As I explained last week, the landscape for superhero films (particularly Batman) was non-existent in the 70’s and 80’s. Well, I mean serious superhero films. Beyond Superman, the only other alternatives were dreck like Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park, or the woeful first Captain America film in 1979 . Comics were still far from mainstream, and no one in Hollywood had any inkling as to the dark, anti-hero renaisance that was occurring in the halls of DC and Marvel.
Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman changed all that.
Batman opens in the steamy depths of Gotham City. It’s dark, busy, and full of people who don’t give a shit about anyone. A hapless family with all the street smarts of a white guy in a Spike Lee movie finds themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time; they’re mugged by two low-life scum as a shadowy figure watches from above. The pair divvy up the spoils on a nearby rooftop, and swap stories about a sinister “Bat” and how it may or may not have “thrown Johnny Garve off a roof”. As if on cue, the enigmatic man-bat silently swoops down to confront the hapless nere-do-wells. Shooting him is no good it would seem, as he just gets back to his feet. After splitting one of the muggers in half with a kick, he hoists the remaining shit-scared fool over the side of the building.
“What are you?”
And we’re off.
It would appear that Batman has been mopping up lesser criminals all over town. No one believes him to be real however, save for Knox (Robert Wuhl – Good Morning Vietnam), a hack writer who is looking for his Pulitzer prize story. He’s joined by the super-hot and super-unobtainable photographer, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger – LA Confidential). Together the pair try to collar some quotes from the big wigs at the Save The City charity fundraiser, held at the elusive Bruce Wayne’s (Michael Keaton – Beetlejuice) manor house.
Wayne reveals himself as the owner of some pretty wacky wartime memorabilia (he probably keeps the Nazi-plates in a locked cupboard). After some light flirting with Vale, he gives Knox a grand, before being torn away by Alfred (Michael Gough – Sleepy Hollow). It seems Commissioner Gordon was compelled to leave rather unexpectedly.
To the Bat-Cave!
Turns out career-bastard, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), is cleaning out Axis chemicals. But his mobboss boss, Carl Grissom (Jack Palance – City Slickers), has sent him up the river without a paddle; he’s called in a favour with a crooked cop who hates Napier’s guts. Why is Grissom wanting his number 1 hitter dead and buried? Because he knows Napier is nobbing his tasty girlfriend (Jerry Hall), that’s why.
Batman glides into action, and prevents Napier from getting away and shooting the commissioner. In the ensuing brawl Napier shoots his own face, and falls into a vat of green chemicals. Clearly un-phased by Napier’s demise, Batman disappears in a haze of smoke, and the comish promises to open a file on the vigilante when he gets back to the station. But Jackie-boy ain’t dead yet.
Instead Napier clings to life and finds his way to a decrepid surgery, and is transformed into the Joker.
He quickly returns to his new master, shoots him, and assumes the mantle of mob boss of bosses. Yet he’s more concerned about the press the “Winged Freak” is getting. He resolves to show Gotham the true nature of the weird. His plan; to replace key ingredients in specific pharmaceuticals to create a poison that turns people into a twisted, grinning version of himself.
Meanwhile Vale is getting all emotional and clingy after a one-night-stand with Bruce Wayne. So much so she begins following him (only a woman could get away with this). During a press conference-turned shoot out, Wayne realises that Napier ain’t dead and his Armani suit ain’t bullet proof. The Joker also notices Vale and advises that she’s about to “trade up” in the boyfriend stakes.
Tricking her into a rendezvous at the Gotham Museum, the Joker and co. poison all the other guests, deface the art work, and dance about to a Prince song. Batman turns up once again to spoil the fun. He escapes in the Batmobile with Vale in tow. After a minor skirmish with some Joker-thugs (which Vale photographs – the pesky journo), the pair retreat to Batman’s secret base, the Bat-cave. Here he lays out the Joker’s plot, tells Vale he’s here to help, but that she “has something that he wants”.
Obviously it’s the roll of film she’d sequestered in her bra. Rendering her unconscious somehow using his cape, she awakens the next day sans film. I imagine he copped a feel while he was retrieving it, though this isn’t as bad as it sounds, as he’d already slept with her a days ago.
