13 July 2012



proudly presents


Batman (1989)

"I'm Batman" | At this point in Batman's career, two movies are in a continuous battle amongst fans as to which is the better: The Dark Knight (2008), Christopher Nolan's story that shattered box office expectations and proved to studios and audiences alike that superhero movies can be taken seriously, too, or Batman (1989), Tim Burton's take on the Caped Crusader which is applauded for its adherence to a dark tone and Jack Nicholson's portrayal of The Joker. Hate to say it, but as a Batman fan, I've never really been too fond of Burton's original, and so it was with not a large amount of enthusiasm that I gave this flick another chance.

Perhaps abstinence made the heart grow fonder, but Batman was far a more interesting movie this time around, and a bit more enjoyable. I still have a few issues, which I'll get to presently, but for now I'll yabber in generalities.

Batman successfully captured the dark knight aspect of the legend, becoming a tale whispered by criminals in dimly lit street alleys or some unbelievable, mythic beast the Gotham Police Department simply shrug off as nonsense. So establishing Batman as something more than just a man, the screenwriters got it right, and Burton visually conveyed that beautifully (although I could do without so much blatant posing shots; really takes me out of the narrative) with him lurking in the shadows or hidden by mist. He's something elusive, and striking when he finally emerges from the darkness. So when criminals and the police finally see the Batman in all his black and yellow glory, their respective exclamations of "Oh my God!" have quite the ground.

They've also captured the detective aspect of Bruce Wayne, if only marginally, and (sorta) obsessive side (although I would call it more a inability to trust) as we see his video camera setup at his mansion. Only amount of detective work that goes on is Bruce in front of his computer looking at video files and old digitized computer clippings. Thankfully there's Batman: The Animated Series to remind me how the whole detective part of his character should be done. On a quasi-related topic, by films end Batman becomes, basically, an accomplice with the GPD, but never once is Batman considered anything more than a vigilante that needs to be caught at all costs - his sudden turn into the city's hero is far too...awkward.

We get to see many of Batman's really expensive and awesome gadgets and 'toys' to the point that the three year old in me still really, really, really wants to run at the nearest Toys 'R Us and pick me up some of his nifty thingymajiggies! But the most impressive weapon in Batman's arsenal is, I dare say, the Batmobile. If we're judging purely from an adaptation standpoint, the Batmobile is, perhaps, the most faithful from book to screen element in the whole movie [instead of going realistically, which the Tumbler fulfills quite neatly in the Nolanverse]. It's gorgeous to look at, slick, boasts one hell of an armor-y protective device, and has automatic pilot. So that's pretty damn nifty, but even moreso, the Batwing. My God, I don't think there's been a action figure I've wanted more lately [note: nah, I really wanted one of the Leviathan's from this year's Avengers movie]. With the Batwing's introduction in the Third Act to its firey end on the steps of the church, it's a beauty.

For a movie clocking in just a little over two hours, Batman moves along at a fast pace. The hero of the shadows is introduced within the opening minutes (after a magnificent credits sequence showcasing the emblem - score one for establishing fantastic atmosphere), Jack Napier soon after, and the plot gets rolling around the half hour mark. Just enough time to establish the primary characters and, perhaps the most important character of them all, Gotham City. Dark atmosphere, gorgeous, gothic landscape, the reclusive billionaire, a mysterious man-bat lurking in the shadows, crime bosses fried and lackies taking over - this world of Batman is fantastically realized, and major props to Tim Burton for having the vision to bring it all to life. It nearly makes me forgive his latest cinematic travesties (excluding Dark Shadows, me likie that).

Batman redefined the character for a whole generation, and for that I'm thankful (before the same franchise knocked it back down into Death's Door), and it's a very well done movie. There's just things that simply don't work for me, and, I guess, there's just not enough. More thoughts below...

Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman | Keaton's got Bruce Wayne and Batman down, ladies and gents. Now it's just a pity the script doesn't give him anything substantial to show his ability. As Bruce, Keaton channels the playboy persona effortlessly (although I could argue with myself over the little creaks in Bruce's armor, where that devil-may-care playboy vibe gives way to the tormented, obsessed individual underneath the facade), and gets his broody sulkiness on as a distressed Batman. When he dons the cape and cowl, Keaton is Batman. Sure, I'd like his costume to have real functionality and purpose like the Nolan movies gave it, but seeing as how this is nothing more than an adaptation, it looks fantastic, and Keaton really grabs the physicality of the character. The menace. The symbol. The dark.

Again, if only the script was superior, this would probably be Keaton's crowning achievement in his career. Fantastic work.

Jack Nicholson as Jack Napier/The Joker | Frankly, Jack Nicholson is Jack Nicholson. I don't see The Joker in his performance, and I never have. Or perhaps it's a consequence of Nicholson playing so many mentally off-their-knockers characters, that by this point I assume Nicholson is just a ego-maniacal looney. Either way, The Joker we see here has never impressed me, not as a portrayal, nor as a character, sorry to say.

Concerning the depiction of the Joker in this film, from a physical standpoint, I don't get it. Now, there's a very good chance this originates from the comics and it flew over my head, but I have nothing but venom for the way the Joker's smile is kind of etched into his skin, where it's a permanent smile. It's not creepy, not disconcerting, it's just ugly and cartoonish for a movie that is trying to be serious. This Joker isn't a representation of anything, there's no real purpose to him or driving factor - he really quite is some white faced gangster maniac who's tired of taking peoples bullshit and decides, for some unexplained reason, to go clown-y. Mentally, Napier is off his rocker, sure, so that accounts for his deranged psychology and iconic laugh, but externally, the reasoning behind the persona isn't explained - it's the comic trope of, 'he's just the bad guy named [this] just, y'know, because...'

Overall, obviously, Nicholson doesn't do it for me, and now having seen Ledger's work as the character, this is laughable as a result. But I appreciate that Burton and Nicholson grounded the Joker in the cinematic sense of reality, and that somehow, someway, his Joker has a profound effect on folks when they saw it for the first time. To me, I just don't...really see the Joker onscreen. I saw Jack Nicholson with face paint.

The Vicki Vale Effect | Bruce Wayne decides to let her in the 'know' and the Joker becomes fixated with her. But why her? I blame it largely on the script and not on the talent of Kim Basinger, but there's nothing attractive about Vicki. Hell, it certainly didn't seem like Wayne had much of a interest in her during their odd, awkward date at the mansion, and then Alfred decides that it's her, Vicki, the Woman Above All Others, that Wayne needs and lets in on the secret - just kind of absurd. The Joker's fascination with the woman can be explained away by his complete neuroses, but I just can't wrap by head around Wayne and Vale. There's nothing there, at least nothing the script offers. As a standalone character, independent of the men in her life, Vale actually is a strong, driven individual who, it seems, will do literally anything for the scoop (even though I'm pretty sure she didn't write one bloody article during the whole lifespan of the movie). So good character, just rubbishly used.

Gotham City | I just want to say, it was completely fantastic to see miniatures again! Last time I saw a miniature city that looked proper was, I'll say, 1998's GODZILLA, although I know ILM delved into some miniature work with the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, but that series is so over-laced with CG it's impossible to tell what was at one time real. Using outstanding miniature work, the visual effects crew and Burton collaborate to make a unique Gotham City, one that has a New York vibe but is entirely its own creature, from the type of people who walk the street, to the gothic, greek statues that overlook the streets and buildings - there's a culture there that's very Burton and very Gotham. Now, what Gotham becomes in the later films isn't all that flattering, but the sort of decaying, lumbering city that the Batman '89 crew realized is gorgeous. From an obnoxious nerdy standpoint, it's a tad frustrating that by building a city from the ground up, it forces space limitations to the type of visuals we get [shots tend to be more contained instead of vast and scope-y], but it's worth overlooking considering what's done right here.

