Do Over – Batman (1989)
That’s a quote from Tim Burton discussing Batman (1989). His own movie. As the world waits with bated breath for
the second coming of Christ, the final instalment of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, we decided to take a look back to the Batman film unloved by its own director.
Billionaire Bruce Wayne likes to spend his time frequenting dark alleyways, dressed in leather and looking for bad men. Orphaned as a child after his parents are murdered, he devotes his life to avenging them by fighting crime as costumed vigilante super detective, ‘Batman’. As you do. There will be no origin story here, children, because origin stories are for chumps.
Meanwhile, Jack Napier is second-in-command to Gotham City crime boss, Grissom. Napier is having a naughty affair with Grissom’s mistress and is about to get his comeuppance because ain’t no one fucks with Grissom. Grissom instructs Napier to pull off a job at their local chemicals factory but tips off the police. Through a series of unfortunate events, Napier accidentally ends up in the bottom of a boiling vat of chemicals. Shit one for him. Following poor reconstructive surgery that leaves him with an unsettling permanent grin, Napier, renames himself ‘The Joker’ and eventually takes control of Grissom’s organisation. Apparently someone can fuck with Grissom after all. The Joker, being the antagonist, then gives Batman a series of headaches.
Subplots include reporter, Alexander Knox, and photo-journalist, Vicki Vale, investigating the rumours about this chap with a penchant for leather and justice and newly-elected district attorney, Harvey Dent, working with Police Commissioner Gordon to fix the corruption in the police department. The latter is only interesting because Harvey Dent has the ability to change himself from Lando Calrissian to Tommy Lee Jones (which he demonstrates in Batman Forever). This makes Harvey Dent a goddamn wizard and significantly more interesting than Bruce Wayne trying to rub up against some bird in a sexy way.
The blossoming of the token romance is always the least interesting part of an action/adventure film anyway. Kim Basinger’s beautiful (but boring) Vale has beautiful hair and lives her beautiful life taking beautiful photographs. She’s a knob. Apparently it was originally planned that the character of Vale was going to be dropped off a cathedral tower but they changed their minds mid-production. Pity. Yes, it’s nice that Wayne happened to find someone who also shared a preternatural obsession with bats, but this relationship takes up far too much screen time and wastes valuable bat-hours Batman could be spending looking pensive in the dark.
When Michael Keaton was cast as Batman, the studios received over 50,000 letters in protest. He was not the most obvious choice for the character but this is was unfair, premature criticism. Keaton was a great Batman. He was all the right adjectives – brooding, intense, edgy, tormented, intimidating – whilst still managing to be likeable. He convincingly portrayed a mentally fractured man who should, in no universe, be allowed access to dangerous weapons. He said things like this:
Bruce Wayne: It’s Japanese.
Knox: How do you know?
Bruce Wayne: Because I bought it in Japan.
He didn’t put on a ridiculous grisly voice. He didn’t wear rubber nipples. He clearly didn’t bother with the gym prior to filming. He was fond of polo neck jumpers and we still somehow took him seriously as a hero. He sports the most incredibly pointy eyebrows in the history of cinema. That’s not exactly relevant to the character of Batman but it needed to be pointed out. Those eyebrows are magnificent.
Keaton showed audiences that the common man could be a superhero if they too had access to billions and had an elderly live-in man friend, and we loved him for it.
As for his enemy, I used to think Jack Nicholson was the perfect Joker. To me, as a child, he was a frightening, deranged, scary-voiced psychopath who heavily contributed to an overwhelming fear that somewhere, somehow, I am being watched by a clown.
After The Dark Knight, fanboys orgasmed in unison, proclaiming Heath Ledger as the definitive Joker*. It’s a fair enough opinion for them to have – his did do a disgusting trick with a pencil – but to me, he wasn’t half as much fun as Jack Nicholson.
However, and it brings actual pain to admit this, when re-watching his portrayal it’s clear it’s a complete mess.
What the hell is his motivation for a start? He goes from wanting revenge on Grissom to trashing an art gallery (a tortured artist?) to being lovesick for Vicki Vale to wanting to be Mayor of Gotham and then throwing a festival to make everyone love him. Is he simply a vain man driven mad following the botched surgery? What was the purpose of his big scheme to make people laugh themselves to death if it was almost instantly forgotten about? It’s also never clear why he wants to kill Batman. Sure it’s his narrative job as the villain and the film wouldn’t work if the two characters just ran parallel to each other but it is it because Vicki has a thing for Batman (jealousy?), or he feels Batman gets in the way of his publicity, or he believes Batman contributed to his accident or because he’s just a mindless anarchist who will attempt to destroy all who stand for justice? It was as if they threw every idea at him, hoping something would stick and make sense. When watching 23 years later, it’s not quite as satisfying as you don’t get that sense that both characters are so intertwined that they are essentially two sides of the same coin.
Also, where Heath Ledger was swallowed up and eaten by his Joker, at no point do you forget that you are watching Jack Nicholson. They say truly great performances make you forget the famous face, at least momentarily, but this is just Jack Nicholson after a particularly entertaining weekend in Las Vegas. At one point, Tim Curry (!), Willem Dafoe and even Robin Williams were considered for the role of The Joker and whilst Nicholson’s name certainly must have brought punch to the movie poster, you can’t help but wonder what might have been.
