R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Batman

Many people cite the summer of 1982 as one of the best summers of sci-fi/fantasy and action films. That year saw E.T., The Thing, Conan: The Barbarian, Blade Runner and Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan all hit theatres. Likewise, 2005’s summer seems to be lining up nicely after the crapfest of summer 2004. A “murder’s row” of sure to be hits like Star Wars: Episode III, Batman Begins and War of the Worlds will all be in theatres in successive months this year. Surely 2005 will be a summer looked back on fondly. My personal favorite movie summer happened in 1989. That summer featured sequels to Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Lethal Weapon and Star Trek, but the biggest film of the summer was the beginning of a new series. In the fact the series that began in 1989 is being revamped this coming year. Tim Burton’s Batman took the summer of 1989 by storm. After the demise of the Superman franchise, audiences were hungry for a new comic inspired movie series, Batman heeded that call.

Created by Bob Kane and premiering in 1939 in Detective Comics #27, Batman was a character shrouded in darkness. After the murder of his parents, which took place right in front of him, Bruce Wayne decided to become the vigilante Batman. Since his original inception, Batman has become one of the most popular superheroes in the history of comic books. Constant revisions have changed the hero from the Dark Knight of Gotham to an American hero who stood for truth and justice on the same level as Superman.

Several major events helped shape the character before the film premiered. During the paranoia of the 1940’s and 50’s, Batman went through many changes due to parental groups fearing that comic books were a bad influence on children. These were brought on by Dr. Fredric Wertham, M.D., whose study entitled “The Seduction of the Innocent”, sparked outrage and caused the cancellation of many titles, most notably many of EC Comics’ horror titles like Tales From the Crypt. To combat this growing negativity with comics, the comic book industry instituted The Comics Code Authority, a new set of guidelines by which comic books would be produced. This worked to keep comics alive, but many characters had to change, and most notably was Batman. Instead of the brooding vigilante of old, Batman became a brightly colored do-gooder who helped kids and gave morals. Even Batman’s villains like the Joker and Penguin, went from killers to pranksters. Joker’s laughing gas even went from deadly to just annoyingly silly.

The next big moment in the history of Batman was the 60’s TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. A super campy look at Batman stripped him of his Dark Knight persona and even made him an official deputy of Gotham City. The series was at once a blessing and a curse. The show’s popularity skyrocketed, but the goofy nature of the show tarnished the public’s image of the comic book industry, that had always fought to gain respect.

Finally the Batman character was able to get back to his roots in the 1980’s with the release of Frank Miller’s revolutionary The Dark Knight Returns. Not the happy go lucky officer of the 1960’s, Batman is a fugitive of the law, busting heads and taking names. Miller wrote the book as the ultimate Batman story with the hero having his final confrontations with Two-Face, The Joker and finally Superman. The book not only changed Batman, but comics overall, finally proving that the medium not only gave a good story, but could be a meaningful, expressive form of literature.

Batman was finally set to leap from the page to the big screen with a grand adaptation that would wow audiences. Director Tim Burton was brought on board after the success of offbeat hits like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Burton’s mix of darkness and humor was what producers were looking for and what Batman would need to finally break away from the legacy of Adam West.

Batman Starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Directed By Tim Burton

A sprawling city skyline starts the picture. Gotham is shown in all its dark, dingy fame and glory. After the robbery of a tourist family, two small time crooks are looking over their loot, marveling over the small fortune they just acquired. Their celebration is broken up with the terrifying appearance of a masked vigilante. He defeats the two assailants handily then makes sure they know that justice has a new name, Batman.

Later in the evening, reporters Vicky Vale and Alexander Knox attend a fundraising party held by Billionaire Bruce Wayne, looking to hound attendee, Police Commissioner James Gordon about Batman. Gordon abruptly leaves when hearing that Gotham City’s finest have trapped notorious gangster Jack Napier at a local chemical factory. Napier is the number two man in Gotham’s organized crime ring and his arrest could help bring down the city’s crime boss, Carl Grissom. Napier had been sent to the chemical plant to clear out any evidence that would tie the crime syndicate to the company.

Unbeknownst to Jack, Boss Grissom was setting him up after finding out that Jack had slept with Grissom’s woman, played by former Mrs. Jagger, Jerry Hall. Once the police get to the plant, gangsters and cops shoot it out with reckless abandon, recalling the cinematic shootouts of Jimmy Cagney in White Heat. The stalemate is broken with the appearance of The Dark Knight. Unfortunately things go wrong when after cornered by Batman, Napier ends up falling into a vat of chemicals. Napier’s demise is then shown to be false as he next appears in the chair of an underground plastic surgeon.

