cheesy television specials.
Richard Donner's Superman (1978), released in the wake of Star Wars (1977), introduced the superhero blockbuster and dominated the eighties with its sequels, but during that decade films and comic books were out of sync: on the page, the Dark Age was dawning with Alan Moore's V for Vendetta (1982-89) and Watchmen (1986-87) as well as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (1987).* Tim Burton's Batman (1989), the first really serious superhero film, changed that and kicked off the first wave of comic-book adaptations. (The last film in the series, 1997's Batman & Robin, killed off that wave as well as its own franchise.)
Twenty-odd years on, what was highly revisionist at the time has become 'classic'. The plot begins with Batman still a rumour, scoffed at by the less superstitious of Gotham's criminals. The new district attorney, Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), is preparing to challenge the criminal empire of Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), who is struggling with his overly ambitious lieutenant Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). Grissom double-crosses Napier, sending him to raid a chemical plant at night and ordering corrupt policeman Eckhardt (William Hootkins) to ambush Napier's men. In the ensuing struggle, Batman disarms Napier, who falls into a vat of green acid and is believed dead.
Napier, however, has miraculously survived both the acid and the ensuing botched plastic surgery ('You understand that the nerves were completely severed, Mr Napier. You see what I have to work with here...') and becomes the villainous Joker in the film's strongest and most iconic scene. After murdering Grissom, he plots to poison Gotham City's hygiene products with Smilex, which will kill the victim while fixing their face in a horrid rictus grin, in the run-up to the city's bicentennial celebrations. (Incidentally, this provides an excellent way to guess at Gotham's location: with a foundation date of 1789, the city is presumably in Ohio, the Great Lakes region, or the north-eastern Atlantic coast.) The Joker also pursues photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), who is dating wealthy Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton).
It's a Joker picture, then, even more so than The Dark Knight (2008): Nicholson takes top billing, and Batman functions almost solely as his foil. The focus on the Joker's origin sets the 1989 film apart from the latest Christopher Nolan picture, which has Batman's nemesis appear from nowhere. Giving a definitive origin story for the Joker was controversial among fans (Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore had given a possible, but deliberately ambiguous origin the previous year). But it works: Nicholson's Joker is a crazed villain even before being disfigured (his pre-murder one-liner, 'Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?', goes back to his ordinary criminal days), suggesting the Joker is merely a useful persona.
Nicholson gets the best setpieces, too, the most famous perhaps his dance routine desecrating an art gallery to the sounds of Prince's 'Partyman' supplied by a boombox-carrying goon ('I am the world's first fully functioning homicidal artist!'). The actor goes all out on the craziness, and while Nicholson's shtick can be irritating - witness his horrendous overacting almost derail The Departed (2006) - it's perfect here. Granted, I still prefer Heath Ledger's funnier, more anarchic, better-acted take on the role, but Nicholson's Joker, unlike previous live-action iterations simply a ruthless mass murderer, is very good.
That brings us to the film's darkness, infamous in 1989. Again, The Dark Knight has one-upped Batman's on-screen nastiness but not, I think, the earlier film's attitude. Whatever you may say about Christopher Nolan's films - cold procedurals all of them - he tends to choose scripts that ultimate believe in and reward goodness and humanity (as The Dark Knight does repeatedly in its last half-hour). Not so in Batman: here we have a hero who kills off henchmen like there's no tomorrow and, in the film's climax, defeats his opponent with a highly questionable move. If The Dark Knight is willing to show a great deal more darkness, Batman ultimately has a more pessimistic view of the world.
Despite everything, though, it's not a great film. The plot is functional at best, Basinger is phoning it in, and the action scenes are not quite top-notch. If I like Batman, it's as a radically different vision to the Miller-Nolan school of Batman as man become symbol, brutally disregarding the limitations of his body: in the Millerverse, if Batman's chest had been a mortar, he'd burst his hot heart's shell upon it. Keaton's Batman is defiantly human, struggling with relationships and self-doubt, and he's all the stronger for it.
*With the benefit of hindsight, Moore easily emerges as the greater of the two, but the jury is still out, I think, on who had the greater cultural impact.