Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Recap: Batman (1989) Intro

This year, I’m giving thanks for Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman.

By this point in history, reboots are quickly becoming the norm, rather than the exception. Ben Affleck’s Batman hit theatres earlier this year with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, rebooting character following the successful Dark Knight Saga, following the less-successful Schumacher era which softly rebooted the Tim Burton era, which in turn was a reboot of the Adam West version of the character, which was in turn based on comics that were rebooted into campy farce from Bob Kane’s original vision of a dark avenger hunting gangsters.

Heck, with how short people’s attention spans are these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t make it through that entire wall of text before moving on.

The point is that Batman is continually reinvented every so often. But not in the usual way. Most characters are reinvented by figuring out what they mean to a modern audience and working that angle.

A great example of this would be when Batman knock-off Green Arrow grew a beard in the 70s and became a hard-left liberal who teamed up with the more conservative Green Lantern, illustrating the idea that both sides, though they disagreed, could still work together for a common future.

Batman, on the other hand, is an oddity, as he seems to be constantly reinvented based on what he used to be.

Just to use the character’s animation history as an example, he started off in Batman: The Animated Series largely based on his ‘89 film incarnation, with a little bit of the 40s thrown in. The Batman went the other way, creating a sleek, modern, marketable version of the character and his enemies, taking many liberties with the source material in the process. Then after that, Batman went as far opposite of modern as he could, with the deliberate throwback to the 1960s that was Batman: The Brave and The Bold.

And the films are no different.

But before I can talk about how Tim Burton’s Batman defined itself as the opposite of Adam West’s Batman, I need to talk about Stan Lee.

No, really.
But before I talk about Stan Lee, let’s talk about the creation of Batman a bit more. (Note: Reading my intro to the first Batman film will get you up to speed, if you haven't read that yet.)

Bob Kane’s original design was more overtly superheroic, with a gaudy red suit and big ol’ bat wings instead of a cape. But Bill Finger helped refine the costume into something more relatively somber, with a frightening silhouette. Batman’s iconic grey tights and dark cowl helped him fit into this dark, seedy underbelly of crime that he fought, much like one of the inspirations for the character, Zorro.

Zorro shares many similarities to Batman, since Bob Kane had a habit of outright taking ideas, to the point of copying the character’s first story from one of the Shadow’s adventures. Zorro masqueraded as a vapid socialite, while secretly defending the oppressed as a dark figure of the night. Sound familiar?

Heck, “Zorro” means “Fox,” so they’re both named after mammals. Naturally, the Batman mythos pay homage to Zorro by having the film the Waynes see on that fateful night be an old Zorro flick.

But every part of what makes Batman… well, Batman was specifically tailored to take place within a world that… well…

Certainly wasn’t this.
But due to the Comics Code dictating what was and wasn’t suitable for an audience, as well as the success of the 60s Batman TV show, Batman was forced to find himself on goofy, campy, lighthearted adventures.

That’s not to say that this era isn’t good. I love the Silver Age, and I see it as an iconic period in Batman’s history. But I will admit that Adam West’s Batman doesn’t really seem like someone who decided to avenge his parents after seeing them brutally shot down when he was eight years old.

Batman’s return to his darker roots in both film and comic were simply a matter of time.

And it starts with Stan Lee.

In 1961, Stan "The Man" Lee began what we would today call "deconstructing" superhero comics by taking them apart to their most basic levels and seeing what he could tinker with in interesting ways.

A super team without secret identities who behaved more like a family? The Fantastic Four.

A teenager with real teenage problems who wasn't a sidekick? Spider-Man.

A disabled superhero? Daredevil.

He was not only messing around with what he could and couldn't get away with, but demonstrating that you could do more with superheroes besides wacky transformations.

As the 60s wore on, the stage was slowly being set for the Bronze Age of Comics to begin. But the change was gradual, with no real inciting incident that made everything change. It was more like a slow boil as things progressed. Little changes over time.

One of the bigger changes for Batman would have been the legendary duo of Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino (who were largely responsible for Batman's distinctively camp 60's look) being replaced by writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams in 1969. The two were directly responsible for Batman’s new look and tone… but were still ultimately hampered by the restrictions of the Comics Code. Not too much violence, no drugs, no horror, among other rules that would leave many modern comics unpublishable.

