RomCom With A Rictus
When I say that Tim Burton’s quirky 1989 neo-noir Batman is not really a good movie, it does not mean that I don’t enjoy it. Despite Burton’s lack of anything that even approaches any kind of depth of character or plot coherence, Batman is admittedly a visual triumph that saturates the screen with haunting images, loads of slam-pow action, and lurid, colorful tableaux played out against a gloomy German expressionistic background and to an astounding Danny Elfman score.
Though it has been argued that Burton’s take on the Dark Knight was the first to take the source material really seriously, this movie and its sequel have a lot more in common with the Adam West era than anybody really wants to admit. He’s not taking this that seriously. He just darkened the palette. Batman is the kind of a movie where the Batwing clearly looks like a model and half the city looks like a matte painting and the bad guy’s henchmen all wear matching uniforms and nobody cares because it’s all in good fun. Like 1966’s exuberant Batman: The Movie, Tim Burton’s Batman revels in the absurdity of the characters and their situations, but unlike the ultra-hip film version of the tongue-in-cheek, bitingly satirical Adam West series, this movie is not dedicated to “crimefighters the world over and to lovers of the ridiculous, lovers of the bizarre and fun lovers everywhere”, but seems instead dedicated to the freaks, the weirdos, the neurotic and the emotionally stunted. It is telling that the Joker is allowed to caper and clown on screen far more than Batman is allowed to fight crime – and given the lack of personality that Michael Keaton brings to his heroic alter-ego, it’s no wonder that Jack Nicholson dominates this film. Ostensibly, he’s the villain of the piece, but I tend to suspect that Burton sees him more as the underdog hero, the only truly free soul in the dark, steamy, claustrophobic, oppressive Gotham City.
Gotham City, as imagined by Tim Burton and production designer Anton Furst, is really the only character in the film that isn’t upstaged by Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top Joker. Paired with Bob Ringwood’s costume design, the whole thing becomes an incredible, eye-popping visual feast. The real tragedy of the film isn’t the senseless murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, it’s that such a magnificent stage isn’t used to showcase a story worthy of it. It’s easy to get lost in the striking images that comprise this film. But it’s equally as difficult to care about any of the characters. The plot, such as it is, is disposable. But the movie looks awesome.
Michael Keaton, though… Don’t get me wrong, Michael Keaton does far better in the part than any of us were thinking he would way back when it was announced that he was taking up the mantle of the bat. He’s a pretty good Bruce Wayne. He plays it as too much of the neurotic for my tastes, but that has as much to do with Tim Burton’s take on the character as it does with Michael Keaton’s performance. But it’s a little ridiculous when short, dumpy Michael Keaton goes into the Batcave and lean, toned Batman with giant (literally!) sculpted muscles comes out. Not to mention the suit, which is so bulky and looks so restrictive that you wonder how he can possibly manage to fight an army of criminal thugs when the simple act of turning his head seems beyond his ability. But what is disbelief for except to be suspended? Especially in a superhero fantasy. While my personal first choice would have been Alec Baldwin (facing off against Willem Dafoe as The Joker) , Michael Keaton fits the role well enough to deliver a performance that may not be perfect, but which works on a number of levels. He may not be the Batman we deserved, but he was the Batman we needed, back in 1989. Not that it matters that much anyway, since this movie belongs to the Joker, lock, stock, and extremely long smoking barrel.
For all the Joker’s murder and mayhem, he is a decidedly non-threatening kind of bad-guy, certainly much more interesting than the titular hero. Where Batman is gloom and ho-hum introspection, the Joker is the complete opposite: a streak of color and manic energy careening through an otherwise grey and muted film-noir world. Batman is the brooding conformist who is literally desperate to blend in; the Joker is the rebel misfit gleefully flaunting societal conventions. Think about it. The things that The Joker does to win Vicki Vale’s heart aren’t terribly different from what he’d do if the character were plucked out of Burton’s dark city and transplanted whole into a fluffy romcom: He falls in love with her from afar, arranges a colorful public display to impress her, shows her his more sensitive side by revealing his appreciation for art and wooing her with poetry, crosses swords with the rich jerk who’s also competing for her affections, and in the climax he literally sweeps her off her feet and takes her to dance with him in the sky under the stars and the moon. It’s all there; the popular rich kid, the misfit outsider, and the blonde cheerleader type they’re both trying to win. This isn’t really so much a superhero adventure as it is a sort of off-beat John Hughes movie for the emo set.
