Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Film Review - Batman Retrospective - Batman (1989)

Hey all!

Excited about The Dark Knight Rises?! Damn right you are!

As such, Ranticular will be running a fortnight retrospective of all the Batman films that have received theatrical release ever! Because my love of my fans is only exceeded by my love for Batman...

 Batman (1989)

Plot: Batman must stop the Joker from... doing stuff as Bruce Wayne finds himself falling in love with photographer Vicki Vale. Meanwhile, reporter Alexander Knox is the real hero of the film and for that he gets barely twenty-five minutes of screen time.

Director: Tim Burton (back before he sucked scrotum through a straw).

Actors: Michael Keaton (Batman/Bruce Wayne), Jack Nicholson (Jack Napier/The Joker),  Kim Basinger (Vicki Vale), Robert Wuhl (Alexander Knox).

The Film Itself:

Batman (1989) is a strange beast. One the one hand, it has no respect for the comics of the time or for the characters of Batman, Bruce Wayne, Batman, The Joker or Prince (this film created the bat-dance, think about that if you will). On the other hand, it's an entertaining blockbuster that is possibly the alpha-male of the pre-Nolan, non-animated Batman films.

That isn't much of a recommendation mind you...

Oh Your Time Is Coming, Don't You Worry...

Let us first look at what works. The design of this film is magnificent. Anton Furst (who committed suicide shortly after finishing work on Batman Returns and who did the amazing set design for The Company of Wolves, R.I.P) mashed contrasting architectural styles to create the most ugly yet most striking Gotham city ever seen on screen (yes, even better then... Batman & Robin!). It's vaguely reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, all foreboding and heavy. It feels like a city where the sun rarely shines. It's the Gotham most modern Batman fans identify with as it was a major element borrowed for Batman: The Animated Series, but the cartoon is a discussion for another day... (go watch the cartoon!)

The music is also excellent. One can rarely fault Danny Elfman when he works with Tim Burton, but here they reached their mutual peak in my opinion. Aside from that incredible theme song, the light, almost dream-like sections of the film ('childhood remembered' or 'flowers') give the film a sense of whimsy that it is otherwise lacking. On the other hand, Prince provides music for the major Joker scenes, which really strangely suits the feel of this film's Joker. The scene where The Joker destroys a museum to the tune of Prince's "Partyman"is easily the best scene in the entire film and the music is pretty pivotal. I still hate the Bat-dance though, fuck that song.

The action is largely pretty solid, if a bit too clean and simple for my liking. The Bat-Wing is still one of the coolest vehicles ever and the shot of it silhouetted against the full moon still makes the 12 year old boy in me cry out for joy! The bat-mobile was the first car I ever wanted to own and I don't think that will ever change. For a film that caused out-cry over being so dark (it really isn't), this film is pretty definitely a film for pre-adolesent boys. It's not a difficult watch, which is a high compliment for Batman film's of the era.

Sadly that's all I can really celebrate about Batman (1989). Not that much here is bad, it isn't. But everything here is... just a little bit off. Firstly, Batman himself is not very impressive as the title character. The first act you see him perform is... falling down after getting shot. In fact this becomes something of a theme. While Batman can clearly fight, he doesn't exactly inspire fear, especially in longer shots where it becomes horribly apparent that Michael Keaton is not a very tall or imposing man at all. I'm gonna straight up call it, this is not an intimidating Batman. In fact he's probably slightly less intimidating then Adam West's Batman, who at least had the power of mad science on his side.

Criminals Of Gotham, Beware!

Batman isn't scary but that isn't for lack of trying, especially in the instances where Batman is shown to kill. When he sends the Bat-mobile into Axis chemicals to stop the Joker from making his Joker toxins, he shuts the plant down via bombs that rip the building apart, with better then thirty people inside. We don't see any of these people make it out, which even as a kid upset me. I get that Burton wasn't a huge comic fan at the time and felt some things had to change. But this is one of Batman's core aspects, that he is dark and brutal but still a hero who separates himself from his villains in that he doesn't kill. To change it just misses the point of Batman.

