The first non-Adam West Batman movie and the best of the 20th century, or so says received wisdom as far as I can tell, is simply a lot of fun. It's not deep or complicated, but just 120 minutes of Jack Nicholson's Joker going so far over the top that he's practically taken Berlin. He's the reason you watch this movie. He's silly, he's scary and you won't want to take your eyes off him.
Of course there's more to the film than that. Behind the cartoon antics lies a Gotham so textured that you can almost taste it, populated by gangsters, loser journalists and crooked cops. We gasp at the fate of Jerry Hall's character and are sucked in by the storm brewing between Jack Napier and Karl Grissom. Even politicians get screen time! For the first and last time in these movies, Gotham City is more than just a backdrop for biff-pow-bam between the Caped Crusader and his demented enemies.
Since this is a Tim Burton movie, the city looks gorgeous. It's a dark and towering fairy-tale confection into which went all kinds of influences - industrial gothic, thirties gangster flicks and Burton's trademark brand of twisted fantasy. I rather liked the subtly dated look, since there's something timeless about Batman that wouldn't work in an aggressively contemporary setting. Stop and think for a moment about the practicalities of projecting a bat-signal into the sky. Have these people never heard of bleepers? However this deliberately retro, visually lush world meshes perfectly with such nonsense and brings the comics to life.
Also worthy of note is the Batman himself. To my astonishment, Michael Keaton was terrific casting. He looks wrong in the Bat-costume (he's a little guy!) but I loved watching the subtleties and human aspects he brings to this damaged, lonely man. This isn't the driven psychotic of the Miller comics or the camp Adam West stereotype, but a lonely and disturbed child who's never quite come to terms with his abnormal existence. He wears his wealth awkwardly, as if he doesn't know what to do with it. He's almost suicidally unstable, as when he nearly sleepwalks through a hail of machine-gun fire on the steps of city hall. His best scene with Nicholson isn't when he's dressed in the costume, but when he's been caught in Vicki Vale's apartment and instead of sneaking out challenges the Joker to an I'm-more-fucked-up-than-you contest.
The romance between Vicki and Bruce is a good 'un, too. It's simple and honest without ever feeling hackneyed, and Kim Basinger gives us the most straightforward, normal person in this series. She's an emotional core for the movie and an audience identification figure - two things that we'd never see together again. You could lose Nicole Kidman or Elle MacPherson from the Schumacher Bat-flicks and actually improve those films, but Basinger keeps the original grounded and human.
This is a vulnerable Batman. He's not indestructible in battle (though he wins in the end) and he's not afraid to kill either. His plane is mounted with machine-guns, one goon gets thrown (presumably to his death) down the bell-tower and Batman goes after the Joker with the declared aim of killing him. The movie is rather refreshing in its blithe disregard for established fact, though it still feels a little contrived when we learn that the Joker blew away Bruce's parents all those years ago. Ah well. Batman (1989) is that rarest of beasts - a summer blockbuster that satisfies on all levels and is more than just good. Repeat watchings reveal less substance than you thought it had first time around, but it still deserves its reputation.