Batman (1989)

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Batman (1989)

Post  BoG on Sun Nov 23, 2014 1:28 am

Batman as a comic book super-hero was introduced way back in 1939, as a more dark costumed hero than average, usually dealing with creepy criminals. In the sixties, the hero got more light and even comedic, mostly due to the TV series. In the seventies, writers like Denny O'Neil and artists like Neal Adams shifted him back to the position of a dark knight, with more adult stories. This concept was crystallized by writer-artist Frank Miller, for a groundbreaking mini-series in 1986 called The Dark Knight Returns. Soon after this, that's where Tim Burton's film version comes in. Burton acknowledges the sixties very slightly with the casting of comedic actor Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman, but mostly he sticks with the presentation of a dark knight. And that's what most fans of the comic book hero were waiting for - to see that figure of the 4-color pages realized as a cinematic costumed enforcer of the night. Things looked promising right off the bat during the credits, with Danny Elfman's music setting the right tone for a mysterious, off-kilter adventure.
What set this film apart and contributed to its success was style and set design. These lend the film a semblance of sci-fi features, perhaps inadvertently, though Burton has stated that the intent was to show a parallel universe, an alternate Earth. So, the setting is Gotham City where New York City should be (in the comics, Gotham was meant to stand in for Chicago), a cityscape of densely-packed baroque architecture unlike anything on our Earth. The time frame certainly doesn't seem like 1989; in fact, it doesn't come across like any one decade, perhaps a mixture of the fifties and seventies (there's a blog that makes a case for 1947 - The first sequence, in which Batman confronts two small-time criminals, seems staged and overly dramatic, even stiffly directed, as if confined to a small setting (such as a stage), and this sets the tone for the whole film. This is not  a real city and these are not realistic characters - it's larger-than-life, it's costumed melodrama, it's operatic, it's archetypes and symbolism, but set within the confines of a super-hero story. There's even a brief use of animation in long shots, sort of acknowledging the source material.

ABOVE: the intimidating Jack Palance as Grissom with Jack Nicholson who, later transformed into the Joker, likes to spray acid

And, the scenes where all these elements really come alive are with the villains. The crime boss is Grissom (Jack Palance) and his no.1 henchman is Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). Grissom has recently become aware that Napier has been plumbing the moll (Jerry Hall), so he betrays him. During a confrontation in a factory between Napier, Batman and the cops, Napier gets shot in the face and falls into a vat of chemicals. When he emerges, he is the Joker. As the Joker, he quickly disposes of Grissom and establishes himself as the new criminal mastermind of the city - and also the craziest. As everyone agrees, Nicholson was the ideal choice for the role of the Joker; it's his scenes we wait for and they all work. A few that don't work - most of the ones with Wayne and photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger); the dialog is awkward and Keaton usually flubs these, stumbling through as if he's too nervous. Keaton's Wayne is usually distracted and absent-minded, as if he only becomes focused when he puts the costume on. He's actually a bit irritating in the Wayne persona. Nicholson is flamboyant, outrageous and genuinely disturbing as the psychotic villain - some of it is a little over-the-top humorous, that gallows humor, but he maintains a consistent characterization of unpredictable madness to the very end, and it's very entertaining.
The supporting characters are a mixed bag: Robert Wuhl as reporter Knox (a character not in the books) and Michael Gough as Alfred the butler get the best lines and make the most of them. But Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon doesn't have much to do except look concerned and Billy Dee Williams as the infamous Harvey Dent, then the city's D.A., has even less. There are also strange, somewhat grotesque criminal caricature roles for Tracey Walter as the Joker's main henchman and William Hootkins as a corrupt cop. The Joker's gang, all dressed in leather jackets similar to police uniforms, are a mixture of frat boy hooliganism and mindless thuggery, at times even clownish. This is certainly not known as an action film - that was not Burton's forte. Most of the action scenes have a subdued quality about them and the Batmobile, an unusual futuristic missile-like design, also usually moves in a leisurely fashion (perhaps stymied by the set, a stage), even during the chase scene. As indicated by the early scenes, Batman had only recently begun to prowl the city at night so that may explain a lack of experience on his part and  why he does not come across like the fighting machine he's known to be, faring badly in the climactic fight with the largest gang member. But, he's not averse to killing and this aspect contributes to the overall dark atmosphere of the film. BoG's Score: 8 out of 10

Bat Trivia: this was by far the highest-grossing movie domestically in 1989, at $251 million; the closest that another movie got to this in that year was the latest Indiana Jones adventure, The Last Crusade, at $197 million; Batman also had the highest-grossing opening weekend to that point, at $40 million; adjusted for inflation, this Batman film remains one of the biggest super-hero films at the box office of all time, surpassed only by later blockbusters The Avengers (2012), The Dark Knight (2008) and Spider-Man (2002). Now looked upon as the father of the modern super-hero film, Batman had immediate influence on films such as Dick Tracy (90) and TV series like The Flash (1990-91). Burton returned to direct the sequel in 1992, Batman Returns, but relinquished the directing chores to Joel Schumacher for later sequels. The same thing for Michael Keaton - he returned for the sequel in '92 but not the later ones. Michael Gough as Alfred and Pat Hingle as Gordon are the only actors to return for all 3 sequels.
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