Revisiting 1989’s “Batman” With Someone Born In 1990

Turns out, you could get away with a lot in the ’80s.

Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989) Warner Bros. Pictures

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of director Tim Burton’s noir take on the Dark Knight, BuzzFeed’s Senior Film Reporter Adam B. Vary, 34, re-watched the movie with Editorial Assistant Ariane Lange, 24.

Adam B. Vary: When the 1989 Batman first opened, Ariane, I was 10 years old and saw it in the theater. I do not believe this was your given circumstance at the time?
Ariane Lange: When the 1989 Batman first came out, I was a week or two away from conception. Although, looking at a calendar, I realize it’s possible that I was a zygote or something.
ABV: Yes. Um. Different. I’ve since seen this film probably nearly a dozen times since, but not in a long while.
AL: I have never seen it! As I understand, it’s the first really dark mainstream superhero movie, which is exciting.
ABV: That is true, unless you count Superman III, which scared me silly as a child, but that is for a different time. Since it is the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, how about we watch it together and see what happens?
AL: Yeah, I have eyes now, so this is perfect timing.
ABV: One final question before we start: What else do you (think) you know about this movie?
AL: I think…well, without looking it up, I don’t know who the bad guy is, but my guess is the Joker or the Riddler. Nice how verbal those names are. I think that Gotham has a dearth of streetlamps, so there will be many shadows. I guess that’s it. Batman will best a bad guy.
ABV: All of that is essentially accurate! Let’s dive in!

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AL: So far there are shadows!
ABV: I had forgotten that the man playing Batman, Michael Keaton, got second billing here. Ha!
AL: “Magazines published by DC Comics.” HA.
ABV: Ariane, you just gasped when it said “Prince.”
AL: I love Prince.

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AL: OH SHIT! IS THAT BABY BRUCE?
ABV: Just waaaaaait.
AL: What little kid carries around a giant map like that?
ABV: It was the ’80s.
AL: OK, why are they looking for a taxi in a goddamn dark alley?
ABV: Tourists.

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AL: I really do enjoy the way Batman peacocks around. I was about to say that there’s no functional purpose to his raising up his arms like that, but it’s a classic bird-move. “Make yourself look bigger.”
ABV: That scene had a real ’80s griminess to it, like how I presume New York City used to feel like for many tourists. I’m struck also by how comic book-y that Batman introduction was — very storyboarded and stylized.

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AL: JACK NICHOLSON. Joker?
ABV: YUP.
AL: Villainous girlfriends always have dramatic bone structure.
ABV: That’s Jerry Hall! Mick Jagger’s girlfriend! Wow, everything about this scene is so ’80s. The art on the walls, the cut of Nicholson’s suit…

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AL: Ooh, a tough-talking cop with a gravelly voice!
ABV: Even the characters in this movie are annoyed that Arli$$ is in this movie.
AL: I hear Arliss was an American situation comedy about a sports agent and his group of associates.
ABV: It’s pronounced Arli$$, Ariane.

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ABV: Even the factories in Gotham look like M.C. Escher paintings.
AL: Totally. And look at those wacky pipes.
ABV: What is that giant round thing at the right?
AL: Who knows. It’s all very over-the-top industrial decay.
ABV: It looks like a metal pimple.
AL: Ew, Adam.

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AL: My mom had glasses just like those in the ’80s!
ABV: Did she have a giant blonde ponytail and red lipstick?
AL: My mom? No. She had one of those poofy ’80s career-bitch haircuts, though.

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ABV: OMG that dress.
AL: That looks a LOT like my mom’s wedding dress.
ABV: Arli$$’s journalistic skills here are actually pretty solid.
AL: Is this incredible diamond-earring lady with a ‘fro going to have a bigger role? If not, that is a damn shame.
ABV: Alas, no.

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ABV: This Batman movie spends more time than I remember dwelling on Bruce Wayne’s money. And I love that these reporters have no idea what Bruce Wayne, the most wealthy man in Gotham, looks like.
AL: Is his wealth supposed to look reprehensible given the poverty of the city, or is it supposed to look appealing?
ABV: I think it’s supposed to look alienating, but not because of the poverty. This was the ’80s after all.

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ABV: You would think the moment chemicals go flying, everyone would stop shooting.
AL: Yeah, good idea, a chemical spill will be an excellent distraction for your getaway. Seriously, though, what is Batman even trying to accomplish here?
ABV: Beat up the bad guys and not be seen except when he is seen?

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AL: Oh shit!
ABV: It didn’t seem like Batman tried very hard to save Jack there, did it?
AL: Indeed it did not. Also, Jack’s accidentally shooting himself in the face makes this movie seem a bit anti-gun.

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AL: I wonder if the very rich have ever dined like this, one at either end of an extremely long table with no one in between.
ABV: I remember this scene got a big laugh in the theater. The rich and their foibles!
AL: “Haha, you’re so rich that you have a room you’ve never seen while there are people sleeping on the streets. LOL.”
ABV: Ah, the ’80s.