The Score | Danny Elfman rarely impresses me, but task him with a superhero score, and he gives you something extraordinary and iconic. With Batman, Elfman delivers a theme to the dark knight that I will forever associate with the character. It's dark and brooding, but at the same time, heroic and full of action: absolutely exhilarating. Elfman's theme for Batman absolutely deserves to be up their with the classics, such as John Williams' themes for Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones and Jaws, or John Carpenter's Halloween, or Monty Norman's James Bond theme, etc. Basically, great, great score, and one of the very, very few times I'm actually happy to say the name "Danny Elfman."

I am not, however, a fan of Prince. And I am not a fan of Prince in Batman. Facepalm.

Notes, Quotes and Discussion |
  • Batman: "It's not exactly a "normal" world, is it?" This Gotham City as envisioned by Tim Burton is anything but normal, making Bruce Wayne's journey into Batman seeming much less crazy when compared to the environment he lives in. Perhaps that's what was intended with the character all along, constructing an environment from the ground up that it was only a natural consequence that something like the Batman would rise from the decay and corruption.
  • Harvey Dent: "We've received a letter from Batman this morning. 'Please inform the citizens of Gotham that Gotham City has earned a rest from crime. But if the forces of evil should rise again, to cast a shadow on the heart of the city, call me'" Personally, this feels kind of out of character with everything set up prior to this. Before, Batman preferred to work in the shadows, do his own thing, strike fear into the hearts of Gotham's big bads, and wasn't exactly on the best of terms with the police department. Now, Batman entrusts them with this rather expensive piece of equipment to say, 'Look, I'm on your side, so give me a ring when trouble gets to be too much for you to handle, k?' Nah, doesn't work. 
  • The Joker: "This town needs an enema." How true, Joker, how true. Quite possibly your best line yet, because of how relevant it is to Gotham City and Batman's quest.
  • Batman kills people. This could harken back to the old, old days of comics when Batman always wore a gun or dispatched criminals not by a moral code, but by any means necessary (1939-1942). If that's what Burton and team were going for, then sure, this jives with character. But it's odd to see the Batmobile, with Batman driving, go into a giant factory where there's most likely loads of people still working and then blow it to kingdom come. At the very least, we know he blew up about six of the Joker's goons. And then it could be argued that Batman very consciously 'killed' the Joker by creating the means of his death. If we find Batman guilty of this, then Batman has been fueled by revenge, not a sense of justice or obsession to ensure that no kid on the streets of Gotham will lose their parents like he did. This goes back to my general feeling of, they captured the mood and style of Batman quite well, but lacked the essence of the character.
  • Jack Napier is responsible for the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. I understand the rich dramatic tension it adds to the Batman/Joker scenes in the cathedral, and that origins are reworked constantly in both mediums, but this hits me wrong. There's something so...simple and in a weird way beautiful that their deaths were at the hand of a normal Gothamite. The connection now, just feels dishonest and clumsy. Anyone have different thoughts?
The Final Word | Having just revisited it, I surprisingly quite like Burton's Batman and even enjoyed parts ot it. That said, it's not a movie I fancy taking a look at frequently. For me, it doesn't grab me as either Batman Begins or The Dark Knight do - it doesn't have a narrative that engages the audience member, or the complexity of character, or hell, even the fun that Batman Forever offers - and that's fine, because this is it's own animal, and I respect that. So I'll summarize it down to this: Batman is the right type of movie for some people, but it ain't my type of Batman movie. It's good, but it ain't great. RATING: 7/10

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Demion Maia said...

I feel like Burton gets a pass because he's such a skilled technician that his movies can stink, but still be very watchable. Even the recent dreck is beautifully designed and executed. That said, its movies like this one that make miss his younger, wilder years.

Dominic Preston said...

I've never been a huge fan of Burton's Batman either, I must admit, and especially share your sentiments about Nicholson's Joker - I never, ever, understood all the praise he got for that role. This post has made me intrigued to go back and watch the film again though.