Monday, May 10, 2021

Bat-May: Batman (1989)

I have so many fond memories of this movie that I scarcely know where to begin an objective review of Tim Burton’s Batman (affectionately dubbed Batman ’89 by a generation hoping – nay, longing – to distance it from an earlier era’s Batman ’66). I can’t recall with precision the first time I saw the film, but I can say with confidence that it was the very first DVD I owned, a gift from my father when the home video format was in its nascence. But when I first built my Personal Canon in 2016, it was a natural inclusion; I’ve loved this film for years, and it occurs to me that its peculiar bizarre nuttiness has really permeated my identity as a moviegoer.

Batman redefines the Dark Knight more than two decades after the go-go groovy incarnation embodied by Adam West and his Swinging Sixties interpretation. Here, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) is a brooding specter of unrelenting justice, a mystery to his city and to Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), who’s come to town to photograph Bruce’s vigilante alter ego, The Batman. While busting up criminal activity at Axis Chemicals, Batman inadvertently creates his greatest nemesis when Jack Napier emerges from a vat of acid as The Joker (Jack Nicholson), a self-described homicidal artist with murderous plans for Gotham City.


Batman is a film that is so iconic because of how quickly it dominated the cultural landscape. Much has been said and written about the cultural saturation of the film, how it changed the superhero genre and action films more broadly, how it reimagined how a blockbuster could perform at the box office. Nicholson’s Joker is both inextricable from the actor’s persona and yet wholly of a piece with the villain’s own flexible characterization; meanwhile, Keaton is to this day still proudly declaring, “I’m Batman.” While the comics had been taking Batman grim ’n’ gritty since the early 1970s (peaking in 1986 with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns), Batman has the titanic reputation of being the movie that set the superhero genre down the straight and dour path.


This is not to say, however, that Batman isn’t a whole lot of fun. In my reviews of Batman: The Animated Series (and even The Killing Joke), I’ve consistently noticed how Mark Hamill’s Joker sets me giggling on a dime, but I’d forgotten that Nicholson’s Joker has the exact same effect. Nicholson’s strength comes from imbuing casual lines like “You’ll never believe what happened to me today” with deadpan sarcasm and repressed theatrical fire, to say nothing of how well that unique Joker look has aged, even on Blu-Ray. His wheezing laugh, too, so quintessential to any successful Joker, is a hoot, especially when it transforms into a fearless manic cackle, often looped over the following scenes, giving the sense that this movie is well and truly The Joker’s. Keaton’s great, too, a perhaps unexpected choice; in fact, he’s so good that we’ve all forgotten that there’s an extended sequence of Bruce Wayne in blue jeans, which feels more out-of-character than having Joker (spoilers) revealed to be the murderer of Thomas and Martha Wayne. But Nicholson doesn’t lean on his reputation; he earns top billing on the poster with a riveting performance that’s so markedly different from Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn two decades later.


The older I get, and even as the world begins to retreat from the notion that superhero comics are (or at least ought to be) strictly for kids, I give a lot of thought to why these characters have become a kind of religion for me. Why do I cling to these four-color figures? In the case of this film, I think part of the appeal was that Batman was, for me, one of the first grown-up movies I’d ever seen – or at least it was one of the first that felt grown-up. It was a movie that didn’t talk down to me, didn’t try to pretty up the world. It painted a picture of life as a horrific carnival, Gotham City as a funhouse reflection of what civilization ought to be. It felt larger than life, but simultaneously it seemed entirely within reach, more gothic than the bright colors of a comic book page and yet divorced enough from reality that I could access it without fear. And it was a movie that didn’t really look like anything else I’d seen; it was almost certainly my first Tim Burton film, and the way it manages to make the dated feel timeless gave the film a very specific stylized identity I couldn’t find elsewhere on the video shelf. (His next film, Edward Scissorhands, feels very much a period piece, an homage to 1950s Anytown, USA.)


Of course, any discussion of Batman has to acknowledge the exquisitely baroque score by Danny Elfman, which has become the gold-standard anthem for multiple generations of Bat-fans. (No matter what you thought of the theatrical cut of Justice League, you had to love hearing that theme once more. It just felt right, scoring Ben Affleck astride the Bat-Signal.) The Animated Series owes so much to Elfman, as does this film overall. I’ll even venture to say that Elfman’s score is a character in itself, serving the same inextricable role here that John Williams’s work does for Star Wars; put another way, this film doesn’t work without Elfman’s ostentatious gusto over the scenes. That Bat-theme, the playful Joker melodies – heck, even the zany zeitgeist of including Prince in a few key scenes – there’s a reason these tracks are seared into our brains (and it’s not just the Lego Batman games, which aired them on an obsessive loop). Elfman is doing career – and genre – defining work with Batman.


If you haven’t seen Batman in a while, it’s high time for another look. On this latest rewatch, I was quite surprised by Alfred’s subplot. If at all, Alfred’s role lives on in cultural memory for the moment when he escorts Vicki Vale into the Batcave, blowing Bruce Wayne’s secret identity. But it’s a moment that the film earns by continually seeding Alfred’s desire for Bruce to move on and find safety in an end to his nightly crusade – all of which, if it seems faintly familiar, seems to anticipate Michael Caine’s “I won’t bury you” plot from The Dark Knight Rises. Michael Gough is quiet and unflappably avuncular as Alfred, a pitch-perfect counterpart to the high mania of the film’s dueling leads, but his deep compassion is so key to the character often brushed off as Batman’s butler. 


I was also struck by the mystery atmosphere that pervades the film, which feels quite fresh nearly thirty years later. We’re so used to superhero films that walk us through the origin story as a matter of course. But here, Batman’s backstory is presented as something of a mystery; it’s The Joker who gets the straightforward origin, lending further credence to the notion that the film is as much (if not more) his as Batman’s. Of course, it’s hard to imagine any filmgoer who doesn’t know who Batman is and how he came to be (I’ve only met one such person in my life), but the film introduces the familiar story beats in an innovative story structure that doles it out slowly, with gravity. When we finally get to the shooting of the Waynes, it’s nightmarish and ethereal, a hazy encounter with trauma, and it’s presented as the final cue to understanding Bruce Wayne’s psyche.


On that count, I’m not sure that the film succeeds – nor, I think, does it want or need to do so. Burton is content to leave Bruce Wayne as a somewhat enigmatic freak, locked in a chicken-and-egg struggle with Jack Napier. Who created whom? Were it not for the film’s ironclad concrete conclusion, one might almost imagine Burton’s universe operating under the conditions suggested by Heath Ledger’s Joker in his final sequence: “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” With the news that Michael Keaton will be reprising his role in the Ezra Miller Flash film, at least half of that statement ended up applying. As for me, it’s one of my favorite movies of all time, so I’ll be returning to it forever.


Batman is rated PG-13. Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren. Based on the DC Comics. Starring Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, and Jack Palance.

For more Bat-May action, the good folks at Collected Editions posted my review of Batman: The Movies, the comic book adaptation of the Batman Quadrilogy. Give them a click - no one reviews comics like Collected Editions!

1 comment:

collectededitions said...

Your post got me thinking it'd be pretty cool if DC collected the O'Neil/Ordway movie adaptation alongside the new Batman '89 comic in the same volume.