Over the weekend, in preparation for rewatching my favorite Christmas movie, Batman Returns, I decided to watch 1989’s Batman first, and my goodness, I’d forgotten how fun that movie was. No origin story, Bruce Wayne in glasses, Vicki Vale’s outfits, and Jack Nicholson just hamming it up in the most excellent way.
Batman is such an interesting product of its time. At the time of its release, the Batman that existed in people’s minds was still the ’60s fun children’s show with Adam West (its own fantastic thing, btw). With superhero movies aimed at young children, they were built to be bright and fun (what a concept), so when Tim Burton was brought on to helm a Batman film with Michael Keaton in the role, it was a choice to the mainstream.
Casting characters in the Bat-verse has always been serious business, but the choice of Academy Award winner Jack Nicholson as the Joker was probably the thing that made the whole project make sense, and boy … was he a fantastic choice.
From the moment he appears as Jack Napier, he is slick and oily, complete with all of the gravitas his character can bring. He is able to fully sell the ’40s-style gangster he’s styled as perfectly, but once he falls into a vat of chemicals and is transformed into the Joker, that is when the true magic happens.
He completely commits to everything, and it is … perfect. As I was watching it, I felt like I was watching a story out of the comics or Batman: The Animated Series, the latter of which was inspired by the choices made in this incarnation—the laughter, the Joker gas, the utter love of chaos with no reason. I mean, they go into a museum just to mess it up. They don’t even steal anything as one of Joker’s henchmen follows them around with a boom box playing Prince songs.
Yet, because it is Nicholson, you are unnerved already. His Joker has no problem murdering, maiming, and poisoning people indiscriminately. Friend or foe is never truly safe.
Much like Heath Ledger’s Joker, there isn’t a true motivation for Nicholson’s Joker. They are both just criminals who want to cause as much chaos as possible. I am not a big fan of the choice to make the Joker the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents instead of Joe Chill, although it is better than the Joker inspiring a class war the same night the Waynes are going to the movies.
One of the things often said about Batman is that it feels more like a Joker movie than a Batman movie, and in many ways, that is true, since Keaton’s Bruce Wayne isn’t the angsty focus of the film. But in many ways, it is that balance that makes the film work so well. Batman is a response to the crime in the world, and Joker lives to create a world that will always need a Batman. Their dance is perfectly illustrated in this movie without making everything super serious.
The stakes feel real and the Joker is a threat, but they perfectly capture what makes him such a great villain: This is all just one big joke to him.
(image: Warner Bros.)
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