Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton
If it does nothing else—$300 zillion at the box office, for instance—this marvel of a movie should forever change Batman’s image. No longer is he just a masked mammal who’s basically a road company Superman. Nicholson’s Joker is a villain worthy of a real superhero and Keaton’s Batman gets to perform some cinematic superheroics of the first order.
Directed by Tim (Beetlejuice) Burton and written by Sam (Never Cry Wolf) Hamm and Warren (Fire with Fire) Skaaren, the movie is a naturalistic, minimally campy treatment of the Batman stories—as well as a sort of comic book for shrinks. The Joker, it seems, had a troubled childhood and gets into the kinky makeup after a chemical factory accident disfigures his face; Bruce Wayne, Batman’s civilian mode, was orphaned when his parents were killed in a robbery and is working out his grief by fighting crime. He hasn’t even met Robin yet. (Nobody explains why Wayne has all those pet bats hanging around the mansion.)
As Keaton plays Batman, he is arrogant, a bit confused, and sincere. He is so unsupernatural he even likes women—in this case Kim Basinger, who somehow never fades into the scenery even though she’s doing a girl-in-distress part as the photographer who becomes interested in Batman. Their scenes together are pulled off with great finesse. When Keaton, as Wayne, tries to explain to Basinger about his unusual alter ego, he sputters so much she misunderstands his shyness and blurts out, “Oh, my God; you’re married.”
But the master craftsman in this deck is Nicholson. He gets lots of screen time and good lines. Exasperated at all the media attention paid to Batman while he is leading such a full life of crime, the Joker says, “Can someone tell me what kind of world this is where a man dressed up as a bat gets all my press?” Then as he cackles over one of his victims, he sneers, “Haven’t you heard of the healing power of laughter?” This is Jack Nicholson, though, and he really doesn’t need good lines to get his psychotic point across; he can convey more menace with the slightest squint and tiniest shift of his eyes than most actors could with a whole roomful of diabolical gizmos and a pageful of cutting remarks.
Complaints? Keaton seems on the physically slight side for all the martial arts, hand-to-hand combat and acrobatics he goes through. Too many scenes take place in the dark or shadows. Nicholson does a turn or two too many boogying to Prince’s music on the sound track.
Let’s not bark up the wrong cave, though. This is one of the times when the universe fools us by living up to high hopes. Let’s agree that no matter how tiresome the merchandising and the hype get, and no matter how futile it might be to hope there won’t be any sequels, we’ll remember how much good old-fashioned fun this movie is. (PG-13)