Ladies and Gentlemen... welcome to Batman Week. For this whole week, I shall be looking at the movie adventures of the Caped Crusader himself – the two from Tim Burton, the two from Joel Schumacher, the two from Christopher Nolan, and one animated film. Beginning with the first big one, it’s 1989’s Batman. Following the success of the Superman movie in 1978, there was an almost instantaneous decision to bring DC’s other big hero to the big screen. After spending several years in Development Hell, going through writers, directors and stars, production finally began and the mainstream movie world was introduced to a hero far removed from the campy TV incarnation they were all familiar with. From the vision of director Tim Burton, this is Batman.
Gotham City: a dark and dangerous place, peopled by the poor, the criminal and the corrupt. From this darkness comes Batman (Michael Keaton), a caped vigilante who strikes fear into the hearts of the city’s criminal underworld. When his attempts to stop sociopath Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) during a robbery, the villain is horribly disfigured after falling into a chemical vat. Having survived, Napier returns to society as the Joker, a full-blown lunatic with a vicious sense of humour. Batman must now stop him from trying to kill the citizens of Gotham.
In the initial stages of the film’s development, the job of writing the script was given to Tom Mankiewicz, who did some uncredited work on the Superman script. Apparently, in the early conception of the project, Mankiewicz decided to stick with the formula set by Superman and created an origin story that was very similar in both beat and structure to the previously successful comic adaptation. However, things eventually changed when the script found its way to Tim Burton, who had only one film under his belt by that point, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Having a predisposition towards darker, more psychologically compromised characters, Burton was not impressed with the script. And to be fair, he’s right. As many have stated, the two characters, Superman and Batman, represent two completely different aspects of heroism and the human condition. Superman is about hope; Batman is about despair. As such, when Burton signed on, his first act was to dismiss the Mankiewicz script and bring in another writer, Sam Hamm, to take a fresh crack at it. Together, they had decided to eschew the origin story path and construct a world in which Batman already existed, with more of an origin being given to the character of the Joker (Burton has always been more fascinated by villains than good guys, but then who isn’t?). An interesting aspect to the proceedings actually comes from this very idea of origins. Part of the Batman mythos has always been the idea that he is as responsible for the rise of specialised crime, brought on by the infamous Rogue’s Gallery, as anything else. Without crime, there would be no Batman; without Batman, there would be no crime. This cyclic notion is worked in as they make Batman literally responsible for the the Joker’s condition (his failure to save him makes him both disfigured and crazy), but eventual revelations show that the Joker was, back when he was still a young Jack Napier, the one responsible for the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents, thus leading to the boy becoming Batman. Personally, I think this is very clever, but also a bit of a misstep. On one side, it does run nicely on the one-begets-the-other principle; however, I think it rather detracts from the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman slightly. That Batman is able to finally confront and indeed kill the man responsible for his parents’ death takes away from that feeling of unresolved anger, which is what drove him to become what he is. It still works perfectly well, but it’s just never sat right with me.
It’s rather surprising nowadays to think that there were harsh protests at Burton being given the reigns of such a big film, although it makes perfect sense on a visionary level. There are genuinely few directors working today (or ever, for that matter) who can rival the uniquely dark and strangely beautiful visuals of Tim Burton. Taking heavy influence from the Expressionist style of the German silent pictures of the 1920s, and filtering them through his own strikingly free aesthetic, Burton can truly create a world like no one else, full of a distinctive idiosyncrasy and style. His design and formation of the city of Gotham is one of the genuinely great cityscape visions in cinema, created with the equally talented visionary stylings of Production Designer Anton Furst and Cinematographer Roger Pratt (In fact, so good was the art direction on the film that it won an Oscar). The streets look grim, dreary, compact, suffocating. There seems to be a permanent shadow hanging over the city, even turning daytime into a downbeat visage. The buildings are so close together that, at ground level, you feel like there’s little room to breath or get away. Considering what was reportedly a very modest budget for effects, they’ve made something quite nice. The lack of real budget does sting a little in the action sequences, particularly the car chase when Batman rescues Vicki Vale from the Joker. Since it really looks like there’s not much room to move, it doesn’t have the complete dynamic impact such a scene should have.
