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On June 23, 1989, the Dark Knight stormed into American theaters. The result? A Tim Burton blockbuster that kick-started the Batman series on film. The original Hollywood Reporter review, which praised the movie’s “surrealistic visual style,” is below.
Created 50 years ago as a comic book hero, the character of Batman has provided the basis for numerous television and film projects as well. Through the years he has evolved into a cartoon, especially in the high camp TV series of the 1960s. The dark side of the character has now been restored in the new Warner Bros. film Batman.
Produced by Jon Peters and Peter Guber, this Batman is a stunning achievement, especially through the incredible and unique visualization of director Tim Burton. The film may be disappointing to those expecting a campy cartoon, however, although the more dramatic stylization of this version is its strongest asset.
The screenplay by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren (story by Hamm), based on characters created by Bob Kane for DC Comics, presents Batman as a menacing, mysterious figure and not as a hero of the people, in spite of the fact that his actions are against Gotham City’s criminal elements. City officials, however, are not sure of his motives and disapprove of his vigilante approach to crime fighting. The script also explores the motivation behind the character and the psychological torment of Bruce Wayne and why he has taken on the disguise.
The major strength of the film is actually its surrealistic visual style, which creates a disturbing portrait of a decaying society without structure or purpose. Production designer Anton Furst has created a Gotham City that is a dark, steaming cesspool, littered with waste and evolved as a jumble of almost every architectural style since the beginning of civilization. It is a place where it is most believable that a menace such as The Joker could seduce and possibly control the city.
Contrasting this majestic visual concept is a quiet, but equally intense, human drama in which two people are trying to get together and make it in a basically hostile world.
This is the uniqueness and very soul of the film and it is achieved through the beautifully defined and probing performances of Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne and Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, a news photographer who is intrigued by both Wayne and Batman. Keaton delivers an especially impressive and deeply nuanced characterization as Wayne. When he takes on the Batman disguise, he becomes an enigmatic, robot-like figured without human personality.
At the other end of the spectrum is Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker. It is difficult to imagine any other actor performing this character as well. And Nicholson, in white makeup with his face frozen into a menacing grimace, plays it to the hilt. The actor goes over the edge as only he can do and his performance works perfectly. Jack Palance is fun in his brief appearance as a crime czar and Michael Gough is excellent as Wayne’s fatherly butler. Other performances — including Robert Wuhl as a reporter and Pat Hingle and Billy Dee Williams as city officials — are effective, although basically overshadowed by the production itself. New York Mayor Ed Koch has an amusing unbilled role as the mayor of Gotham City.
Adding emphasis to the action and the grandiose style is Danny Elfman’s pulsating and driving musical score, while several songs by Prince contribute often amusing punctuation. — Ron Pennington
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