It’s Batman Month, so we’ve been looking at all the individual Bat-movies over the last 25 years. This series of articles will focus on the Bastards, the bad-guys and the scumbags of each film, and today we’ll be looking at Tim Burton’s Batman.
The villain is a critical element of any superhero film. The more of a bastard he is, the more badass the hero has to be to defeat him. As the Hollywood machine cranks out sequel after sequel, each subsequent film has to rely on bigger and badder bad guys. The stakes become bigger or more personal, and the hero has to overcome even greater adversity to defeat him.
It’s the Monster of the Week syndrome all over again.
Anyway, as I explained in my recent review, Batman features some prize dickheads. Of course the Joker is the king of Batman bad guys, however there are a few surprise entries that you might not expect too.
Lieutenant Max Eckhardt
Eckhardt is the first on the scene of the broken and shocked muggers at the beginning of the film. He doesn’t believe these stories about the Batman, and he doesn’t appreciate reporter Knox’s bullshit questions. He knows who rules the Gotham night, and that man is Carl Grissom.
He’s on the take, so much so that commissioner Gordon even knows about it. He just can’t do anything about it. But Eckhardt doesn’t get on with Grissom’s point man, Jack Napier, and foolishly makes an enemy out of a soon-to-be Joker. Grissom uses Eckhardt to attempt to kill Napier in retaliation for sleeping with his sexy young girlfriend, however this goes very, very wrong.
Played by the late William Hootkins (Star Wars, Flash Gordon), Eckhardt is the personification of Gotham; bloated and corrupt. I love the moment when he’s shot, as he seems to disappear within himself. The steamy expulsion sound could only have been added as a joke in post production too. Poor bastard.
Carl Grissom was created to represent the ultimate mob boss. We open with him in charge of all crime in Gotham, and his strangle hold over the city binds the hands of the district attorney, the police commissioner, and even the mayor. He’s a man of great pride and taste, favouring expensive suits, silk robes, and the young Alesha (Jerry Hall) as his paramour.
Unlike his number one lieutenant, Jack Napier, Grissom acts with cold, calculating conviction. He condemns Napier to death on a job disguised to protect his own interests. But what he didn’t count on was Napier dying in mind, but returning in body as the Joker. Ever the business man he tries to bargain his way out of certain death. Big mistake.
Played by Jack Palance (City Slickers, Tango & Cash), the legendary western actor lends his eminent physicality to the small (but important) role. His terrifying stare and false smile underline the quiet depth of his voice. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be told off by Palance if he was your Dad.
The typical squad of brain-dead muscle who don’t realise that they’re more likely to be killed by their own boss than anyone else. We have a whole variety of different talent, including generic gun-fodder guys, the Asian martial arts master, and the token triple-hard massive black guy. None of them give Batman too much trouble, and they’re all either shot, exploded or dropped to their inevitable doom.
Ah good old Bob, Joker’s top guy. He reminds me of what I think would have happened had Phil Collins joined ZZ Top. Bob handles a whole manner of admin roles for the Joker, including photography, print developing, spying, painting, decorating and other miscellaneous villainry. When Batman is unconscious at his feet, he cleverly demands for his men to “check his wallet”. He also carries a big fuck off Rambo knife.
However, what he is bad at is telling the Joker that Batman has a specific piece of equipment (the Batwing) that can foil his plans to poison Gotham. For this huge failure, Bob is rightfully shot by his boss with his own gun. Now the Joker murders a lot of people, but it’s clear how much Bob means to him, as the Joker sniffs “gonna need a moment or two alone boys”. How touching.
Bob was played by Tracey Walter, who was that annoying dude who replaced Subodai in the Conan sequel.
The main event. The Joker will always be the number one enemy of Batman. He represents complete anarchy and madness; the polar opposite of the equilibrium Batman wishes to bring to Gotham. As I touched on in my review, it’s important to note that while Batman creates the Joker by dropping Jack Napier into the chemicals, the Joker is simply a personification of Napier’s character. His death was his liberation. So driven by aesthetics, his deformation only enhances his madness – The Joker character was always there, but under the surface. The acid has stripped back his skin, to reveal the horror beneath.
Unlike The Dark Knight, his obsession with Batman simply stems from a competitiveness for ratings. The Joker is the real terror, the real story of Gotham, and he resents some idiot dressing up as a flying rat getting all his press. Even prior to becoming the Joker, Napier states that Grissom “couldn’t run this city without me”, and arrogantly believes that his boss wouldn’t give a shit that he’s poking his girlfriend, simply because Napier is so integral to his operation. Obviously that wasn’t the case.
While made in the 80’s, Batman’s art direction has an older appearance. Regardless, it was well before the internet or Facebook. However I get the impression the Joker would have loved these social media. He literally wants to be a celebrity and the centre of everyone’s attention. His Instagram account would have been insane.
Yet, this need for attention isn’t his only motivator. As his police report states, he’s highly intelligent with an aptitude for art. Naturally he places significance on style and appearance, though admits that what is and isn’t classically attractive just don’t mean anything to him any more. Similar to modern art movements, he isn’t conventional, but is otherwise beautiful, and he favours himself as a living work of art.
Art is a big thing for the Joker. After he defaces all the fine art in Gotham’s museum, he proudly states that he is the world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist. His fascination with Vale lies with his desire for an aesthetic “equal” to join him as part of the new avante garde. His intention? To get his face on the one dollar bill. “Do I look like I’m joking”. We really can’t tell.
Fusing art, chemistry and madness on screen sounds like a very heavy and complicated feat. It’s a heady mix of factors that any lesser actor would fuck up. However, Jack Nicholson (Departed) easily rises to the challenge. If he hadn’t already knocked it out of the park a million times before on a million different films, this would be considered his masterpiece. A fair amount of dialogue is clearly ad-libbed, and he relishes the arsenal of the evil comic book jester; poison flowers, super-charged hand buzzers, throwing dart quill pens…even his extendo-hand cannon. Nicholson just makes them all work.
A lesser, more straight Batman may have been lost against such a force as Nicholson’s performance. Thankfully Michael Keaton (Night Shift) adds a degree of craziness to the role all of his own. While the Joker is frustrated Batman gets all the attention, Batman is simply fanatical about killing the Joker. Ironically, in a turn about to the Dark Knight, it is the Joker who creates the Batman. “You killed my parents, you made me first”, he accuses.
In fact, who is more deranged? Jack Napier is shot in the face, and dropped into a vat of chemicals. Imagine the brain damage he must have. Whereas Bruce Wayne grows up to become a silent ninja killer who dresses up as a bat?
Most people won’t remember that Batman kills a fair few people in his first big screen outing. You’ll probably rcall the Joker death, whereby Batman foils the Joker’s escape by stringing him to a nearby gargoyle. When the gargoyle falls loose, the weight of it drags the Joker to his death. You could even say that this was accidental (the police clearly think so).
But what about the time he drives into Axis Chemicals and drops a bomb, destroying the entire place (including the various goons seen moments earlier?) What about the people he murders in the below sequence?
Plus there is that one time where Batman is flying his plane…that features missiles and gatling guns. He shoots the shit out of a load of Joker’s henchmen before he’s picked out of the air.
Yes. It’s clear that Batman is certainly a big bastard in this film.
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.