Another element of the film that strikes you during a re-watch is the amount of cringe-worthy, often baffling, dialogue including but not limited to:
Never rub another man’s rhubarb – The Joker
My balloons. Those are my balloons. He stole my balloons! – The Joker
We’ve got a flying mouse to kill, and I wanna clean my claws – The Joker
Vicki Vale: You’re insane!
The Joker: I thought I was a Pisces.
You wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts! – Bruce Wayne
Oh very dear. The campy dialogue didn’t seem this jarring in ’89.
For all the nitpicking, this is still a hugely entertaining film that looks incredible. The Gotham City of Burton’s Batman is easily the most beautifully executed of all the Batman films. The architecture is gloomy and oppressing with hints of past industrial glories and streets drowning in despair. It’s almost always night time. The streets are full of miserable bastards, murder, criminals, prostitutes and junkies. The alleyways are suitably smoky and dark. The city is almost impossible to place in time but instantly identifiable as Gotham.
The ominous, epic Batman theme by Danny Elfman looms heavily over every scene, something that is sorely missed from Nolan’s trilogy, but having the orchestral score awkwardly punctuated by poppy Prince songs raises an eyebrow and make you wonder if someone lost a bet.
It’s the little elements of this film that are the most welcome and comforting. The classic Batman logo, the sleek but thoroughly impractical Batmobile, the BatComputer, the first installation of the Batsignal, the lonely expanse of Wayne Manor, the full embrace of the concept of the Batcave, etc, all contribute to the overall look and feel of the film. You still get a shiver up your spine when there is a lingering shot of Batman, moodily suverying the cityscape on top of a skyscraper.
This is a well-loved adaptation that will remain a firm favourite on every holiday TV schedule.
UNANSERED QUESTIONS INCLUDE:
Jack Napier forges a career in a criminal syndicate and yet, by revealing his genius-level chemistry abilities, you wonder why he didn’t turn his hand to something a bit more nerdy? He managed to chemically alter everyday hygiene products and create a deadly gas which makes his victims literally laugh themselves to death. I’m no homicidal super-villain, but I can’t imagine that would be an easy task.
Bruce Wayne’s father is cited as a billionaire doctor. A BILLIONAIRE Doctor. Doctors are generally intelligent human beings what with being trusted with sharp objects around sensitive body parts and yet… ‘No honey, let’s not take the limo home. Let’s going down this suspicious, stabby looking alleyway’. Idiot.
Bruce Wayne is understandably haunted by the murder of his parents and his life as a crime fighter is presumably fuelled by his desire for revenge. After discovering that The Joker was the man responsible for their murder and (of course) destroying him, why would he continue his double life? Sure, there is that overwhelming need to protect the streets of crime-ridden shit-hole but he’s still just one man. Bruce Wayne has the ability to retire to a tropical island and spend his days drinking cocktails, being hand-fed grapes and paying for something lovely to happen to his lower half and he prefers to growl at petty criminals in the city where happiness comes to die? Think of the effort, man.
It may simply be that this portrayal of Batman doesn’t take into account the universal talents of the utility belt but during the final showdown, when The Joker has Vale hostage on top of a cathedral tower, why didn’t Batman use his BatGrapplingHook® to travel up to the rescue? Nothing screams humanity like trudging up several thousand flights of stairs. Did Burton learn nothing from the TV show? Batman is the goddamn boy scout of comic book land.
Why the hell isn’t Alfred retired? He’s about two years younger than God and Bruce Wayne still has him picking up his dirty socks. Wayne remarks to Vicki that Alfred, his loyal confidante and friend, is like family. LIKE. FAMILY. Alfred is a classy, educated gentleman, an engineering genius, weapons expert and he possesses the wisdom of his years and Bruce still has him working as his butler? Clearly, being as loyal as Wayne says he is, he’s not going to leave the reclusive Bruce safe in the knowledge he couldn’t look after himself. He’d probably try to wash a dish and end up bleeding to death through his own incompetence. No, he’d never quit so perhaps he just tries to get himself fired? He ‘forgets’ to iron Bruce’s pants. He comes into work drunk. He pisses in Bruce’s bed. He drives a few priceless sports cars into the pool. He greets people at the door with cocaine smothered all over his face. He lets Vicki waltz right into the Batcave in a ‘Oh Master Bruce? Oh yes, he’s just hanging out in his Batcave…he’s Batman by the way’ manner, no longer having half a fuck to give, and the poor old bastard still can’t get fired. Perhaps he is being held prisoner…
In many ways this film is brilliant with a clear, determined style, laden with all the mandatory Bat-themes, but the narrative is very weak and at times, confusing. Where the Nolan Batman films take themselves too seriously, this Batman doesn’t take itself seriously enough. It’s a fun, often silly, classic that remains very entertaining but it definitely shows its age. This may be an unpopular assessment but I must stick to my guns.
However, there is something that all Batman fans can unanimously agree with - all Batman adaptations are utterly joyless next to the Batman TV series and the 1966 Batman movie. God bless you, Adam West.
* They are wrong. The correct answer is: Mark Hamill. I’m convinced he actually has a lair.