The un-scary Batman is contrasted by Michael Keaton playing a down-right creepy Bruce Wayne. I can see the concept at play here, that Bruce Wayne could be a twitchy loner with strange habits (sleeping upside down, getting it on with very drunk women on a first date) and a certain awkwardness around people. What doesn't work is when Bruce Wayne tries, and succeeds, to out crazy the Joker. When the Joker appears to kidnap Vicki Vale, Bruce manages to shout like a nut-job and wave a poker around enough to earn a bullet in the chest. Seriously, during this scene, The Joker looks scared and confused to be in the same room as Bruce Wayne. Joker then speaks the immortal line "Never rub another mans rhubarb"and... leaves Vicki alone. Making the whole scene not only very out of character for Bruce Wayne but also completely pointless. Gotta love that Rhubarb line though.

I mentioned Bruce over-shadowing the Joker in the Vicki Vale apartment scene but in truth the rest of the film belongs to the Joker as soon as he appears on-screen. It is more a Joker origin and ending story then a reflection on Batman. Again, Joker is not really very scary or even particularly funny (more random) but he is very unique in this film for one important reason. He's interesting and somewhat charismatic. Joker is just having fun and doesn't need to be characterised any further. He doesn't have any motivation and nothing by way of a real plan. He's just an artist with a crush, a lot of henchmen (including Bob, the best henchman ever) and talents in the fields of "art, chemistry and science". Because chemistry isn't a science apparently. Also the Joker gets the best dialogue, including this line which is probably the closest this film gets to the tone and characterisation of the comics...

The Joker: So gentlemen, that's how it is. Until Grissom, uh, [chuckles] resurfaces, I'm the acting President, and I say starting with this anniversary festival, we run the city into the ground. Any questions?
Gangster: Why aren't we hearing this from Grissom?
Tony: Yeah, and what's with that stupid grin?
The Joker: Life's been good to me.

As the film puts it, love that Joker!

All the other characters are just there to fulfill roles. Batman is serious and stiff. Bruce is a typically strange male in a Tim Burton film. Vicki Vale is literally just an object for the hero and villain to fight over. Even my favourite character (after henchman Bob at least), the reporter Alex Knox, is largely just out for the big scoop, although he has the largest balls of anyone in the film and gets to play hero in a big way during the parade scene. Poor Alfred gets it worst, as he is little more then a kindly but mentally weak grand-father figure, as exemplified by the scene where he just LETS VICKI VALE WANDER STRAIGHT INTO THE BAT CAVE! 

While the Joker may be fun to watch for being random, this does lead to possibly the biggest problem with the film. There is no real point to it all. Sure, there is a story of sorts, there are things at stake but the scale feels very small and unimportant. Ultimately, this story comes down to two mentally unstable men fighting over a girl. That's as complicated as it gets. There isn't even any deeper message or moral. Hell, there isn't even a consistent tone for the film and what story is there is slap-shot. The Joker's big way to win over Gotham after being exposed as a chemical terrorist is... to offer people money at a parade...? The story only works if you pay it very little attention, which is why this film is clearly for young boys. Even Tim Burton himself has admitted disappointment with the film, claiming that he finds it boring. While I wouldn't go that far, it's certainly an un-even watch at times.

Probably the most challenged aspect of the film is the liberties it takes with the comics. Batman's parents in Batman (1989) were killed not by Joe Chill (as in the comics) but by Jack Napier before he became the Joker (and also before he looked anything like Jack Nicholson). I mentioned how oddly Bruce Wayne and Batman are portrayed compared to the comics. Also, characters like Jim Gordon, who were at this stage established and important characters in the comics, are really only given bare lip-service. I did like the idea of Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, who was set to become Two Face in the later films, both for his charisma and for the race change angle, which was a brave move at the time. Fun fact: Tim Burton originally wanted a Robin in Batman (1989), to be played by none other then Marlon Wayne. I'm deadly serious.

I Know Right?!

I know it may seem like I'm bitching and fan-boying a lot here but honestly I don't have anything against Batman (1989), hell it was my favourite film ever as a kid. But it's still a silly, messy and somewhat pointless outing for the Dark Knight. It gets by on nostalgia value and strange charms rather then raw quality. Still, if nothing else, this may be one of the most influential films of all time. Every current comic book film and a great deal of the style of current blockbusters in general have their genus right here. It made comics a huge deal for much of the early 90's and set the tone for the cartoon, without which many of us may not have discovered Batman or even the medium of comics at all. It's impossible to imagine how different cinema would be without Batman (1989) and love it or hate it, it deserves respect.

Also, it had Bob. That guy was amazing.

His Action Figure Was Not

Rating : 3.5 out of 5 - For Being A Cultural World-Shaker. And Bob.

See If You Like : The Cartoon Show, Being Twelve Again.

Til next time!

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