By MrMazz 5 Comments
What is this? It is my deep dive into the majority of Batman's film history. I originaly posted these over on Screened and that ComicVine has proper wiki pages for comic related films it seems like a good time to put them up here. I'll admit that this first entry isn't that great, I was just getting back into writing about film proper and am noticably rusty. I've also done a bit of editing to make things a bit clearier.
Now why do I call this volume 1? Well because this is one of 2. Vol. 1 deals with All the films pictured (in left to right order) except for The Dark Knight Rises. I need another picture poster to even things out. Vol 2. focuses on The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 and 2, Return of the Joker, Year One, SubZero, and finally The Dark Knight Rises. Vol2. is also still in progress with Dark Knight Returns Part 2, Year One, and Rises needing to be put down. Hopefully reposting these will kick my butt into gear and I'll finish this out.
For a movie called Batman. Tim Burton’s first trip to Gotham has a lack of Batman or his alter ego Bruce Wayne. It also doesn't feel like what people have come to expect from the Batman franchise...even though this started the franchise.
Rumors fill the night of a giant bat creature sucking the blood of of ne'er-do-well. This may scare the lower end thugs, but the big crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) and his second Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) don’t care.These two have other things to worry about newly elected DA Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) and commissioner James Gordon (Pat Hingle) are sniffing around Grissoms criminal empire and attempting to take the boss down. Gotham may have been a great city. But now it is down trodden and dirty under the control of Grissom and corrupt officials.
Tim Burton's Gotham City is a dirty place. From the opening fly through the city you can tell this was once a glorious place. The glory days are clearly over. The city now looks more like LA in Blade Runner. Grime and smoke fill the air. The newly elected DA and Mayor are constantly fighting over the budget with the city now nearly bankrupt.Jack Napier remarks that “Decent people shouldn't live here. They'd be happier someplace else.”. The joke about why would the rich Wayne family go down the dirty dark alley wouldn’t work in this Gotham since every alley and street is dirty. The architecture is a mixture of gothic and 1940s-era buildings painted with bright but now muted colors. All of this looks and feels rather fake on screen. Clearly these are sets, but the lighting and appearance don’t make them feel lived in: they just look like sets in a movie.Gotham shines when it is shown at night in long shots, but as you get closer things begin to change.The city's more important inhabitants are shown wearing tailored suits with bright colors out of the 1940s contrasting with the more 1980s specific clothing the poor people of Gotham wear. These contrasting images do make the rubbery Batman costume look more at home .
This fakeness makes Batman look more like a stage play than motion picture. Everyone is making sharp big movements. Large reactions occur after being shot or shooting someone. Batman isn’t exactly a Krav Maga using badass other than a bit of a karate stance all of Keatons strikes are big impactful punches and kicks befitting a superhero. None of the characters are grounded, Wayne is barely explored and used simply to fill a rubber suit: Joker is the Joker nothing grounded about him: and Vikki Vale, who at first seems to be a headstrong female character turns into a boring damsel in distress. All the villains grumble with deep voices from Grissom down to Lt. Eckhardt.Scenes are punctuated by Danny Elfmans score but sometimes come off more like a soap opera.
The theater like presentation can also be seen in the Axis Chemicals sequences. The camera remains largely in place, showing medium shots of police, the corrupt police, Napiers gang, and the Batman fight. This stillness lets us see the bad guys move around while Batman looms in the background preparing to strike.
A Batman without the Joker isn’t really interesting. So writers Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren make it extra clear these two need each other by having the pair responsible for eachothers births as costumed characters. As a low level thug the movie has Napier shoot young Bruce Waynes parents causing Bruce Wayne to down the rubber cowl. Wayne unknowingly repays Napier by accidentally dropping him into a vat of chemicals bleaching his skin white and turning his hair green.
Despite the obvious connections the pair isn’t drawn together by fate, or some extraterrestrial force, but by a woman. Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) is a photojournalist who was drawn to Gotham because of Alexander Knox writing on the urban legend.Soon after arriving she strikes up a relationship with Bruce Wayne. But also draws the eye of the Joker. The two proceed to fight over Vale and the future of Gotham.
