Today I'll be talking about the Father of Modern Superhero Movies, Tim Burton's 1989 opus Batman, starring Jack Nicholson as The Joker and Michael Keaton as the title character. When it first came out, Batman was a major pop culture event, garnering huge mainstream media coverage and all sorts of cross-promotion, in a manner not seen since the original Star Wars films.
|Still a fantastically awesome poster.|
Batman was something of a risk for Burton, as a dark, brooding superhero film had never been attempted, and most mainstream audiences still thought of the Caped Crusader in terms of the campy 1960s TV show. But in the comics, Batman had long since returned to his Noir-ish roots, and Burton drew inspiration from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, as well as taking visual cues from Film Noir and German Expressionism. The result was an unusually dark comic book film that took quite seriously the idea of a man dressing up as a bat to fight crime.
But while the movie felt absolutely right at the time, it has to a certain extent been rendered obsolete by some piss-poor sequels and Christopher Nolan's superb Dark Knight Trilogy, as well as Matt Reeves' new, even Film Noir-ier The Batman. Watching Burton's film now is great fun for nostalgia purposes, but it honestly became a little hard to take seriously after the advent of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the good and the bad of Tim Burton's Batman....
Remember how outraged we all were when Keaton was announced as Batman? As I recall the exact quote from everyone upon hearing the news was "What. The goddamn. Hell??" But at the time Keaton was a pretty splendid Batman/Bruce Wayne. He brought a quiet sense of morose intensity to the role and despite not being at all physically suited to play a 6'2" 215-pound superhero, made us all believe he was The Dark Knight. As with many aspects of this film, Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy bettered Keaton's performance by a pretty wide margin (In fact, after watching Christian Bale in the suit, Keaton looked positively waifish by comparison), but his portrayal stood for 16 years as the best cinematic Batman.
|Look at that six-pack. That suit must work out.|
Gough's performance as Bruce's trusted butler Alfred is one of the strongest in the series - he conveys a grandfatherly warmth but is able to switch to business mode when required. To a certain extent whenever I read a Batman comic I still hear Gough's voice as Alfred.
In 1989 was there any other actor any of us could picture as The Joker? Nicholson was the inevitable choice and, like Marlon Brando did for Superman ten years earlier, brought instant credibility to what many saw as a silly comic book movie. It's clear from watching Batman that Nicholson had an absolute blast playing everyone's favorite maniacal clown - for me the best Joker moment in this film is the hand-buzzer scene, which features Nicholson at his most unhinged. In retrospect this performance isn't so much "The Joker" as it is "Jack Nicholson in Joker makeup," whereas twenty years later Heath Ledger would completely disappear into the role. But for its time Nicholson's performance was pretty iconic.
|All work and no play makes Jack put on makeup.|
Speaking of iconic, I'm not sure there's been a better main theme for any superhero movie (John Williams' Superman theme is about the only other contender), than the one crafted by Danny Elfman. It just perfectly captures the essence of this dark but heroic character. In fact when Batman Begins first opened I had a hard time adjusting to the fact that Elfman's main theme wouldn't be featured - for so long that music WAS Batman.
Tim Burton is highly influenced by 1940s Film Noir (as was the original comic book) and 1920s German Expressionism, and it shows clearly in the set design of this film. Art deco permeates nearly every location and there's a decidedly 40s feel throughout the movie, with trench coats and cocked fedora hats aplenty
|Love the silent film influence here.|
While not nearly as functional as Nolan's Bat-Tank or Reeves' 1970s muscle Bat-car, the 1989 Batmobile is still probably the coolest-looking car ever featured in a Batman film. Sleek, low-to-the-ground, and intimidating, the '89 Batmobile resembles a black motorized shark.
|Man that car's boss.|
Batman '89 was the first superhero movie to reimagine the costume not as skin-hugging spandex, but as sculpted body armor. This negated the need for its star to sport a larger-than-life physique and allowed him to maintain a frightening appearance. The influence of this Batman costume can still be felt today, as almost every superhero film since has at least partly based its costumes on this design. The suit and cowl would see significant design improvements in Batman Returns (for example the original cowl didn't fit Keaton's face very well at all), but there's no denying how groundbreaking this outside-the-box Batsuit was.
And now for what didn't work so well.
Really guys? This is supposed to be the intrepid, tough-as-nails Commissioner Gordon? They cast a pudgy, mumbling buffoon as Batman's closest ally in the Department? At the time this film came out I wasn't totally familiar with Batman's comic book canon, and was shocked to read how different the Gordon character actually was from this movie. Pat Hingle was horribly miscast and played Gordon as an easily-alarmed doofus who offers little help to Bats throughout the series.
