Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (1989)

3. Batman

The internet didn’t exist back in 1989. If fan boys, aficionados, or nerds wanted to bitch about how a studio was mishandling one of their beloved comic book properties, the only places they could take their grievances were conventions, fanzines, and the letters column of Starlog magazine. Warner Bros. had been trying to get a big budget Batman movie made all throughout the eighties. The 1960s Adam West-starring series was still the version of Batman most of the public was familiar with. Fan boys were concerned they’d get a campy, comedic film, instead of one worthy of the Dark Knight. With Tim Burton, whose last two films had been comedies, set to direct and Michael Keaton, most famous for “Mr. Mom,” set to star, a comedy is what fans feared. All those concerns were put to bed when the dark, brooding trailer first premiered. Nerd outrage, however, is a cycle. In a post-Christopher Nolan world, the Tim Burton “Batman” films are now considered campy and are frequently dismissed. Are these criticisms fair?

In the urban metropolis hellhole of Gotham City, a new urban legend has emerged among criminals on the street. Supposedly, a giant bat is picking off thugs. Mob enforcer Jack Napier doesn’t believe in this “Batman” and neither does Alex Knox’s newspaper colleges. Napier’s mind changes when he confronts Batman at a chemical factory, gets dump in a vat, and emerges with belched skin and a twisted, rictus grin. Batman is, of course, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, a local eccentric that has caught the attention of Knox and his photographer Vicki Vale. Napier, reborn as the Joker, cuts a path of chaos through Gotham’s crime families, wrecking havoc on the city. It’s only a matter of time before the Batman and Joker are facing each other down.

1989’s “Batman” is, if nothing else, a triumph of art design and visual effects. This is clear from its opening minutes. We see the city of Gotham in a long shot. Its pitch black skyscrapers reach towards the heavens, silhouetted against the night. The buildings are crowded together, ugly and industrial, immediately recalling Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Despite being ostensibly set in the present day, the fashion of “Batman” is right out of the 1940s. The first scene, a nice family being accosted by greasy muggers, similarly recalls comic’s golden age. Batman is first seen from above, watching over a ledge at the crime in action. His shadow is cast long against the floor, his demonic, pointed ears seen most clearly. He descends on the criminals in the background, the alleyway clogged with fog, his wing-like cape spread wide. Dangling the hood over a ledge, Michael Keaton delivers the iconic line, “I’m Batman,” with the right mixture of conviction and subtle humor. As far as openings go, “Batman” has got as impressive a one to ever appear in the superhero genre.

Burton’s Expressionistic influence and gothic style are most obvious in the film’s gorgeous sets. The primary color of Gotham City is rusted black, the entire city looking as bleak as possible. The churches, homes, and mansions of Gotham are frequently decorated with kneeling, ghoul-faced gargoyles. It’s rare a building ends in a flat roof. Most arch up into pointed spires. The Axis chemical plant is a lovely miniature, all jagged edges and ungainly architecture. A room in Wayne Manor, decorated with exaggerated tribal armors, has a black and white, checkered floor. The Batcave is extremely dark, the Batmobile perched on a circular ledge in the middle of a pit. The towering, dilapidated chapel that the climax is set in is a masterpiece of art design. Its crackling, spiral staircase leads up to a massive bell. The ledges are outfitted with ghastly gargoyles, their horns and wings hiding cackling faces.

Visually, “Batman” is beautiful. Without calling too much attention to it, Burton reminds viewers of the story’s comic book origins. The shots are frequently framed as if they are comic panels, wide, flat, and colorful. His cameras know when to pause, focusing on a lovely, memorable moment. Batman stands against the red, neon sign of the chemical plant. Jack Palance’s crime boss sits at his desk, two weeping statues outside his window. We look down at the Joker in a room where the floor is covered with cutout photographs. The Joker’s formal girlfriend, now disfigured and wearing a mask out of “Eyes Without a Face," stands behind him. Products on an archaic conveyor belt, once again recalling Lang’s “Metropolis,” are carted out, the Joker standing among the smoke in the background. During the climax, the villain and Vicki Vale dance, the mobster’s purple coat and hat perched on a gargoyle to the left. Perhaps the film’s most infamous visual moment comes near the end. The Batwing swoops over the rooftops of Gotham, pass the clouds. For a brief section, the plane is perfectly stationed behind the moon, Batman’s symbol recreated. Only three films into his career and Burton was already a master of visuals, creating lovely art on-screen.