But by the time 1970 rolled around, comic audiences were ready for comics to take that extra step into more mature storytelling. It was around this point that Jack Kirby decided to part ways with Stan Lee, after helping him push the envelope a bit at Marvel, and head over to DC to work on the New Gods, which was an idea he'd originally planned for the Thor comics before creative differences with Stan came about. As Kirby began work at DC, the company was experiencing a shakeup. Veteran creators were getting promotions as a tightly-knit community of new writers and artists came along, including O’Neil and Adams. With new talent ready and raring to make their mark on the comic industry, it wouldn't take much for a paradigm shift to change what would and wouldn't be allowed in comics.

And wouldn't you know it, it came about because of Stan Lee.

He had been approached in 1971 by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to do an anti-drug comics. And Stan was delighted.

There was only one snag. The Comics Code forbade drug use.

Stan published the story anyway, and a three-part Spider-Man story "Green Goblin Reborn!" about Harry Osborn's descent into drugs and madness went on to critical acclaim.

Winners don't use, kids.
So the Code was revised, allowing for drug use to be depicted only as long as it was made explicitly clear that drugs were bad. 

And Green Arrow's sidekick became a junkie literally within weeks.
While they were at it, they decided to loosen some of the restrictions on horror elements, allowing for a new wave of horror comics to be released. The looser restrictions allowed greater creative freedom as the Batman comics continued, with writer Steve Englehart and penciler Marshall Rogers working on an acclaimed Batman run in Detective Comics.

But even though Batman's return to dark, urban crime drama in the 1970s was appreciated, well-regarded, and fondly remembered, Batman continued to sell fewer and fewer issues throughout the seventies, just as had been happening before the 60s show boosted his popularity.

As Batman’s popularity continued to decline through the 1970s, CBS got it in their heads to make a TV movie featuring Batman in space. You might have noticed that I did not cover this film on my blog. Well, that’s because it doesn’t exist.

So the Batman film rights were up for grabs. And on October 3rd, 1979, Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker purchased said film rights. And why wouldn't they? Just the previous year, Superman: The Movie had proven that audiences were willing to believe a man could fly.

A spaceman in a bright blue circus outfit was given a respectful film treatment that treated the character with dignity. And people bought it.

Uslan was very much interested in returning the character to his roots as a dark vigilante detective, which would certainly be easier to adapt into a "serious" film than...

Well, this.
The biggest obstacle, however, was Adam West.

No, he didn't actually do anything personally to interfere with the film's production. But West's tenure as the Caped Crusader had left an impression on popular culture... for better and for worse. As much as people enjoyed the old show at the time, there was a reason it ended up canceled. Quality declined and people were sick of it. Or to put it another way....

Some days, you just can't get rid of a bomb.
Uslan had a hard time approaching directors, writers, and studios with the project because as soon as he said "Batman," people immediately thought of the campy 60s show.

But Uslan quickly worked on remedying this problem by whipping up a quick screenplay called "Return of the Batman," which apparently had some uncanny similarities to "The Dark Knight Returns," apart from just the name, despite predating the famous Frank Miller story by about six years.

In November of 1979, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber joined Uslan's team, having seen the potential of creating a Batman film in the same vein as Superman: The Movie. (And believe you me, there are stories to tell down the road regarding Jon Peters and Superman.)

After Universal joined the ever-increasing number of film studios turning down the project, Uslan's team decided on a rather interesting tactic. They arrived at the 1980 Comic Art Convention and said, "Hey, everybody! We've got the film rights to Batman and a budget of $15 million. You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let's get nuts!" The tactic was successful, and Warner Brothers came along to get the project started.

The first actual script treatment (Uslan's was really just a proof-of-concept) was finished by Tom Mankiewicz in 1983. It was simply called "The Batman" and was based on the miniseries Batman: Strange Apparitions. It outlined the origins of both Batman and Robin, featuring the Joker and gangster Rupert Thorne as the main villains, with Bruce Wayne's love interest Silver St. Cloud working as Rupert Thorne's aid.

Production started in earnest that very year... but the actors cast as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth (William Holden and David Niven, respectively) died in 1981 and 1983, respectively, things started to go a little off the rails, especially since the directors being lined up were being decidedly unfaithful to the idea of a more serious Batman film.

Joe Dante and Ivan Reitman, though talented directors... well... let me put it this way.

Gremlins. Ghostbusters.

Fine movies, but they were both a bit goofier than the film Warner Bros. envisioned.

To be fair, I'm sure that both of them would have been able to deliver fine movies in their own right. But Ivan Reitman wanted to cast Bill Murray as Bruce Wayne and Eddie Murphy as Robin. Which… you know, I wouldn’t mind visiting the alternate reality where that film got made.

