Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film is an iconic DC movie, but a major change it makes to Joker hurts the story and The Dark Knight’s characterization.
Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film is an iconic DC movie, but a major change it makes to The Joker hurts the story and The Dark Knight’s characterization. Long before superhero movies were the box office juggernaut they are now, Burton’s Batman was one of the first films that showed just how big a hit a comic book-based blockbuster could be, provided the right talent was in front of and behind the camera. While many might now be inclined to hold up the Christopher Nolan trilogy as the height of Batman on film, there’s still quite a vocal contingent who grant Burton’s movies that exalted designation.
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Burton’s eccentric sensibilities and eye for visual artistry were on full display in Batman 1989, as were the talents of dueling leads Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Keaton used Batman to pivot away from wacky comedies into headline roles, while Nicholson – Warner Bros.’ top choice for the role – added another amazing character to a career already filled with unforgettable creations, including The Shining‘s Jack Torrance or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s R.P. McMurphy.
As rightfully beloved as Batman 1989 tends to be, it’s not perfect by any means. In particular, Burton and writers Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren made a script decision involving The Joker’s backstory that really should’ve been left behind in further rewrites.
Why The Joker’s New Batman 1989 Backstory Hurts The Film
In most versions of Batman’s origin story, whether told on the comic book page or on the screen, Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered by a random criminal, someone who could’ve theoretically killed anyone walking down that dark alley that night. Sometimes that criminal is later identified as a man named Joe Chill, but even then, it’s clear Chill was no one special. The fact a common thug kills Thomas and Martha Wayne is important to his development into Batman, as he has the drive to protect the citizens of Gotham from every other bad guy prowling the streets, big and small. His crusade is against crime, not one man.
Yet, in Batman 1989, it’s revealed near the end that Bruce’s parents were killed by Jack Napier, the man who would become The Joker. There’s something clearly special about Jack, who has a mile-wide grin and proceeds his murders by asking the victim “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” Once Batman realizes this, it turns his fight against Joker into a personal vendetta, less about saving Gotham and more about getting revenge. That changes Batman’s characterization for the worse, as does him straight up murdering Joker to close out Tim Burton’s film. Those involved clearly wanted to make Batman and Joker parallels of each other, hence the “I made you, you made me first” exchange. Still, it doesn’t really work and is one of the few big flaws in an otherwise great movie.
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