Sunday, June 10, 2012

Batman Movie Batdown Week 2 - Batman

The Nineties Batman movies today seem to be in the dubious position of being "those Batman movies made before Christopher Nolan took over".  With the stunning success of "The Dark Knight", its easy to let the 2000s Batman movies overshadow the films that came before.  I've even heard some critics claim that Nolan's more realistic and "darker" movies essentially make the Tim Burton films irrelevant, as little more than weaker lead-ins to the true masterpieces.  Well, that's a load of crap, obviously.  The "Batman" movie of 1989 is a remarkable little movie, and it is a capital movie-crime to ignore it.

When "Batman" came out in 1989, it would actually have been easy to expect something ridiculous and campy like the Adam West "Batman" series of old.  Thanks to the work of authors like Frank Miller and Alan Moore, the Batman comic books had since abandoned silly surreal comedy in favor of serious dark violence, pop culture had not yet caught up with this evolution.  When most Americans and children thought of Batman, they saw Adam West and Burt Young walking up a vertical wall while a random guest star popped their head out of a window.  It certainly did not help that the director was Tim Burton, who was most famous for "Pee-wee's Big Adventure", and that Burton's new Batman was being played by Michael Keaton, who was most famous for... "Mr. Mom".  When movie audiences of 1989 were instead greeted with a bleak noir Gotham being defended by a cold silent Batman hiding in the shadows to defeat criminals, they were shocked.  So shocked that they ate this movie up, making it one of the biggest movies ever at the time, inspiring three sequels, and leading directly to the glory that was "Batman: the Animated Series".  "Batman" pretty much invented the idea of a modern Blockbuster superhero movie.  Anybody who considers this movie to be unimportant is out of their damn minds.

Oh, and if anybody thinks this isn't a good movie, they're also more than a bit crazy.  "Batman" isn't nearly as good as movies that would come later, but its definitely a giant leap away from whatever "Batman: The Movie" was trying to be.  I can't help but feel the heroes are a bit wasted in this movie, especially Michael Keaton as Batman, but Jack Nicholson's excellent crazy performance as the Joker never fails to bring a smile.  Really, they should have named this movie "Joker" instead of "Batman", but that's neither here nor there.  Tim Burton was able to construct a world with real style, while putting together a nicely compelling action blockbuster.  This right here is the birth of the modern film Batman, always remember that.

Since this was designed to be the first movie of an inevitable franchise of Batman films, "Batman" has to work as an origin story.  The traditional method for an origin story in most superhero films is to spend the first half of the movie filming the main hero's backstory, and then throw a villain for him to fight in the second half.  "Iron Man" did it this way, so did "Thor", so did "Captain America", so did "Ghost Rider", so did "Green Lantern", and so did about ten gazillion other movies, I'll save myself some keystrokes by leaving them out.  However, "Batman" skips right over this, jumping straight into Batman beating up criminals.  Nobody actually is sure what this "Bat creature" is at the beginning of the movie, or if he's real at all or just a fantasy thought up by Ace Reporter, Arliss.  Is he good?  Evil?  Or perhaps a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?  Who knows?  Bruce Wayne's backstory is slowly revealed over the course of the film, in case you're somehow the only person on the planet who doesn't know how Batman became Batman.

By the way, giving Batman an origin story at all is a huge break from the Adam West series, which was simply too childish and silly to have to deal with messy bloodstained issues such as the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Wayne.  That right there should be a sign this movie is going to be different.

Interestingly, of all the major characters to be revealed in "Batman", Batman is pretty much the very last.  If anything, the first quarter of the movie is mainly focused on the origin story of the villain, Jack Nicholson's Joker.  The Joker begins as just a mafia Capo, until a fight with Batman leaves him falling into a vat of toxic waste, which gives him his distinctive white face and charming smile.  Of course, Jack Nicholson was Jack Nicholson even before he was seduced by the Clown Side of the Force, so he was pretty evil at the beginning.  Just being turned into a freak removed his last limits of sanity, and so he goes on a deranged and extremely entertaining rampage throughout Gotham.

Gotham itself is as much a character as anybody else.  The art design of this movie would influence Batman adaptations for over a decade.  Its hard to tell exactly what decade we're in.  Yeah, the Joker's henchmen have a habit of playing terrible Prince songs on giant boomboxes slung over their shoulders, but people dress like its the 1930s.  The city is one part art deco, one part fascist utopia, and one part German Impressionist nightmare.  The city is lined with massive skyscrapers, "Brazil"-esque ducts cover the skies, and huge sculptures of anonymous domineering faces.  And due to some kind of curious atmospheric conditions, Gotham is dark roughly eighteen hours a day.  Crime is everywhere, the police are corrupt, and the municipal government is more focused on putting on a 200th anniversary festival than actually fighting the Joker.  Its a city built upon despair itself, a perfect nest for creatures such as the Batman and the Joker.

