Review: Batman '89 hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)


About halfway through Batman '89, I found myself thinking this writer didn’t particularly get the Michael Keaton Bruce Wayne’s voice; shortly thereafter I remembered that the writer is Sam Hamm, verily the screenwriter of Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. So maybe what we’re finding here is that, indeed, you just can’t go home again.

I’d read another Batman '89 entry; I’m in favor in principle of the adventures of these characters ongoing. But ultimately I don’t think the six-issue digital-first format served Batman '89 or Superman '78 well. Though something like Batman: Earth One was not significantly shorter than Batman '89 in terms of page count, it seemed like the done-in-one graphic novel format of the Earth One books lent themselves indeed to read like a movie — singular focus, well-defined acts, and so on. Batman '89, in contrast, really reads like a six-issue Batman miniseries, and the ponderousness takes away from the illusion of a movie sequel.1

Is it fair to ask for a do-over of the do-over? Sure, Batman '89 is a nice exercise in imagining if Michael Keaton had kept on instead of Val Kilmer, but I’d be interested in another, different imagining of the same.

[Review contains spoilers]

It makes for a pithy line, but I think it also might be true, that Batman '89 and Superman '78, DC’s contemporaneous other movie series, have opposite problems. The Superman book I found appealing, but too disconnected from the events of the movie that preceded it. It was like a Christopher Reeve Superman movie lifted out of the ether, with no benefit of the character development that came before.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Batman '89, on the other hand, is devoutly the next Batman movie, to extremes — Keaton’s Bruce Wayne has been aged up, going gray in his hair. Not that “old Batman” isn’t a successful genre in and of itself, but Hamm doesn’t use the passage of time as an actual story point necessarily, nor do Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon or Billy Dee Williams' Harvey Dent seem to have aged at all (it looks rather absurd, even, that 70-something Michael Gough’s Alfred Pennyworth is still waking an aged Bruce up in the mornings). Between Williams' Harvey following from the first movie and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman returning from the second, it seemed inexplicable that Batman '89 took place years in the future and not a short time later.

Speaking of cosmetic bits, I was dumbfounded that Joe Quinones draws Batman here with white eye covers. If there is anything that might distinctly identify the Keaton Batman (most movie Batmen, really), it’s that you can see their eyes through their cowls. That this shouldn’t be perpetuated into the Batman movie comic definitely tells me I have a different conception of what this comic should be than the creators. In Quinones' included sketchbook, there’s some mention of blending the Batman movie aesthetic with Batman: The Animated Series, which I think is a terrible mistake; there’s inherent connection between the two, sure, but if I wanted to be reading a TAS continuation comic, there’s other places I can go for that.

And, as mentioned, Hamm’s Batman/Bruce Wayne doesn’t sound like Keaton to me – and, who knows, maybe that’s because I’m looking for Keaton and Hamm’s hearing Kevin Conroy. The whole bit with the giant penny — Bruce standing back, admiring it, telling Alfred what a good job he did; Batman talking about kidnapping Catwoman for a romantic getaway on the Mexican coast; the long conversation with future Robin Drake Winston in the fourth chapter — all of this seems like rather more talking than Batman did in the previous two movies combined.

Further, for all the talking, Batman '89 is never as pithy as its predecessors. I thought the book started to get there in the last chapter (the best chapter overall) with lines like, “Selina … do you ever want to be normal?” but it’s still a far cry from “Ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight,” “Never rub another man’s rhubarb,” “Let’s get nuts,” or “A kiss can be even deadlier.” Again, it doesn’t read like a movie script, but like your average Batman miniseries.

Also missing is both the weirdness and violence of the Tim Burton originals. Hamm gets creative with the comics form in a sequence presenting two possible outcomes based on the flip of Harvey-as-Two-Face’s coin, though this is drawn such to be more confusing than impressive. There is nothing here, however, to rival the Joker’s parade nor the Penguin’s giant duck. And Quinones has a tendency to turn away every time things get violent — including a key moment when Gordon is killed — in contrast for instance to Jack Nicholson’s Joker graphically shooting Carl Grissom and electrocuting Antoine Rotelli.