Another great element of "Batman" recalls films of the past. Danny Elfman’s score is now forever linked with the character. Its slow build-up creates an ominous mood, leading a thunderous overture that seems to yell the character’s name. The music continues to build, crashing and drumming in an exciting manner. Before the music ends, it returns to the dark, ominous tone that started it all. Just as John Williams’ perfect “Superman” score summed up everything the character means in sound, Elfman’s music does the same for Batman. Burton and his team were obviously aware of the score’s power. The opening credits, the camera slowly creeping around a giant version of the Batman logo, are as much a display for the music as an introduction to the movie. It’s up to debate if it’s Elfman’s best work but it’s certainly one of his most important works. The music is also, something you might not be aware of, ripped-off from 1941’s “The Wolf Man.” This is appropriate since “Batman’s” dark visuals and darker themes obviously owe a debt to classic monster movies. Prince’s campy, inappropriate songs, meanwhile, are exactly as out of place as you’d think. The less said about them the better.

The movie also successfully translates the looks of its characters to the big screen. The Batsuit is stiff and rubbery. Whenever Batman is called on to fight hand-to-hand, it’s never believable. Keaton and his stuntmen obviously have difficulty moving inside the suit. The idea that he could successfully fight off somebody with karate chops and roundhouse kicks is ridiculous. These things barely matter because it looks like Batman. The black rubber is dynamic but textile, realistic but still comic book. You could mock the molded muscles or unmoving neck. Yet they create such a strong profile, one that is undeniably Batman. I especially love how the cape works, rolling down Keaton’s shoulders, adding to his silhouette. The movie also has my favorite Batmobile. It’s the mixture of a sports car, a tank, and a stealth jet, perfectly invoking a bat without overdoing it. The armor folding over it is as cool now as it was when I was five years old. The Joker also looks like he stepped right off the page. The purple coat and hat look great while the white skin and green hair match Jack’s features well. Making his Joker grin permanent is a break from canon but a successful one. It makes the make-up far more eerie and uncanny then just having Nicholson smile all the time would have.

“Batman” sure looks awesome. But is it a good movie? Story wise, it’s a muddled affair. The film actually has a great first act and a solid final lap. The film introduces the legend of the Batman successfully by focusing on the criminals and the newspaper men taken in by the tale. We mostly follow Vale, Knox, Jack and his associates of dirty cops and crime bosses. Even after Jack becomes the Joker, the scenes of him offing the rival crime families have a smooth, understandable structure to them. Leaving Bruce Wayne to be introduced last is an odd choice but the movie’s not really about Wayne. Later Batman films that would focus on Wayne’s inner life and double identity. Burton’s “Batman” is more about the rivalry between the titular character and his archenemy. Leaving Batman’s motivation a mystery for as long as possible while focusing on his villain’s origin is actually a fairly clever construction. It pulls the audience in but keeps us wondering.

The final act is also fine-tuned. Joker declares his rivalry with Batman, deciding on a time and place for the showdown. The parade through Gotham city works brilliantly, the Joker throwing money to the populace, Prince’s cheesy music blaring on the soundtrack. Nicholson’s performance reaches its peek during his monologue to the people of the city. The Batwing swings down and grabs the balloon, an exciting sequence that plays out well. The battle is taken inside the giant church, Batman climbing rickety steps and fighting off henchmen. The final confrontation is immensely satisfying. Joker uses his crazy guile to get the upper hand on his enemy, like always, but Batman’s quick thinking and skills wins the day.