I'm still not sure what the point of this character was. Robert Wuhl did fine with what he was given, but why is Knox even in this movie, other than for unnecessary comic relief? When first introduced he's desperately trying to prove the existence of Batman and earn journalistic praise, but once the story gets going that's never followed up on. He spends the second half of the movie just sorta hanging around wherever the action is and not accomplishing anything.
Maybe it's just me but I find the lighting in most Tim Burton films really chintzy-looking. In trying to create high-contrast imagery a la Film Noir, he uses overly focused, Operating Room-bright lighting and I've always found it distracting and false-looking. It worked well in Ed Wood but not so well here.
This has long been an issue with comic book movies, and it was particularly prevalent in 1989 - filmmakers would attempt to capture the stylized, hammy dialogue of comics with generally pretty bad results. Batman was no exception, as the dialogue seems tailored for quick sound bytes and amusing one-liners. Lines like "Gotham City always brings a smile to my face," "You wanna get nuts?? Come on! Let's get nuts!" and "Your life won't be worth spit!" Real people don't talk like this.
Action scenes have never really been Tim Burton's strength, and the ones in Batman are rather clunky and pretty awkwardly staged/edited. A perfect example is the first time we see Bats, when he takes out the two muggers. There's a moment where Bats does the Dracula pose with his cape to scare the bad guys, and there's a clumsy pause as they just sorta look at each other. I always wondered if Batman was like, "Welp, that didn't work, I guess I'll just hafta kick 'em." Then one of the muggers runs right past Batman and rather than just grab him, Bats throws a grappling hook around the guy's ankle. It's just an unwieldy sequence and not the best way to introduce Batman to the audience.
Shoehorning Prince's music into this film was such a horribly ill-conceived marketing gimmick. His songs don't fit the movie at all and the fact that the filmmakers had to build two whole scenes around them just so the studio could sell more records is laughably idiotic. Just awful.
-Apparently the Batwing's targeting system needs to be serviced, because during the big parade scene, Bats locks the Joker dead-on in his sights and fires both machine guns, and they don't come anywhere close to hitting the guy. He legit misses by several feet on both sides. Might be time to call Lucius Fox there, Brucey.
-After using the Batwing to dispose of the Joker's poison-filled parade floats, Batman makes sure to take a moment and hover in front of the moon so the audience gets a nice "Bat-symbol" shot. What possible reason would the character have for making this maneuver?
|Like, it looks cool but......why?|
-Jack Palance's mouth-breathing always bugged me. I guess Carl Grissom's supposed to be an asthmatic?
-Two-thirds into the movie, Alfred completely betrays Bruce's trust by showing his new girlfriend (whom Bruce has known for approximately six days) into the fucking Batcave. Really Al? You're so desperate to play matchmaker you just blow the lid off the whole shebang? She's a journalist, for fuck's sake! How do you know she isn't gonna blab to every newspaper in town?? Realistically Al woulda gotten his walking papers about thirty seconds after this moment.
|Wow, Al. You're a fuckin' a-hole.|
-Late in the film Bruce has a flashback to the night his parents were killed and it's revealed that Jack Napier was the assassin. First-off, young Jack's voice sounds not a bit like old Jack's. Second, this is such a batshit insane (pun intended) plot contrivance designed to tie everything up in a neat little package, when in the comics Bruce can never avenge his parents' death, and subconsciously that's what keeps him going. Originally his parents were killed by a random mugger named Joe Chill, who was later gunned down by other criminals. Thus Bruce's impulse to seek revenge is left unfulfilled. In later versions of the story, the Waynes' killer is never identified, so Bruce is always chasing an elusive Criminal, and the best he can do is stop other bad guys from harming people. Making The Joker the Waynes' murderer ends up undoing everything that drives Batman, because.....
|Kudos on finding a young actor with Jack's exact facial structure.|
-Bats ends up killing The Joker in the end. In Burton's Bat-verse he's sworn no oath to refrain from murdering people, thus he gets to fully avenge his parents' death by killing off his archenemy. Also, from a franchise standpoint this was probably not the best idea; offing Batman's greatest adversary right in the first film. They could've easily explored that relationship more in later installments.
Don't get me wrong, I still enjoy watching this film from time to time. But when compared to Nolan's and Reeves' vastly superior takes on Batman, this one just doesn't quite hold up to scrutiny. These days I mostly watch it just to relive that moment in 1989 when I first got to see Batman swing across a giant movie screen. We were so much less demanding in those days..... Of course this movie is a fucking masterpiece compared to its three sequels. Batman Returns was too much of a Burton exercise in Expressionistic tribute, while Batman Forever and Batman & Robin were putrid, candy-colored toy commercials. Fortunately in 2005 Christopher Nolan showed us all what a Batman movie should really be.
That's all for this edition folks! Join me next time for another Awesomely Shitty Movie, here at Enuffa.com!
Follow us on Facebook, MeWe and Twitter and subscribe to our YouTube channel!