Sadly, Batman (1989) Actually Sucks

I’m sad to say it, but aside from Jack Nicholson’s fantastic Joker performance and some excellent design elements, 1989 smash hit Batman totally bat-flops.

Oh, folks, this is a hard one. For You Love To See It (our premiere movie rewatch podcast), we’re doing a fun theme for the month: Payday May, watching movies where an actor famously got a ridiculous sum for their performance. We’re starting off here with Batman (1989), wherein Jack Nicholson famously inked a sweetheart deal netting the actor something in the ballpark of $90 million (in 1989 dollars! Thanks to his contract including perks like a cut of the profits and merchandise sales).

I had nothing but fond memories of the movie from my childhood, and Nicholson’s performance certainly holds up, but sadly, not all is well in Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City.

Join me, alongside my usual co-host Fernanda Prates and special guest Harper Jay of Double Fine to figure out just what’s going on here, and how a movie with a Prince soundtrack could flop so hard.

You can listen here on your podcatcher of choice! As per usual, I’m sharing our synopsis and show notes here, which we write just before we record the episode! There’s a bit of creative capitalization here, and a few spoilers for the movie, so if that’s not your thing, we respect it.

Our synopsis

Batman, not to be confused with *The* Batman or Batman Begins or any of the six million reboots of DC’s franchise in the last thirty five years, is Tim Burton’s 1989 smash hit about a very rich man who dresses up like a bat and beats up criminals. Starring Michael Keaton as said rich guy in a bat suit, Jack Nicholson as the original movie joker (with that joker-fied payday), and Kim Basinger as a hot photojournalist, this one has incredible production design and a soundtrack by Prince! But I suspect our panelists will be all over the place about how it holds up today.

And now, our notes!

batman and joker

Fernanda’s must-discuss items:

“Since he was the studio’s top choice for the role, Jack Nicholson received a pretty sweet deal overall to play The Joker in Batman. He was entitled to a certain amount of leisure time away from set per filming day, able to attend all home games of his famously favorite NBA team the Los Angeles Lakers, and requested his scenes all be shot within a certain portion of production. However, his best move came when negotiating his salary. At the time, Nicholson’s standard fee to star in a film was $10 million, huge money in the late 1980s. He agreed to play The Joker for only $6 million, but on the condition that if the film did well, he would get a percentage of the profits. This extended beyond box office too, also covering merchandise related to his character.  In 1989, superhero movies weren’t the guaranteed blockbusters they are today, so Nicholson and his reps made a very forward-thinking deal, one which paid off massively. Batman grossed $411 million worldwide on a $35 million budget, and that’s before even figuring in huge sales of Joker toys and other merchandise. While Nicholson has never revealed exactly how much cash he made off playing The Joker, it’s confirmed to be somewhere north of $60 million, with Nicholson biographer Marc Eliot estimating that the actor actually walked away with closer to $90 million. That’s a whopping $194 million when adjusted for inflation. It still stands as one of the most substantial actor paydays in Hollywood history.”

  • I’ve never really dreamed of being rich but now that I think of it I wouldn’t mind being rich enough to have a henchman providing the soundtrack to my life with a boombox. 
  • I will say that I do honestly love Jack Nicholson in this. I know I’m not alone when I say fuck the Joker, honestly, but I agree there’s something refreshingly adolescent about this particular portrayal. I get and appreciate that times have changed and we’ve come to crave nuance from even the most abject of characters, but, as I’ve said before, I can appreciate an unapologetically shitty villain who just straight-up sucks. Like, yeah, falling into a vat of acid will do some shit to a person, but he wasn’t exactly a chill dude before.

