Monday, March 21, 2011

Batman (1989)

Is it too bold to call Batman the most influential film of the past 25 years?  Sure, Saving Private Ryan changed battle scenes forever, and Pulp Fiction popularized nonsequential storytelling and awesome dialogue, but I really think there is a case to be made for Batman.  For starters, this is the first "dark" take on any comic book hero; before this, you had the campiness of Batman: The Movie (1966) and Flash Gordon (aaa-AAA-aaa!!!)

This was the first big-budget comic book movie, the first one to make a controversial casting choice (Mr. Mom as Batman?), the first one to take something resembling a real-life look at superheroes (look ma, no spandex!), and the first superhero movie to get award recognition (it won an Oscar and had an acting Golden Globe nomination --- an acting nomination in a comic book movie!).  This is the film that allowed Tim Burton to do whatever he wanted for the next ten or fifteen years.  Heck, this is the sole reason they made the fantastic Batman: The Animated Series, and that alone is enough of a legacy for me.

So, even though you already know the basics, I'm going to run through the Bat-plot.  The movie opens with a couple of thugs robbing a family in Gotham City and making off with their spoils.  Naturally, they go up to the rooftop of a building to do this, because going to a hideout, alley, apartment, or their car would be much too private.  One of the thugs is nervous that "the Bat" will come after them; he heard that so-and-so got dropped off a building by the Bat.  Naturally, that's nonsense.  That is when Batman (Michael Keaton) suddenly appears.  He kicks the ever-loving crap out of one guy, but then takes a bullet to the chest and goes down.  But he doesn't stay down.  He get right back up and scares the remaining thug; Batman politely tells him to spread the word to all his hoodlum friends that Batman is protecting Gotham City's streets.  I detail this opening scene for a reason, but I'll get to that later.

Basically, this is a "Batman Begins" before Batman Begins.  Bats is a fairly new sight in town, more of an urban legend than a known entity.  The police are not sure what to make of him, either, but they've got other things on their plate.  Organized crime has Gotham City under siege.  Instead of doing the logical thing and calling Steven Seagal, Lawman, to fix their problems, Gothamites instead opt to elect a new District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) to help Police Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) in his war on crime.  Their "war" is not terribly effective, though, as local mob kingpin Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) and his number two man, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), are having their way with the town.  Things start to get complicated when Grissom realizes that Napier is sleeping with his fugly girlfriend, Alicia (Jerry Hall), and sets Jack up to get busted by the police. In the ensuing raid, the police (with the help of Batman) manage to back Napier into a corner, only to have him "accidentally" fall into a vat of dangerous chemicals.  Dangerous, but not apparently lethal.  Jack Napier survived his chemical bath with only a few side-effects: chalky white shin, green hair, his cheek muscles frozen into a big grin, and little to no sanity.  The Joker has arrived.

Meanwhile, a couple of reporters, Alex Knox (Robert "Arliss" Wuhl) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), are trying to dig into the Batman story.  Does he exist?  Does he work for the police?  Why are there no photos of him?  Et cetera?  Et cetera?  Little do they realize that the mysterious and wealthy Bruce Wayne spends his evenings dressing up as a giant bat to fight crime.  If I was a reporter and saw all the customized and expensive equipment Batman had (Hello?  Batmobile?  He even has a Batplane!), I would certainly begin suspecting the nearest millionaire, but that's just me.  Can Batman handle these two muckrakers and still defend the city against a sociopath who has just upgraded to psychopath?  And what about love?  Does he have time for love?  Oh, wait...sorry...I got "love" and "beating the hell out of criminals" mixed up again.

This is a movie that changed the industry.  For better or for worse, there would be no Spider-Man, X-Men, or Watchmen without the success of Batman, much less any of the dozens of lesser-known works that have become movies over the past few years.  The first thing this movie does right is in the set design department.  Gotham City looks awesome.  It's big, tall, imposing, and dirty --- the perfect place for crime to breed.  Wayne Manor is perfect, too; it's big, imposing, and museum-like --- absolutely the last place you would want to eat soup.  The costumes are good, too.  It was nice to finally see a superhero that wasn't wearing his underwear on the outside of his outfit.  And, since Batman has no super-powers, adding things like bulletproof armor makes sense; his tools on his utility belt looked real and effective, too.  Of course, Batman's vehicles looked awesome, even if the Batmobile is impractical for city driving.
Right.  It's that easy to find street parking for this beast.
Once you get past the sets, costumes, and props, what are you left with?  Some surprisingly solid acting, actually.  I've always liked Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman, partially because he was able to convey both distraction and mental unrest separately, and also because he made a pretty good Batman.  Let's be honest, though --- his charming Bruce Wayne performance is what grounds this movie.  This is essentially the only action role Keaton ever played, so kudos to Tim Burton for having the vision to cast him.  Of course, you can't talk about Batman without mentioning Jack Nicholson's performance as the Joker.  I think Nicholson's work here has been diminished in the past few years by Heath Ledger's amazing performance in The Dark Knight, but that's a little unfair.  The key comic stories that inspired Ledger's performance had not been written yet when this film was being shot; I know Tim Burton often credits The Killing Joke as inspiration for his movie, but it was published a month before pre-production started for this movie, so I doubt it had much of an impact.  Despite this, Nicholson came off as a devious, dangerous loon, and he's a hell of a lot of fun to watch.  Besides, he manages to look good while wearing a purple suit.  He's no Prince, but he still looks good.  Heck, his Jack Napier performance alone was good enough for its own movie.  Aside from the powerful performances from the two lead actors, most of the supporting cast was only decent.  Michael Gough did a good job as Alfred, Bruce Wayne's fatherly butler, and Tracey Walter (who got the job just because he's friends with Nicholson) was awesome as the Joker's henchman Bob, but the rest were pretty dull.  That's too bad, because Billy Dee Williams is capable of a little more than that (but not much more).  As for Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Jack Palance,  Jerry Hall and the rest...well, they played their parts.  I'll give Jerry Hall some credit --- I have trouble differentiating between her pre-Joker-deformed face and her regular one.  Wait..."credit" was probably the wrong term to use there...

