It’s difficult to convey just how important Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie was in so many ways; it utterly changed the perception of comic book movies for one thing – let alone revitalising the character of Batman to more general audiences whose biggest exposure to the character was still the campy Adam West version from the 60s. Here was a dark, gothic character in a movie that it was ok for adults to like. As a 12 year old kid when it came out, it felt like my interest in comic books and superheroes had finally been validated and the characters therein treated with the gravitas they deserved after decades of stories in comic book form. Michael Keaton – despite taking second billing to a very Jack Nicholson Joker – was the perfect Batman and Bruce Wayne, though legions of fans who couldn’t see him in anything other than comedic roles disagreed during the film’s production, organising mass letter writing protests to Warner Brothers. Thankfully, Burton’s casting decision was revealed as a very smart move when the film was released.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the Batman movies – shorn of Burton’s strong Gothic sensibilities, thanks to a movie studio worried that their tentpole franchise was quickly becoming much more difficult to market to kids (Batman Returns, with its S&M Catwoman and repulsive, bitey Penguin was the straw that broke the Bat’s back) – took a more colourful and campy approach, closer to West than Keaton. Fans have always dreamed of seeing Burton’s vision continued; to see the transformation of Billy Dee Williams’ Harvey Dent – who makes a very brief appearance in the first film – into Two-Face, to see how Damon Wayans would have fared as Robin or how Batgirl would have been handled if Burton had proceeded with the third film or even more.
We now have that opportunity. Kind of.
DC have been continuing old superhero TV shows in comic book format for a while now. Batman ’66 and Wonder Woman ’77, for example. So it was only a matter of time before they reached Batman ’89 – and here it is. Excitingly, it’s written by Sam Hamm, who wrote the 1989 movie’s screenplay – so it has a real feeling of authenticity to it; it genuinely seems as if this is where we could have gone onscreen.
Taking place a few months after the events of the first film, copycat Batmen and even Jokers are fighting on the streets of Gotham, with an increasingly frustrated Harvey Dent looking to step up and take action to take back control of the city. In a romantic relationship with Commissioner Gordon’s estranged daughter Barbara – who’s also a cop – he enlists her assistance, but Dent’s plan puts him at odds with Gordon, Batman and even Bruce Wayne.
As befits the style of the Burton Batman films, the focus is very much on the villain of the story, though we’re in the early stages of Dent’s fall here. There’s a repeated use of the coin flip and even just coins in general as a motif, so the groundwork is being laid for Two-Face’s arrival (there’s a bit of visual foreshadowing that works well here too). The situation with Batman and Joker fans isn’t especially well explained and it’s a bit of an unnecessary wrinkle to the proceedings, though of course that may change as the story develops.
The art is generally excellent, with some superb action scenes that showcase a nice sense of clarity in storytelling for the most part – and Harvey Dent looks just like Billy Dee Williams, as he should. Other likenesses are not great though, from Pat Hingle’s Commissioner and Michael Gough’s Alfred, right up to the awful depiction of Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, which I can only assume is some sort of contractual issue, rather than any weakness on the part of artist Joe Quinones, who also provides a superb depiction of Keaton’s Batman on the cover.
The few grumbles with likenesses and over-complications in the plot aside however, it’s a great start. We get a good look at what drives the ambitious Harvey Dent in this incarnation of the character, which is long overdue. Just as the 1989 movie couldn’t possibly live up to the Gotham skyscraper levels of hype that preceded its arrival, Batman ’89 the comic is perhaps a victim of too much fan expectation right now, though that’s definitely not to say it’s bad at all. There’s definitely some more surprises to come, that’s for sure – it’s going to be interesting to see where we go from here at the very least.
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