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Ten Word or Less Review: These toys don’t seem so wonderful anymore.

The defacto ‘it’ movie of 1989, Batman had audiences enthralled the entirety of that summer.  Though it’s remembered as a pivotal summer movie season several major event movies floundered hard.  Star Trek V nearly killed the whole franchise about boldly going where no one had gone before.  Karate Kid III embarrassed itself and everyone who paid to watch it.  Timothy Dalton’s second James Bond effort Licence To Kill washed out and saw the character on its way to a 6 year hiatus.  Ghostbusters II typified the idea of the mediocre sequel.  All that failure was just more audience for Batman to consume.

The comic book movie was still a novel concept in 1989.  Till then only Superman from a decade earlier had successfully launched a comic book based movie franchise but it had crashed and burned two years before with it’s woeful fourth installment.  Batman was a long dormant American icon being salvaged from his camp crusader label of the 1960’s.  A young miscreant  named Tim Burton had amused audiences with his imaginative, offbeat comedies (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice) and many wondered what this odd duck with weird, uncombed hair would do with the pointy eared avenger.  The press was as jazzed at the prospect of Jack Nicholson playing Joker as it was flummoxed at the idea of Michael Keaton playing Bruce Wayne.  The movie opened under a huge weight of expectations and to many viewers delight, mine included, it delivered.  Big time.  The audience was awestruck with what they saw.  It was new and totally different than other tentpole movies of the age.  Nicholson stole the show with his showboating turn as Joker.  We hummed Elfman’s amazing score as we left the theater.  No one seemed bothered by the rather mundane Caped Crusader shoehorned into his own story.  It quickly became one of the most successful movies of the decade (4th) and audiences today can largely thank its success for the plethora of spandexed super dudes who grace our screens today.  I thought it was the best thing since Star Wars and watched it endlessly on VHS and cable.  It was even the first DVD I ever bought.  But now, 23 years later, how does this grandfather of the most dominant film genre of the new millennium hold up?

Tim Burton’s Batman was defined by its look, a flagrant and worshipful interpretation of German expressionism thrown up for the main stream to soak in.  The end of the film is a direct riff on the climax to Fritz Lang’s iconic sci-fi work Metropolis.  Burton built a rain soaked Gotham City which seemed devoid of sunlight or hope.  His grand city was built of dark cathedrals, ornate skyscrapers and dangerous alleys, an eccentric cousin to Ridley Scott’s sunless Los Angeles of Blade Runner.  Those towering skyscrapers served as housing to a city which contained nothing but criminals, prostitutes and thugs as well as the powerless politicians and police who have no way to stop them.   This kind of atmosphere immediately established that Burton would be steering very clear of anything remotely resembling the goofball 60’s interpretation of the character.  Burton was a young but successful director at the time with demanding, heavyweight producers (Jon Peters, Peter Gruber) and an eager Warner Brothers studio bearing down on him hard.  It’s well documented that the pressure on him was immense and he didn’t relish the experience of making Batman.  For him to get such a grim, dystopian vision to the screen says something about his fortitude as a visualist and that at least when it came to looks, he was the right guy for the job.  His influence in this regard would hang over Batman for years to come.  Burton built the right Gotham playground for Batman to swing through, but it’s his inhabitants who posed problems then and even more so now.

