Christmas comes early to a legion of Bat-fans this year with a super-duper edition of 1989’s “Batman”. Time to ship off that bare bones Batman DVD to Trash n’ Treasure, because you’ll never return to that vanilla offering, after discovering this 2-disc extras-clad movie marvel.
Ten years in the making, with casting (Mr Mom as Batman?) more divisive than a Michael Moore film, and a director so idiosyncratic and untraditional that Bob Kane’s oxygen tank needed immediate refuelling, “Batman”, was a film we so much wanted to abhor – but in the end, ended up jammed for lexis. In June of 1989, Tim Burton gave us “Batman” – one of the most spectacular movies of the 80’s.
Though the casting of Michael Keaton (who had worked with Burton on “Beetlejuice”, and who Burton thought would make a good Batman because he’d be someone that would ‘need to get around in a mask and batsuit to be menacing’) was a worry, and Burton’s back-catalogue right away had purists in a panic – it didn’t take much to change all our minds. Within minutes of the pricey blockbuster’s grand opening theme, its glittering and effervescent titles, and with our first glimpse at the eye-poppingly designed Gotham City – we’d all swayed from the sceptic’s team to the supporter’s team. This mightn’t have been the “Batman” we grew up watching on TV – but that, it turns out, was a good thing.
The production value was incontestably the star – the sets, the costumes, the cars, the effects, the stunts, the gadgets – but looking back, it’s hard to imagine it turning out so well without Burton, Keaton and the fab Jack Nicholson leading the charge.
Burton, it seems, was the right choice for the job all along. Yes, he did get a little too dark there in spots, but he did seem to have an understanding of this mythologic tale, much more so than another director – hello Schumacher! – Would’ve, and ultimately put forward a slick, satisfying interpretation.
Keaton, as questionable as his casting was, also proved to be a fine choice. As both Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne, he lit up the screen, offering a multi-faceted performance that was as captivating as it was unique. Keaton, best known for comedies at that stage in his career, wasn’t your typical action hero – and that’s what worked for the film. It gave it some grounding.
Best though was the always-dependable Nicholson, giving a welcomingly over-the-top and risibly menacing performance as the deformed Joker. Hard to imagine anyone else but Jack playing that role. He probably did deserve that 500 billion, or whatever he was paid, to do it.
The supporting cast isn’t to be overlooked either. Kim Basinger – replacing Sean Young at the last minute – proved to be a laudable love interest for Bruce, Robert Wuhl was droll as meddlesome reporter Knox, Pat Hingle was immersing in the role of Commissioner Gordon, Billy Dee Williams – apparently a little cheesed that he didn’t get to play Two-Face later on – was a pleasing Harvey Dent, Tracey Walter was tremendous as The Joker’s right-hand man Bob, and Michael Gough, just splendid, as Bruce Wayne’s long-time friend and butler, Alfred.
Though it’s the best “Batman” films of the four that were made – prior to “Batman Begins” – there’s still a couple of beefs I’ve got with it though. Firstly, it’s tweaking of Batman-lore.
In this, The Joker/Jack Napier kills Bruce Wayne’s parents. That’s wrong. In this, Alfred the Butler has no problems letting reporter Vicki Vale come for a stroll thru the Batcave. He would never have done that, especially if he wanted to keep his job. Thirdly, it does have a few too many slow/dull spots – and that’s never a good way to hold an audience’s attention.
At the end of the day though, this is a much better film than we all expected – right? – And even today, stands up very, very, well.
The film looks and sounds terrific – much better than it did on the original DVD release – and Burton provides optional commentary for it, if you’re keen. Though he covers most of the information he relays here in the second disc’s special features, he’s an interesting guy – and you’ll appreciate hearing his impetus and reasons behind doing “Batman” the way he did.
Disc 2 contains the weight of the extras, and boy are they fantastic! First up, there’s a documentary on the legend of the character himself. This is a wide-ranging, fairly prolonged doco, narrated by Mark Hamill, which starts from the foundation and ends with the current crop of movies. Everyone from filmmaker Kevin Smith, Marvel’s Stan Lee, Comic legend Frank Miller, and Burton, are here. If you love the Caped Crusader, or simply want to know more about the character’s evolution, this is a must-watch.
“Shadows of the Bat: A Cinematic History of the Dark Knight” is a 3-part documentary that’s got some real sizzle. Here, we learn all about the challenging process of bringing “Batman” to the big screen – finding a studio and producer to back it, the controversy surrounding Keaton’s casting, re-casting Sean Young’s part as Vicki Vale and so on – and it’s ultimate success at the box office. (A smug Jack Nicholson sits back and gleams about the experience. Understandably so, he’s sitting on a beanbag-sized bundle of freshly rolled hundred dollar notes to do the interview).
“Beyond Batman” gets into the technical side of things – personally, didn’t interest me as much, not to say it won’t interest you – taking a look at how such things as the gadgets, the backdrop, the car, the suit, the music and casting Jack as ‘The Joker’, came about.
Also on the disc – a vintage featurette that features the late Bob Kane on the film’s set, brief interviews with those that played the ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ of the movie, a brief deleted scene, three of Prince’s music videos, and the original storyboard sequence for a scene that would have introduced Robin into the movie – ultimately scrapped.
One of the best DVD releases of the year – easily.