RETRO REVIEW: Batman (1989)

One of the nice things about HBO Max, in fact many streaming services, is that you can revisit old films and see if you can find a new perspective. My review of Man of Steel was one of the most read articles in a while, so the natural next step was the film that brought the Dark Knight back. I’m not talking about the Nolan Batman films, not yet anyway — I’m talking about Tim Burton’s Batman, the 1989 film that set superhero films in a completely new direction.

Setting the stage

The first thing I remember about Batman was how it was marketed. You started seeing the bat-logo about a year before the film came out, and excitement was incredibly high by the time the film actually premiered in the summer of 1989. No film since the original Star Wars had been so aggressively pushed on the public. What was really interesting was that the marketing started before anyone knew what the film was really going to be like.

There was a lot of controversy when the film’s casting was announced. Jack Nicholson as the Joker seemed like a slam dunk, but at the time Michael Keaton was known for family comedies like Mr. Mom. He didn’t seem like the Batman type to be sure.

How I remember feeling in 1989

When this film came out I totally bought into it. The art direction was something unique and the action felt current and intense. I thought that casting a comedian to play a serious role was a risk that really paid off, as Bruce/Batman had a quirky, nervous quality that set you on edge.

This was one of the films I couldn’t wait to buy on VHS as soon as it was available, coming as it did at a time when movies on tape were only about $25 (about $90 in today’s dollars.) It lost something on a small standard definition screen but it was still a blast.

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, two of the big tastemakers of the time, reviewed the film and Gene’s opinion mirrored mine. (Gene is the fellow without so much hair.) I often agreed with Gene back then, and thought he was the more intellectual critic. Watch for yourself:

How this film holds up

Watching a 30ish-year-old special effects film is always going to be a little rough. Action films tend to really evolve quickly so you have to be prepared to forgive a film this old.

The acting

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the acting holds up. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is still pretty menacing and Michael Keaton really pulls off a very nuanced take on the character. I suppose the less said about Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale the better. It’s not Ms. Basinger’s fault, though. Films in the 1980s tended to cast women as pretty props, and this is no exception. At the time, Vicky was a liberated woman – after all she has a job. But today the character seems like just a toy for the boys to fight over.

The art direction

Visually this film totally holds up. Roger Ebert is right, the art direction owes a lot to European and Soviet films of the 1930s and 1940s. Most people at the time hadn’t seen anything like it. The 1980s tended to be a very candy-colored time, and you see that with Joker’s props and scenes. But overall the tone is much darker than anything else you would have seen at the time. Gotham City owes something to 1985’s Brazil as well, with its exposed mechanicals. All in all it works.

The action and effects

Predictably, there’s a lot you have to overlook when you’re watching this film. Action sequences seem stunted and slow compared to today, and both Batman and the Batmobile seem positively arthritic. The costume didn’t allow Michael Keaton to move his head, which led to him moving his whole body in a very unnatural way. The Batmobile looked cool standing still, but looked just as stiff as the Bat-costume when it was in motion.

Still, the late 1980s was the high point for practical visual effects, meaning that the effects age a lot better than the early CGI you’d see a few years later. There aren’t any real cringeworthy shots, even when viewed in high definition.

The overall feeling

All in all I think Batman holds up a lot better than it has a right to. Its dark and disturbed tone would be right at home in today’s cinema world, and so would its moments of unexpected (and totally earned) humor. The practical effects work well in general. Of course they’re not up to today’s standards but they’re not really bad.

The film’s treatment of women (and the fact that there are practically none of them in the film) is a problem and sets this film in a different age. But really that’s one of the only two real issues that I found.

The bigger issue is that there isn’t really a true sense of menace, especially compared to later iterations of Batman and Joker. Yes, both are disturbed and dangerous, but not on a moment by moment basis. The action sequences rely on the idea that Batman is only fighting one person at a time and that for some reason everyone else is frozen in fear when they see him. There’s no reason for people to really fear Batman, he’s just a dude in a suit. It’s a little easier to fear Joker because he does some truly bad stuff on a fairly regular basis. But even so he mostly sticks to the old-movie trope of “no one gets hurt who didn’t have it coming.” There are a few cases where innocent people get in the way of the film but today we are more menaced by people who get hurt for no reason.

Watch Batman on HBO Max

I watched Batman on HBO Max, and you can too if you subscribe to DIRECTV and pay for HBO. Some AT&T subscribers also get HBO Max for free, and even if you don’t, it’s worth paying for.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 7,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.