1989 saw the release of the most controversial Batman casting until Batfleck. Michael Keaton, known almost entirely for comedies such as Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously and Gung Ho was cast as Batman…oh the horror and oh the wailing. A long tradition of freaking out over casting began right here. People were a bit more open to Jack Nicholson playing the Joker.
As it turned out, Keaton was okay in the role. His Batman was appropriately serious, while his take on Bruce Wayne was an interesting approach. His Bruce Wayne seems to be constantly distracted. After the 1960’s series, Batman’s comics had returned to a darker version of the character. A dark soul, haunted by his parents’ deaths at the hands of a low level criminal. People feared Keaton would make this more 60’s Batman, rather than the Dark Knight Returns.
With Tim Burton at the helm, the film was a dark and gothic affair filled with crime bosses and corrupt police officers. And the fabled Batman haunting the city. In a attempt to thwart a mob crime, Batman knocks aspiring Crime Boss Jack Napier into a vat of chemicals. He emerges with a chalk white complexion and a new smile. He goes off and takes over the Grissom (Carl Grissom, played by Jack Palance) criminal Empire. This leads to an ongoing battle with Batman.
The film has a great cast, headlined by Keaton, Nicholson and Kim Basinger. They are supported by a crew of character actors and well known faces. You have Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon and the glue that held the franchise together? Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth, Batman’s trusted butler and aide.
While the visuals are grand, the Joker’s motives seem supremely mundane. He wants to be a mobster. And woo Vicki Vale. He may be cruel and ruthless, but so are lots of mob bosses in the movies. Take away the grin and face-paint? He would not stand out. Batman’s greatest weakness is not Keaton, but the fact that he cannot even turn his head. The costumes look good in still shots, but seem goofy when Keaton is having to turn his whole body to look around.
In addition, Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent feel more like set decorations than characters. They are almost entirely inconsequential to the story. They seem to be there because they have to…it is a Batman movie. Gough is the bright spot in the film. His Alfred is kind and wise. He is not as involved in the day to day support of Batman, he is more there to support Bruce Wayne.
While 1989’s Batman is not terrible, it does not quite stand the test of time. It is still enjoyable, but it does not live up to the character’s full potential.