“And now comes the part where I relieve you, the little people, of the burden of your failed and useless lives. But, as my plastic surgeon always said, ‘If you gotta go…go with a smile!'”
Historically, comic book creators and writers have had to strike a precarious balance between fantasy and reality in order for their tales to work, to create a world where super-powered heroes can battle outlandish villains in a way that, ideally, still carries weight and is grounded enough to be relatable. Tip the scale too far to one extreme or the other and the proceedings risk total collapse, played to the tune of either a cartoony jaunt or a funeral dirge. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight received tons of credit in 2008 for shifting the prevailing winds toward the production of markedly darker comic book visions for the screen – almost singlehandedly trademarking the nonsense adjective “gritty” in the process – but that rush to judgment overlooks a few key factors. The Dark Knight deserves all its plaudits and more, but its success is predicated not on the gravitas of Batman or the struggle of Bruce Wayne, or even the invocation of Gotham City (a barely disguised Chicago) as a particularly remarkable, vibrant setting, but rather on the size of the production, the heft and scale of which translates to the screen (especially in IMAX) and impresses mightily, and, above all, its unforgettable villains. Heath Ledger’s Joker – casually anarchic, disturbingly unhinged – is one for the record books, and Aaron Eckhart, though forced to play out Harvey Dent/Two-Face’s entire tragic character arc in about 30 minutes of screen time, is nearly his equal. With Ledger lost to him and both his indelible villains sidelined, Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises overcompensated in technical terms and completely lost its heart in the midst of a muddled, multi-layered storyline. Whereas Knight’s sprawl was epic, Rises’ was just irretrievably messy.
It’s an unfortunate fact, already inadvertently reinforced by this review, the degree to which The Dark Knight has superseded Tim Burton’s Batman in the popular consciousness. They are radically different yet strangely complementary retellings of the Batman vs. Joker struggle, each built on the bedrock of an iconic performance (The Joker is almost inarguably the greatest comic book villain ever, and among the medium’s greatest characters regardless of alignment) and a phenomenon at the box office. In a way, each film is the other’s only true peer. I’m not here to argue they shouldn’t be linked. Burton’s Batman was, of course, an inescapable movie event in a way that hardly happens anymore, and in many respects the box office flashpoint of its era, nestled on the continuum of summer blockbusters at an almost exact midpoint between Return of the Jedi and Jurassic Park. It was a transitional blueprint for the action blockbusters that followed, and enough of a change of pace from the era’s franchises (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Robocop) that it would’ve stood apart as something special even without all the accompanying noise. The pervasive, all-encompassing marketing blitz, though, the catchphrases, the soundtrack by Prince (a surprisingly decent but still spotty album, which Shaun of the Dead so famously decided should be served up as a projectile against encroaching zombie hordes over, say, Sign O’ The Times): all these elements may serve to cheapen or devalue the film to the modern viewer, who, fed a steady diet of superhero spectacle for over 15 years now, might well wonder what the fuss is about. To my eyes, Batman is as good as any comic book movie in history at striking and maintaining that difficult balance between fantasy and reality, and, as it passes its 25th Anniversary, practically begs for a fresh viewing and reevaluation.