The Vale-Wayne dynamic is odd. Bruce Wayne doesn't appear to be all that charming or personable at first. Their first date ends with them drunkenly going up stairs to his bedroom and that’s about it. The double life as Batman complicates the relationship forcing Vale to follow Wayne to the site of his parents deaths, unbeknownst to her. At this point her character functions more like a surrogate for the non-comic reading audience as she uncovers the murder of his parents. As soon as she finds this out though she never really brings it up again. Wayne on the other hand seems all too ready to just tell her his big secret despite only being with her for no real length of time. The apartment scene where he fumbles over his confession is one of Keaton’s better scenes since he can do a bit of comedy and actually show emotion. It soon goes from comedic to tense when the Joker once again shows up, chasing after Vale shooting Wayne and in the process - all before uttering “have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight.” Wayne’s protective nature seems to seal the pair’s love for eachother since Alfred leads her into the Batcave forcing, each of them to confront Wayne’s alter ego. Only they don’t really: they just have an overly dramatic conversation about how they plan to make it work...after the Joker is dealt with.
The Joker-Vale dynamic is far more one sided. The Joker is initially drawn to her by her beauty.Joker is later in full “artist” mode and wants to use her partly as a muse and to create another masterpiece. This relationship is only used to drive the plot forward and set up the climactic battle atop the cathedral.It reminds me of classic monster movies where the creature falls for the beautiful blonde dragging her into its personal hell.
Even though his name is in the title, there isn’t a lot of Batman or Bruce Wayne in the film. Other than a brief comedic fight scene we do not get another look at Wayne until 20 minutes later, and we have to wait another two until he actually speaks. Michael Keatons casting caused quite the stir back in the day. Keaton was more known for roles in movies like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice. His face doesn't exactly jump out at you when you think of Bruce Wayne. Burton wanted him because after Beetlejuice he thought Keaton could show the inner darkness of a character like Wayne. We don’t really get a chance to know Keaton’s Bruce Wayne or his “darkness” since he has very little to do.
In most Batman stories Bruce is shown to be conflicted by his responsibility to Gotham and having his own private life. Most of the time this conflict manifests itself with a relationship, Viki Vale. Not much conflict comes out of this relationship. Other than a date, the pair don’t really have a “relationship”, it’s more like a chase. Wayne concludes that he has to tell her his secret too quickly and with little thought. The reveal of his second life is followed by a quiet, overly dramatic conversation about his night job and a promise to make it work. The Wayne-Vale relationship plays out how most romances in an action would movie play out, but is underdeveloped.It does not work in Batman. Burton doesn't explore what drives Bruce Wayne: it isn’t until about a hour in that we learn about his parents being murdered. Which is hardly known to the public in the film.Even when we get a brief flashback of the murder it doesn't leave a lasting impact on the audience.This lack of information about Wayne doesn’t make him some sort of mysterious crime fighter, it just makes him blasé.Fans of the Batman mythos can obviously piece together Waynes motivation and story but the more casual moviegoer is left with a boring protagonist.Wayne seems there more out of necessity for his alter ego.
Viki Vale starts out as a promising strong female character but by the end she becomes little more than a plot device. Like all the leading women in Batman movies, she strikes up a relationship with Bruce Wayne that somehow gets him to question his commitments as Batman or want to share his secret. The relationship isn’t given enough: she time simply falls in love with him at first glance with no opportunity for any emotional connection. Still, even the slimmest of relationships puts her in the position of being the damsel in distress for Batman to save as the Joker like King Kong, drags her to the top of a cathedral.
The draw for the movie for non-comicbook fans was Jack Nicholson as the Joker. As an introduction to what a more modern take on the Joker, Jack Nicholson does a good job. Initially Nicholson just seems to play himself in the role of Napier, but after a bath in chemicals his performance becomes far more manic. Even before the chemical bath we are told multiple times that Napier is a psychopath. If he was hinged at all in the beginning that is all loss after he kills his former boss Grissom. At first Nicholson plays to an invisible person in the room, but not quite breaking the fourth wall: which is lost as the movie goes on.As he takes over all the gangs of Gotham his methods resemble an edgier Cesar Romero Joker from the 1960s Batman show. Both characters are “tricksters” but Nicholson is the one stabbing crime bosses in the throat with a pen and electrocuting another.His madness reaches its fullest when becomes insistent that he is, in fact, an artist and just wants to make human art. Nicholson delivers his lines now fast, cackling like a hyena. Like other contemporary takes on the character, he wants nothing but chaos and destruction though, unlike later versions he wants to have a laugh about it at the same time.The Jokers wants to destroy Gotham and from its ashes rebuild it in his smiling image.
