Thursday, November 13, 2014

It's not an Ordinary World, is it?: The Cultural Immortality of Tim Burton's 'Batman 1989'

Batman is 75 years old give or take a few months, but crucially 'BATMAN' is 25 years old.. People are still watching the film entranced by its weird directorial style, its quasi-noir feel and (let's be honest about this) its historical importance in the Batman series.

While I wasn't actually alive to experience it (I was born a few months after the film was released), people still talk of how the film's aggressive, muscular marketing campaign took over the world and changed the way blockbuster films were made - success was no longer based on dumb luck, cultural zeitgeist or even the film being any damn good - with 'BATMAN', Hollywood figured out how to shove a movie down your throat until all you wanted was to go out and buy the t-shirt, the novel, the videogame, the toys, etc - basically inject the movie into your veins. Surprisingly, or even miraculously, it managed to still be a very interesting film in a number of different ways - even if it's more of a pop-culture juggernaut than a really meaty film in its own right.

My own experience with Batman is well-documented and much like anyone else's. I discovered the Adam West show early in my infancy and was excited by the colour and adventure of it, as most kids were. One of my earliest memories is from the episode 'Smack in the Middle' where Batman holds up his cape and casts a dark shadow on his foes, frightening them into submission - from here it was clear to me that Batman was a dark avenger, a badass who struck fear into the hearts of his enemies, not merely the jovial father-figure the series loved to pretend he was. The now-legendary Animated Series from the 90s (in the 90s most superheroes just had 'cartoons'. Batman had an Animated Series) cemented this so drastically that I was a fan for life. While I don't read as many comics as I'd like to and my action figure collection isn't what it once was, Batman has undoubtedly shaped a large part of my life, my interests and ultimately my soul. He's the reason I try to do the right thing, he's the reason I brush my teeth, he's the reason why I believe in never giving up. Some people have got Jesus, I've got Batman. In a way it's a little disheartening to find out in your twenties that actually there's thousands of people just like me with the same (sometimes greater) level of devotion to a fictional character, but there you go. 

Oddly none of that would have happened if not for the Tim Burton movie - a movie I originally wasn't even allowed to watch. We were pretty avid movie-renters back in the early 90s and I recall pining over the VHS cover of both 'BATMAN' and its immediate sequel 'Batman Returns' as early as 1994 in Movie Magic near the Bottle Tower in Churchtown (it's a clothing reclamation centre now). Even just based on that cover I could tell why this was bigger, darker and more of an event than the everyday TV series - Batman was dressed all in black in a costume that was more like sculpted armour than the flimsy material Adam West wore (a British gaming magazine once affectionately likened West's physique to "a used condom filled with porridge"). The Batmobile was a stylised roadster like something Lucifer might use to race his way out of Hell. The Joker looked like someone who would end you and cackle at your grisly fate. This wasn't kids stuff.

 The ratings system is different in every country, but here in Ireland (and in the UK) we've generally stuck to a fairly straight-forward age-rating system. "BATMAN" was originally rated '15' which meant that for my conservative-minded mother, that was too dark and mature for my 5-year old self to experience. The concept of a movie being 'unsuitable' was subsequently hardwired into my brain - it felt like I'd never see the film, to the point where I'd even made my peace with that fact. Eventually an ad came on TV for the film - it was going to be shown that Saturday on Network 2 (now RTÉ 2). My mother relented and taped it for me and I watched that badboy until the tape disintegrated. 

So what about the film itself?

As has been said many times before, 'BATMAN' is almost the quintessential example of style winning out over substance. The film is largely without a plot more complicated than "The Joker is doing evil things and Batman needs to stop him or Gotham will perish" but it's the texture of the world, the weird performances, the instantly quotable dialogue and the thunderous musical score that bring the film to life.

First and foremost, Jack Nicholson is truly marvelous as the Joker. Despite the title of the film, it's basically his movie with most of the plot circling around his transformation from seedy psychologically-unhinged mobster to completely maniacal killer-clown. The way the character is written fluctuates throughout the film and in many ways, trying to figure out the m.o. of the Joker is one of the film's flaws - initially he's a revenge-killer, then he's a critique of rampant consumerism, then suddenly out of nowhere he's a sort of psychotic dadaist championing creative destruction ("I make art until someone dies")'s a miracle that Nicholson manages to hold all these competing interpretations together, but he does without argument. For all the praise Heath Ledger would eventually go on to get, it's a close battle for me as to who gave the more interesting performance - the scene where Napier is in the plastic surgeon's office and realises the extent of his weird disfigurement (a permanent rictus-grin and bleached skin) he starts laughing, but it's this eerily gradual build-up of tension and release, like he's exhaling the last remnants of sanity from his body until finally he's cackling like a madman. It's an incredible scene that's been homaged and parodied dozens of times (Lisa Simpson gets her braces in one such tribute).

