Tim Burton's Batman was released June 23, 1989, 25 years ago today, and it is the best mainstream comic-book movie ever made.
Not just the best Batman movie, but the best movie based on characters from the two major comic book publishers: Marvel, and "magazines published by DC Comics," as it says in the opening credits of Burton's film.
This is a near-heretical point of view among fanboys of funny-underwear films. Hell, it's probably a near-heretical point of view among guys named Michael Keaton, to judge from the , so please feel free to skip to the comments and batarang me with your contempt. As a friend said when I first volunteered my pro-Burton, pro-Keaton, pro- opinion: "You're trolling, right?"
No, not trolling. Batman '89 is superior for several reasons, but two stand out: The Burtonverse is more richly nuanced than any other onscreen comic universe, and Michael Keaton is a better Bruce Wayne than his peers. He's the more compelling man behind the bat.
Back in '89, there was no joy in Mudville . Here was a guy who was best known as Beetlejuice (grubby undead, lives in a train set) and Mr. Mom (feckless dad, lives in a diaper). As an actor chosen to play The Bat, Keaton didn't have what comic fanboys call a good origin story. I mean, we're talking about here. His career was .
But the origin story — that essential background that provides the "why?" behind the "WTF?" — is exactly what Keaton and Burton (and scriptwriter Sam Hamm) got right.
The movie has an elegant and simple psychology: boy's parents killed, man seeks vengeance. It's a timeless storyline (see: ). And the brilliant part is that, in Burton's Batman, the audience is left to imagine exactly how Bruce Wayne grew into a weird, , and deeply flawed man.
(That, by the way, is what we want from our heroes: They need to be flawed like us, but powerful beyond reckoning. Hence why we care about , and read Us Weekly to find out that The rich and famous are the closest we have to real-life superbeings, sadly.)
Keaton's Wayne is just like us. He's awkward at parties. He drives . He invites Vicki Vale to dinner, then . When Vale wakes up, he's doing Pilates.
But this! This is a guy who plausibly dresses up like a bat. Or, as Slaughterhouse Magazine wrote back in '89:
By contrast, Christopher Nolan's Wayne is a narcissistic Boy Scout and a paragon of virtue, . There's no catharsis there. In '89 Batman, the stakes are that Bruce Wayne might be cuckoo. In 2005 Batman, the stakes are that Bruce Wayne might make Katie Holmes sniffle. Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale stripped Bruce Wayne of his dark side and turned him into a spoiled billionaire, like Tony Stark. Their movies suffer for it.
Speaking of Tony Stark: Iron Man (2008) is the only other mainstream comic film that holds a candle to '89 Batman. Jon Favreau got the origin story right, and Robert Downey Jr. was aces at being a frustratingly competent douchebag. But Iron Man has never been the most compelling hero. At the end of the day, he's a billionaire in an armored suit fighting other billionaires in armored suits. It's all very .
As for Spider-Man, X-Men, and The Dark Knight Rises: They're all competent movies, but each suffers from . You could make a case that 2008's The Dark Knight is a great flick, but the only great part of that film was Heath Ledger. The series still falters on Bale's version of Wayne and Nolan's boring, glammed-out Gotham.
Which brings me back to my first point about '89 Batman: Burton created the most nuanced Gotham.
Look again at the details. The year on the newspapers is 1947, but the wanted poster for Jack Napier says 1989. Wayne Manor is gothic tudor, but Wayne's personal car is a Plymouth. Vicki Vale wears an '80s Parisian frock, but the other women dress like they're from the '40s. Villains use Tommy Guns. Newspapermen use flashbulbs. Gangsters dress like Al Capone's mob. This is a fully realized universe — it's almost as if a seedy 1947 existed inside a steampunk 1989.
Most superhero movies skip these details. They spend their ducats on SFX lasers and CGI villains. But it's the man behind the mask, and where that man lives, that make all the difference. 1989 Batman for the win.