Keaton brings Batman to life, Nicholson is frightening as Joker
The first two Batmans are arguably the best of the entire series. My favorite is Batman Returns, but many other people's favorite is the original Batman. I enjoyed the sequel to Batman more because it had three wonderful villains: Catwoman, the Penguin, and Max Schreck. It also had a darker visual quality which I love. However, the original Batman has one element which many people feel makes it superior to the rest: Jack Nicholson.
In my opinion, I don't think that the villain should be the focus of the beginning of such a series. The center of this film should have focused on Batman's formation and the psychological problems that Bruce Wayne has, especially trying to cope with the dual life he leads. Fortunately, Jack Nicholson is such an engaging actor, and his scary, yet terrific, performance as the Joker is one which shall go down in film history. It is this character which the film evolves around and with Nicholson's performance, Batman is truly entertaining.
Michael Keaton portrays Batman (and he is the only true one, in my opinion) as a rich snob who has a dark side as he lives alone in his giant mansion. His only company is Alfred (Michael Gough), his butler who took care of Bruce Wayne after his parents were murdered in an alley way. During a party, two reporters Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) and Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) wander off to look through his mansion. Wayne discovers the two and finds himself attracted to Vale. However, he is unable to have relationships because of his "night" job. This creates a dilemma for him, and Vale wants to know what Wayne is hiding. She starts to investigate the mysterious hero, the mysterious billionaire, and the mysterious new villain, who also becomes infatuated with the gorgeous reporter.
The Joker also has two sides to his persona; however, the good side is taken over by the bad side. In a freak accident, Jack Napier falls into a vat of chemicals which alter his appearance, giving him a freakish smile and ghost-white skin. In a way, this also transforms his personality. Somehow, he manages to survive and goes to a doctor where he gets his first look at his new face. Instead of being shocked and sad, he starts laughing hysterically. This is the beginning of his alter ego, the Joker. The Joker is a trickster who loves to have a good time while killing people. To get revenge for his appearance, he shoots his employer several times and decides to begin his own line of cosmetics which give people that same everlasting smile.
Once the Joker enters the film, it picks up speed tremendously. Nicholson's manic performance gives the film a needed comic relief especially considering nothing has really interested us up to this point. In fact, this may be the reason why the sequel is better than this one. Batman is almost never interesting unless the Joker is somewhere in the picture. In the sequel, there are many different plots and subplots happening which are interesting from the beginning. Thankfully, the Joker is almost always present in the first film, and this makes it bearable. I think the fault lies in the writing because Batman tries to fit two different characters with different backgrounds into two hours of film. And Batman has such an extensive background that we never really fully get involved with him. The Joker, on the other hand, is the main focus (and you can tell because his name comes before Keaton's on the opening credits). We learn just about as much as we can, and it holds our interest as much as it can before the Joker enters the scene.
There are also several interesting supporting characters, but they don't have much of a point in the film. Vicki Vale is there to scream, become Wayne's girlfriend, be sought by the Joker, and finally be fought over in the final scene. Alfred is given almost nothing to do, but thankfully he gets much more to do in the sequels. I realize that Batman isn't about the supporting characters, but it's kind of sad when the supporting characters are more interesting than the hero himself.
None of this, however, is to blame Michael Keaton. His performance is very underrated, but he should be given a bigger part. I mean, this is "Batman", not "Joker." Keaton, who left after Batman Returns, is probably the only actor in Hollywood who could properly portray Batman. Unfortunately, the producers got greedy and didn't want to pay him more money. And when Keaton left, director Tim Burton left and so did his unique way of filming. The directing of Batman is wonderful and it just shows how talented Burton is. The technical aspects are also amazing, especially the production design. The visual effects are actually low-key and not used much, but the set design and art direction is phenomenal. The towering skyscrapers loom over the dark streets and provide great atmosphere. It almost looks straight out of the comic books. The mood is also set by Danny Elfman's wonderful music (and I was really angry when Schumacher changed the theme to Batman). In other words, Batman is mainly a film about mood... oh yeah, and Jack Nicholson.
Batman is rated PG-13 for violence and some gore, language, and sexual innuendos. Batman heralds the beginning of a huge series of films which shall go on until the audience realize that Schumacher can't direct action films (which could take a long time). In my humble opinion, Batman died when Burton and Keaton left the production.
***1/2 out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie