Modern classic turns 25 in '14
January is a notoriously bad month for movies. This is the month that studios will often throw their garbage in and hope that a hit like “Paul Blart” comes out on the other end. The holiday movie season is over, Disney has released its 53rd animated motion picture and studios have presented their big Oscar contenders. In January I usually do my best to watch all the Academy Award nominees rather than going to see the “mainstream” movies available locally and this year is not an exception. I’m not all that interested in “Jack Ryan” or “Ride Along” and “The Nut Job” looks like a piece of wannabe Disney/Pixar nonsense that shouldn’t have been released.
In the spirit of this mess of a movie month, I would like you to stay at home and watch a modern classic that will be celebrating its 25th birthday this year, “Batman.” Tim Burton’s superhero adaptation was released June 23, 1989, six months before I was born. The film received primarily positive critical response and grossed an exceptional $411 million with only a $48 million budget.
Burton had proven himself as a fresh, new director with his earlier film “Beetlejuice,” but it wouldn’t be until “Batman” that Burton would show his worth as a top-earning director. The film starred a young Michael Keaton, fresh from his roles in “Mr. Mom” and “Beetlejuice,” and Jack Nicholson as the Clown Prince of Crime, Joker. The initial casting decision to make Keaton Batman was met with harsh criticism by fans of the comics. The fans didn’t believe that the studio was taking the project seriously by casting an up-and-coming comedy star in the role of the Caped Crusader.
Keaton turned audiences around when the film did premiere in June and still stands as the best version of the character on screen. I’ll take Keaton’s quirky charm over Christian Bale’s Cookie Monster voice any day. The casting issue with the film I have might be controversial considering I’m about to critique the greatest actor of the modern age of cinema. Jack Nicholson should not have been Joker in this 1989 film.
He should, however, have starred as the character when he was younger, shortly after his “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” days or closer to his fascinatingly gruesome portrayal of Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Unfortunately for Nicholson the years were not kind to him and his perfect triangular grin from his early films was lost as he started to form a doughier chin. The 1970s to early ’80s Jack Nicholson would have embodied this character brilliantly, but the late ’80s Jack just doesn’t quite hold up in 2014.
Don’t get me wrong; he’s fun to watch, but there was something missing from his performance and I believe it to be his physical evolution. Some might say this performance doesn’t hold a candle to the brilliance of Heath Ledger’s work as Joker in “The Dark Knight” and I’m inclined to agree, but I also believe we have yet to see Joker as he was in the original Batman comics.
This superhero adaptation demands that we focus in on the great, joyful acting of the cast, but Burton’s direction is just as memorable from the opening faceoff between Batman and some thugs to the final moment in which the vigilante looks out over his city with the Bat signal looming. Additionally, the cinematography by Roger Pratt pulls together the gothic atmosphere Burton became known for while also providing some meticulously composed fight and dialogue scenes.
The film stands up pretty well nearly 25 years later thanks to a strong screenplay from Sam Hamm and comic-noir style production design by Anton Furst. If you were born or appreciate the culture in the eighties then “Batman” is for you because for all its flaws — Prince soundtrack, I’m looking at you — it’s holistically a wonderful sendoff to a cinematic and colorful decade.