“What are you?”
If you are of a certain age that exchange between a terrified mugger and psychopath in a leather bat suit is probably the most iconic Batman has ever been as a character. Whilst I am not unaware of the failings in Tim Burton’s gothic take on the character I’ll admit to having a massive amount of love for the film he created. Of course the problem is disengaging nostalgic affection from the critical process and as such I’ve had to try and take something of an objective look at a film that was a defining cinematic part of my childhood.
Back in the late 1980s Batman was going through some interesting changes. Whilst the general publics concept of the character would be rooted in the colourfully cult TV series of the sixties Batman’s comic book audience were being introduced to a darker and more introverted version of the character. Frank Miller’s 1986 comic The Dark Knight Return’ would showcase an older Batman, a battle ravaged veteran who had attempted to retire his nocturnal activities. Switching between Batman’s own introspective musings and snippets of the media reaction to his reappearance The Dark Knight Returns would show both the need for and damage done by a zealous vigilante. It would make the fascistic underpinnings of the character plain for all to see and set a precedent for grittier content in comic books.
Alan Moore’s 1988 comic The Killing Joke would take the Batman’s greatest foe and delve into his tortured and fragmented past. The comic would both provide back story to the Joker, a character who had been up to this point something of a homicidal cipher, and counterpoint his madness against the Batman’s own psychosis. Leagues away from the classic heroism of his initial run we now had a character who was only one step removed, psychologically speaking, from his foes.
“You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!”
Whilst Burton would take elements from both of these stories (to my mind the use of media in Batman is similar to the use of media in The Dark Knight returns) his main source of inspiration would seem to be the Bob Kane’s original Batman run. Showcasing a character hidden in the shadows, ready to kill and teetering on the edge of sanity. Whilst an action orientated actor would have been more of an obvious choice Tim Burton’s casting of Michael Keaton as Batman would become of the films greatest strengths. In a film almost overshadowed by one key performance (more on that later) Keaton, better known for more comedic roles, was able to deliver a performance that was nuanced, subtle and iconic.
To anyone who had seen his title role in Tim Burton’s previous feature Beetlejuice it would have been an obvious fit to cast Keaton as the maniacal Joker. However having Keaton play Batman served to create a duality of sorts between the hero and his most dangerous nemesis. Jack Nicholson would be the one to secure the role of The Joker and would craft a performance that was utterly memorable but also damaged the film as a whole.
When you watch Batman it is hard not to realise which element of the film Burton is drawn too as a director. His focus on the Joker is in hindsight not at all surprising. In fact the Joker has more in common with a traditional Tim Burton hero than anything else. The artistically oddball elements of the Joker aren’t a million miles away from the heroes of Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and A Nightmare Before Christmas. Whilst Burton would also accentuate the oddball qualities of Bruce Wayne the focus primarily rested on Nicholson’s infectious performance.
“And where is the Batman? HE’S AT HOME WASHING HIS TIGHTS!!”
The problem is that Nicholson’s take on the character is perhaps a little too fun, a little too charming. It is very hard to actually view the Joker as a villain because he’s the most entertaining thing in the film. It also doesn’t help that the Joker is given the most iconic moments in the film. Really you’re supposed to be made uneasy by the Joker, but when he is raiding and redecorating posh restaurants/art galleries, killing mob bosses with electric buzzers and quills and committing mass murder by way of festival balloons he is more impishly charming than horrifying. There really is nothing to match the Joker’s sheer presence and sense of fun and as such you almost start to miss his presence when the film focuses on the Batman or its periphery characters. With his outlandish crimes and brash purple and orange motif the Joker is a blast of colour and vibrancy in Burton’s claustrophobically gothic vision of Gotham. As such he becomes one of the more identifiable and entertaining aspects of the film.
“More Like Bruce Vain”
Of course with Nicholson and Keaton giving their all in the star spots you’d expect the supporting cast to be somewhat overshadowed. In fact Burton’s quirky style actually manages to make surprisingly thin character at least a little interesting. Vicky Vale would be your standard love interest, but she is so Burtonised and kooky that Kim Basinger actually makes the role kind of fun whilst even minor roles like Knox and the Joker’s right hand man are given life by a script that occasionally sparkles. Even Alfred Pennyworth is given a little to work with as he attempts to humanise his charge’s feelings for Vicky Vale.
