When a second big screen adaptation of DC's flagship comic book series about a borderline schitzo billionaire turned caped crusading vigilante was suggested there were concerns that it might emulate the incredibly camp "Pow! Zok!" ‘60's television show which, for all its nostalgic charm, was terribly daft. After the budget swelled (at $35M it seems tame by today's standards), the casting of Michael Keaton in the role of Bruce Wayne baited the fears of the fretting studio executives into full blown panic. Up to that point Keaton was a man best known for his comedic mania in titles such as The Dream Team. But director Tim Burton saw something in the twitchy Keaton, who had been able to flick a switch and make the grotesque, (not to mention dead) freelance, exorcist Beetlejuice come alive so vividly, so to speak. As it turned out, Burton was spot-on and Keaton flourished in the role of defender to the dark, moody and lavishly stylized world outlined by his director.
Batman went on to be the highest grossing film of the year; but more than that it ushered in an era of quiet respectability for the funny book picture. With the likes of Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger alongside Keaton, Batman suddenly had big time Hollywood heavyweights that made people sit up and take notice. More than simply a blockbuster, Batman's legacy stands as one of the earliest examples of the event movie thanks to a well orchestrated publicity campaign which carpet-bombed the public. People lining the streets to see Harry Potter dressed as a Quidditch team can trace their fanatical roots back, in large part, to the summer of 1989.
Burton was a perfect choice to direct this film, despite his frankly dubious claim that he has never read a single Batman story in his life. Hollywood's resident Goth presents us a non-descriptive time and place, combining elements of fifties noir, seventies detective chic, and a pumping eighties soundtrack. Its an ambiguous world of shades of gray morality toying with the idea that violence begets violence and you need to dump your baggage in order to live free.
Keaton, mostly gets to act with his chin but his penchant for loony-tune mania bubbling just beneath the surface serves Wayne well. Given the way Nolan deliberately played to a playboy persona, almost as a comedic counterpoint to the darkness, Burton's take now seems to hint at a deeper conflict, opting to render Wayne a man people can't identify at a fundraiser he's supposed to be throwing. But this is and always will be Jack Nicholson's film. The now iconic Joker stands out as the flamboyantly over-the-top psychotic; a performance's shadow in which all other comic book villains stood for years.
Nicholson is so good in fact that you almost forget that this film isn't supposed to be about him, and if there is criticism to be had, it's that really exploring Batman appears to be the last thing on Burton's lengthy to-do list. If anything this is less of a Batman film and more of a Joker origin story. The kooky one chooses instead to indulge his visual artistic temperament (certainly no bad thing); focusing on style, mood and lots and lots of smoke machines. Not that we can complain too much, really. When you line this and its first sequel up next to what Joel Schumacher offered as an alternative, any shortcomings (alright, the Prince songs are a bit crap) are forgiven sharpish.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Well first off it comes in a luxurious hardback case containing a fifty-page color booklet comprising cast bios, comic book panels, production design notes, and a detailed history of the Batman comic book series. There is also a digital copy of the movie. As for the disc itself it's positively bursting at the seams with retrospectives and behind the scenes action. Tim Burton's commentary track is not uninteresting, but the man is first and foremost an artist and a storyteller second so never the most interesting man to listen to. Bob Kane tours the set in a typically nostalgic mood, outlining the genesis of the character. Artists, writers, and fans also air their view on the way the series has evolved over a fifty-year period.
Extensive pre-production footage outlines the painstaking process involved in jettisoning the camp and getting everyone on board which reminds you just what a risky proposition this picture was back in the day and an interesting window into how the industry has changed in that time. Also included are character analyses for all the players, major and minor, as well as the original trailer and three Prince music videos! Let joy be unconfined.
"Batman: 20th Anniversary Edition" is on sale May 19, 2009 and is rated PG13. Action, Comic Book. Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Sam Hamm, Warren Skaaren (Screenplay), Bob Kane (Characters). Starring Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Michael Keaton.