The word gets out that Batman is on the good-guys side, the Joker’s plot is foiled, and all is well. For now. Joker returns with a promise to dump $20 mil on the denizens of Gotham, as a way of apology. But Bruce Wayne isn’t buying this for a second; it’s revealed to us that the Joker had killed Wayne’s parents years before, and the ensuing trauma had caused him to become the Batman. Vale figures this out to, and inexplicably Alfred allows her access to the Batcave as Wayne is pondering if he can get away with killing the Joker (probably – he just looks super serious).
He tells Vale that she can be his girlfriend, but his Batman gig is full time. He also kinda needs to stop the Joker.
So off he goes, in his Bat-plane to rescue Gotham once again.
And they certainly need it. The Joker’s parade turns ugly as he reveals the big balloons he’s brought are filled with poison gas. Before they can explode, Batman swoops in to steal the balloons away. Joker, distraught, shoots his number one lieutenant, then shoots Batman out of the sky.
Thought to be dead, the Joker drags a mourning Vale up into the lofty belfry of the Gotham Cathedral. Battle-worn and injured, Batman emerges from the wreckage of his cool Bat-symbol-shaped plane. He makes chase.
A-top the cathedral, Batman finishes off the rest of the Joker’s goons, then confronts the grinning lunatic himself. They fight and they both fall off the side of the roof with poor Vale dragged along for the ride. The Joker has the upper hand as his helicopter arrives, however Batman won’t be beaten this time, as he uses his auto-Bata-rang to pin Joker’s leg to a nearby gargoyle. The Joker, helplessly trying to climb up the ladder to freedom, is pulled down by the weight of the stone statue. With a grin he falls to his death.
Batman and Vale survive. We can all breath a sigh of relief too as the cops seem to forget about the fact Batman had killed the Joker (and most of his gang), and instead welcome into their fraternity of crime fighters. Whenever the city needs him, they’ll call. How do they call him? Not on a red phone that’s for sure. Instead they have the iconic Bat-signal.
All is well, Vale and Alfred are happy, and Bruce Wayne has avenged his parent’s death. Equilibrium has been reached, and we End.
There are so many reasons why this film grabbed me so much as a child over it’s earlier contemporary, Superman, and why I still love it today. There’s so much to like in Batman, and chastise all you want, I still think it is the best representation of the Dark Knight on screen. You can wax on about how Nolan’s trilogy is the best thing since chocolate ice-cream all you like. I don’t give a shit. Batman is the best, and I’m going to smash into your barbarian skulls why.
First, Burton nails the dark atmosphere and tone of the comics, which was in direct contrast to the garish Adam West Batman of old. Batman had been in development hell for several years for this reason alone – everyone just remembered the camp, over-weight Bat-guy from years ago.
Producer Michael E. Uslan had been championing a darker Batman, but no one was interested. After being joined by power producers Jon Peters, and Peter Guber, Warner finally picked up the script and put the film into development. But it languished there as the studio struggled to find a visual direction for the picture.
Enter Tim Burton, whom had languished for years in the illustration department at Disney. He’d inexplicably made a hit of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and was brought on to lead the production.
Thanks to his now-typical twisted stylistic and drive, all the right elements were tied together, and Batman got the film he deserved. Subsequently, it went mental at the box office, broke all the records, and made stars of everyone involved.
So without Batman, we’d not have any of the other Bat-films, or any other serious superhero film for that matter. Nor would Burton have been given the opportunity to make Edward Scissorhands or any of those films that make grown women cry.
Secondly, Michael Keaton is easily the best Batman.
Keaton’s appointment caused a lot of friction between Burton and the management. No one felt he could pull it off, and the media’s feelings was that the new Batman was going to carry on where the BANG-ZAP-WOW era left off. Burton kept the faith, and true-to-form, Keaton’s performance was massively applauded.
Sure he’s not buff or gravely-voiced, but he’s got natural charisma. He plays Bruce Wayne as mysterious, even playful. That moment he gives Knox a grand – Priceless! But he can turn so quickly and become super serious. Yes, he doesn’t have the physicality of his successors. Yet his economy of motion lends an edge to the performance. He doesn’t need to be a bulky badass. He’s just a badass.