Having said that, I now cannot stop thinking about how Robin Williams would have played the role. Apparently he was offered it and even accepted it, but the whole thing turned out to be an elaborate ruse to get Nicholson to finally agree to it. Apparently Robin Williams was (understandably) *not* happy about being used as Nicholson bait. Apparently he was also tapped to play the Riddler, but then shit happened (I couldn’t find a definitive account of what exactly) and the role when to Jim Carrey. Here’s a bit of an interview with Empire on his role in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia:

“I would work with Chris again in a second, playing anyone in anything. I’d play The Riddler in the next Batman, although it’d be hard to top Heath as the villain, and I’m a little hairy for tights. Plus, the Batman films have screwed me twice before: years ago they offered me The Joker and then gave it to Jack Nicholson, then they offered me The Riddler and gave it to Jim Carrey. I’d be like, “Okay, is this a real offer? If it is, then the answer’s yes. Don’t pump me again, motherfuckers.”

  • I’m not really a Batman fan in general but I do think Michael Keaton’s might be the least interesting version of him ever. Was there any scene in the movie in which he is even remotely engaging? He was literally the least attention-grabbing character on screen at all times. I get that the character is supposed to be stoic and detached but Jesus… Add *some* texture to it. And yes, Danielle, 100 percent yikes on the scene where he pushes Vicki and tells her to shut up. It was literally the only moment I felt any emotion toward him — and it wasn’t of the good kind.
  • I will say, this movie has some truly creepy moments. Some of the visual choices are so, so good. I love the “funny” faces of the people killed by the Joker, I actually really like the concept behind his make-up, I like the nonchalant brutality of the kills, I even like the super unhinged museum scene (#justiceforDegas). The mimes!!! I love how fucking dreadful Gotham looks, the Prince soundtrack adds a whole ‘nother layer of weirdness to the vibe, and there’s also some moments of true humor, like the one you mentioned with the anchors with no make-up and quite a few of The Joker’s lines. It’s quite somber but also quite goofy and I like the moments in which this odd little mix boils over.joker 1989
  • A few moments, however, do not a full movie make, and while I do like how stylish this is, I also think it fails to stick the landing. The ending, in particular, let me down big time. I felt *zero* chemistry between Vicki and Bruce. All the good lines are The Joker’s. I don’t hate it, honestly, but I don’t think it’s a masterpiece either. 
  • P.S: Once again, Hollywood deceives me with unrealistic portrayals of the average human’s grip strength. Has Vicki Vale been relentlessly training to compete in 1989’s open bouldering championship? Is she secretly an expert free solo climber who’s successfully ascended El Capitan? No? Then how did she manage to hold on to that old-ass concrete with her bare hands for several minutes as all hell broke loose around her? STOP LYING TO ME, HOLLYWOOD. I’M TIRED OF YOUR ILLUSIONS. 

Danielle’s must-discuss items:

  • ok so, the intro to this movie totally sucks, lol. Maybe it’s just aged horribly, but it reads like white people propaganda about NYC in the 80s: a terminally stupid family of white tourists (dressed like they are in the 50s) gets robbed, and a rich asshole in a stupid costume goes and beats the shit out of a couple of petty thieves that just happen to look like drug addicts? Woof.
  • Ok but jack Nicholson absolutely owns this role, from sleazy mobster dude to unhinged villain. There’s no escaping all the general stupidity and cringe-y misery associated with the joker in 2022, but here, he is clearly chewing the hell out of the scenery and enjoying it, and there’s an adolescent chaos to the performance that’s pretty fun in places.
  • Holy Casual misogyny, Batman! “A girl could get hurt doing this stuff!” (Actually I hate everything the shitty reporter man who is supposed to be comic relief does and says) (also when Bruce pushes Viki down and tells her to shut up)batman 1989 keaton batman
  • I adore miniatures, matte paintings, and all the visual flourishes that make it weird and fun. Next to Nicholson, that’s the best part of all this.
  • As wacky as this is, I prefer the truly batshit and way more homoerotic Batman Forever and Batman and Robin; the Schumacher Batman’s with the nipples on the suits and such.
  • I can’t shake this thought: this feels like a movie made by a mean nerd. Also I hate Bruce Wayne here so much.
  • Ok, the gag about the gross newscasters (because beauty products are poisoned) IS actually funny, I’ll give you that, Batman!