Batman as a character has a history and tradition every bit as storied as Superman, but following the Man of Steel onto the silver screen proved an elusive proposition. The era’s average conception of the Caped Crusader was almost certainly more informed by the campy, ridiculous mid-1960s “Batman” television series than by compelling mid-1980s comic book storylines like “The Dark Knight Returns” and “The Killing Joke” that sought overtly to reclaim him as a shadowy, serious and dangerous figure. Despite its relatively inclusive tone, Batman falls defiantly into the latter camp, eschewing the catchy “na-na-na-na” theme for Danny Elfman’s by turns propulsive and brooding score, and presenting its Gotham City not as a Hollywood back lot orphanage for wayward exclamatory word balloons (BAM! POW!) but as a den of corruption rotting from the inside out, its streets apparently teeming with a mixture of equal parts predator and prey. Its Batman (a terse, burdened Michael Keaton in an overanalyzed, underappreciated performance) begins the movie already in mid-stride, building steam as a combination vigilante and urban legend, feared by Gotham’s prodigious criminal element and deeply mistrusted by the police he’s ostensibly helping. Hounding his trail are local reporter Alexander Knox (comedian Robert Wuhl, cheerfully cynical) and photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger, bringing unnecessary dimension to what more easily could’ve been a generic bombshell), who are convinced that the legend is real, and that obtaining proof is their most direct path to a Pulitzer Prize. As Batman’s alter ego, billionaire entrepreneur Bruce Wayne, deals with his increasing profile and invites the gorgeous photojournalist deeper into his life, a sting operation gone wrong transforms a frustrated mobster into the nefarious master criminal The Joker (an unstoppable Jack Nicholson), who rapidly develops both a grand, inimitable style of wrongdoing and a serious grudge against the only man in Gotham who doesn’t instantly make him laugh.
Though it would’ve been willed into existence by ambitious studio executives either way, it’s still a minor miracle that the keys to the Batman franchise were given to Tim Burton, an experienced young animator but a relative neophyte as a director. At the time, Burton was the veteran of only two major releases, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, endearing oddball achievements that would almost immediately become revered cult classics. Burton’s sample size in 1988 may have been small, but his skills were marketable, his ambition was clearly growing, and his vision, the calling card on which his career has at times surely coasted over the years, was fresh, exciting and formidable. Besides his determination to bring the public conception of Batman back into line with how he was originally conceived by Bob Kane (who here makes a winking cameo as a newspaper cartoonist), the surest sign of Burton’s imprint lies in his visual conception of Gotham City as a riot of Gothic and Art Deco architecture (with some clear Steampunk precursors), ominous and just shy of otherworldly, all greys and dark golds, coppery browns and blacks, blown up to colossal proportions against a turgid, forbidding night sky. Channeled through the late Anton Furst’s magnificent production design, the famous comic book port of call becomes one of the great settings in American film.
Batman was released in 1989, two years before T2 revolutionized CGI (and blockbuster filmmaking) irrevocably, and its visual splendor represents if not the full flowering then perhaps the last gasp of miniature and practical effects as indispensable elements of movie magic. If so, it is some last ride. The redesigned Batmobile, with its batwing fins, sliding cabin door, and furious coal furnace exhaust, is a thing of black beauty. Furst’s Matte painted backdrops are simply gorgeous, in particular the film’s opening shot of Gotham, seen in the fog-shrouded distance from a viewpoint in the adjoining bay. Where a modern movie might plow through the night toward the city like a locomotive, Burton feels no need to show off. The production does so much of the lifting for him. Instead, he establishes the larger scene, regards it just long enough to register as something fantastic and ominous, then deposits the viewer directly at street level, where his camera will spend much of the next two hours, embroiled in the struggle and muck with its subjects. Details aren’t fussed over, they are merely presented to a far greater impact, though whenever Burton takes a jump, he jumps impossibly high, as when Batman’s plane flies through the bat signal, guns blazing, trained on a kamikaze course toward his earthbound adversary, or up to the roof of Gotham’s towering cathedral, where the two have their final, fatal dance. Burton’s prevailing outsider’s worldview and embrace of oddity (aspects for which he was less famous in those days) color the whole endeavor, but his commitment to maintaining the film’s tonal balance rarely wavers. Though at some points toward the end I admit I felt his enthusiasm spilling over, Burton’s direction is self-assured and effective throughout.
