Sunday, November 27, 2016

Review: Batman (1989)

Many people think that a Batman movie can either be dark or campy, with no middle ground.

Batman and Robin or The Dark Knight.

Batman: The Movie or Batman v Superman.

But I think Batman shows that it is possible to be both dark and campy. And personally, I’ve always felt that superhero adaptations usually should at least address the fact that their concepts are often goofy.

Just have fun with it is all I’m saying.

Before I go over my usual areas, I feel as though I should talk about two specific things.

Batman the Killer
Batman does not kill. That's sort of his thing.

Many Batman adaptations feature some kind of scene where Batman has to tell somebody "If you kill the bad guys, then you're just as bad as they are." Batman holds himself to a higher standard than just somebody who goes around shooting purse snatchers, and many superhero stories have gone out of their way to show that people who run around shooting criminals aren’t exactly the best role models.

Whether they use a gun or a bow.
But I think it goes deeper than that.

Certainly, the comic version of the Joker has racked up enough of a body count for Batman to justify killing him and only him. After all, the Joker's the worst of the worst. But with the Joker dead, somebody else then becomes the worst of the worst. How long until Batman justifies killing them?

What would Thomas and Martha Wayne think of their son?

How can Batman claim to support the police's mission of subduing criminals and bringing them to justice if he simply kills them without trial?

Would Superman still be his super friend?

And so on and so forth.

Really, it's a bunch of little things that add up to one big whole across multiple media: Batman doesn't kill.
But in this movie, he does. Never as an outright goal, but either in self-defense or as collateral damage. Because although it goes unsaid in the film itself, this is one of the craziest versions of Bruce Wayne outside of a Frank Miller story.

People in Gotham think of him as an eccentric billionaire, but the simple truth is that he can't pretend to be a vapid playboy because he has trouble acting like a human being. Every night he spends as Batman is one more night he spends as a vicious creation of his own psyche, drifting further and further from his basic humanity.

Alfred can't do anything to help him, as seen in the movie, because at the end of the day, Alfred is an employee. Which is why Alfred took Vicki into the Batcave; he wanted her to discover the truth so that Bruce could finally be himself around her, and in the process, figure out who he really is apart from Batman.

It's why Robin exists in the comics. Batman needs somebody with a different, more optimistic perspective to keep him from losing himself in his crusade. (I’ll get into Robin’s film absence in detail when I go over Batman Forever.)

Here, we have a Batman who's already begun the process of stumbling off the deep end, which will only get worse by the time the next movie rolls around. And, oddly enough, Batman Forever will end up bringing closure to this subplot in a surprisingly satisfactory way.

So in the end, I find this one of the more interesting Batman movies because of the way it handles showing a Batman who’s on the brink, with only Alfred and Vicki as Bruce’s only reason to not be Batman 24/7. He never even does anything with his company.

Tim Burton
Tim Burton is not a comic book fan. And big-name comic book fan Kevin Smith once joked that that explains Batman.

Burton takes many liberties with the source material, but there’s very little in this film that you can’t tie back to the source material in some way. And the film has made such an impact on the Batman comics to follow, that it appears to be more accurate to the comics in hindsight compared to when it first came out.
In recent years, Burton’s charm seems to have run out of batteries, whether it be the mixed response to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the disappointing Alice in Wonderland. But in his prime, Burton helped create surreal, dark, fanciful worlds that were equal parts dreamlike and realistic.

I think one of the reasons that Batman is usually exempt from hate from Tim Burton’s detractors is that this movie, ultimately, was reigned in. After all, Warner Bros. wasn’t going to let him do whatever the heck he wanted with no oversight with a property like Batman… until this film was a success, at any rate, but that’s a discussion for the sequel.

I feel that Batman’s tone succeeds because it plays on one of the central themes of the film: duality.

The 40s and the 80s. Campy and gritty. Batman and Bruce Wayne.

The movie is all about finding the balance between polar opposites, and the blend of Burtonesque imagery and the real world creates a world that succeeds in the same way as Superman: The Movie.

Richard Donner said that Superman: The Movie wasn’t about putting Superman in the real world, it was about bringing Superman’s comic book world to life. That’s what Tim Burton brings us in the end: an equally campy and dark comic book world brought to life.

That’s not to say Tim Burton is proud of this film. Not only does he dislike the Prince soundtrack that Jon Peters crammed in, he’s still bitter over the changes to the script, which comes across on the commentary as he complains that he doesn’t understand why the executives demanded changes to the script after deciding they liked it.

Tim Burton: "I liked parts of it, but the whole movie is mainly boring to me. It's OK, but it was more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie."

Most of what he sees is compromise and things he could have done better. In fact, it was his dissatisfaction with Warner Bros.’ meddling (including changing the entire climax) that led to him getting more free reign in the sequel. But I’ll talk about that film another time.

The Joker is just as open to interpretation as Batman. This film chooses to draw on his earliest appearances by making him into a gangster at heart who doesn’t just want to watch the world burn, he wants to own it first.

I see the film’s plot as an allegory for the Batman comics. They started off with an urban legend vigilante taking on muggers and gangsters… until the Joker came along, changing things forever.

As the movie goes on, it gets more and more campy and ridiculous, but so gradually that you don’t even notice it. Heck, as soon as Jack returns as the Joker, the swears get toned down, just like how the comics were toned down from their brutal beginnings into more child-friendly escapades.

The plot is the Joker’s; Bruce Wayne’s love story is more of a subplot than anything. While an ever-increasing focus on villains would be the Achilles heel for the superhero genre, you could actually trace it back to Batman: The Movie, where much of the novelty came from seeing all the villains interact.

Here, the Joker’s prominence is definitely because Tim Burton loves himself a deformed outsider.

But the scripting remedies this Joker-focus by actually interspersing tidbits about Batman’s origin throughout the film. The scriptwriter actually outright said that “You totally destroy your credibility if you show the literal process by which Bruce Wayne becomes Batman.”

Oh, the irony.

But the story slowly unlocking the mystery works to the film’s credit, keeping the Bruce Wayne stuff interesting, when he has very little growth.

Sure, he avenges the deaths of his parents (or so he thinks, if you believe the idea that Bruce’s flashback was just a creation of his own mind), but most of what he does is on-the-job detective work. Avenging his parents only becomes a focus after we learn about the circumstances behind their deaths.

Speaking of them, the idea was to cast Adam West and Julie Newmar, symbolically representing the end of their era, but this never happened. West was never offered the role, and he went on record saying he wouldn’t have accepted. Makes sense, considering that this movie was all about assuring people that his legacy was over.

As I said, Tim Burton was most interested in the idea of duality, and it shows. Nearly everything in this film has to reconcile two sides, whether it be Batman/Bruce Wayne, Jack Napier/Joker, Vicki Vale as a reporter/Vicki Vale as a love interest, Alfred as an employee/Alfred as a concerned parent… even the city itself balances the order of the 40s stylings with the chaos of the 80s stylings.

And with each duality comes a single questions: Is either half more “true” than the other? Is Batman or Bruce Wayne the “real” personality? Is Joker Jack’s repressed theatricality in the face of Grissom’s stern order, or a mental breakdown? Can Gotham’s order prevail in the wake of its chaos?

And the answer, invariably, is that each side of every duality is part of a greater whole. Bruce Wayne isn’t simply Bruce Wayne or Batman. He’s both. For better and worse, the best and worst of both worlds coexist with each other to form a greater whole that threatens to break apart the farther each side drifts away.

Bruce Wayne/Batman (Michael Keaton)
I’ve already talked about the characters struggles with duality and humanity, so let’s discuss the performance.
There have been plenty of actors who could only either nail Bruce Wayne or Batman.

George Clooney? Bruce Wayne.

Kevin Conroy? Batman. (Not that his Bruce Wayne is bad, per se, but he doesn’t quite nail it in the same way as his iconic version of Batman.)

But Michael Keaton succeeds in genuinely tying the two personas together into a messed-up enigma.
Bruce Wayne and Batman are both masks here, and the true Bruce is the one who sits in the Batcave, pondering both Vicki Vale and the Joker, in the same way that Clark Kent is only himself when you take away both the costume and the glasses.

Michael Keaton also added a few now-iconic touches to the character too. “I’m Batman” was originally “I am the Knight,” and Keaton even decided to lower his voice as Batman to help disguise Bruce Wayne’s identity, which has since become traditional. Michael Keaton also brought a lot of ad-libs to enforce Bruce Wayne’s oddness, such as the bit where he remembers to turn on the charm during dinner, or when he just leaving things lying around when he’s done using them.

Michael Keaton: "It makes all the other stuff even weirder and darker because you're thinking, 'This guy's off.'"

Keaton is remembered as one of the oddest Bruce Waynes due to these quirks, and it helps him stand out from subsequent actors who like to portray him as greatly exaggerating self-absorbed, drunken billionaire behavior.