Tim Burton's direction is pretty good, but it is a little dated.  Yes, Batman was surprisingly and refreshingly gritty in 1989.  Yes, he got good (even great) performances from his two lead actors.  The look and feel of the movie are great.  And yet, there is a lot more campiness in this film than I remembered.  Most of it deals with Joker's henchmen; they all have matching, custom-made uniforms, drive professionally detailed Joker-themed cars, and are willing to die for the Joker for reasons I cannot fathom.  As amazing as Bob's final scene is, if I was dumb enough to be a villain's henchman, that would have been the moment I decided to retire.  As for Burton's "dark" take on the characters, it has gotten comparatively lighter with time.  When Batman was first released, it was a revelation to the general public that wasn't nerdy enough to have studied The Dark Knight Returns already.  Over twenty years later, though, it almost feels quaint, especially when compared to Batman Returns and the Christopher Nolan movies.  Despite all that, I think this was a monumental effort by Burton to go against expectations and risk a lot of money on an idea that had no guarantee of success.  Is this Burton's best work?  No, it's not even his best Batman movie.  It is, however, the godfather of the new millennium's summer blockbusters, and it deserves some respect, dammit.

The story doesn't deserve as much respect, though.  I like that this isn't an origin story for Batman, but I wish it was a little less silly at times.  What's so silly?  In a word, the Batplane.  In two words, Joker's revolver.  Let's ignore the idiocy of characters that live in fear of the Joker when he poisons their groceries, but dance in the streets with him if he's giving away money --- that obviously won't have a catch, right?  By the way, Arliss, if there is poison gas killing people all around you, a paper face mask isn't going to protect you.  Thank goodness there are no police near this publicly advertised parade.  Am I the only one who wonders how Batman's identity remains a secret after this movie?  He crashed his custom-made Batplane.  Commissioner Gordon should be fired if he lets his CSI team investigate the wreckage and not track down a manufacturer.

And what about the scene where Bruce Wayne is trying to explain to Vicki Vale that he's Batman?  Man, this scene is a sign of the times.  Wayne tries to explain it to her by talking about personalities having different aspects, and sometimes it's almost like you have to lead another life to express yourself fully.  If this scene was shot today, we would naturally assume that Bruce Wayne is gay.  Instead, Vicki assumes that he is married.  I guess, with Robin out of the picture, there is a little more leeway in that discussion.

Back to the story.  Let's focus on that first scene, where Batman is introduced.  I don't like that Batman, who has been strictly a non-killing vigilante since the 1940s, has been rumored to kill random thugs.  Sure, it's just a rumor, but it still bugs me --- and I'm pretty sure he lets a few random thugs fall to their deaths in the chapel scene, too.  Not cool, Bats.  I also don't like that Batman lets a random street thug pull a gun on him, much less shoot him in the chest and knock him off his Batfeet.  Maybe I just have a little more respect for Batman than most screenwriters, but I think Batman comes off as occasionally amateurish in this movie.  I mean, he has the balls to dress up for Halloween every night and attack violent criminals; you would think he would be a smarter, tougher, meaner opponent than "you shot me, so now I'll scare you."  Even this horribly written comic book panel grasps the Batman idea better than these screenwriters.

Despite the story weaknesses, this is still a fun movie to watch.  I'll admit to nitpicking some of those problems; I just think Batman is an awesome character that deserves the best.  Batman changed what we expected from comic book adaptations and has led to dozens of awesome (and some godawful) action movies since.  It's cool, fun, and influential.  Sure, it's a little silly, but what do you expect from a movie about a guy who dresses up like a rodent to fight crime?

On a closing note, I can't resist mentioning the Batman soundtrack, which was composed by Prince.  I always giggle when I imagine how excited Warner Brothers was to have multi-platinum (and Warner Brothers property) Prince do the whole soundtrack...and then he turned in "Batdance."  Seriously, what the hell was that?

I love me some Prince (he is The Man, after all...well, he's The Kid, anyway), but the success of this soundtrack astounds me.  It topped the Billboard charts and had four legitimately successful singles, including "Batdance," which somehow became a Number One hit single.  That has to be one of the dumbest hit singles of the 80s, and I know there is a lot of competition for that crown.  The public did benefit from this soundtrack in two distinct ways.  First and foremost, we got to see that Prince could be a convincing comic book character (nice hair).  Second, "Batdance" was followed as a single by "Partyman," which means that the first two hit singles from this album were both over seven minutes long.  I dare you to find another album that pulls that off.  Prince is The Man!


  1. After a recent viewing, I too was surprised of the campiness. Still, I think this is the best Batman movie. You have the best Batman and the funnest Joker, which is enought to take the crown.

  2. At times it's about as goofy as the Adam West movie, but it's always about ten times as serious. I agree that it's a watershed movie, but it doesn't hold up that well for me.

    Now, if the movie had Shark Repellent, it would be a completely different story.

  3. Okay, okay, we all value this movie differently. I think the important thing to take from this experience is the awesomeness of Prince.