Batman (1989)

Director: Tim Burton

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By Roderick Heath

Yeah, I can’t believe it’s been 20 years, either. And it’s been at least 15 since I last saw Tim Burton’s grandiose redesign of the classic comic strip and the campy TV show derived from it. I remember the hype around its release exceptionally well, because it was impossible to get away from. In commercial terms, as other writers have noted lately, Batman altered how Hollywood conceived and sold its blockbusters. Whilst ’80s cinema had been replete with sequels and spin-offs, Batman ushered in the carefully maintained, prepackaged franchise. Yet this gamble relied on the antic wit of Tim Burton, then still a kooky outsider, whose ideas provided a template for many an event movie and comic-book-derived series to follow, and its visual and thematic patterns echoed long into the next decade: it’s hard to imagine The Crow (1994), The Matrix (1999), Fight Club (1999), or Watchmen (2009) without its influence.

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Amongst other things, it made “darkness” the must-have appendage of any new or rebooted franchise spun from fantastical material, most such darkness being a kind of schoolyard Gothicism and affected moral probity, here about vigilantes and scarring traumas. Burton had, of course, been paying attention to the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore as they introduced rawer violence and more psychologically pungent employment of the comic’s ready metaphors in the past few years. Where Richard Donner had turned Superman into an effective hero for the ’70s with the ironic touch of leaving him unchanged but updating the world around him, Burton went the opposite route. He transformed the jut-jawed, dashing Bruce Wayne into a troubled misfit and his Gotham City into a deliberately unreal, teeming hodgepodge of eras and images.

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Even when I was young, I was uneasy with the resulting film, and in revisiting it, much of my unease was confirmed. My admiration of it as a design classic doesn’t elide the flimsy script, and Burton’s alternately scurrilous and disengaged attitude to his nominal hero—much of the result has a disjointed, patchy flavour. Moments of near-genius sit alongside a painfully stillborn romance and half-hearted superhero shenanigans. The movie looks like a rough draft for something Burton would later pursue with more intensity: he’d match up flagrantly styled backgrounds, high adventure, and a wimpy-but-resolute hero with far greater vivacity in Sleepy Hollow (1999), and delve more darkly and deeply into the Pandora’s Box he opened here with his grungier sequel, Batman Returns (1992). And there’s a certain period perversity in the flat comic relief of Robert Wuhl and the attempt to turn Jerry Hall into an actress.

Although Batman instigated a new era in Hollywood screen culture, when I look at it now, it also looks like a curtain call for some aspects of what had once defined that culture, a time when production values were very important, especially in terms of the design. Anton Furst’s great, Oscar-winning sets dominate this film’s imagery, and Batman came right at the end of a high-style period in big-budget film, which, in the decade before, had produced movies like Blade Runner (1982), One from the Heart (1982), and Streets of Fire (1984). Soon, digital effects and kinetic editing would become the recognised signposts of Hollywood product. Batman’s special effects were grand, but also often deliberately ropy, not so far in intent and effect from David Lynch’s even more forcefully unreal efforts with Dune (1984). And yet a lot of the staging, in terms of physical action and pace of editing, looks stodgy and limited now in comparison to more recent product.

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Likewise, the colossal sum of money and attention that Jack Nicholson received for his appearance as the Joker was the apotheosis of a star-centred industry that’s been in decline ever since. It was a tactic borrowed from Marlon Brando’s contribution to the hype avalanche of Superman (1978), but where Brando’s short, restrained performance provided a bridging point of credibility between the otherworldly and the familiar, Nicholson was called upon to be the avatar of Batman’s mix of the insane and the inspired.

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And yet the film is more ambitious than almost every other comic adaptation not made in Japan, and it achieved its core ambition: to turn the aesthetics of the printed page into total cinematic stylisation, and to invoke the broad mythic potential of the comics in addressing more ideas than mere wish-fulfillment. Burton used it as a vehicle to further his pop-art vision of the Gothic subculture to examine the seamier side of the psyche. Many ’80s genre flicks readily played out reactionary fantasies of vigilante and extra-legal justice, but many others gleefully sublimated more critical and satiric perspectives, most easily noticed in works like Paul Verhoeven’s vicious Robocop (1987). Where that film looked acerbically at yuppie and Reaganite culture, Batman is slightly more circumspect in its through-a-glass-darkly portrait of ’80s New York, with a fretting, ineffective Ed Koch-esque mayor (Lee Wallace), and glam high-lifers who ignore the destitute, pony up huge sums of money for pointless parades, and bunker down within citadel-like houses and art galleries whilst ignoring the rot of gangsters who infest and control their city.