But while Keaton’s performance is remembered fondly by many, including myself, he was a far cry from the "muscles on top of muscles and scarred from nightly combat" described by the script. Apparently, 50,000 letters of protest were written to Warner Bros., and even Bob Kane criticized the choice at first.
But look at everyone who came after. Kilmer. Clooney. Bale. Affleck. While some are more highly-regarded than others, Keaton probably still tops most people’s lists in terms of Best Batman. Him or Kevin Conroy.

Jack Napier/Joker (Jack Nicholson)
Every actor to play the role has done their own thing, for better and worse.

Cesar Romero’s Joker was a showman; he was always performing, playing the ringleader to a circus of mayhem.

Heath Ledger’s Joker was a conman, playing the fool when he really had everything planned out in advance.

Mark Hamill’s Joker was a comedian; there was always a joke or a gag to his actions, and everything he did was subject to his own dememnted laws of humor.

Jack Nicholson’s Joker was just a creep who did things to make himself laugh.

Jack Nicholson: “The thing I like about The Joker is that his sense of humor is completely tasteless."

“What about me?”
What about you?

“…I’ll just let myself out then.”
Yeah, you do that.

Jack Nicholson has described the role as the least demanding of his career, since his Joker was pretty much defined by his spontaneity. Apparently, no two takes were quite the same.

But what led Jack Napier to lose his mind?

Was he always just a bad seed? No doubt.

He was shown to be vain before the accident. Did the loss of his looks warp his mind? Perhaps.

But Jack Napier was clearly frustrated. He was the man in a purple suit in a room full of dark coats. He spent his evenings with Grissom’s lady, while not even seeming interested in her. And his attempts to take over the operation met with little support.

Jack Napier was a ticking time bomb of frustration. And turning into a chemically-induced clown… well, that was simply the last straw.

Not exactly the best life choice in general, though.
I don’t think this Joker is “insane,” per se.

As heretical as my statement may sound.
He’s more like a sociopath who decided that he was done pretending to play within society’s rules. Everything he does is just something he wants to do. And he does it simply because he wants to.

This movie drew on the Joker’s origin in The Killing Joke, and would be the only time the Joker’s origin was shown onscreen until the animated adaptation of The Killing Joke. The name Jack Napier was taken from the old word (jack-a-napes), as well as being a reference to Alan Napier, a former Alfred.

While the exact details of Joker’s backstory are debated by fans, the general consensus is that some guy wearing a red hood fell into some chemicals and popped out as the Joker. But even some die-hard fans of the Joker’s mystery prefer to think of the story as non-canon.

It was a bold risk to definitively show an origin for the Joker, but again, Tim Burton was very much interested in telling the Joker’s story.

Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger)
Sean Young originated the role, but was cut after she broke her collarbone while filming a scene on horseback. The scene was cut, and Kim Basinger was quickly brought in, turning the redheaded Vicki into a blonde. Ironically, Vicki Vale only had red hair because of a coloring error in her first appearance. She was originally supposed to be, you guessed it, blonde.

Fun Fact: Kim Basinger was actually the third choice. Michael Keaton vetoed Michelle Pfeiffer as Vicki Vale, since he had been dating her at the time.

Heh. Irony.
Vicki is unfortunately a bit of a damsel in distress, since Sean Young’s injury led the filmmakers to get a little wary about putting their new actress in harm’s way.

But Basinger delivers a natural performance that wouldn’t be out of place in an 80s romance, or a 40s Cary Grant film, meaning that she acts as a grounding presence for the film’s tone as well as being a grounding presence for Bruce Wayne as a human being.

Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough)
Michael Gough might not be as famous and well-regarded as an actor as Michael Caine or Jeremy Irons, but he’s a veteran of numerous classic horror films, which is why Tim Burton cast him in the first place.
Of course, I will always remember him as Alfred, first and foremost.

And the Celestial Toymaker secondly.
While many versions of Alfred are comfortable snapping back at Bruce and telling him off when need be, this version prefers to let Bruce confront things himself. He won’t speechify to Bruce about how he’s going about things all wrong, but he will ask a simple question or make a simple statement that leads Bruce to see exactly what point Alfred is trying to put in his head. More of a classically wise mentor than an actual father figure.

Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams)
Harvey Dent was originally a more important character who would have actually become Two-Face in the finale. No joke, chemicals were going to bleach half his face, and they were going to do some kind of race angle with it in the sequel or something.