Things start to unravel in Gotham City. A new crime boss named the Joker eliminates all of the other under-bosses of the syndicate. Then mysterious deaths start happening all over the city as people start laughing themselves to death. Matters get worse for Vicky Vale as the Joker takes a liking to her. Vales only reprieve from the Joker’s insane lust for her is Batman himself. Eventually learning his true identity, Vale and Batman break the Joker’s scheme of laughing poison. Upset by this, Joker arranges for the climactic showdown with The Dark Knight. Taking over Gotham City’s planned bicentennial parade, Joker poses as a savior of Gotham by throwing a million dollars to people on the streets, all the time leading the unknowing Gothamites to a poisonous death. Only Batman can try and stop the madman from laying the citizens of Gotham to waste.

Batman has a lot of things going for it. First and foremost, Jack Nicholson’s Joker steals the entire movie. He gets the best lines, he gets the best moments, and he’s even the one who gets an origin in the film instead of Batman. While Mark Hamill’s portrayal of the “Clown Prince of Crime” in the animated series may still be the most memorable, Nicholson’s Joker is a truly entertaining villain.

Michael Keaton’s Batman is the most popular of any big screen adaptation of the Caped Crusader. Keaton’s performance is actually quite good when he’s in the big rubber suit. He’s able to hold the screen quite nicely with Nicholson and he seems at home in Burton’s crazy world. It’s when Keaton is out of the cape and cowl that his performance suffers. Bruce Wayne is traditionally a playboy that gets himself in trouble and seems to be wasting his life away having a good time. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is a brooding anti-socialite who’s quite gloomy. The actor’s best scene is when he’s attempting to confess to Vicki Vale of his double identity. The scene has some comedy in it and really works to Keaton’s strengths. The emergence of the Joker later in the scene takes it even further.

The screenplay’s dialogue written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren is like a factory for great one-liners. “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” “What kind of a world is this where a man dressed as a bat gets ALL MY PRESS? This town needs an enema! ” “Have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moon light? ” I could go on and on. Nicholson’s Joker benefits the most from the screenplay, but Keaton does get the most iconic line from the film. As Batman holds a thief over the edge of a building in the opening sequence, the punk asks the Caped Crusader “What Are You?” Keaton’s response, “I’m Batman” is the line that carried all the trailers and got people in the theatres.

Art direction and Production design for the film are absolutely fantastic. Gotham City is exactly what it should be. The city feels like a gothic nightmare, but somehow seems like a place that could actually exist. Owing much to the early designs of German expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Gotham brings the entire mood and atmosphere required for a film of this scope. Unfortunately this style was abandoned in the film’s three sequels and each requisite film looked more like a cartoon.

Unfortunately there are also many drawbacks to the film. The biggest criticism of it may be its difference from the continuity in the comic books. Now, while breaking continuity may sometimes help a film such as the X-Men not being in yellow spandex, it can also be detriment to a rabid fan base not wanting their characters messed with. Most significantly is the instance in the film where Bruce Wayne’s parents are actually murdered by the Joker. This comes off as a bit contrived to raise the stakes, as this little situation was not needed. Batman’s best villains are the ones that show what can happen to a person when their inner dark side is used for evil instead of good. The two best examples of this are the Joker and Two-Face, which also helps explain their longevity in the comic continuity. Both are good people driven to insanity by tragic events. Batman sees a little of himself in both villains and that is what keeps him from going to the other side. Messing with this formula does not really strengthen the characters but cheapens their relationship to a degree. Batman’s mission of vengeance involves stopping crime to fill the void left by his parent’s death. It can never be filled as long as he is unable to catch the man responsible. That is his driving motivation. That void is non-existent in this film.

Other performances in the movie are not as strong as the leads of the film either. Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale is merely a damsel in distress and nothing more. She brings nothing to the role that could make it a lasting performance in the audiences mind. Also Robert Wuhl’s Alexander Knox has some funny, throw away lines, but overall is very forgettable. Others fare better in smaller roles as the casting of Billie Dee Williams as Harvey Dent and Jack Palance as Boss Grissom are both inspired choices.

Overall, the film is good entertainment, but not a complete homerun on the level with Superman or Spiderman. The Caped Crusader has some memorable lines and this is the best of the four films, but it still leaves something to be desired. Here’s hoping Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begin’s brings The Dark Knight back to the prominence he deserves. Through a turbulent past Batman has managed to survive as a cultural icon and this film helped with that legacy. Gotham City’s greatest hero cleaned up at the box office domestically in 1989, taking in $250 million, and hopefully that success will return. Any hero that can survive Batman and Robin deserves another chance.