Michael Keaton as Batman has gone down in history as being one of the strangest and most rewarding casting decisions of all time. People still use it as an example of why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover or more literally, judge a film before it's released. Keaton looks nothing like the anvil-jawed, 6'4" Superman-clone of the comics and it's safe to admit that his career resumé up until that point was not that of an action hero, but the opposite entirely. Burton's thesis argument baffled fans - he chose Keaton because he didn't look like an action hero, he looked like a man who'd need to intimidate his foes in another way - it's an argument I still happen to disagree with, but anyway it paid off. Keaton is incredible as Bruce Wayne and Batman - as Batman he's the force of nature everyone was waiting for, rarely speaking and only in a quiet, menacing snarl, but it's his Bruce Wayne that was so groundbreaking. He plays Bruce as absent-minded and not all there; so driven, determined and trapped within his surreal life as a crimefighter that he doesn't really know how to be a normal person, least of all a billionaire playboy. The film's unusually laid-back dialogue really accommodates this, as does Keaton's natural chemistry with Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale and Hammer Horror-veteran Michael Gough's pitch-perfect Alfred. Unfortunately, as the film is so Nicholson-centric I'm always left wanting more scenes of Keaton, but maybe that's a good thing.

Keaton's Batman undoubtedly started a trend of not always playing to type when casting high-concept roles like this. Some have argued that it actually set off the slew of  'normal guy action-hero' films of the 1990s, where the hero was more often a regular-looking Joe than the kind of hulking commandos popularised by the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers of the 1980s. The payoff of Keaton undoubtedly inspired the bizarre choice of Nicolas Cage for the unmade 'Superman Lives' that was to be directed by Burton in the mid-90s. While the world and his mother have thanked God that that film wasn't made, personally I still have a morbid desire to see it - I'd happily take a weird, arthouse Superman movie with a crazy casting choice over a mundane committee-driven sulk-fest like the last two Superman movies have been. While I do ultimately think Christian Bale played the definitive Batman - Keaton arguably delivers the better actor's performance and I think given the opportunity he could have surpassed Bale. To this day I always get more excited when a director makes an unconventional casting choice rather than just casting someone who physically resembles the character. Not always, but usually it displays a confidence in the actor's ability to act and tap into the psychology of the character, rather than their ability to just throw punches and walk away from explosions. It shows an appreciation for the mythology as a serious character-study and not just as an action/adventure thrill-ride.

Obviously an analysis of this film wouldn't be complete without mentioning the rather specific diversion it takes from the established mythos. In the comics, Bruce Wayne's parents are usually slain by a faceless, unknown killer (he's been named as 'Joe Chill' depending on what era you're reading) but in this film the Joker himself is the assailant. Fans understandably found this to be a sacrilegious deviation from the status quo, but for the sake of the film, it works quite well, especially considering how disjointed a lot of the writing of the rest of the film is. At its essence, the struggle between Batman and the Joker is the ultimate modern battle between good and evil - Batman dresses like a demon but does acts of good. The Joker dresses like a clown, a figure that should make us forget our cares, but he performs acts of evil. This unsettling aberration reminds us that the world is not always as it seems. Bruce Wayne suffers a tragedy caused by crime, so he becomes something capable of ending crime, which he does, but Crime retaliates by morphing into something acutely more bizarre and more powerful. This is explored in greater detail in 'The Dark Knight', but it's there in Tim Burton's movie too - at the start of the movie two muggers steal a man's wallet at gunpoint, but Batman apprehends them, urging them to let the criminal underworld know all about him. Normal crime isn't going to happen in Gotham anymore, because Batman is here to end it all. So crime evolves, transforming from ordinary mobsters like Jack Napier into methodical criminal masterminds like the Joker. Towards the end of the film Batman has the line "I made you, you made me first," referring to how he dropped Jack into the chemicals, but Napier killed his parents in the first place. This kind of posits Jack Napier/Joker as the living embodiment of crime itself which is fine in a movie like this. The argument can be made that it make Gotham feel a little incestuous - like everything that happens revolves around a small number of people - but I think it serves the struggle of the film well. The fight between good and evil is cyclical and complex, never-ending.

Michael Gough is a perfect Alfred, desperately trying to understand and respect Bruce's mission, but also trying to get him to see a life beyond the cave (this is something that would be explored in much greater detail in Nolan's trilogy). As for the rest of the cast, they do their jobs well enough. Kim Basinger was nothing particularly special and her efforts are usually glossed over by people discussing the film. While she's generally inoffensive, I find her constant screaming a bit grating on more than a few occasions. Unlike Lois Lane in the Superman films, Vicki Vale is depicted as being largely helpless, a damsel-in-distress/scream-queen in the tradition of Fay Wray in 'King Kong' - in spite of her pleasant chemistry with Keaton, for the most part it's an awkward nothing-portrayal and it does little to balance the largely male-centric film. This is something Burton obviously saw fit to address in his empowered-Catwoman-centric sequel. Robert Wuhl plays Alexander Knox, the comic-relief, who partners with Vale in trying to discover the identity of the Batman. Wuhl is charming and hilarious and benefits greatly from the aforementioned easygoing nature of the dialogue. Bizarrely the viewer ends up rooting more for him as a romantic partner for Vicki Vale - especially as Bruce Wayne sleeps with her and never calls her back. I like to pretend that there's an unmade romantic-comedy sequel where the two characters reconcile and end up together (especially seeing as how neither of them are in any of the other films). Pat Hingle's Commissioner Gordon is fine, but he's the bumbling bureaucratic fool of the Golden and Silver Age, rather than the haunted Last Good Cop of Frank Miller's Year One (Gary Oldman would eventually bring this to life). Hingle's Gordon becomes more and more laughably inept over the course of the four films - it's no wonder Gotham's in the state it's in - he literally can't do his job without Batman's help.