What I also think is interesting is how there is no clear moment or indication as to why he becomes Batman. His parents are killed, and then years later he just becomes a vigilante. We’re left to fill in the blanks, and I like that. Later films would paint Wayne as someone who was compelled to do what he is doing because a conventional approach to cleaning up Gotham wouldn’t work and it’s almost believable a guy would put on a suit to fight crime. We even feel a little bit sorry for him. But I much prefer this approach where Wayne is just a crazy deviant, bent on revenge. He’s clearly just mental.
One scene in particular springs to mind when he meets the Joker in Vale’s apartment. Instead of disarming the goons and apprehending the Joker, he flips out, smashes up some vases, and screams, “Lets get nuts!”
You need more evidence that he’s an unhinged psychopath? What does he say the first time he see’s the Joker on the cathedral rooftop? “I’m going to kill you”. Does he just lose grip of Napier as he’s dangling over the vat of acid? Or does he let him drop? I bet he really did throw Johnny Garve of a roof!
Another hilarious moment is how the day before the anniversary of his parent’s murder, he bangs Vicky Vale. It’s clearly an emotional thing, a comfort thing. That’s why he just wants to get rid of her in the morning. He’s damaged, unhinged, and we love him for it.
Burton describes it best – it’s the battle of two freaks. It’s emo versus goth, just on an insane scale.
And what a freak the Joker is. Jack Nicholson owns this role. Of course there is the case of how Heath Ledger gave a darker performance in the Dark Knight, and I agree. However, the motivations behind Nicholson’s madman are very different. He’s all into art and aesthetics and Prince and shit.
He was created by Batman, but not deliberately, unlike Ledger’s fiend who comes into existence because of Batman.
Normally the Joker would be a role of a lifetime. Nicholson has made a career of such characters however, but it still is magical to hear that laugh, and witness that level of depravity. His star power helped get the film made, and he certainly doesn’t phone in his performance. Instead it’s full bore, both barrels, and then some.
It’s not just a gritty film on a narrative basis either. It is easily the darkest visually of all Batman films, which ties it closest to the original vision of Bat-creator Bob Kane. The art direction is simply superb. Gotham is corrupt and predatory, and is the bleakest, most accurate portrayal of the Dark Knight’s city that we’ve yet to see. Batman Begins comes close, with lots of muted browns and large sets, but still doesn’t do it justice.
Even in the daylight Burton’s Gotham looks grim – the yellows are muted and the greys overpowering. Open sewers spew filth and steam, and the corners are laden with over-filled garbage cans. Dark shadows lend a sinister edge to the aged, art Deco architecture. The only bright colour is the Joker, and the destruction he brings. It’s a gothic wet dream.
Even the opening camera work is awesome, as we swoop and track through a gigantic, shadowy black concrete edifice. At first we don’t know what it is, and then slowly it is revealed to be the Bat-symbol, and it’s just oh-so fucking mysterious and cool.
This is combined with the elfin-wailing and deep wind instruments of Danny Elfman’s immortal soundtrack. Hans Zimmer may be able to capture fantastic moods, but he can’t do a fantastic, memorable theme. Elfman’s contribution cannot be overlooked, as it’s deep horns and shrieking violins propels us through the adventure.
Finally, what I think is so powerful about Burton’s Batman is how he less of a man, and more of a supernatural force. Look at his first appearance right at the beginning – he silently glides down to the rooftop to confront the muggers, survives getting shot, cripples one of the poor sods, then disappears off the roof without a trace.
Or examine how quickly he dismembers Napier’s gang during the attack on Axis Chemicals. The classic Bat-moment of vanishing the moment someone’s back is turned finds it’s on-screen origin in this very sequence. Of course the technological and human elements are slowly introduced as the film progresses, but by this point you’re already hooked – he really is a Bat-man.
As an adult or a child, Batman remains powerful, effective, dark and cinematic. And you can’t ask for more from a film about a guy who dresses as a giant bat and fights crime.
On the 23rd of July Batman will be celebrating his 75th year patrolling the dark streets of Gotham. In the lead up to Batman Day, I shall be looking at the various Bat films and incarnations as they’ve appeared over the last 30 years. I’ll also be dropping Bat-facts of my own, and will looking at some of the cooler fan-made spin offs too. Keep checking back for updates.