The supporting cast is colorful but superfluous. What matters to Batman are the two performances at its core, which deliver in big, albeit different, ways. Keaton made his name in the 1980s as a comedic leading man, and though he would prove his dramatic bona fides in films to come, his casting as Bruce Wayne/Batman was highly controversial. Keaton’s calling card as an actor is spontaneity and emotional availability, the sense that his character is thinking on his feet and adapting to circumstances in real time. He brings a wild card aspect and innate intensity to the role of straight-laced hero, turning it into something more of a hybrid. The scenes he spends in the direct company of Nicholson’s Joker, alternately as Bruce Wayne and Batman, prove him the equal of his infinitely more hyped co-star. Keaton to me is the best cinematic Batman (thanks to director Joel Schumacher, who mangled the franchise in the wake of Burton’s pre-ordained departure, there are several from which to choose), and it isn’t even close. Christian Bale’s recent performances are distinguished, but he doesn’t do enough with the character, and falls victim somewhat to the dour overall mood of the trilogy itself. Keaton’s surprising physicality and established comedic chops help make him a much more buoyant and multi-faceted hero, a foil capable of hurt, determination and yearning, with light banter on the side. Burton’s Batman should’ve spawned a trilogy instead of a duet, with Keaton at the head of its table. As that series ran its course, it would have become increasingly esoteric (just take a look at Burton’s striking, unfairly maligned Batman Returns), not to mention less profitable, but remained artistically marvelous. I mourn.
If the intent behind Keaton’s Bruce Wayne was to create a relatable billionaire, Nicholson’s Joker is almost unknowable in the extreme. A loud, brash, self-proclaimed “homicidal artist”, The Joker is played here not as Heath Ledger’s agent of chaos but rather the human id completely unchained and allowed to indulge baser desires without consequence. In life, Nicholson’s mobster Jack Napier was an awful but cautious man. A near death experience at Batman’s hands transforms him and frees him up to – my apologies to Joseph Campbell – “follow his bliss”, which happens to involve the indiscriminate killing of lots and lots of people. The Joker throws himself into his new calling with gusto, and it’s delightful to witness. Nicholson has been a movie star my entire life and remains one, even years removed from his last acting role. His Joker is as much a showman as a maniac, a malevolent force of nature, and Nicholson is given carte blanche to explore his more flamboyant tendencies, on occasion to a fault. Warner Brothers envisioned his Joker as the prestige flagpole from which to fly the Batman flag, not unlike Marlon Brando’s glorified cameo in Superman: The Movie. That movie had the great Gene Hackman to provide its static, however, and Nicholson wisely realized that merely collecting a paycheck wasn’t an option if he was to play someone as ruthless and unpredictable as The Joker. His Joker is broad as a barn and blood red. Nicholson’s malicious and prodigious laughter always seems genuine. You can sense him relishing the freedom of his role as much as his Joker does in real time.
It is forever on the villain’s shoulders that the success of a Batman film rests. Ledger’s recent performance, for which he invented psychology and twitchy mannerisms and committed perhaps a little too fully, was all the more remarkable and rightly celebrated for happening to escape the long shadow of Nicholson’s already iconic 1989 interpretation. One incarnation shouldn’t necessarily replace the other, though. I’d liken it to choosing either Sir Anthony Hopkins or Mads Mikkelsen as my favorite Hannibal Lecter. I value both performances immensely – Hopkins charmed and terrified the entire world in 1992 – but Mikkelsen is just so prominent in my mind lately. Regardless, it’s no longer an easy dismissal, and that is the hallmark of successful reinvention. Batman is the original modern superhero blockbuster, the saga that launched a thousand capes, made in a time when there were more limits but somehow fewer rules, with an artisan’s care for what made it to the screen, a tricky mastery of tone and tenor, and two complimentary, almost perfectly calibrated performances – one huge, one human, both kind of heroic – at its center. Nicholson is repeatedly tasked with lifting the movie through sheer force of will, as when he and his goons ransack an art gallery as a weird romantic overture to Basinger’s Vicki Vale, or when he hijacks the local airwaves to air a cheeky infomercial touting killer pharmaceuticals he has already flooded into the Gotham market, or stands astride a parade float, throwing loose cash and poison gas at the grasping populace in equal measure. Keaton’s Caped Crusader is his equal as much as any man could be, and the results are visually stunning, bizarre and fun, grand (Guignol?) and involving. Tim Burton’s Batman set the pace. It took Hollywood decades to catch up.
“Batman” (1989) 4/4 stars