The performances of the film are, mostly, quite strong. As much as there were protests about Tim Burton directing the film, there were virtually pitched assaults on the casting of Michael Keaton in the title role. Again, this was due to the fact that most people had only seen him in light comedies and romance films, so the idea of him donning the cape and cowl was absurd (to really understand it, imagine if they cast Adam Sandler as Batman after only three movies… yes, that’s roughly what people thought). However, Keaton does a really good job, giving a performance that’s understated and based on quiet implication. He also does a pretty good job of being threatening, despite the fact that he’s not exactly the most physically imposing type. One thing I rather do appreciate is that Batman doesn’t really send his enemies off with a dry witticism or flippant remark. He just deals with them and moves on because, dammit, he’s got a job to do. He’s not here for fun.
However, if there’ one performance that you remember from the film, it is of course Jack Nicholson. You could say that for virtually every film he’s in, but he was famous for having stolen the whole film, and you can see why. Never one to be shy of stepping over the crazy line, he’s given free reign to play it big. With a character like the Joker, there’s no such thing as ‘too big’. And he does it so well. Only he could hold the wide grin and dead eyes at the same time, all whilst gleefully dancing, singing or committing a massacre, either on people or works of art. You almost can’t really take his threats seriously because he’s so clearly having fun with it all. A lot of the reason that people remember him so much, aside from the performance, is because, as I said before, Burton prefers spending time with his villains. It’s actually still something of an annoyance to some, those easily identified when they refer to the film as "Jokerman."
The other performances are decent, although suffer from characters being less than fully realised. Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale is interesting to some degree, though it is the characterisation that lets her down. Already a very well known photojournalist (she got the cover of Time magazine), she comes to Gotham to look into the Batman story, but that’s never really sufficiently explained or developed. It feels more like a convenient way to inject her into the story world, where she then spends a fair amount of time being rescued or screaming. There is one moment that should have been bigger, too, when Alfred shows her to Bruce Wayne in the Batcave. As far as the audience knows, this is how she discovers that Wayne is Batman and… nothing. There’s no kind of reaction from either of them. I know that they tried to make everything as downplayed as possible, but this is a huge moment and it lands with all the drama of a marshmallow.
Other supporting characters are okay, but no one really outstanding, again because no one has much to do. Robert Wuhl’s Knox is dogged in a humorous kind of way, but hardly memorable; Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent is cool (because he’s Billy Dee Williams), but nothing is done with him; Carl Grissom, played by Jack Palance, is given some ferocity, but he’s a character quickly removed; and even Tracey Walter’s Bob, though somewhat important to the Joker and beloved by many fans, is only memorable because he’s Tracey Walter. Michael Gough’s Alfred is a good presence, though is rarely more than a good-natured old lackey to Wayne.
Burton’s first crack at the Batman character is, if I’m honest, something of a mixed bag. The visuals are superb, without question. The art direction, cinematography and overall atmosphere of Gotham are really something to behold. The character design of both Batman and the Joker are also very good, with both Keaton and Nicholson doing some fine work in their respective roles, although Nicholson clearly steals the show. Even Danny Elfman’s superb music is almost as famous and influential as John Williams’ work on Superman. And yet, for all of this, there is still something unmistakably lacking in the film. Whilst I don’t think it’s a complete triumph of style over substance, it’s certainly looking in that direction. The pacing is very slow, with little real development of story over such a long duration, so it can feel a bit laborious at times. There’s often a great lack of urgency or tension, with the scene in Vicki Vale’s apartment with Bruce Wayne, which then gets interrupted by the Joker, being one example. For me, it all feels much flatter than it should. Much of the problem could have been addressed by being more streamlined in the narrative, such as excising the subplot about Knox and Vale investigating the existence of Batman. If developed properly, this could have been really good, but at this level, it serves only as an occasional distraction.
This all may sound like I’m badmouthing the film, but I’m not… well, not completely anyway. If nothing else, Batman showed that a dark comic adaptation could work with a mainstream audience. It suitably set the standard of the more grim and sinister superhero films that have been built on, with good and bad results, ever since. Yes, I think there are problems with it on a level of telling a completely gripping story, but there’s no denying the importance of the film and it’s impact on the overall culture of the comic book movie.