Well we’re less than 1 month away from the release of Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises so me being the shameless opportunist I am decided I should review the Batman films. In my defence this was actually the first review season I thought of doing and I held off until now for the aforementioned opportunistic reason. Besides, I’m in this for the whole hog. All the live action and as many of the animated films as I can get my hands on. And maybe, if I can get a copy, something a little bit unusual. Unlike my previous seasons this won’t be an uninterrupted one. There’s Amazing Spider-man to review in the meantime and I have an idea for the 150th review that will be non-Batman related. Plus my chances of wanting to kill myself like I wanted to during the 8 film Harry potter season are slightly reduced with the odd break from the bat. Tonight we start in the obvious place to jump off from, Tim Burton’s 1989 adaptation of Batman. Click the bat-link yo!
This is gonna be a tough thing for younger folks to imagine but believe it or not there was a time when comic book based movies didn’t dominate the summer film season. In fact prior to Batman the only successful big budget comic book based movie was the first 2 Superman films. The less said about the third and fourth Superman films the better. Mostly comic book adaptations would be very low budget, poorly produced and quite often end up straight to video. In fact that attitude stayed around even after Batman’s release for a short while despite its huge success. At the same time as Tim Burton’s dark Gothic fantasy take on Batman was being produced Marvel had a lowish budget version of Captain America in production that tested so badly with audiences and looked so outdated compared to Batman that it eventually got chucked straight onto video in the US. Batman’s impact was so huge it derailed a rival films release entirely. That’s how successful this film was at reinventing the comic book film genre. Was it a great film though? Very nearly.
As far as the story goes corruption is running rampant and Gotham City is in a poor state. Recently rumblings have spread through the criminal underworld of a masked man going about the city at night taking out criminals. This is, of course, Batman played by Michael Keaton. Crime in the city is run by Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) and in his employ is a semi psychotic known as Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). When Jack finds he’s been set up by Grissom during a raid on the Axis Chemical factory he attempts to make a getaway only to be confronted by The Batman. Jack ends up taking a tumble into a vat of miscellaneous chemicals his skin is bleached, white, his hair coloured green and his facial muscles stuck in a permanent grin this understandably makes makes the already unstable Jack go a little off the deep end. He soon pledges his revenge on his former boss, the bat and Gotham City as a whole.
Batman is set during the first weeks of the Dark Knights crime fighting in a Gotham City that’s infested with crime, corruption and dilapidation. We don’t see how he came to be in the position to fight crime like we do in Nolan’s Batman Begins but there’s a good reason for this. We don’t care. By summer 1989 all we wanted to see was Batman fight The Joker in settings the likes of which had never been seen on cinema screen before. Well, unless you count the obvious allegories with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari. Jesus H Christ did they pull that off. The films main Gotham sets are spectacular. Constructed on the fame Pinewood studio’s back-lot (not far away from me that) Gotham City was at the time one of the largest scale film sets constructed since the days of D.W. Griffiths. This young Burton kid sure showed some scope. The complete Gotham was created with a mixture of full size sets, miniatures and some very very good matte paintings. The effect still provides some great shots although the cracks do show a little in the seams now.
Despite all the films efforts to steer clear of the campy style of the 1960s TV series there certainly is a lot of goofy stuff going on in this film. For a start you have to kinda let logic go out the window on a number of occasions. No-one checks to find Jacks body for instance. After killing what can only be assumed is a double figure of people with his Smilex Gas The Joker manages to hold a parade through Gotham without a single cop, or citizen seeking revenge for a lost loved one, taking a shot at him. I know the cops are corrupt and we see that some are working with the Joker but really? A parade? And no-one stops it. Well except Batman of course. To add to the occasional lack of logic there’s a few songs from The Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. God knows why. I assume because he was on Warner Music at the time and they were getting worried about just how much this film was costing. Generally though if you can ignore the oddness of some parts Batman is a damn fun film.
Central to the film is obviously the lead character of.. The Joker? Yeah pretty much. Sure Bruce/Batman has his demons and motivations but the film spends just as much, if not more time following the Joker’s evil schemes. Burton quite clearly enjoyed this character a lot and to be fair Jack Nicholson does a pretty good portrayal of him. Granted it’s 90% Nicholson as normal and 10% Cesar Romero but it works. A lot of people take exception to it being revealed that The Joker killed Bruce’s parents at a young age but in all honesty it adds a tie between the two characters that not only serves the film (allowing for a natural point to flashback and show their deaths) but also manages to make sure Batman has a personal reason to take out The Joker at the films cathedral based finale.
Now as for Michael Keaton, things get interesting here. When he was announced as being the one to don the cape and cowl there was fan outrage. Apparently as many as 50,000 letters of complaint were sent to Warner. And back then these letters were physical things, not emails that you can just mass delete. Trees got cut down just so people could complain about Michael Keaton being Batman. The thing is before this film Keaton was mostly known for hi comedic roles and no-one wanted to see Mr Mom in a Batsuit. Fanboys today could learn a lesson from the fanboys of 1989 about casting. It’s not what you know the actor for but more what you don’t know them for that can make an inspired piece of casting. With Keaton most of the performance is in his eyes. He has intense eyes that always look like his plotting something. Having the most demoniacally arched eyebrows in Hollywood helps too. I’ve always loved him in this role. When the film was released I was too young to really be outraged at the casting and really Batman was one of the first films I remember Keaton in. He plays Batman as shielded and intense, but he’s not the all round ass kicking machine we know from the comics yet. He makes mistakes and is pretty reckless in his actions. As Bruce he’s less played as a Billionaire playboy and more like an aloof eccentric. The portrayal of Batman/Bruce Wayne might be a little different to what people know him as today but the dynamic works. Key to this performance is that when you look into those eyes you know that he could easily be as nuts as the Joker if pushed a little too far.
Danny Elfman’s score for Batman is easily one of my all time favourites. It’s Gothic, grandiose and theatrical, maybe also a little over the top. But it is also so memorable that you’ll likely be able to hum one of the themes right now. The main theme is so good that when they were producing the animated series a year later they got a composer in named Shirley Walker who struggled to make a main title theme and eventually she suggested they just use the theme from the film because it was spot on perfect. It really was. They still use nearly all the music today in the Lego Batman games. The beauty of the score is quite impressive too seeing as Danny Elfman was likely more well known for being a member of Oingo Boingo prior to this.
The impact this film had cannot be mistaken. It’s spawned one of the biggest movie franchises of all time. It allowed comic book fans to finally see their heroes represented with some level of seriousness and with the sort of craftsmanship that elevated them from being mindless B-Movies to full fledged cinema releases. Not even Superman managed that and that film was a huge success in it’s day. Overall Batman is flawed but so very enjoyable. People can take exception with some elements but really they just have to accept that this is a different Batman to the comic world’s Batman. Much like how I like to pretend that the comic book Batman of today is some imposter because the comics have been a bit rubbish in recent years. Seriously, sod that kid of Bruce Wayne’s and sod Batman Inc. Batman isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it did allow Burton his shot at a larger scale sequel in the form of Batman Returns… which will be my next review. Just so you know, I really quite enjoy that one.