This month, we take a Second Look at the original Burton/Schumacher Batman films.
The film that started it all. At least for me. Back when I was younger, I vividly recall having a Batmobile toy that seemed almost as big as I was. Back then I was toy crazy, and the image of that design remained ingrained in my imagination for years to come. Indeed, I think many aspects of Tim Burton’s original Batman, came to be ingrained in the popular psyche in a way that was unprecedented for any comic film that had come before it.
Sure, we’d had Superman: The Movie, and that was a huge film in it’s own right. But Batman was the first film to take full advantage of the merchandising phenomena that Star Wars had profited enough from to buy a small country.
Batman was everywhere at the time of it’s release. Batman t-shirts, Batman toys, Batman costumes. You name it, the film had it. It was huge at the box office as a result, and earned Jack Nicholson, who wasn’t even the main character in the film, a king’s ransom of a fortune, and secured its place in his mind as a favourite piece of “pop-art” from his own extensive filmography.
So how does the actual film hold up? Some 24 years after it’s release, and free of the hype that surrounded it like a thick haze of Gotham smog, the film itself is still an interesting and unique piece of film-making. To my mind, it stands out from the rest of the superhero mileau, almost as more of an intense and evocative fairy tale – complete with cathedral climax.
When Burton first signed on to direct the film, back in the late 80’s, his own career was only just starting after Beetlejuice, and a succession of directors had come and gone from the project. With superhero film-making was still in it’s infancy, there wasn’t exactly a clear choice for the director’s chair.
Various attempts had been made to adapt superheroes into the film-making world, but apart from perhaps the original two Superman films, none of them really stood out, and it seemed the superhero genre was destined to rely on one or two films here and there, standing out from the crowd like masked vigilantes wearing funny costumes.
Not that Batman changed that trend hugely, but it was the first film since the original Superman to take pop-culture by storm, and it sowed the seeds of what would become a defined way of looking at the superhero genre: darker, edgier, finished of by a cool and sexy shine.
Burton, of course, brought that style to Batman in spades, and his own unique brand of filmmaking was worlds away from Richard Donner’s more playful and upbeat sensibilities. Burton’s world was full of quirky characters, dark yet comic humor, and off-kilter and far more Gothic way of looking at the world, and these sensibilities proved to be perfect for Batman, hence why the producers went to him.
In terms of an overall story, it has to be said that Batman really doesn’t possess much of one. Jack Napier is wounded by the Batman in a sting operation by the corrupt police and falls into some chemicals, becoming the Joker. He then takes on the underworld, generally revels in chaos, and pines for Vikki Vale, the lead female character and audience surrogate, who is a newcomer to this world of brooding heroes and maniacal villains.
He wants to kill all of Gotham it seems, and kills people through household applicances that contain his special Joker poison, which renders them with a creepy Joker grin, and then later attempts to use this in gas form on the population of Gotham.
Again, not much of a plot ultimately, and it only really serves to showcase Nicholson’s mad and over the top performance in a role he clearly cherished amidst the chaos of a production that didn’t really have sure footing and was barely hanging on through the sure and relatively virgin hands of Burton’s Gothic direction.
Michael Keaton stands out to me in the film as it’s anchor, a brooding and intense performance that flows out through his, at times understated manor and worlds away from his hammy and mischievous performance as Beetlejuice in Burton’s previous film.
One scene that’s always stayed with me is the flashback to Bruce Wayne’s parents’ murder, a scene that hasn’t been improved in the subsequent films, even Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and remains a haunting fever dream of a sequence, overflowing with the trauma of broken dreams and a childhood that exists only in ones darkest nightmares.
Keaton is the entryway to the scene, and even the simple way he can focus on a point in space fixes your attention, and this silent acting is something that is crucial for Batman, being a character that has an intense and phantom-like quality.
Nicholson, however, simply revels in his character’s clowning antics, and even though some critics have attacked his performance for being a clown with no real menace, I still find the character and his interpretation of it to be genuinely disturbing at times, particularly when he talks to the dead corpse, a creepy scene even today and indicative of the character’s complete descent into insanity.
This descent is portrayed by Burton with plenty of style, which forms a key element of the film and for good reason – the film is soaked in it. From the fantastical skyline to the grime covered streets, the film reeks at times of Gothic overload and Burton has always been fantastic in his films at creating a believable fantasy world, that may not make much sense, but is still attractive to the eye and compelling to the senses.