Beyond the performances, the most awe-inspiring thing about Burton's film is Gotham itself, as designed by Anton Furst. Furst described the landscape of the film as though Hell had sprouted out of the ground and kept on growing; as if New York never had a planning commission to prevent grotesque offsprings of industry from infecting the architectural landscape (hideous pipes seem to crawl out of buildings, bridges connect skyscrapers together, buildings drape over the streets threatening to crumble at any second). Gotham's soul (if it has one) resides moreso in Fritz Lang's Metropolis than in any Capra-esque interpretation of 'the big city'.

As great as the Nolan films are, and as necessary as it was for those films to take place in reality, Anton Furst's nightmarish hellhole is the city of the comics come to life. Tragically Furst committed suicide in the years following the film and Warner Bros mistakenly replaced his beautiful sets with the claustrophic Bo Welch production design in 'Batman Returns'. While some fans draw comparisons between Welch's Gotham and German Expressionism (certain shots seem to be taken straight from 'Doctor Caligari') ultimately I don't care for it - it just doesn't look real or as captivating as Furst's Gotham did. 

Danny Elfman's score is a thunderous, muscular delight throughout the whole film. His music is steeped in mystery and suspense and is utterly pulpy. Some of the creepiest scenes are multiplied in eerie atmosphere thanks to Elfman's unsettling melodies. It's not hard to see how he became such a prolific presence in these kinds of films all throughout the 90s and the 00s - this is arguably the film that put him on the map. The infamous Prince soundtrack released in conjunction with the film is also featured prominently throughout, for better or worse. Personally I never cared for a lot of the songs and I feel that while they add reasonably well to some of the Joker's scenes, they're so distractingly of their time that they date a film that's trying to be timeless. Still though, it's hard to deny the weird charm of songs like 'Partyman' and even 'Batdance', a concept piece that compiles various soundbytes and lines of dialogue from the film into one big giant orgy of excess. 

As I've already alluded to, the film isn't perfect. The pacing fluctuates throughout, the plot is all over the place and none of the characters have an arc that's particularly easy to latch on to. For a film about Batman, Burton clearly doesn't find him as interesting as the villains (a recurring problem across the first four films) and even subtly positions him as a kind of fascistic antagonist, with Batman representing the darkness and angst of order against the freedom and liberating ecstasy of chaos represented by the villains (this is even more apparent in the sequel). For all of the film's supposed efforts to be unlike the Adam West TV series, that's pretty much exactly what that show did as well. And just like that series, the police force is manned by a pack of clueless idiots who can't do anything without calling Batman first - the movie just doesn't admit as blatantly. It's clear that the film was victim to dozens of rewrites - Jack Nicholson is quoted as saying that he didn't even understand why Joker was bringing Vicki to the top of the cathedral in the final act, because the reason hadn't been written into the script yet (it's still a little bit unclear, to be perfectly honest).

Burton himself has retroactively spoken against the film, calling it "kind of boring" and more of a cultural behemoth than a true film - that's certainly a criticism I'd understand. Strangely though, the strength of the performances and the atmosphere tie it all together. And if it is just a cultural behemoth rather than a true expression of cinema, it's still not quite a shallow film - there's so much to sink your teeth into that it's hard not to recognise why fans still love it after all these years. 'BATMAN' set the stage for 1990s blockbusters and it was the definitive superhero film to kick off the new decade - every superhero film released in that decade was trying to ride the wave of 'BATMAN' with varying degrees of success - The Shadow, The Phantom, The Mask of Zorro were all films about relatively super-powerless vigilantes, who possessed vast wealth, operated at night and struck from the shadows. 'The Crow''s eerie landscapes and noir-esque feel owed as much to Furst's Gotham as they did to their own source material. On TV you had stuff like The Flash and the barely-remembered Nightman which emulated Furst as well as the Danny Elfman music. The success of the film kicked off the immortal Animated Series which itself spunoff into an entire Animated Universe of DC properties culminating in the excellent 'Justice League Unlimited' (all years before anyone cared about The Avengers). Even when Marvel finally did start making films, initially their characters wore black leather jackets or black jumpsuits (the first 'Blade' movie feels an awful lot like Burton's Batman) - mirroring the debut of the Dark Knight. And it's taken a full 25 years of Batman films for the franchise to move away from the all-black look of the Batsuit in that first Tim Burton film.

Ultimately, it's not unfair to say that without Tim Burton's Batman, it's unlikely I'd be the fan I am today. I've seen the film so often that I can say without exaggeration that I could probably recite every line of dialogue. It's not a perfect film (nor is it a perfect world as Vicki Vale reminds us), but maybe it's not supposed to be. As a piece of pop culture and as an introduction to the world of Batman, it's invaluable. 

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