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ABV: Oh god, this scene haunted me for months. It’s so grimy and dirty and dark.
AL: As the doc said, those tools do not look like much to work with.
ABV: Did that not frighten you?
AL: It was a pretty scary scene. Not showing his face is a good touch. Mostly I’m worried about what will happen to that doctor, although I suppose he’s a bad guy if he’s bandaging up criminals in basements.

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AL: Taking off her shoe was a nice move.
ABV: Bruce Wayne: still got it!
AL: Can’t believe Bruce puts out on the first date. You’d think he’d be a little more guarded.

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ABV: Get it? He’s like a bat! If that was shot today, it would be from the front, and Michael Keaton would have abs.
AL: Being an action star involved fewer crunches back then.

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ABV: Ohhhhhhh, this scene. This was the first time I experienced violence and humor in the same moment, and it has made a lasting impression.
AL: I would just like to remind everyone that even people with severe mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. That being said, he seems very scary.
ABV: Also, as an aside, steam and smoke seem to be a major motif in this movie.
AL: That and vibrant handkerchiefs.

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AL: How did his tie survive the burning?
ABV: It’s polyester.
AL: This was the ’80s.

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AL: She’s spying on him! OK, no one likes being lied to, but they only slept together once and they never defined the relationship. It seems a little extreme.
ABV: She is a photojournalist, though. She must chase the story wherever it leads. And it leads to this expository mystery: Who is Bruce Wayne?
AL: Is it still the story if she fucked him? Seems like it’s time to recuse yourself.
ABV: It was the ’80s, after all.
AL: I am so into her spy outfit.

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AL: Did he just say, “This town needs an enema”?
ABV: Yuuuuuuup. My mom thought this joke was hysterical, but I remember not knowing what an “enema” was when I was 10.
AL: Aw, so young.

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AL: THEY WENT ON ONE DATE. WHAT THE HELL, MOVIE.
ABV: I was just about to type that. Things move fast in the ’80s.
AL: Adam, you were alive — the ’80s was post-“sexual revolution.” Am I wrong?
ABV: I was 10, Ariane.
AL: I learned what a blow job was when I was 8 via President Clinton. Surely you must have known something.
ABV: It was a different time.

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AL: I had no idea that misogyny was so critical to this movie. Is he murdering women to get back at his ex-girlfriend?
ABV: “Motive” is not particularly clear here, although things get even uglier.
AL: “We look like shit now because we’re afraid.”

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ABV: The art direction of this museum is OVER THE TOP.
AL: Is this going to be a setup? Did the Joker invite her here? That present worries me, and that handwriting, even more so.
ABV: More smoke! Your instincts are spot on, Ariane.

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ABV: Get ready for some Prince! (For readers, Ariane is dancing in her chair right now.)
AL: HOW COULD ONE NOT?

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AL: Hmm, defacing art. That’s interesting.
ABV: The glee with which he does this makes me feel Tim Burton was working out some art school-related issues.
AL: Could also be because Gotham values art over human happiness, as evidenced by this opulent museum, and the Joker rejects Gotham’s values. Or rather, reveres art while neglecting human happiness?
ABV: Interesting — that’s pretty much what the Joker says is his raison d’être.
AL: Yes, now his speech about being an artist makes me think he’s supposed to be an exaggerated reflection of all that’s rotten in Gotham.
ABV: When I was 10, the notion of being a “fully functioning homicidal artist” was lost on me. Now, I find it horrifying.

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ABV: This is THE COOLEST part of the whole movie.
AL: The Batmobile looks pretty cartoonish, I have to say.
ABV: I take it you are unimpressed, but I don’t care. THAT WAS SO COOL.

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AL: Are bats really “great survivors”? I’m skeptical. Also, who keeps a bat in a birdcage? That seems monstrous.
ABV: Well, Batman is morally complicated.
AL: You’re right. Animal cruelty is probably part of that.

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ABV: I have no idea how exactly Batman knocks her out, takes her to her apartment, puts her on her bed, takes the film out of her bra, and no one notices a thing. When I was 10, these plotting problems were not so apparent.
AL: Is this her room? She has a fucking teddy bear? How many grown-ass women do you know with teddy bears on their beds and lacy pillows?
ABV: It was the ’80s.

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AL: He just pushed her! And then told her to shut up!
ABV: This relationship was never going to last anyway.
AL: Seems like a charming boyfriend. I’d go steady with him. When he pushes you, it’s obviously time to go Facebook official.
ABV: Also, can we talk about this GORGEOUS APARTMENT?
AL: I figure rent is really cheap on account of the urban blight.

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AL: Does that mean something in the countryside? “Never rub another man’s rhubarb”?
ABV: My grandfather used to say this in a very different context, but basically, I think it amounts to, “Don’t horn in on another guy’s territory.”
AL: Ah. She’s the rhubarb.
ABV: I think? But what I do know is that when the Joker said this, my 10-year-old brain exploded because he was quoting my beloved Beepa.
AL: That’s so cute! Beepa would never say that in such a context, I’m sure.
ABV: Thank you, Ariane. He would not.

