A lot of members of my generation really love Tim Burton's Batman film. Guys especially, I think, remember it being a really big deal and probably where they first fell in love with Batman. While I do remember some of my brother's friends being really excited about the film, it was not something that we rushed out to see in theaters. What I distinctly remember was that one of my mom's friends let us borrow the VHS so we could watch it. And I'm sorry boys, but I wasn't too impressed back then. When I watched it again later as an adult, I really, really didn't like it. But for the sake of this review, I tried to go into it as fresh as I could and give an honest critique of the film.
Given my memory, I was honestly shocked to find myself really enjoying the first forty minutes or so of the film. I liked the fake out that makes us think we're seeing a young Bruce Wayne, but we're not. Instead, we immediately see a fully developed Batman going after criminals. It's still early in his career, where he's mostly just a rumor on the streets of Gotham, but I actually really enjoy the fact that Burton trusted us to know enough about Batman to not have to spoon feed it to us.
It all has this wonderful noir look and feel, with the mobsters, the crooked cop, the reporter and the dame photographer. Jack Napier shows no signs of madness yet, but he's a decent enough bad guy who makes the mistake of betraying his boss and being set up for death. The build up to his transformation is also great, from the face off between him and Batman before he's plunged into the acid, and that great moment afterward where the plastic surgeon unwraps him. Unfortunately, it's not long after this that everything goes downhill for me.
I really don't like the design of the Joker's face. The comic influence is obvious, but it just looks far too cheesy in real life. The prosthetic is impressive for the time, but it's still just too obvious that he's got something in his cheeks and I just hate the way it looks. I could deal with that if it wasn't for the fact that his characterization is so tacked on and strange. We saw him playing with a deck of cards before his transformation, but no sign of being a real jokester or liking clowns, so his sudden over the top personality seems like a different person. However I'm also willing to excuse that, because seeing your face so horribly changed into this clownish appearance could also make you bonkers enough to embrace it. It also helps that this is essentially just every character Jack Nicholson has ever played before, but with lots more laughing.
No, what's worse is that we're told he's an artist and a chemist through one line exposition and so that's why we need to just accept that he's capable of making poisonous chemicals and why he wants to destroy works of art and turn people into twisted creations that mirror himself. I don't really see why there couldn't have been some kind of set up in the beginning to make this all worthwhile. Especially since a lot of movie time gets wasted after this on how awesome and desirable Vicky Vale is.
Seriously. I feel like the movie just slows completely to a crawl once Joker sets up a date with Vale. He thinks she's beautiful, he appreciates her camera work, he wants her to take pictures of his creations. Meanwhile Bruce Wayne is also totally in love with her, but is heavily divided by his commitments to being Batman that he doesn't know if he can open up to her. I know Kim Basinger was considered pretty hot back in the 80s, but seriously, this character is no where near interesting enough to have these two men basically fighting over her. It also makes her a little too generic damsel in distress. Beyond one scene where she basically tells Bruce to fess up his feelings or leave her alone, she's a weak character pining for a man who by all outside appearances sweet talked her into a one night stand and then kicked her to the curb. The fact that she's right and he does have feelings for her doesn't change that.
This movie has another element that leaves me completely and utterly divided - the music. The score by Danny Elfman is incredible and gives me chills. I know that main theme by heart thanks to the animated series, but they use a slightly different arrangement here in the film and it was a treat to hear it this way. The score remains awesome throughout the film. But we also have two Prince songs being used. Please understand that I absolutely love Prince. I had a love affair with his song "Seven" when it was released, and I've grown up listening to all his classics. It just feels so wrong here and ages the film in a way that is hard to ignore. Only in the 80s would someone think this is a good idea. The song during the parade scene is a little better, but the one in the museum is just absolutely cringe-worthy.
That said, the film does have a decent payoff. I like how the Wayne deaths are incorporated in a way that makes sense, and I like that both Batman and the Joker created each other even if it's not comic canon. The ascent up the bell tower has good buildup, and the final fight is well done. Though it's very interesting to see a Batman who willingly lets multiple people fall to their deaths. One of the few things I do remember from my first viewing as a child was being really creeped out at that final moment with the Joker lying there motionless with the laughter going off, and it's still creepy to this day.
So while I do think this movie could probably stand to have its romance subplot removed and replaced with a better Joker origin, overall I have to admit it's a pretty good action film. I didn't even mind Michael Keaton as Batman like I had thought I would. Though I may change my mind after the next one.