So the problem with the film isn’t the cast (even actors who have little more than a cameo such as Billy Dee-Williams manage to inject personality and charm into their characters) and it probably has less to do with Burton’s visual style. Tim Burton’s use of matte paintings and set based shooting makes everything feels slightly claustrophobic but the actual look of Gotham is certainly memorable. With its art-deco stylings and gothic spires Burton’s Gotham looks like a city lost in time and place. Elements of the city suggest American design other facets are decidedly European and whilst the set dressing is very much Prohibition era the actual technology in the film is bang up to date. It really is a melting pot of ideas and yet somehow the film manages to shoulder the majority of its excesses.
What is surprising about Burton as a director is his aptitude for set pieces. Sequences like an attack on a restaurant are filmed with a bizarre mix of comic book pulp and modern extravagance. Despite the fact that the leather bound Batman is completely restricted in his movements Burton actually manages to create sprawling action sequences around the character. Compared to the rapid fire editing of Batman Begins it’s refreshing to see what Batman is doing, even if at times it is painfully obvious he can’t actually move all that well and the third act whilst horribly misguided has perhaps the strongest climax of any of the Batman movies.
“Think About The Future”
Of course the thing that makes these action segments work is the score by Danny Elfman which is probably more iconic than the movie itself. His signature Batman theme is immensely evocative as well as being surprisingly suited to action sequences and it works to give yet more energy to the film. Whilst many seem to dislike Prince’s contribution to the soundtrack its use in the film is really quite clever. Prince’s proto Pop/Dance numbers do clash with the vision of Gotham that Burton has created, but that’s part of the point. The Prince songs in the film are all diagetic, pieces of music heard by the characters themselves which serve as the Joker’s own personal soundtrack. As such it is meant to be as jarring as the Joker’s façade and in that context it works incredibly well.
I’m done praising the film now, so time to focus on what I feel weighs down the whole product. Batman has charm to spare; it’s got an electric cast, a great soundtrack and a director with a unique vision. In fact the only thing it lacks is a decent script. Whilst the film is filled with some great dialogue it is also lumbered with some of the worst structuring to befall a Batman film. Batman and Robin may be the worst film in the series but it doesn’t meander anywhere near as much as Batman and that’s one of the main problems. At times the wealth of ideas makes it clear that a lot of writers have had a crack at the basic story of the film.
Whilst the Batman script would be completed by a long time comic book fan, the 1988 Writers Guild Strike would remove the original writers away from the production process. Non-union writers were brought in for rewrites during production itself and the results are sometimes palpable in the film itself. One story concerning these rewrites focuses on the finale itself, in which Batman battles to the top of a Cathedral to save Vicky Vale from the Joker. This was an element added to the script during the rewrites without Burton’s knowledge. Apparently Burton only found out after $100,000 had been spent actually building the Cathedral steps and as such he found himself with a costly set up and no idea of how to properly utilise it.
“Gentlemen, let’s broaden our minds”
If you take the studio rewrites as fact then it starts to make sense why the film would focus so much on the Joker. At the time Jack Nicholson was the films biggest asset and as such it would make sense for the studio to want to accentuate that asset. The third act in of itself is just a complete mess, with a sudden diversion away from the established tone of the film to make way for pantomime theatrics. Batman was never a serious film but seeing the Joker pull out a revolver with a 20 inch barrel and shoot down Batman’s plane took the film to a jarringly campy place. Similarly the motivation for the Joker to take Vicky to the top of the tower was never really dealt with. Whilst it seems odd to nitpick in a film which features a bleached skin hitman being sent to a brutal death by way of lassoed gargoyle the final act was rife with inconsistencies. Not to say that the final part of Batman isn’t fun, it just feels overly chaotic and very messy.
In fact messy is probably the best way to describe Batman. Its first act despite a strong start struggles to build up momentum (partially due to the emphasis put on the Joker’s origin) but it builds to a great 2nd act before going off the rails in spectacular style for its finale. For me it is a film I enjoy for its at times feverish imagination, its fantastic production design and the fact it allowed Tim Burton free reign to make one of my all time favourite films.
Over the following week I’m going to be reviewing my favourite Batman films in the run up to the Dark Knight’s release on the 18th.
So tune in next time for my review of Batman: Mask of the Phatasm.
Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel