With this week’s arrival of The Dark Knight Rises – Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy capper – I was getting all nostalgic and decided to revisit an earlier Batman film. But unlike what I’m sure most others will be doing right around now (a Batman Begins and Dark Knight double bill), I bypassed the Nolanverse, circled around Schumachertown and headed straight for the 1989 Tim Burton original.
You all know the story: billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) dons the cape and cowl by night to do battle with fresh-from-an-acid-bath maniac, the Joker (Jack Nicholson). For mainstream audiences, this was their first taste of the real Batman. Dark, brooding and violent, this came as a shock to those whose only prior knowledge of the character involved Adam West and KAPOW bubbles. It spawned a brilliant animated series and three sequels of varying quality, before the series was rebooted in 2005 to much critical acclaim. The original still remains my favourite, however, but just to prove this isn’t going to be a “Burton RULZ, Nolan DR00LZ” tirade, I’ll start with some things I didn’t like about Batman.
First off, it’s clear that Burton wasn’t much of an action director. While edited more coherently than any of Batman Begins’ rumbles (jerky close-ups abound), most of Keaton’s punch-ups do have an overly staged, clunky quality. Perhaps this only became apparent in the wake of Nolan and co. re-envisioning Batman as a flying ninja (pretty much), but this particular approach to dishing out justice hasn’t aged too well. Not that it isn’t satisfying, mind you. Whether Batman’s throwing goons over cars, grappling them with his thighs of steel, or utilizing a wrist-mounted piston device (?) to ram one acrobatic thug’s testicles right up to his stomach, there’s much typical 80s action movie fun to be had.
Then there are those undeveloped plot points that always bugged me. Stuff like the Joker’s brisk rise to the top of Gotham’s criminal underworld via the quill of death is notable, but I’m looking mainly at his attempt to poison unsuspecting citizens with tainted health/beauty products, and how quickly Batman manages to thwart those plans. On-screen, the Dark Knight has never really lived up to his “World’s Greatest Detective” moniker (possibly excluding the 60s show), and this would have been a prime opportunity to showcase that particular trait of Wayne’s, but it’s sadly brushed over.
Lastly, I’ve never been fully satisfied with some of the film’s supporting characters. Commisioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) in particular is shoved far into the background, while the corrupt Eckhardt (William Hootkins) could have been a more prominent villain, and Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) is mainly here to scream and be helpless (even Katie Holmes shot Cillian Murphy in the face with a taser!). And yes, that is Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent. Shame he never got to play Two Face in a later film.
Granted, you can’t give everyone the same amount of attention. If you do, you end up with a lethargic run time and glacial pacing like The Dark Knight (let me have one shot). Besides, the few that stand out do shine. Michael Gough is nothing less than lovable as Alfred. Alex Knox could have been overtly annoying, but Robert Wuhl makes him the most likeable character in the film. Then you’ve got Bob (Tracey Walter), who’s been described as the Boba Fett of Batman. I couldn’t put it any better.
But this is the Batman and Joker show, after all. I’ll focus on the latter first, since there’s not much to say about Nicholson’s character that hasn’t already been discussed at length. As the laid back, drawling Jack Napier, Nicholson is essentially playing himself. Once the makeup’s applied, he brings on the crazy with plenty of delicious black comedy. The scene where he uses a hand buzzer to fry one mobster, whooping and singing as he does so, before having a one-sided conversation with the charred corpse, perfectly encapsulates Nicholson’s Joker. And I do love how his plan consists of: bring chaos to Gotham, get revenge on Batman, and win the heart of Kim Basinger.
Keaton’s take on Bruce Wayne fascinates me. He’s not the square-jawed playboy you might anticipate. In fact, he’s pretty dweeby and the LAST person you’d expect to be the goddamn Batman. Thing is, Keaton’s always been one of those actors whose eyes do all the talking. You can see that level of unpredictability within him, and you instantly know there’s a dark side waiting to take over (“YOU WANNA GET NUTS?!”). But say you’re still not convinced. Well, put that suit on him and there’s an instant transformation. Suddenly, you believe this guy could fly out of the darkness to ruin your night. The best part is he doesn’t need to sound like a rabid Scooby-Doo to pull off scary either (okay, two shots).
What’s really surprising was the initial reaction his casting received. “Mr. Mom? Are they serious?!” came the response. There was even some form of pre-internet petition begging Warner Bros. to cast someone else (dunno who, Mel Gibson had already turned it down). Though best known for his comedic roles, Keaton’s understated yet haunting performance turned heads and earned the respect it deserved. Personally, as someone who is only barely familiar with the comics (!), Keaton remains my definitive Caped Crusader.
On that note, I should address one of the biggest gripes long-time comic fans have with Burton’s film: Batman kills. Though he does leave some foes out cold on the ground for Gotham’s finest to clean up, he also blows up an entire chemical factory filled with who knows how many workers, before mercilessly gunning down various Joker goons with his Bat-plane’s Bat-machinegun. He’d only go on to burn people alive in Batman Returns! But in all fairness, his killing spree doesn’t initiate until the final act (hell, he tries to save Napier in the chemical factory), and that was after a certain feather-ruffling plot twist gave him an understandable nudge in the murderous direction.
Ah yes... the twist. Spoilers ahead (duh). Even if loyal Bat-fans had calmed down about Keaton being cast, the revelation that Jack Napier was in fact the one who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents would have most of them vomiting in the cinema, Exorcist style. All of a sudden, Batman becomes a revenge movie which, from what I understand, goes against everything the character has ever stood for. And yes, it is a little contrived. On the other hand (bear with me), the ultimate realisation that these two have in fact been linked since long before their alter-egos even existed only strengthens what was already a fantastic hero/villain relationship. Still, it wasn’t a popular creative decision... and Aeus, if you’re reading this... I understand.
The buddy movie that never was.
I’ll be the first to admit it: my love for Batman stems mostly from aesthetic reasons. This is vintage Burton through and through. Gotham’s stunning design features a bizarre mishmash of gothic fantasy and film noire (... goth-noire?), while Danny Elfman’s classic score perfectly underscores every scene. Add that to the already effective mix of stand-out performances and exciting action, and Batman becomes this borderline operatic experience – not unlike Conan the Barbarian or Blade Runner. This may raise a few eyebrows, but I think there’s enough information in the visuals, and enough emotion running through the music to argue that Batman could work as a silent film!
Of course, you’d have to take out the Prince songs first...