Its really unfortunate, I feel, that Michael Keaton receives so little to work with in this movie.  He really only gets a single scene to cut loose, the awesome "LET'S GET NUTS" monologue, and after that he's back to being either mild-mannered Bruce Wayne or the cold soldier of the night, Batman.  And really, Michael Keaton can ham it up with the best of them, its a shame we couldn't get a proper acting war between Keaton and Nicholson.  Jack Nicholson walks away unopposed in stealing this movie.  It also really hurts that the main love interest is the utterly bland Kim Basinger, who despite her lovely Old Hollywood starlet haircut, can never bring anything at all to his movie*.  Well, she gives something for the Joker to threaten, I guess.  Keaton himself will get much more to work with in the sequel.

Now, let's move to the real star, the Joker.  Jack Nicholson's Joker is actually not all that different from Caesar Romero's, only that Jack Nicholson's laughter has more bass to it.  Oh, and there's a small matter of this Joker being an unapologetic psycho who believes his mass murder to be a work of art.  The old Joker was a harmless villain dancing around mostly for petty fun.  This one tears up his girlfriend's face, poisons Gotham's cosmetics with Joker Laughing Gas, sets a guy on fire with an handbuzzer gag, and then tries to destroy the entire city for a final gag.  At no point does any of these actions even begin to make sense, which makes it all the more fascinating that the Joker is able to field an army of henchmen who never once question his insane whims.  I guess supervillains have great health insurance and 401K plans.  Heath Ledger's Joker was trying to prove some kind of nihilist statement by blowing up Gotham City, Jack Nicholson is doing this most to make himself some kind of perverse celebrity.  Heck, he doesn't even hate Batman for interfering with his plans, but for stealing his press.  There's also the lovely poetry of the Joker killing Bruce Wayne's parents as an enforcer, causing the boy to become Batman, who then destroys the Joker's face, causing him to become the Joker.  The hero and the villain created each other, and thus, must destroy each other.

Oh, and the important thing to know about Jack Nicholson in this movie is that he is awesome.  This is a movie that doesn't even need an annoying sidekick character, because Nicholson provides all the laughs.  I'd rank this as one of the best performances from Jack Nicholson, or at least one of the most fun.  "Batman" is surprisingly a really funny movie, because you can't help but smile when Jack Nicholson is dancing around.  He was paid fifty million dollars for his performance in this movie, which I think is the largest single sum for any actor ever.  Nicholson deserved every penny.

The other weird thing you need to know about "Batman":  Batman kills people.  "WHAT???" you might say.  Batman is never supposed to kill anybody, its part of his moral code.  Well, that's not how Tim Burton saw it, because Batman kills plenty of people in this movie, including the Joker.  And how long does he brood for?  Well, he actually doesn't brood for a second.  There's almost something admirable in that reptilian simplicity.  It certainly helps when Batman is ambushed by a ninja wielding two swords when he can just throw him over a cliff to his death.

Returning to that question I asked last week:  what is Batman?  Well, I'd be lying if I would say when I think of Batman I don't think of anything but Tim Burton's Batmobile, Danny Elfman's score, and that lovely gold and black logo.  Christopher Nolan has done incredible things with that Batman name, but to me, his work will always be an adaptation.  I was born in the early Nineties, these were the Batman movies I grew up on.  The cartoons I watched were directly inspired by Tim Burton's work.  And even in the bizarre horrible depths of "Batman & Robin", you can still see a few faint traces of the original 1989 "Batman" movie.  So unfortunately, I think I already found my answer as to the true soul of the Dark Knight.  What's the point of these next six weeks?

But its still far too early to declare a final conclusion.  Next week is "Batman Returns", which happens to be my favorite Batman movie.  We could never ignore that.

* I realize that I very often target women as being the low points of movies, just recall the dozens of times I've named Kristin Stewart to be the very Death of professional acting itself.  I like to believe this isn't some kind of inherent gender bias.  Really, its because actresses are so often wasted in movies, being forced to perform in totally mundane and boring romance sideplots or just act as fanservice.  Since "Batman" was actually rated PG-13, forget fanservice.

Oh, and if you think I have something against women, just wait for next week's Batdown.


  1. Couldn't agree with you more. Nolan's Batman movies are good, really good; there's no denying that. When I think of Batman though, it's always the Tim Burton version that comes to mind.

  2. My favorite iteration of the Joker is and always will be Mark Hamill's in the Animated Series, it's just hard to beat that voice and that laugh.
    While I did enjoy Nicholson's Joker in this movie, I must say that I don't like the fact that we know the Joker's history. I think the character works better when his origin is a mystery.

  3. I actually like this one better than the Nolan ones. I think the Nolan Batman movies can get a bit pretentious at times, and it's hard to believe whatshisface as Batman. Serious crime drama does not mesh with a guy dressed like a bat beating up criminals, it just doesn't. It has to have some fun, some cartoonishness to contrast the dark and twisted mental states of the characters.