In this regard, it has elements of a cartoon at times, which is ironically the medium where Burton first got his start at Disney, and I can’t help but notice when Burton injects a flourish of this in the very time we first see Batman, fittingly as a cartoon character, in a shot that seemed cool to me when I was younger, but now seems distinctly incongruous and perhaps a poorly chosen artistic flourish.
These flourishes of quirk in a film overloaded with quirky ideas (the telescoping gun) is one of the reasons Batman still stands out to me as an idiosyncratic mishmash of art, as if the painter simply threw some paint on the wall, and swirled it about a bit to see what came of it.
Indeed the Joker has a love of art in the film, and I can’t help but think that given the amount of focus on on the Joker, and the love and respect that Burton states he had for Nicholson at the time, that this was deliberate, and maybe why critics of the film feel it’s more the Jokers film than Batman’s.
In terms of this perceived imbalance, it is important to note Batman’s portrayal in the film. I think Burton treats the character with sympathy, and brilliant vision, and really goes out of his way to portray him with all the Gothic exuberance he can muster.
Two sequences that stand out for me in regards to this are the journey to the Batcave, and Batman’s final suiting up.
Both are portrayed beautifully and with admirable visual skill. I’ve always loved the race to the Batcave as it goes into an incredibly surreal space within an already surreal film, and with Danny Elfman’s beautifully majestic and operatic score pounding away behind it, it becomes pure cinema: we the audience are simply swept away like Vikki Vale into this descent into mystery.
Speaking of Vikki Vale, she is as I said before, the audience surrogate, and really isn’t given a lot to do in the film other than to investigate Batman and fall in love with him. It’s a shame, as I feel Kim Basinger is an incredibly underrated actress and does nice work with what she is given, in a film that at times does veer all over the place.
Her work in particular at the end, when she confronts Bruce in the cave is lovely, and shows her own willingness to delve into her character’s headpsace, and portray vulnerability: “Why won’t you let me in?”
That sequence as well is beautifully scored by Elfman, who with this film delivered, in my view, one of the most iconic superhero film scores ever composed. It simply bristles with Gothic atmosphere, yet has an almost Hermann-esque beauty to it at times, showcasing the grand operatic nature of the film and it’s characters, but also delving into surrealistic and romantic pathway that really elevate the film to a new level.
The rest of the characters in the film aren’t really given much to do, and much was made at the time of Billy Dee William’s casting as Harvey Dent, a promise of an idea that seemed interesting but due to what happened in the subsequent films, never materialized.
Actor’s like Michael Gough, Pat Hingle and Jack Palance, all give sturdy performances and helped provide the foundation for the main characters to strut their stuff, although Burton has made allusions to the fact that Palance was not easy to work with.
Gough of course as well as Hingle, went on to be recurring actors in the franchise, at least for next 3 films, and to this day I still feel that Gough portayed Alfred in the best light. Michael Caine’s Alfred was to me simply Caine portraying a butler. With Gough, at least there was no real expectation and he played the part to perfection, giving it a fatherly light, especially in one of the last scenes where he wearily puts away Batman’s suit: “I have no wish to spend the remainder of my days, burying old friends. Or their sons.” Beautifully delivered line.
Last but not least is the role of Alexander Knox, not an easy role, as his character is meant to hold his own with the others and simply be a foil for Vale. As such, he and Vale never returned to the franchise which is a shame as I feel he did good work in the role, and continuing these characters into further films would have been a nice way to further build the universe, and connect the subsequent films further.
Ultimately, despite it’s flaws and Burton’s apparently uncomfortably with shooting fight scenes, I think the film on a whole remains a unique and iconic piece of film making that although extremely messy and unfaithful to the comics (no Joe Chill, Batman killing, Joker’s death), provided a gateway for many people, including myself into the character of Batman, and I remain eternally grateful for that.
Sure the Prince songs in the film – a promotional tie-in – may seem a little tacky and dated today, but I still love them, and to me they serve as window dressing that allows me to go through that window and re-live a film that remains a crucial part of my childhood, and something that will always remain my favourite Batman film.
Yes…even with The Joker’s boombox.
Image Credit: Balsavor on deviantART