Which brings me to reporter Alexander Knox, a character created especially for the film who also happens to be completely pointless. It’s almost laughable that this bumbling nice-guy goof, affably played by comedian Robert Wuhl, is to be taken seriously as any sort of romantic rival for the brooding, mysterious, and filthy rich Bruce Wayne, and there’s no reason to go setting him up as the third corner of a love triangle anyway, since the film clearly already has a love triangle established between Batman, Vicki, and The Joker . What’s worse is that his presence in the movie actually makes Vicki Vale a weaker character. There’s nothing that he does in the movie that could not have been done by Vicki instead, and it would have made her a more well-rounded and interesting character if she had been the one tenaciously investigating the rumors of the strange bat-creature stalking Gotham’s dark alleys and terrorizing the underworld despite the ridicule of her peers and the obfuscation of the police. That would not only have given her discovery of Bruce Wayne’s tragic past (Vicki’s only really proactive moment as a reporter in the entire film) a lot more meaning, but it would have made her discovery of his secret identity seem like something she had worked for and earned, rather than something that was capriciously handed to her on a whim. As it is, Vicki doesn’t do much in the film except shriek, get captured a couple of times, shriek, get rescued a couple of times, shriek some more, and awkwardly romance Bruce Wayne.
Merging the Knox character with Vicki Vale even makes the ending of the film make more sense. During the balloon attack at the parade, Knox has a small heroic moment during the parade scene fighting off The Joker’s goon squad with a baseball bat, but is knocked unconscious when Vicki tries to escape the crowd in a panic and accidentally runs into him with his own car. If her character didn’t already seem like a simpleton by this point, that scene certainly seals the deal. But having Vicki be the one to confront The Joker’s goons in the parade scene might have made her seem somewhat capable and a bit more substantial the screeching, fainting victim she plays for most of the film. And if she’d been hurt in the attempt, maybe with a head injury, it might help to explain why she spends the remainder of the movie getting dragged around by The Joker like a rag doll, making no attempt to fight him off or escape. No matter how you slice it, Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale is an absolute disaster — far and away the worst character of the bunch, portrayed by the movie’s weakest actor, but Batman is otherwise extremely well-cast, with exceptional character actors like Pat Hingle and Michael Gough and dynamic stars like Jack Palance and Billy Dee Williams giving the illusion of depth to cardboard cut-out characters who watch from the sidelines as the hero and the other hero fight over the girl. Add to the mix the painfully out-of-place Prince songs, goopy, shallow pop music concoctions which compete unsuccessfully with Danny Elfman’s thrilling, heroic score. Where Elfman’s music enhances the film and stirs the imagination the way John William’s epic Star Wars and Superman scores do, the featured Prince tunes seem to clash with the rest of the movie, yanking you out of the already fragile fantasy that Burton has created and dropping you headfirst into the harsh, inane blandness of corporate boardroom marketing reality.
Given the comic book origins of the material, we can sort of forgive some of the more gaping plot holes as well as the glaring logical inconsistencies, even though genre should never be an excuse for sloppy storytelling. Far from being the masterpiece of the genre that it is often hailed to be, judged strictly on its merits as a film, Batman is actually clunky, uneven, and a little obnoxious. As a superhero adventure story, it doesn’t even come close to Sam Raimi’s Darkman; as a Batman film, it pales in comparison to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Even the animated series that would follow in the wake of the Burton Batman is better, and it should give one pause to reflect when a half-hour cartoon can be more emotionally resonant and have stronger characters than a feature-length film. But this film did pave the way for better written, better cast, better acted and better directed superhero films to follow. And that is ultimately the real lasting impact that Tim Burton’s stab at adapting Batman for the big screen had, unquestionably. It proved that superheroes could still be big box-office and big merchandising. The best that the once-soaring Superman franchise could manage in 1987 was a cheaply-made half-hearted embarrassment that failed to take flight at the box office. Marvel Comics had tried, without success, to generate interest in bringing characters such as Spider-Man and the X-Men to the silver screen. So the fact that Burton was able to take a comic book property and create a massive pop-culture juggernaut that dominated the summer of 1989 and came out on top after going toe-to-toe with established superstar franchise characters like Indiana Jones, James Bond, and the Ghostbusters is indeed an impressive achievement. $400 million dollars, after all, is nothing to sneeze at. And, like the 1960’s Batman, this interpretation set the tone for comic book film and TV adaptations for years to come. But cultural impact and financial success aside, it must be observed that the film itself just does not hold up well over time. It is the one of the most complete triumphs of style over substance ever brought to the screen, but it is admittedly a dazzling style. After all is said and done, a fun and entertaining film, a sort of cinematic cotton candy: It’s delicious while you’re consuming it, and the rush will leave you on a high, but don’t expect any lasting nourishment from it.