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However, the chief gangster, Grissom (Jack Palance, relishing the too-brief villainy that reenergised his career), wants only the same perks as any other patrician: model girlfriend Alicia (Hall), good scotch, penthouse apartment. When he arranges to have his underling Jack Napier (Nicholson) rubbed out for banging Alicia behind his back, Napier survives a bullet in the face and a douse in a vat of chemicals, in a sequence patterned after White Heat (1949). He returns as the disfigured Joker to kill Grissom and establish himself less as a kingpin than a kind of post-punk performance artist, specialising in mass terror and murder. In the film’s single best sequence, he and his goons invade the city’s hoity art gallery after gassing the patrons, and then to the impudently jaunty strains of Prince, prance about defacing the art works like demonic Duchamps. He announces himself as the “world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist” to Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a gorgeous photographer who has herself moved from glamour portraits to grotesque accounts of third-world atrocities, and displays an acid-scarred Alicia as his first “sketch” of the new aesthetic.

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Meanwhile, Burton announces his troubled take on the efficacy of violent repression, portraying his Batman as a sullen, emotionally distant loser who battles an arch enemy locked in a yin-yang balance: just as the young Napier (Hugo E. Black) killed Bruce’s parents, so Batman contributes to turning Napier from regulation mob enforcer into loony terrorist. That Keaton hovers, spare and spry as Wayne, and yet looming menacingly when in his vigilante garb, captures the idea of a man who only finds self-expression in a costume. Batman and the Joker become, in effect, rival artists (“Where does he get those wonderful toys?” the Joker frets) playing for the favour of the crowd, one wearing the trappings of darkness and threat but firmly on the side of good, the other utterly evil, but wearing the perverted garb of a jovial entertainer.

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There’s a humour and conceptual depth in all this that’s completely missing from the glumly naturalistic, tediously square Nolan-Bale revivals, but also inconsistently played out. The familiar narrative is an encumbrance, afflicting Wayne with Vale’s insipid romantic interest, not helped by Basinger’s wooden acting (and she gives practically the same performance she got an Oscar for!). The plot is only made to look all the more weak through Burton’s discomfort (then) with action, and disinterest in both story and traditional heroics until the rousing finale, when Batman flies his Batwing jet to save the day when the Joker cynically tries to gas all of Gotham’s citizens by luring them to his parade of poison-filled balloons. The airborne hero soars out of the night as the personification of nocturnal wrath, and rising for a moment to strike a drolly emblematic pose silhouetted against the moon. Much of the film’s dramatic heft comes from Danny Elfman’s great score, still his best film work to date, with its woozy waltzes and mocking carnival themes mingling with vast, sonorous anthems that thoroughly evoke the sepulchral valour at the fantasy’s heart.

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Burton’s choice of Michael Keaton as his Bruce Wayne/Batman actually struck me as more inspired than ever. Keaton’s low-key performance, radiating both everyday charm and faintly uneasy energy, his eyebrows hooked in the same demonic angles as Nicholson’s, reflects the doubling that Burton sees at the core of the fantasy. Nicholson’s efforts, on the other hand, so raved about at the time, are as wobbly as the movie, sometimes delicious, sometimes just hammy, certainly in comparison with his far more intricately funny and menacing performances in The Shining (1980) or, in a far worse film, The Witches of Eastwick (1987). It’s a reminder that Nicholson set an example of going broad and big for fellow Method heroes Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. But some of that fault lies in the script, which often locks him in variations on the same scene (e.g., shooting the television twice) and provides little in the way of truly malicious wit for him to wrap his lips around. Calling to mind Keaton’s own grotesque from Burton’s previous Beetlejuice (1987), Nicholson compensates by leaping around like a dirty-minded schoolboy, waggling his butt and forcing the heroine to dance whilst Batman battles sundry assassins, in a wacko conclusion that manages to conflate Vertigo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and King Kong in a heady sequence.

