[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B001MUK7GY][/pullquote] After the success of Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, the door was open to comic book adaptations to film. In 1989, Tim Burton and Batman kicked the door wide open and allowed for all the comic book films in our cinemas today. Taking DC Comics second most successful character after Superman, Batman was the first time since the 1960s that Bruce Wayne had appeared on film. It was a huge commerical success taking over ten times the money it cost make, Batman established Burton as an A-list director and helped shape Hollywood releases for the foreseeable future.
Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) lives a double-life. A billionaire from birth his family were killed by an unknown gunman. Vowing to defend the city under the guise of Batman, Wayne sets about stopping petty criminals from acts of violence and vandalism. On one particular mission at Axis chemical factory Wayne encounters Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) and after a fight, Napier falls into a vat of chemicals. Assumed dead, he appears from the vat with his appearance drastically changed. Assuming the moniker of The Joker, he takes over the local crime syndicate and attempts to scar all of Gotham City’s residents with a chemical that makes them laugh to death. It’s up to Batman to stop him and save the city.
The heart of Batman is the story of two outcasts from society battling on behalf of the sides of reason and anarchy. They are more similar than it first seems, which is a theme later analysed in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, but the interplay between Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Michael Keaton’s Batman forms the compelling drama of the film. It is their interactions which drive the Gothic-themed plot throughout and are actually equal stars. Without their contrasting performances playing perfectly off of each other the film would not have worked.
Tim Burton is a director at home with dark themes and macabre and scary premises, so The Joker is the perfect character for his style. In fact he spends more time on the villain of Batman than the Dark Knight himself. Jack Nicholson’s performance is suitably over-the-top and deranged and his influence establishes a constant sense of threat. When this is combined with the gorgeous Gothic architecture and stunningly beautiful art direction in general, and Batman stands head and shoulders above most comic book films, even to this day.
While many now see Heath Ledger as the definitive take on The Joker character, Jack Nicholson’s scenary-chewing nutcase should never be overlooked and what it lacks in subtelty it more than makes up for in fun. In fact the importance of Batman cannot ignored, especially in light of Nolan’s trilogy, in the history of comic book film adaptations. It took the gauntlet laid down by Donner’s Superman: The Movie and ran with it all the way to box office glory.