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Review: Batman '89

By Matthew Kresal

For a generation, the character of Batman was defined not by comics but by a cinematic vision. A cultural juggernaut on its 1989 release, Tim Burton's Batman overcame initial hesitation from fans to firmly establish Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight as firmly as Richard Donner did Christopher Reeve’s Superman the previous decade. They followed that success three years later with Batman Returns, a film that, while successful, deeply divided audience and critical opinion, leading both Burton and Keaton to depart their respective roles. It's not surprising then that fans have wondered since what a third Burton/Keaton film might have been. Thanks to the recently collected DC Comics Batman '89 series, we have a good idea after three decades.

Written by Sam Hamm, who worked on the scripts of both Burton/Keaton films, the six-issue Batman '89 series picks up on threads left hanging from those films. Among the most intriguing is Harvey Dent, played in the 1989 film by Billy Dee Williams, facing his inevitable destiny to become Batman rogue Two-Face. Hamm, who had written a version of Dent’s descent into early drafts of Returns before a studio decision to feature the Joker, clearly relishes the chance to present his vision in all of its tragic glory. Thematically, there are some echoes of 1995's Batman Forever, perhaps due to having versions of the same character appear in both. Yet how Hamm handles the character and his journey is very much his own interpretation. For those who've wondered what a William Two-Face might have been like, Batman '89 is worth seeking out for that reason alone.

That isn't all that Hamm explores, of course. The plot also picks up on other threads, including the tension between the city and Batman that came to a head during the events of Return, Gotham's political turmoil, and the still ongoing relationship between Batman and Selina Kyle's Catwoman (brought to life in an iconic performance by Michelle Pfeiffer in Returns). Hamm also brings in additional characters from Batman lore, including the oft-planned but never realized version of Robin for Keaton's Batman and references to elements from the comics of the eighties and nineties. Also, there's less emphasis on the kookier aspects of Burton's aesthetic and characterizations in Hamm's, which feels plausible for the hypothetical third film presented here given reactions to Batman Returns tone.

The icing on the cake is that all-important aspect of the comic medium: the artwork. Joe Quinones' art wonderfully captures the likenesses of the established cinematic characters, particularly where Keaton, Williams, and Pfeiffer are concerned. The new casting choices neatly pick up on real-world thoughts from the nineties, adding to the air of authenticity, including Marlon Wayans as Robin and Winona Ryder as Barbara Gordon. Elsewhere, however, other characters feel like crosses between their cinematic and nineties Batman: The Animated Series counterparts, including Commissioner Gordon and Alfred. It's an odd choice to make given the sense of authenticity striven for elsewhere, which takes a bit away from the flavor of the piece but not fatally. Meanwhile, Leonardo Ito's coloring evokes some of the Burton/Keaton film's visual palettes while bringing a mid-nineties twist to their mix of art-deco and eighties New York City.

Put together, despite some of the artwork choices for supporting characters such as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred, Batman '89 presents an engaging vision of a film never made. True, it's more the vision of one of their writers, much in the same way that the audio dramas based on Doctor Who's unmade 1990 season offer up more of a flavor of might have been than anything else. Yet, if you're a fan of those Burton/Keaton Batman outings or simply wondered what their third film could have been, Batman '89 answers that question superbly.


Matthew Kresal is a fiction writer who has a (Sidewise Winning) story in the Alternate Australias Anthology by Sea Lion Press, and has also written a Sea Lion Press novel about Joe McCarthy.


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