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AL: Is this microfiche, Adam?
ABV: Yes. It is. Consider yourself lucky you never had to deal with it. I can still hear the haunting whine of rewinding microfiche spools even now.

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AL: Is this little Bruce now? Nice symmetry.
ABV: Yes, it’s a flashback. Hence the low dutch angles. More steam!
AL: I like how the pearls mix with the popcorn — both equally useless to the dead.

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AL: OH MY GOD! IT WAS JACK ALL ALONG!!
ABV: TWIST! The actor they got to play young Jack Nicholson is like a much handsomer — and, dare I say it, scarier? — version of the actual young Jack Nicholson.
AL: You might be right, but I think the slowed-down voice had something to do with that. He also just looks huge from that angle.

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ABV: Wow, what a great white coat, Vicki.
AL: She’s wearing white again. Honey, you’re not fooling anyone.
ABV: Except maybe herself.
AL: “I’ve loved you since I met you.” JESUS. I’m glad we’ve progressed since the ’80s.
ABV: On the other hand, she is at least savvy enough to figure out that the richest man in Gotham would have the resources and emotional scarring to be Batman. Unlike, say, the rest of the city.
AL: Well, from what I’ve seen at various balls and functions, Gotham, despite its poverty, has a sizable upper class from which to draw its vigilante heroes.

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AL: Nothing good can be inflating that clown.
ABV: Juuuuust wait, Ariane. Besides: more Prince!
AL: See? The Joker can’t help but dance to Prince.

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AL: Is this supposed to be an indictment of greed? Because WHAT ABOUT BATMAN’S GREED?! Arli$$ didn’t ask why this movie is condemning the greed of regular people while the greed of its hero is seen as a virtue.
ABV: Silly Arli$$, thinking he can condemn greed when he has actual dollar signs in his name.

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AL: The Batwing!
ABV: Where do you think those balloons ended up?
AL: Probably the ocean. RIP coral reefs. It’s lucky he thought to install shearing scissors on that aircraft.
ABV: Yes, it was good advance planning.

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AL: Who knew that the MOON is the original light source of the bat signal!
ABV: I loved this shot as a kid. I think it is borderline ridiculous now.
AL: I think it’s cool, as a first-time viewer.
ABV: It’s like, “Before I can defeat the Joker, I’ve first got to climb high enough so that I can raise the Batwing against the moon for a tableau I won’t be able to see because I’m Batman and I’m tortured but at least I have style.”

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ABV: This moment always confused me, because I thought it meant the Joker was immortal. Like, they ALL MISS?
AL: I have to wonder why Batman’s only allowed to use guns that are attached to a vehicle he’s driving.
ABV: Very good point, Ariane! And then the Joker’s one giant penis gun brings down the Batwing?
AL: Right?! Did he just take down the Batwing with a long-barreled…revolver?
ABV: Improbable.

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AL: I am just noticing how very tall Batman’s ears are.
ABV: Tall ears were very popular in the ’80s.
AL: I’m learning so much.

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ABV: What do you make of how rag-doll-y Vicki Vale is here? Even when I was 10, I found it problematic.
AL: I mean, I think this film has taught us that women are all rhubarb stalks, so it seems to follow the logic of Batman.

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AL: Oh, good, she’s using her feminine wiles as her only means of helping herself. Seriously, could they have made her seem any more helpless?
ABV: At least her dress is still brilliantly white.

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AL: Wow, that church really wasn’t very sturdy, huh? Gargoyle just snapped right off!
ABV: Well, it was likely built in the 1880s, so…
AL: Good thing Batman is better at not falling to his doom than the Joker.
ABV: These early Batman movies had a lot of grappling-hook-saves-the-day scenes — I’m glad Christopher Nolan did away with them (mostly).

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AL: That was extremely eerie, Adam.
ABV: Yeah, I spent many a lunchroom hour debating what that scene meant with my friends, and what was in that little bag.
AL: I can totally see that. This is definitely the scene that a kid would be into analyzing.
ABV: Was the Joker’s laugh always canned? Was that the Joker’s soul?
AL: HIS SOUL.
ABV: We got pretty deep in elementary school.
AL: Surely he has no soul!
ABV: It was an early Horcrux!

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AL: I hope to be silhouetted against a night sky someday.
ABV: I’m only mildly embarrassed that that shot still gives me goosebumps. I’ll chalk it up to the Danny Elfman score.
AL: I can’t say that I have goosebumps, but I was serious about the silhouette!

ABV: So — what did you think, Ariane? I’m surprised how much of the movie still holds up, considering how low-fi the action scenes were in comparison to later superhero movies.
AL: This movie was more fast-paced than I wanted it to be, actually. Putting aside my feelings about its contributions to the stigmatization of mental illness, its hypocrisy regarding wealth, and its inherent misogyny, I liked it a lot! Is that too much to say? I love superhero movies, but they are the worst.
ABV: You are a woman of profound conflicted feelings.
AL: Quite unlike the one-dimensional female characters we see in superhero movies!

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