Hootkins

Cinematography: Roger Pratt
Editing: Ray Lovejoy
Music: Danny Elfman

Runtime: 126 min
Release Date: 23 June 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1