Saturday 27 June 2009

Batman (1989)

Saturday 27 June 2009
The Dark Knight Begins

These days, the multiplexes are so bloated with expensive comic-book adaptations that it's difficult to remember when such enterprises were a risky venture. In the summer of 1989 (after a marketing campaign that's still a yardstick for how to successfully hype a blockbuster-in-waiting), Tim Burton's Batman was unleashed on the masses. Back then, most people's knowledge of the Dark Knight were childhood memories of Adam West sliding down a pole in the camp '60s series -- but maybe that's part of the reason why Batman struck a chord; pre-release, people were captivated by the idea of bringing the Caped Crusader into darker relief (sans Robin), while Bat-fans were hoping for something akin to the acclaimed wave of late-'80s graphic novels: "Batman: Year One", "The Dark Knight Returns" and "The Killing Joke"...

Eschewing an origin story for its hero, Batman opens with the criminals of Gotham City already fearing the eponymous nocturnal vigilante. The movie instead charts the fall and rebirth of gangster Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) -- right-hand man of redoubtable crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) and blissfully unaware of his association with the Batman problem. For, in a tweaking of established Bat back-story, Napier was recast as the hoodlum who murdered billionaire Bruce Wayne's (Michael Keaton) parents when he was a child, unwittingly sealing his own fate when boy Bruce decides fight crime as a bat in adulthood, using the resources of his estate.

After a botched raid of the Axis Chemicals factory, Jack is shot in the face by a ricocheted bullet and falls into a vat of toxic chemicals, flushed out into a nearby reservoir and transformed into a white-skinned, green-haired, grinning caricature of himself. Renaming himself "The Joker", he usurps Grissom from his throne and hatches a plot (on the eve of the city's bicentennial celebrations) to poison Gothamites with Smilex -- a chemical agent that causes uncontrollable fits of laughter, leading to death with a fixed grin.

Batman always gets the girl; courtesy Batman Unmasked

In revisiting Batman two decades later, you naturally can't help comparing it to the three '90s sequels and Christopher Nolan's triumphant revamp in '05. What's interesting is how well it stands up, despite the fact its stature as the first "serious interpretation" of Bob Kane's comic has been eclipsed by the approach of Batman Begins. Burton's film walks a fine line between film noir and cartoon silliness; a stylistic mix echoed in its combatants: Batman the brooding straight-man protecting a city that feels stuck in the Art-Deco '30s; The Joker a playful psycho who feels like a creepier Cesar Romero with twisted wackiness. In this incarnation, The Joker's still the psychotic clown with poison-squirting flowers and trouser-length rifles -- in contrast to Heath Ledger's embodiment, where the clown visage was secondary to his mental psychosis.

Perhaps in deference to the Superman model audiences were more familiar with on the silver screen, Batman features a love-interest for Bruce Wayne in the form of plucky photographer Vicki Vale ('80s pinup Kim Basinger). She's adequate as a blonde Lois Lane-type, although Vicki grows less interesting and more shrill as the movie progresses, almost vanishing from our attention once the bat vs. clown finale arrives inside Gotham Cathedral. She's too easily shunted into damsel-in-distress duties, and her romance with Bruce is adolescent in its construct. It's actually a disappointment Burton didn't push to make Vicki a full-blooded femme fatale, to cap the movie's film noir parallels.

Getting under The Joker's skin; courtesy Batman Unmasked

Most characters were window-dressing to the main attraction, of course: Jack Nicholson as the Clown Prince of Crime, a role he chewed the screen with to huge acclaim at the time. Sure, it's a performance that now faces criticism in the shadow of Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning approach, but it's not a bad take on the character, just a different take. Nicholson's Joker isn't as nuanced or frightening as The Dark Knight's villain, but he's a necessary bridge between the '60s colourful-camp and '80s pop-cool. Slightly constrained by the rictus grin make-up, Nicholson nevertheless dominates Batman and, in stark contrast to Ledger's version, at least gets to make the audience laugh at his cruelty -- in scenes like the one where he turns a dissenter into a steaming carcass with a super-charged joy-buzzer.

Interesting, while superstar Nicholson's thunder has been stolen by a superior successor in the intervening years, Michael Keaton has proven himself the better of Christian Bale beneath the famous cowl. Bale has more complex scripts to sink his teeth into as Bruce/Batman, but it's Keaton who inhabits the character and doesn't need to affect a tough-guy voice to labour his alter-ego. He's also a stone's throw from the insane supervillain he's chasing, as one scene finds him suspended upside-down in gravity boots like a bat when he should be in bed with vixen Vicki. That's not the behaviour of a man totally in charge of his faculties, is it? Whereas Batman Begins went to great lengths to justify the ridiculousness of a playboy billionaire becoming a vigilante bat, the '89 Batman lets slip that Bruce Wayne's mentally unstable.

Drivin' Ms. Vale; courtesy Batman Unmasked

Keaton's all the more impressive considering the fact Sam Hamm and Walter Skaaren's script is clearly more interested in The Joker, so much so that the titular hero is just a stoical foil for the cartoon-y villain (a continuing problem for all three of the '90s sequels, actually.) At the time, Keaton's casting was met with consternation by fanboys, who where silenced when they got to see his low-key portrayal. Or maybe attention was entirely drawn to Nicholson's loony uncle act. How funny that our opinion of Keaton and Nicholson has inverted in light of Bale and Ledger's performances...

Batman is easy to appreciate and find virtue in, but hard to love unconditionally -- and increasingly so. Even before the sequels and reboot arrived, I never enjoyed this film from beginning to end. It's a collection of funhouse moments punctuating a moody malaise. For a Tim Burton movie, it lacks the filmmaker's sense of delirium he embraced for the sequel, Batman Returns, so this first effort is curiously inert as a result. There aren't many stand-out sequences that leap to mind, beyond its Batwing climax and ensuing cathedral punch-up ("you wouldn't hit a man with glasses, would ya?") The final confrontation works especially well because the antithecal characters come to realize they owe their very existence to the other.

Hostage-taking with a smile; courtesy Batman Unmasked

The first Act is particularly thick with its grubby noir aesthetic (drowning in that vibe, at times), while many of the film's action sequences now inspire yawns. Seeing Batman order his Batmobile to stop via a handheld microphone looks positively quaint in 2009 ("... where does he get those wonderful toys?" -- indeed.) In '89 it was easy to be swept up in the hype, the majesty of the late Anton Furst's production design, Danny Elfman's superb score, the phallic Batmobile, Nicholson's cackling clown, all while admiring the lack of kitsch and a boy sidekick -- but, 20 years later, it all feels quite hollow, thin and unchallenging.

Overall, Batman is undoubtedly a seminal movie and its influence has been felt in every subsequent superhero blockbuster. As a comic-book adaptation, it represents the biggest cinematic evolution of that art form since the joyously epic Superman: The Movie. There's plenty of details to recommend here, but the wider picture is noticeably static and dull compared to its immediate sequel's joie de vivre, not to mention intellectually empty compared to Christopher Nolan's heady revival.

directed by: Tim Burton written by: Sam Hamm & Walter Skaaren (based on characters created by Bob Kane) starring: Michael Keaton (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Jack Nicholson (Jack Napier/The Joker), Kim Basinger (Vicki Vale), Michael Gough (Alfred), Billy Dee Williams (Harvey Dent), Jack Palance (Carl Grissom) / Robert Wuhl (Alexander Knox), Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon), Jerry Hall (Alicia), Tracey Walter (Bob The Goon), Lee Wallace (The Mayor) & William Hootkins (Lt. Eckhardt) / Warner Bros. / 126 mins. / $48 million (budget)