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For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, March 25, 2016

EDITOR’S NOTE: When eccentric filmmaker Tim Burton reinvented ‘Batman’ in the late 1980s, critics, including me, kept referring to it as ‘dark.’ Of course, who knew at that time what was coming in the 21st century with Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy? In retrospect, the 1989 ‘Batman’ doesn’t seem quite so dark. As ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ opens today, you might want to consider taking another look at the Tim Burton-Michael Keaton ‘Batman.’ Here’s my June 23, 1989, Deseret News review.

How seriously does "Batman" mean to be taken? That's the question.

Not very, I suspect. But it wasn't until late in the film that I realized just how broad it was meant to be.

Oh, Jack Nicholson is a psychotic's psychotic as The Joker. And Jack Palance seems to be doing a characterization of himself as a mob boss in early scenes.

But that could have just been Nicholson and Palance, after all.

Toward the climax, however, there is a quick set-piece that gives it all away: As Batman in his bat-plane is buzzing Gotham City he takes a moment to veer the plane upward, swooping into the circle of a full moon against a black sky, and the combination of the moon and the outline of the bat-plane creates the "Batman" logo for a few seconds.

   

Batman (Michael Keaton) v The Joker (Jack Nicholson) in 'Batman.'

Who said this new version of "Batman" would eschew camp?

But I'm not complaining, you understand. After all, how seriously can the audience take a guy who runs around in a black, bulletproof bat-suit and has all kinds of, as the Joker puts it, "wonderful toys"?

The story begins with Batman (Michael Keaton), a mysterious character known only to criminals and police, trying to help thwart a crime wave in Gotham City, which seems to be in a strange time warp combining the future with the '30s.

As the film progresses we learn that Batman is the crime-fighting disguise adapted by millionaire Bruce Wayne, who was traumatized as a child and seeks revenge on the criminal element as a result.

Eventually he will be responsible for hood Jack Napier (Nicholson) falling into a vat of acid, which will shape his face into a hideous smile, turn his skin white and his hair green, prompting him to adopt the name "The Joker" as he intensifies crime in Gotham.

The result is Batman vs. Joker in a battle to the death. Or to the sequel, if the film makes money.

Some of the plotting is in questionable taste — product tampering is the main source of mayhem to the public and the Joker gleefully defaces great art. But the movie is loaded with flash and flourish, and boasts a hair-raising climax.

   

Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), the Joker (Jack Nicholson), 'Batman'

As for the performances, Nicholson does indeed blow everybody else off the screen. Sometimes it seems this movie should be called "Joker" instead of "Batman." He's scary, funny and fills the big screen with his demented personality. (A friend suggested Nicholson's "The Shining" character would be frightened by the Joker.)

But Keaton holds his own, playing Wayne/Batman perfectly as the opposite end of the good-evil spectrum. Bruce Wayne's a psychotic also, after all — he just holds it in most of the time. And Keaton plays him, and his alter-ego, in a perfectly controlled manner, very low-key. I must admit that Keaton wouldn't have been on my list of possible "Batman" casting contenders but he's surprisingly good. (Along with last year's "Clean and Sober" this should firmly etch Keaton in the minds of moviegoers as an actor rather than only a comic.)

Others in the cast who deserve mention are Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, the sexy object of both Wayne and the Joker's desire, and Michael Gough, who is wonderful as Wayne's butler and only friend.

The much-publicized Prince songs are terrible and rather intrusive, but Danny Elfman's score is as flamboyant and huge as the movie, perfectly complementing the action. And the sets and technical credits are fascinating from beginning to end.

As mentioned earlier, "Batman" doesn't avoid campiness — it's just another brand of camp than was proffered by the old TV series. Here, instead of brightly colored deadpan humor, we have a very dark but equally hokey approach that is just as superficial, though it leans more toward thrills than laughs.

What perhaps will be most surprising to followers of director Tim Burton is that he seems to have been so overwhelmed by the proceedings that much of the off-center charm he brought to "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Beetlejuice" is absent. There are moments of offbeat humor (such as the gags with the TV anchors) that are decidedly his, but too often a reverence takes hold that seems oddly aloof and detracts from character development.

The script is very weak, scratching the surface of the implications brought into play but never really exploring the characters, which would have made it 10 times better. (One element that seems a very strange omission is when Vicki Vale learns Batman and Bruce Wayne are one and the same, which happens between scenes — off-camera!)

On the whole, however, there's enough excitement, thrills and laughs to please fans of the genre — and Nicholson just gives it all an added boost.

"Batman" is rated PG-13 for violence, along with a few profanities, a couple of vulgar jokes and implied sex.