It’s both more and less of a success than it once seemed. A contradiction? Very well, I contradict myself.

  • 7eyes spoke:
    17th/11/2009 to 5:48 pm

    very nice perspective. I share many of your views, but i have a different perspective on how the film stands in my eyes, today. Unlike you, i think Nolan’s vision is new, and supported by cinematic interesting conceptions (noir and batman do mix). So, to me, Nolan outdated Burton’s Gothan. Anyway, i invite you to read my short commentary on the film:
    http://7eyes.wordpress.com/2009/06/15/batman-1989/
    nice blog, i’ve been reading it for a while now.

  • Samuel Wilson spoke:
    17th/11/2009 to 5:53 pm

    Burton’s first try at Batman is less than the sum of its parts, in part because the Prince numbers seem like an imposition that is probably the most dated or alienating aspect of the film today. My recollection is also that Burton was hampered by a writer’s strike hitting while the he was shooting the film, making rewrites a problem and perhaps forcing him to accept Nicholson’s often uninspired antics. He did manage to prune some scenes the awfulness of which is only hinted at by their inclusion in the novelization. I think Keaton is a better Bruce Wayne than Bale, while Ledger was a better Joker than Nicholson. Keaton sells the alienation that Burton thinks essential to the creation of Batman but doesn’t seem as important to Nolan’s conception or Bale’s performance. Nolan and Bale did better on their second try, I thought, but so did Burton and Keaton. Comparing the Burton and Nolan films is almost an apple-vs-orange proposition, and as a comics fan of sorts I’m capable of welcoming a variety of interpretations, though Schumacher is too much to ask.

  • Rod spoke:
    17th/11/2009 to 8:09 pm

    Hi, 7eyes, Samuel (sounds like a Western here!):
    I wasn’t bothered by the Prince songs even now; actually this aspect charmed me, in recalling when a big recording artist collaborating on a movie soundtrack was still a big deal. Of course it actually only helps in the art gallery scene.
    That’s interesting about the writing, Samuel: I didn’t know. It says something that the film still managed to land a bullseye on release.
    It seems, inevitably, that conversations about this film are going to turn into discussion of the new ones, which I don’t have much admiration for. I know they’ve been enshrined by making mountains of moolah, but that doesn’t mean much to me at the best of times. Nolan’s a terrible filmmaker with no sense of story rhythm and no talent for editing, and what pleasures his films did give me came from his strong cast. But I don’t particularly agree that it’s such an apples and oranges proposition, at least in terms of Batman Begins, which looks a bit different but is still as generally ornate; it’s really The Dark Knight you mean. I’d agree, Samuel, that Ledger’s Joker was a more interesting creation viewed on its own, certainly a more nuanced and disorientating performance, and yet his and Batman’s relationship in The Dark Knight isn’t halfway as interesting as it is here, with its grotesque circularity and rather more probing satire on vigilante ethics. For all their pseudo-realism, Nolan’s films are actually far more tinny and timid both stylistically and in their proposed ethical assumptions, reducing their Joker to a scary Other whose motives are safely unstated, and not implicated with the audience’s fantasies. Likewise his Batman/Wayne is an empty and facile creation, lacking any of the psycho-sexual perversity Burton imbues him with.

  • J.D. spoke:
    18th/11/2009 to 8:56 am

    “Moments of near-genius sit uneasily alongside a painfully stillborn romance and half-hearted superhero shenanigans.”
    This is part of the film’s charm for me. You can see the vestiges of Burton’s BEETLEJUICE-era filmmaking as he attempts to transition to the next level. So you have weird things like the Joker taking out the Bat-plane with a handgun (?!) but there is a lot of good stuff in this film and it has aged in an interesting way.
    I would say that Keaton is the best Bruce Wayne for the reasons you state. He brings an unpredictability that is refreshing. For example, I always loved the scene where he tries to tell Vicki that he’s Batman and he even tries to give himself a pep talk of sorts, which was a nice touch. Christian Bale really doesn’t bring that to the role and every time I see him as Bruce Wayne I keep expect him to go on a music rant a la Patrick Bateman in AMERICAN PSYCHO!
    As for Nicholson as the Joker… sure he tends to go for flamboyance but that is inherent in the character but there are moments where Nicholson does nail the menace of the character like the famous, “wait ’til they get a load of me” scene. The way Burton captures him in semi-shadow, with that eerie perma-smile on his face is quite unsettling, even now.
    While I do think that Burton improved with BATMAN RETURNS, the film is a little too busy and started the awful trend of loading the Batman films with too many bad guys.

