Rating -

Action (US); 1989; Rated PG-13; 126 Minutes

Michael Keaton: Batman/Bruce Wayne
Jack Nicholson: The Joker/Jack Napier
Kim Basinger: Vicki Vale
Pat Hingle: Commissioner Gordon
Robert Wuhl: Alexander Knox

Produced by Peter Guber, Chris Kenny, Benjamin Melniker, Jon Peters, Michael E. Uslan; Directed by Tim Burton; Screenwritten by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren; based on the "Batman" comic books by Bob Kane

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Written by DAVID KEYES

As moviegoers, most of us often fantasize about living in a place like Gotham City. The idea is intriguing because the occupants are more than they seem--men dress as bats, women masquerade as cats, mutants live in the sewers as penguins, and (maybe most importantly) monsters are perceived as saints. It is a world bound by prejudices and crime, and one that thrives on the suffering of the people who live in it. The skyscrapers tower above cloud lines, the streets are layered in shadows, and in the alleys lurk menacing dangers. No wonder its name is derived from the word "Gothic."

The first "Batman" movie (in a series that now contains four entries) is a success for several reasons, but most of the credit goes to director Tim Burton's brilliant visual interpretation of a dark, ominous comic book. Like Alex Proyas, he has proven to be an artist behind the camera--someone who doesn't mind if his visual representations are odd, just as long as people are always paying close attention to them. The only real problem he faces as a director are one-dimensional characters, which are sometimes so underwritten and disconnected from their surroundings that it's as if they know they are standing on a blue screen, letting the art direction and special effects take advantage of them. As is the case with "Beetlejuice," and some of his other early work, "Batman" is intriguing to look at, but contains very evident shortcomings as a character study. Because it's one of the better-looking Burton films, however, these kinds of inadequacies can sometimes be dismissed.

Intriguingly, the first film in the nearly-extinct "Batman" franchise isn't remembered for its look, but for its strong performance by Jack Nicholson, who exhibits the role of the Joker in a fascinating manner. The man known as Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) witnesses the death of his mother and father at a very young age, when a madman opens fire in a dark alley. This criminal's face is cloaked by shadows, but his voice is distinctive. After the murders, we hear him speak to the now-orphaned child ("Tell me kid: have you ever danced with a devil in the pale moonlight?"). Then there is silence, and the killer disappears.

The movie picks up afterwards in the present day. Wayne is not only a powerful man now, but a crime fighter, of sorts. Unknown by those of the city, he dresses up in a bat's suit, and goes by the legendary name of Batman, the dark knight. His battle against city crime is routine and standard, until Jack Napier, a high-profile criminal mastermind, is thrown into a batch of chemicals at a Gotham plant, and he comes out as the Joker, a clown-like entity who is determined to create a name for himself, even if it means exterminating everyone's favorite crime fighter. It is only a matter of time, though, until the Caped Crusader's investigations, with the help of a reporter named Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), point out Napier's true identity. He was the man who killed Bruce's parents all those years ago.

If there is any significance in the term "revenge is sweet," then "Batman" does not find it. Bruce Wayne, especially in the comic books, has always been a character with distant but noticeable emotions, and when he fights the Joker on screen for the last time, we see the hatred in his eyes, though he tries to hold all of it back. As to be expected, the Joker's eventual punishment, which is well-deserved, does not make up for Wayne's tremendous loss, and in the end, he continues to suffer. Michael Keaton doesn't frontally display sentiment, and in this manner, he is devoted to preserving the Bruce Wayne character as we know it from the comic books. Such a character is too busy battling crime of the present than letting the demons of the past haunt him. Keaton successfully maintains that detail.

But why are there so many unimportant players here? Aside from countless Joker henchmen, we have Robert Wuhl as reporter Alexander Knox, who is, I fear, only on screen to fill time in between action segments. The surprise letdown is Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, reporter for Gotham's news publication. On the job, she has no problem handling stories that break out between Batman and Joker. But the script gives her two duties that she can't always handle--one as an employee for this newspaper (which often works), the other as a love interest to Bruce Wayne (which almost always fails). The latter task collapses under other plot devices, because there is not an ounce chemistry between the two. Both are constantly separated by their work and other engagements. By the end of the picture, the only decent scene they have together involves Batman and her swinging on a thin wire halfway between the ground, and the roof of a tall building. And to top that off, the shot doesn't even have dialogue.

I have difficulty in calling the movie great, but seeing as how I am warranting a three-and-a-half star rating, I must admit that it comes close to achieving that title. The only real problem, as to be expected, is the script's use of too many underwritten characters. Nicholson does an exemplary job with his character role, constantly delivering great lines of dialogue in the most inopportune situations ("If you have to die, go with a smile on your face"). Meanwhile, Michael Keaton is faithful to the Bruce Wayne persona, never once over-stressing the emotions or secrets of his past.

The movie is more of a visual achievement than anything else, though. In attempt to compliment the movie's noirish images of a vast metropolis, I find myself comparing it to one of those Julia Child dishes. In both cases, presentation is the key.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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