Watching it now, Batman clearly makes some strange and misinformed character choices right from the start.  If you’re reading this you’ve probably seen Batman, chances are many times.  I’m not going to linger on plot details because you know them and to cover it’s holey nature would be a long pointless slog.  But ask yourself this question: Who is the actual star of Batman?  Of course it’s not Keaton and his turn as Batman.  This criticism was duly noted when the movie came out and we’ll get to that.  It’s not Nicholson and his Joker either.  Many stood in shock and awe at Jack and his purple suited nutcase and since the movie came out Batman has been routinely labeled as his showcase vehicle.  But The Joker isn’t really the lead character either.  The star of Batman is Kim Basinger.  If you want to be totally honest this movie should really be called Vicki Vale.  She’s the through line which the narrative follows.  We meet her early in the movie, she’s introduced before Bruce Wayne and we meet him through her, and I’d be willing to bet she has more screen time than either Nicholson or Keaton.  The movie frequently relies on her to deliver important parts of the narrative, she has the clearest dramatic arc in the story, she’s always in the middle of whatever action is happening and the film even ends on a scene with her and Michael Cough’s textbook Alfred.  She’s essentially the boring person the audience is supposed to relate to because the rest of the cast is largely rounded out with freaks and weirdos.  The decision to make the movie from Vale’s point of view leaves everything else feeling secondary, including Batman.  If Vale were a more inherently interesting character, Basinger actually plays her fairly well, then this decision may not be so confounding, but considering the dramatic potential of Batman/Bruce Wayne the decision to marginalize the central character, the very reason we’re here, seems like a shameful dodge of storytelling.  Do you ever think for one second Christopher Nolan said to himself, ‘Self, I think I need more Katie Holmes in this Batman movie.’

By 1989 there was a whole new catalog of grim Batman stories to choose from.  The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One were all there for the taking in addition to the 50 years of character work already in existence.  There was even a dead Robin by then.  The decision to ignore all of this rich material and go their own, watered down origin story way seems unimaginative and shortsighted on the producers behalf.  Christopher Nolan eventually pillaged parts of these iconic Bat-stories for his own movies.  Screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skarren supposedly had their adventurous, original screenplay overhauled quite a bit and what winds up on the screen now feels like Batman filtered through too many story sessions.  The decision to build a lot of the story around the mysterious Bruce Wayne and his past may have seemed necessary at the time, Batman had been out of the larger public eye for 20 years, but Batman’s origins have been so thoroughly picked over by now that the movie now feels like a prolonged and unimaginative retelling the audience is way too familiar with.  There’s no mystery in it, there never really was, but since the overall execution of the movie feels like narrative slog, the final result is a film which looks great, but too often feels stodgy and lead footed.  Tim Burton’s limitations as an action director were never more apparent than they are here.  It takes him half the movie to really kick things out of first gear and even when that mercifully happens, we’re still stuck in a story about a boring reporter, the stoic Batman she’s chasing and a goofy maniac in a purple suit who kills numerous glorified extras.

Keaton and Batman were an interesting match never meant to be.  Keaton just doesn’t have much to play or hang onto as either character.  He’s not given nearly enough screen time and is overshadowed at every turn by either the production design or his costars.  Robert Wuhl and his obnoxious Alexander Knox character feels like he’s given more attention in terms of pure character development.  If Basinger’s Vale weren’t the defacto star of the movie it would be Wuhl’s Knox.  Keaton’s glorified supporting character only makes a fleeting impression, which is sad and shocking as Keaton could be such a dynamic performer and this couldn’t have been lost on anyone.  His turn as Beetlejuice for Burton just two years prior sort of explains why he was cast as Batman, but why not cast him as Joker instead?  Keaton at his most unhinged and maniacal could’ve made a wonderfully sick and twisted Joker.  Keaton has always been a performer who looks like he’s three or four seconds from jumping out of his skin so why cast him as the guarded introvert?  My guess would have to be that A) the studio wanted a name like Nicholson on the movie, ala Marlon Brando in Superman, and B) Keaton probably didn’t want to get typecast as a white faced, freaky haired nut jobs for the rest of his career.  What is Beetlejuice if not a cranked up, after life variation of Joker?  If we ever achieve time travel I say go back and talk Burton into making Keaton The Joker and cast someone else as Batman/Wayne.  Michael Biehn perhaps?