Clearly I’ve got strong feelings about Batman '89, if only because I care so much. To be sure, I still want a Batman '89/Superman '78 crossover with every fiber of my being. And Sam Hamm plays with the 1989 setting in what I thought were clever ways, with 3.5-inch disks and a discussion of a proto-internet, and Batman having a quaint “electronic backchannel” with Gordon. But I groaned when the book ended with an “Oracle” reference (who’d at the time only just been introduced); I’m looking for Batman '89 to be Batman '89, not an alt-continuity Batman miniseries that dovetails into the real thing.

[Includes original and variant covers, sketchbook section]

  1. Not that Batman Returns wasn't ponderous, but you know what I mean.  ↩

Comments ( 4 )

  1. I only read the first two or three issues of this, but I had the same feeling: Despite being written by Sam Hamm, this just didn't feel like a continuation of the story in Batman and Batman Returns. Which, I guess, is another proof point for the auteur theory and how much the director of a film (as opposed to the writer) is the key creative driving force on a movie. Like Superman '78, the artwork on this was really pretty. But, like you, the decision to meld in elements of B:TAS into this just felt off.

    As with Superman '78 (and Spider-Man: No Way Home and Wonder Woman 1984 and the John Williams theme apparently being used in Black Adam and...), this obsession with nostalgia is killing everything interesting about the super-hero genre. These interpretations had their day. Let's move on to something new and different. This is what made comics in the 1980s (particularly DC's comics) so interesting: Their willingness to be inventive, to be deconstructionist, to try new things and present these characters in a new light and a new perspective.

    1. "Which, I guess, is another proof point for the auteur theory and how much the director of a film (as opposed to the writer) is the key creative driving force on a movie. "

      Yeah, there's a reason TV's called a Writer's Medium wherein they are King.

      I've been thinking a lot about Returns since the 30th. anniversary this past Summer -- and how much creative control Burton was granted thanks to the blockbuster success of the 1989 film.

      For me, the relationships/distinction between the two Burton films is the same as Del Toro's Hellboy films. Hellboy/Batman '89 are Hellboy/Batman movies directed by Del Toro/Burton. Hellboy II/Returns are Del Toro / Burto films that happen to feature Batman and Hellboy.

      Simply distinction, but it's crucial to understanding them.

      Anyway, my relationship with Returns is...I'm nostalgic towards it, but nowhere near as I am with the '89 film. I can better appreciate it now, but I still don't really like Returns. For me, it's a defining example of letting a Director having too much creative influence.

      I actually read Hamm's original Screenplay for Returns a couple years ago and it was interesting to see what might have been.

      Elements of Hamm's Returns made it into the final script Penguin/Catwoman team-up, Batman getting framed, etc.). But it was also a much more direct follow-up to the '89 film and even re-contextualized elements of its backstory.

  2. I had strong mixed feelings on this book, I grew up with the movies and was super excited for this, but it just felt.. off to me. I'm not one to complain about politics in comics (they've always been political) but some of the racial overtones of the book felt very reactionary to 2020's events to me and while I wasn't bothered by it, and of course Robin was always going to be black in the Burton movies, it just did not feel like a movie that would have come out in 94 or whatever. I actually think more of my problem was the pacing which I hadn't thought about when reading it but seeing this review I also think that was a large problem to me. I wanted a Batman 3, and I got a typical Batman miniseries. it's not bad, I'm glad it exists and I enjoyed it but it wasn't what I wanted out of the project.

    1. Yes, I think you got it quite right — I'm all in favor of the social elements in this book, but they don't feel germane to the 1980s-1990s zeitgeist (even if they should have been or etc.). More, as you said, of a Batman miniseries than Batman 3.


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