The beginning and the end are fine. The middle section of “Batman” is where it becomes obvious that this was a writer’s strike movie. The scene where Joker and his gang, dressed as mimes, attack a rival family in front of city hall is the turning point. After that, “Batman” pursues different plot lines without any of them ever connecting. Joker poisons the city’s supply of hygiene and beauty products. This is focused on until it isn’t, disappearing after a few scenes. Next, the Joker becomes infatuated with Vicki Vale. In an otherwise entertaining sequence, he kills a museum full of people just to kidnap her. Batman rescues her, leading to a satisfying fight scene. After such a terrifying night, Vale never thinks to move out of her apartment, where the Joker finds her again a few days later. This awkward scene is in the movie only so the Joker and Bruce Wayne can get some face time together. Otherwise, it has no purpose. Their rivalry now established, Batman takes the fight to the Joker, blowing up his chemical factory for reasons that aren’t well defined. The film’s structure is scrambled enough that it eventually affects the pacing. At an already long 127 minutes, “Batman” feels about ten minutes longer then that.

There’s the issue of Vicki Vale as well. This is not a new problem. Batman’s non-supervillain love interests tend to be highly uninteresting. Vale stumbles into Bruce Wayne and the two seem interested in each other for no visible reason. How she worms her way into Batman’s life is especially sloppy, Alfred actually letting a citizen into the Batcave is something that never should have happened. The Joker’s infatuation with Vale is even more inexplicable. The film really nails home that the Joker considers himself an artist and his interest in Vale comes from her photography. Yeah, I’m not convinced. Kim Basinger is a pretty face in the part and not much else, never getting a bead on the thinly written character.

There’s also the question of whether the film is true to its roots. 1989’s “Batman” comes from a different era of action movies, when Arnold and Sly were still kings and heroes fucking killed a lot of fucking bad guys. In the comics, Batman is well known for his “no kill” and “no guns” taboo. Yeah, Burton’s “Batman” doesn’t do that. The Batmobile and the Batwing are both armed with machine guns. In at least one scene, Batman murders a bunch of baddies with said guns. He has no problem taking out Joker’s henchmen with fatal force. When confronting the Joker at the end, he flat-out tells him he’s going to kill him. And proceeds to, brutally and fore planned. I’m willing to accept this film as the “eighties action hero” version of Batman so this doesn’t bother me much. (And it’s not like Batman has never killed in the comics before.) More problematic is making Jack Napier the murderer of the Waynes. Tying the hero and the villain’s origins in tightly is a pet peeve of mine. I suppose this film is responsible for that becoming a common troupe. Part of the point is that Batman never gets revenge on his parents' murderer, powering his never ending quest. Letting Batman settle the score disappoints me.

The direction, sets, art design, and the music are great. The script and pacing are uneven. What about the performances? Jack Nicholson clearly owns the film. He balances between his usual mannerisms and a more comic-accurate version of the Joker. This Joker is a brutal mass murderer that is also cracking sick jokes to himself, laughing uproariously at the chaos. Occasionally, his jokes are funny to the viewer as well. He’s also obsessed with Batman, recognizing the two as born archenemies. That sounds like the Joker I’ve always read about in the comics, even if it’s filtered through Nicholson’s established on-screen persona. Michael Keaton was a controversial choice for Batman that mostly won people over. He’s better as a handsome playboy, having chemistry with Basinger even if she has no chemistry with him. His few attempts to get “nuts” are awkward at best. While in the Batsuit, Keaton is intimidating and stylish, not a perfect Batman but good enough for me. The film also packs its supporting cast with prime players. Michael Gough is perfectly cast as Alfred, the iconic Alfred in my opinion. I also like Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent and wish he was given more to do.

You can’t call “Batman” a smooth film. However, the elements that are successful work very well, not quite but nearly overwhelming the negative qualities. Warner Brother’s blanketed the world with advertising for the film in 1989. The Bat Symbol was inescapable. This made the film a massive hit, one of the biggest of its day, and widely set the standard for our current superhero blockbuster genre. Other Batman films have come, others that are arguably better. Yet Burton’s “Batman” is iconic in its own way and certainly nothing to sneeze at. [Grade: B]

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