This version of the Joker doesn't really work 20 years later. Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger both disappeared into the Clown Prince of Crime. That can’t be said for Nicholson, who basically played it straight with a bit of a laughter and jerky movements. It isn’t that he isn’t “scary.” but that it never felt authentic. In the end it was just Nicholson under some makeup and prosthetics. The disproportionate amount of screen time given to Nicholson to chew the scenery as the Joker makes him by far the most iconic character coming out of the movie.
Describing this Joker as an “edgier Cesar Romero Joker” is apt since like his popular predecessor he isn’t all that threatening. Even though he wants to “run this city into the ground.”, his plans to cause panic and chaos aren’t that scary. Using his control of Axis Chemicals the Joker contaminates a variety of beauty products that when combined will cause the victim to laugh to death and die with a jokerish smile on their face. This is revealed to the audience and Gotham via news segments. This is one of the films better moments as we are shown newspaper headlines and short scenes of the Mayor and DA trying to handle the situation.This attempt at tension is appreciated but not all that effective. After a couple days with the fear of makeup set, in our once beautiful newscasters are now haggard,unshaven, grimy individuals.Seeing this Bruce Wayne and Alfred go shopping off screen. The matter of the poisoned chemicals is dropped so we could have our first meeting between the Batman and Joker. Soon afterwards Batman gives Vale the cure to Jokers poison and we are once again greeted by the grimey reporters now happy that they can once again shower. It is heavily implied that a fair amount of people die after Joker released the initial amount of tainted products but we don’t get to see any of it we are simply told. Hinting at the horrors off screen may work in horror films, Batman is definitely not that. This could've been a turning point for the audience view of him, Nicholson was schooling Keaton on screen and his character while a crazy gangster was entertaining. Reminding the audience that this man killed 100 people would have reminded everyone who the good guy is and who isn’t.
In the comics and in all other forms of media the Joker has never been shown to be a physical threat, the same goes for Jack Nicholson. The final battle has Batman fighting goons longer than fighting the mastermind. When Batman is done dispatching the final guard, a large black man who is thrown down the tower to his death. His fight with Joker is one sided and comical. The only bit of offense Joker effects is a hard bunch to the stomach that hurts him more than Batman. True to his trickster nature he gains the upper hand by playing possum after going over the side of the cathedral. Surprising Batman and Vale, he leaves them dangling from a crumbling ledge as his helicopter arrives. After gloating and nearly dropping Vale he gleefully taunts the couple as he is about to ascend his ladder. But he is the bad guy and must die or at least be stopped so Batman quickly fires a double ended bat device tying Joker to a gargoyle. The Joker not being a physical specimen soon loses his grip, quickly falling to his death. When the camera shows the Joker again he is still laughing surrounded by police officers, Gordon cautiously probes the body finding a recording of his laughter stuck on loop. The Joker is dead.
In the end Batman gave us an excellent Danny Elfman score and visuals of a Gotham city trapped in time. Both the music and visual look of Gotham would be further explored in Tim Burtons sequel Batman Returns(1992) and in Batman: The Animated Series. The movies official soundtrack also gave Prince another commercially successful album with songs like “Partyman”,”Scandalous”, and “The Future”.
For all its faults and cheapness Batman was probably a fine bit a cinema in its day. It helped launch a huge franchise of movies and TV shows. It capped off the rise of Tim Burton to become one of the more well known and distinctive directors working. Its dark smoggy atmosphere clashed with the brighter Superman movies.It just hasn’t aged well aesthetically and its story isn’t strong enough to make up for it. This, by no means, is a bad movie. I would still pick this over other entries into the Batman franchise.
Supplamental Reading List
- Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon Is Dr. Will Brookers PhD Thesis and a good in depth cultural read on the long lasting character. It ends in 1999
- Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman is Dr. Will Brookers follow up book 10 years later looking at the Nolan trilogy of films as well using them as a disscusion of the role of authorship and extra-textual sources inconjunction with the main text.
Batman, Time Warner, and Franchise Filmmaking in the Conglomerate Era is Kimberly Ann Owczarski's dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosphy
- Discourses of Cinematic Culture and the Hollywood Director: The Development of Christopher Nolan’s Auteur Persona is Erin Elizabeth Hill-Parks dessertation looking at the rise of Christopher Nolan status as an Auteur in contempoary Hollywood.