  • Rod spoke:
    18th/11/2009 to 9:42 am

    Yeah, good points JD. It is distinctly visible, Burton feeling his way through a new type of filmmaking, and not always knowing how, but there’s a grandeur to the conception that still feels faintly monumental. I simply wasn’t quite prepared to discover what a problem child it looks like now, but it’s a wayward prodigy.
    As for the sequel, it’s been a really long time since I last saw it, so it’s probably time to give it a spin again. I recall not liking it at first viewing, but admiring it, and then liking it more and more in thinking about it: it’s rowdy, nasty disrespect came to seem more logical.
    And I agree with both your acting citations. That moment of Nicholson’s is quite unsettling…and then he starts hooting to himself. That’s what I mean about Nicholson straining to compensate for the script’s lack of material for him to work with. It’s an overture for a symphony that never really arrives. And the pep-talk bit is Keaton’s best moment in the role, and it clearly evokes that great bit in Donner’s Superman where Christopher Reeve’s Clark takes off his glasses and swells up as he prepares to tell Lois he’s Superman, and then deflates when he thinks better of it. Both moments neatly summarise the gap between alter egos and summarise the intensity of such moments of what I’ll call, for want of a better phrase, outing.

  • Samuel Wilson spoke:
    18th/11/2009 to 5:50 pm

    Rod, you wrote: “That moment of Nicholson’s is quite unsettling…and then he starts hooting to himself. That’s what I mean about Nicholson straining to compensate for the script’s lack of material for him to work with. It’s an overture for a symphony that never really arrives.” And that’s one of my favorite Nicholson moments from the movie. It shows a man settlling into an unsettling new role, sort of trying it out, improvising: “Oop…oooop…” The more I think of it, Jack Napier seems like a man forced by circumstances to become a madman, or to play the part of one in order to make the best of things. I also like his business of occasionally using flesh-toned makeup to pretend that he has taken his “mask” off. The main difference between Nicholson and Ledger is that the former plays a man who becomes the Joker while Ledger simply is the character, with that being all you need to know as far as Christopher Nolan is concerned.
    You and J.D. are also right about the “pep talk” being a great moment for Keaton. It’s equivalent in Batman Returns is his wonderful “two truths” speech when he struggles to explain why Vicki Vale left him, without revealing too much or coming off like “a Ted Bundy,” to Selina Kyle,not yet knowing that she’d be probably the most receptive audience possible for the real truth. I’ll still defend Christian Bale’s work in The Dark Knight, which is really the story of Bruce Wayne’s disastrous attempt to shuck his burden onto someone else for transparently selfish reasons,but Keaton’s still the better actor for the role.

  • Chris spoke:
    15th/09/2011 to 9:44 am

    For my money this is the best of the Batman films. Though the script, as you mention, doesn’t give anyone involved much to chew on there’s a more tangible undercurrent of masochism to the proceedings that raise much hairier questions than Nolan’s tedious “will the convicts blow up the ferry?” nonsense. My big complaint about Batman was/is how the film grinds to a halt during the Axis Chemicals scene (where Napier takes an acid bath) and the parade, both of which have ‘soundstage’ written all over them and play like they were edited by the kids from Super 8. Come to think of it they probably could have done a better job. I also think Keaton’s confused-rich-kid-playing-with-fire is far more engaging from a character perspective then Bale’s bad-ass-rich-kid-in-need-of-a-good-throat-lozenge.

  • Rod spoke:
    16th/09/2011 to 2:00 am

    Hi Chris.

    Those kids from Super 8 are my new favourite filmmakers. I can’t disagree with any of your points, although I have a certain lingering love for the Adam West feature film (“Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”), and I like the parade with the Prince music and Nicholson’s herky-jerky dance. Indeed, it’s a film far richer in character quality and underlying perversity than Nolan’s films, which are carefully scrubbed clean of actual character ambiguity.

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