Gotham City at night, and a family - a husband and his wife and their small son - are trying to get a taxi home but failing miserably. The son is searching a map for clues as to where to go, but his father tells him to put it away as they look like tourists. Soon they are wandering down a dark alleyway when two thugs loom from the darkness, knock out the father and make off with his wallet. Counting the cash on a rooftop and discussing the rumours of a vigilante who is supposed to be making life difficult for criminals, they have not noticed the shadowy figure in the background, but they certainly pay attention when he descends from above and proceeds to beat them up. Hanging one thug off the rooftop, the figure (Michael Keaton) tells him that he wants to be notorious in the underworld, and to spread his name: The Batman...
You might have thought Star Wars went a bit over the top with the merchandising back in 1977, but George Lucas' mob had nothing on the marketing department of Tim Burton's Batman blockbuster. You couldn't move in 1989 for mention of this film, where Bat logos adorned baseball caps and T-shirts, the trailers were everywhere, and the whole affair was in every entertainment news bulletin. The hype grew to such vast proportions that not even the second coming of Christ could have lived up to it, and many were feeling a little let down when they finally got to see what all the fuss was about.
But a lot of people did want to see that fuss, and what they got, as was endlessly repeated at the time, was not the camp wink of the 1960s version, but an altogether more grotesque experience, closer to a classic horror film from the era that the original comic books, set rolling by creator Bob Kane, hailed from. The difference here was that the hero was every bit as messed up as the villain, only he had decided to use his mental instabilities for good rather than evil. The Batman, and indeed Keaton's muted, emotionally uncertain performance as alter ego Bruce Wayne, was used sparingly, and as a result the character seems to grow out of Anton Furst's brilliantly designed architecture to be an embodiment of a city that's as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
But if Batman is the personification of Gotham trying to right it's urban wrongs, the nemesis is just as well suited to its environment, and just as mad. The Batman story is a history of split personalities, and the hero and its villain can be viewed as two halves of the same problem - they even, according to this interpretation, are responsible for each other. The Joker, as played by Jack Nicholson for a humungous amount of money, is practically the only splash of colour in a black and white world, yet it's a sickly hue as in spite of his supposedly humorous demeanour, there's not much about him that's funny at all. He's an overbearing prankster, the kind who thinks palm buzzers are the height of wit, and even more hilarious when the recipient is reduced to a charred corpse.
We not only get an origin story for the Batman, but one for the Joker as well, as we see him as a hood on the way up, whose boss (Jack Palance in too few scenes) wants this threat to his authority out of the way. He sets him up to be killed by corrupt cops, but what happens is that Batman intervenes, and a ricocheting bullet and a tumble into a vat of chemicals give rise to one of American fiction's most memorable baddies. Here Nicholson is allowed to indulge himself too much, but he has to overact to be heard over the vivid art direction. As the love interest, Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale is there to prove the hero's masculinity (they even go to bed on the first date, talk about keen), but this is a distraction from the film's real, rival relationship. What humour there is brings out the grim nature of the plot, and the film is at its best when over the top and out of control. Danny Elfman's music provides fine backup, Prince's songs, not so much.
American director, producer and writer, frequently of Gothic flavoured fantasy who has acquired a cult following in spite of the huge mainstream success of many of his projects. He began as an animator at Disney, who allowed him to work on his own projects while animating the likes of The Fox and the Hound, which garnered the attention of Paul Reubens to direct Pee Wee's Big Adventure.