When this was dropped from the ending, so too was the character from the sequel.

As is, Billy Dee Williams is a fine actor, but his character could be completely cut out of the movie with little impact on anything.

Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl)
Knox is a stranger to the comics who was originally a romantic rival for Vicki’s affections. This was eliminated in later drafts, which also allowed the character to live, since the writers took a liking to him and there was no real need for him to die.

I can take him or leave him. His presence mostly gives Vicki a sounding board when she’s not around Bruce Wayne.

Bob the Goon (Tracey Walter)
Nicholson suggested bringing in Tracey Walter to play a henchman, and the result is... well, I don;t know how or why, by Bob the Goon is basically the Phil Coulson of this movie, being a nearly-nameless character who still manages to endear himself to the audience despite his small role. 

Bob the Goon. Gotta love him.

Anton Furst was responsible for the look of Gotham City, and… my God, it’s gorgeous. German expressionist cinema, 1940s art deco, and statues stuck in a blender. Equally heavy metal and sophisticated, it was quickly incorporated into the comics after the events of “No Man’s Land,” where Gotham was ravaged by an earthquake.

The film was shot on a backlot, which you don’t see anymore. This definitely adds to the movie’s timeless feel, since the backlot makes the city feel like it exists in its own little world.

The model work might look a little Thunderbirds (appropriate, since the guy in charge of them worked on that show), but it was an aesthetic choice to evoke the intricate city miniatures in the German cinema Tim Burton so dearly loves.

The Batsuit itself was black, sculpted rubber. End of story. That was the plan from the beginning.

No spandex. Fake muscles. Black rubber. No grey, no blue, black. Again, this looked so good onscreen that it was briefly incorporated into the comics… where it didn’t look quite as good, so it was phased out.
Michael Keaton was unable to hear in the suit, which also made him a bit claustrophobic, but he and Tim Burton decided to try and use that to augment his detachment from the world; like the suit was a place he could hide from the world and act anonymously. His own personal internet, if you will.

The Joker’s makeup still holds up to this day, apart from a few scenes were you can clearly see the individual sculpted rubber pieces on his face, or a few bits of his hair they missed with the green dye.

This version of the Batmobile is probably the Batmobile to many people,, possibly only surpassed in recognition by the Tumbler from The Dark Knight Saga. Unlike Adam West’s car, this was the first one to look like it was made specifically FOR Batman, rather than being a heavily modified version of something you could imagine on the road. The turbine has since become iconic enough to still be found in the comics to this day occasionally.

Danny Elfman, as a composer, is hit-and-miss, in my opinion. When it comes to effort, at least.

The Nightmare Before Christmas? Classic. (No joke, I'm listening to "Kidnap the Sandy Claws" as I type this.)

The 1990s The Flash theme? I love it, but it sounds like a rejected Batman theme.

The Spider-Man theme? Classic.

The Goosebumps theme? A random collection of whimsy and Theremin.

Seriously, Elfman, you couldn’t have given us an orchestral version of the TV theme?

But the Batman score is sweeping, whimsical, deep, and perhaps a little edgy. No wonder a rearranged version was used for Batman: The Animated Series. Heck, a few notes from it play when you level up in the Arkham games.

The Prince stuff, while the songs are perfectly good, were basically crammed in, and it can show. But I can’t help but love the Joker bringing his own pop music on a boom box as he vandalizes an art museum. I wish the song specifically written for the Joker (“Dance with the Devil”) had made it into the film. Apparently, it was cut for being “too dark.” Wrap your head around that.

But seeing as how the main villain is an eccentric man with bleached skin, I can’t help but think of the irony if Jon Peters had succeeded at bringing his first choice, Michael Jackson, onto the project.

Best Actor: Michael Keaton
No contest. The best actor to play Bruce Wayne. Period.

Best Character: Joker
In every scene, he does something unexpected and wonderful, and I love it.

Best Line
“I’m Batman.”

Yeah. I’m serious. It’s the most iconic line from the movie. So iconic that people don’t even think of it as dialogue, but Batman’s catchphrase.

Final Thoughts
The film bridges the Adam West era and the Christopher Nolan era, and contains elements of what makes both eras work, providing the best of both worlds. It's just as dark as it is campy, which stands out among modern beliefs that superheroes have to be one or the other.

It’s surreal and realistic, gritty and grandiose, filled with solid performances and good writing. It might be my favorite Batman film, which is saying something since I absolutely adore most of them.

Next time, Burton stops holding back. For better and for worse.

See you then!

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