Then there’s the showboat of the piece.  Nicholson’s Joker was probably the most talked about performance of the year but he got no awards love come years end.  Everyone knew this was Jack playing Jack in white face for huge amounts of money.  But despite all the adoration from viewers Nicholson’s Joker simply feels too much like Nicholson.  Maybe he’s more menacing than Cesar Romero’s TV scenery chewer, but he’s a blip compared to the appropriately sick, murderous nature of Heath Ledger’s Joker 20 years later.  As time as worn on Nicholson’s Joker is still mildly amusing to watch but it isn’t the sustaining force many once took it for.  It’s all too one dimension and silly.  If his Joker had actually done something shocking and horrible towards someone we cared about in the film, like maybe kill Knox, he could have gotten the character to a different level and perhaps take the audience there as well.  Watching him now one just consistently thinks about how much better this was done not only by Ledger, but even Mark Hamill’s voice performance as Joker in the Batman cartoons.  Behind an animated creation Hamill expertly delivered the bad jokes disguising the smoldering, homicidal rage that defines the character much truer than Nicholson ever does here.  All that being said comic book movies owe much of their existence to this movie and this movie owes its success to Jack.  He sold it to the masses and we bought it by the gross.  Without it we don’t have Nolan’s trilogy, X-Men flicks, or Raimi’s Spider-Man.  Of course we wouldn’t have shitty Daredevil, Wolverine, Ghost Rider or Fantastic Four movies either.  It seems everything comes at a price.

So if the performances are backwards and the story soggy, what makes this Batman still watchable?  A few things hold up and give the movie lift.  Of course there is the a fore mentioned look of Gotham City itself but in addition to that there’s the amazing music.  The rousing, Wagnerian score by Danny Elfman was an instant classic of film music composition and sits up there with John Williams Superman theme as one of the most definitive pieces of music written for a comic book movie.  Elfman, the one time Oingo Boingo frontman, had left the pop rock scene to peruse a career in film music.  He quickly fell in with Burton at the time of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and then went on to score Beetlejuice.  The two fit together like two peas in a black, gothic pod.  Nearly all of Burtons movies have been scored by Elfman since and Elfman himself was pigeonholed into the hero genre because of his iconic work here.  He went on to do theme music work for Batman Returns, Dick Tracy, Darkman, The Flash and Raimi’s Spider-Man movies.

What else works?  The car!  The Batmobile is an awesome gothic creation on wheels.  The single most stylish ride one can get.  I love Nolan’s version of Batman and his Bat tank design is perfect for his movies but for my money this is the coolest looking movie car ever.  It’s instantly identifiable as a Batmobile but never looks ridiculous or stupid.  That would come later under the guidance of Joel Schumacher.  By Batman & Robin the Batmobile was turned into a monstrous Christmas ornament on wheels.  If a studio had poured serious money into a Batman film in the early 40’s the Batmobile would have looked like Burton’s baby.  The Batplane which appears at story’s end isn’t quite as cool but it runs a respectable second in the badass column.

With his wonderful toys, grim visuals and a dizzying soundtrack to accentuate things, Burton’s Batman has been able to stay just this side of watchable, but it seems like each time I revisit it one more stich burst and it falls apart a little bit more.  It may have been able to hang onto its relevance had Christopher Nolan found another hero to bring his style to but now that he’s had a crack at The Bat Man, Burton’s first effort just feels antiquated and worn out.  Though his second stab at the Dark Knight is equally problematic, Batman Returns is a much rowdier and freaky thing.  It’s endlessly more watchable than this.  In a way Batman formed the template that Burton would use for many of his movies after.  Everything is style over substance.  Visuals over character.  Logic is flexible as long as it all looks right.  Some directors grow more into character as they progress as artists but Burton has grown progressively worse over time.  We can probably consider ourselves lucky.  If he made Batman today we’d be starring down the barrel of another white faced Johnny Depp as Joker while some bland hunk of flesh was tossed into the Batsuit with a few lines of dialogue to garble out.  I’ve lived with this Batman for most of my adult life and I will always be able to watch it, but it’s pretty clear I shouldn’t do so with much frequency.


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