Part of the problem was that there were still a few lingering campy elements in Mankiewicz's script, no matter how many rewrites it got. These were eliminated by Tim Burton, who joined the project as director after the success of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.

Burton was never a comic book fan, but he had always liked the idea of duality, and was very impressed by 1985's "The Dark Knight Returns" and 1986's "The Killing Joke."

‘Nuff said, really.
In fact, both of those were huge successes, helping to skyrocket Batman’s popularity after the lackluster 1970s, but I’ll talk about those more when I go over Batman Returns.

After comic writer Steve Englehart was brought in to futz with the Mankiewicz script some more, Burton brought in comic fan Sam Hamm to write the screenplay. After altering the plot and removing the abundance of characters (turning Rupert Thorne into Carl Grissom, Silver St. Cloud into Vicki Vale, and reducing Dick Grayson to a cameo), they arrived at a script that everybody involved liked. Hamm was pleased with his work, Burton adored the story, and Warner Bros. was happy with the result.

But even so, they were hesitant to move forward with the project at this point, despite even Batman creator Bob Kane wholeheartedly approving the script.

Bootleg copies of the script were passed around at various fan conventions until the green light was finally given following the success of Burton's 1998 film Beetlejuice.

When it came to casting, they figured that if the process ain't broke, you don't fix it. So they headed out in search of big name stars to stick in their superhero movie.

Potential Batmans included names like Tom Selleck, Dennis Quaid, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, and Pierce Brosnan. Potential Jokers included Willem Dafoe, Tim Curry, James Woods, David Bowie, and John Lithgow. Burton's choice of Joker was Brad Dourif, but the choice was vetoed by Warner Bros.

"You may remember me as Chucky from the Child's Play series, Grima Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings, and that recurring presence in your nightmares."
I'll get to the choice of Batman when I recap the film, but Jack Nicholson got the role for the simple fact that he's Jack Nicholson. He was the studio's and Bob Kane's choice for the role since 1980, but that's not to say he was an easy catch. In fact, when it became clear that Nicholson was playing hard-to-get, Warner Bros. started talks with Robin Williams, who had been lobbying hard for the role.

But Williams discovered that Warner Bros. didn't actually want him in the role and was just using him to make it look like they were looking at options apart from Nicholson. He was not happy when he found out, to the point where he turned down the role of the Riddler in Batman Forever.

In the end, Jack Nicholson took the role and managed to get a sweet deal out of it. His scenes were made the top priority so he could be done within 106 days (originally three weeks, before shooting lapses), his contract specified the number of hours he got to not work every day, he got time off for Lakers home games, approval of the makeup designer, six million dollars, not a percent of the film's profits that eventually translated into about 90 million dollars, setting actor salary records.

Shooting was rife with problems, to say the least.

Carl Grissom's performer, veteran actor Jack Palance, had words with the relatively-inexperienced Tim Burton, reels of film were stolen, the production budget ballooned from $30 million to $48 million, the script needed rewrites during a writers' strike, and Jack Nicholson asked why his character was taking Vicki Vale up a cathedral. Tim Burton had no answer, since they had to shoot as the script was being written.

But the duo of Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman ended up coming up with yet another box-office smash after Pee Wee and Beetlejuice. Not only that, it spawned a minor pop-culture phenomenon dubbed "Batmania." Lunch boxes, Halloween costume, posters, parodies, Batman was everywhere. Not since Adam West's heyday had Batman been this popular.

Since the character of Batman was, for all intents and purpose, meant for kids, the dark tone and violence of the finished product was criticized, but it still met critical acclaim when it opened on June 23rd, 1989. It made $43.6 million domestically its opening weekend, with a grand total of $411.35 million worldwide when all was said and done, to say nothing of what it went on to make on VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray... No matter what medium its released on, it's a pretty big deal.

In a year seeing the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Back to the Future Part II, The Little Mermaid, and Ghostbusters II, Batman still managed to be the top-grossing film in North America. On top of that, it won the Oscar for Best Art Direction/Set Direction, making it the first and only Batman film to win an Oscar until 2008’s The Dark Knight.

Of course, there's a very important question that you can't answer with box office trivia.

In a world where the Batman films have been rebooted twice since 1989, with each version darker than the previous one in some way... where does Batman stand?

Is it a since-surpassed relic? Is it an unsurpassed masterpiece? Is it a flawed, but ultimately solid entry in Batman's film canon?

Well, there's no way to see but to recap.

Coming up in Part 1! Urban decay, urban crime drama, and urban legends!

No comments:

Post a Comment