Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Jack Palance, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough
Well, as I write this review, I’m right in the middle of Summer 2016 and I’ve decided to focus my attention as a movie buff on mind blowing Summer Blockbusters. You know, big budget, loud movies released in Summer time. Inevitably, my mind went to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), one of the biggest Summer Blockbusters ever; period. Now every time I think about Tim Burton’s two Bat films, Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) I go into this mental struggle as to which one is the better of the two. I ultimately end up using the argument that parents use to refer to their children “I love them both for different reasons”. A lot of kids growing up nowadays don’t realize the kind of phenomenon that the release of Burton’s Batman (1989) meant to the world. I mean this movie quite literally took over the world! “Bat fever” took over the nation, the bat insignia was on everything from t-shirts to sneakers and Prince’s monster hit “Batdance” played nonstop over the airwaves! There was video games, comic books, costumes, anything and everything based on the movie. I mean, I remember people getting hair cuts that resembled the bat insignia! It was crazy, but of course, it all came as a result of Tim Burton’s fantastic movie, which I must say still retains that sense of spectacle even by today’s standards.
The story revolves around Jack Napier, a gangster who is transformed into a freak when Batman throws him into a vat of toxic chemicals. The chemicals turn Napier’s skin white and leave a permanent smile on his face. From then on, he calls himself “The Joker”, to him life is now one big bad joke. He wants to take over Gotham by making a mockery of them first; he wants to kill Gothamites with a chemical that kills them from a laughing fit and leaves their corpses with a big fat grin on their face. What thrusts this films villain is his hatred of society, to him society is a joke meant to be laughed at and squashed like a cockroach. He uses society’s greed against them, criticizing a society that revolves around the love for money. To him their lives are “failed and useless” and they have to be relived of them. Moving the story forward is the classic good guy mirrors the bad guy motif, one created the other and vice versa. It’s the classic “freak vs. freak” storyline culminating on top of a gothic church, with a duke out between the two freaks. In the balance is the life of Vicky Vale, Bruce Wayne’s love interest and the life of all Gothamites.
Burton Directs Keaton
At the center of this film’s success is director Tim Burton. Having directed two back to back box office winners: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1986) he was chosen to direct the new Batman film; which had been under development at Warner. Two comedies like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Bettlejuice don’t exactly scream “dark gothic comic book film!”, but we need to remember that Burton was gothic and dark from the very beginning when he was making short films like Vincent (1982) and Frankenweenie (1984). So in many ways, he was the perfect choice for taking on the rigors of directing a film that takes place in the ultra gothic Gotham City. Actually, Burton embraced that Gothic element of the comic books better than any director before or after him. Nobody has gone as gothic as he did, which is what sets his bat films apart from all others. Yet, on hindsight, and considering what the producers wanted to achieve with this movie, I think they chose him precisely because of the comedy. You see, the producers of this here film wanted to make a Bat film that was closer in tone to the television show, so I’m thinking that when they hired Burton, they thought they’d get this guy who’d make a campy film, a la the television show. What they got instead was the soon to be master of goth.
Having Burton as a director actually saved the film from campiness hell because producers were always pushing for the campy sense of humor from the television show because they thought that’s what people remembered about Batman, they thought that this is what people would want and would expect from a Batman movie. Yet for his take on Batman, Burton went for the darkness seen in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a graphic novel that has gone on to influence almost every single Batman film to date. Hell, we even see images from Miller’s seminal graphic novel in Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)! With his graphic novel, Miller stepped away from the campy vibe of the show and what DC had done with the character up to then to present us with a dark, aged, pissed off Batman. Burton latched on to that rather than the campiness and audiences loved it. Gotham City streets looked shadowy and dangerous, not colorful.
But producers didn’t give up on the campy television show vibe. The finally found a director who gave them exactly what they wanted with Joel Schumacher, who made the franchise killing Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). The death of that first run of Bat films proved that Burton had made the right choice in stepping way from the campiness. Without Burton’s creative force behind the films, they became exactly what the producers wanted: silly children’s films. We have to remember producers are more interested in marketing capabilities of a film, the deals, the toys, the cartoon shows, the action figures, which is probably why a lot of companies where upset at Burton’s film, they felt it was too adult to create merchandising for kids; though most companies later gave in due to the films gargantuan success.
After the films success, it was Bat everything! And it’s true, when we look at Burton’s Bat films, there’s something very adult about these movies, the themes, the dialog. In Batman, Bruce Wayne and Vicky Vale have sex, Jack Napier was screwing Grissom’s girl, there’s tons of double entendre, more so on Batman Returns (1992) .Yes my friends, this Batman film was a strange bird, though it seemed tailor made for kids, Burton gave it an adult twist. Sure Batman has its origins in comic books, which for the longest time were associated as something strictly for children, but to everyone’s surprise Burton’s film was dark, “adult” and sexual. What makes it a strange bird is that it didn’t lose that fun comic book vibe either. We still had the bat mobile, the bat jet and the utility belts! Usually films that defy their target audience end up as huge failures (The Monster Squad for example), but Batman walked that fine line and came out winning in the end.
The film has a violent edge to it, its heroes and villains were not squeaky clean, in fact, they were on the edge of insanity! For example, The Joker electrocutes someone to the point where he becomes a charred skeleton. Characters aren’t afraid to kill and be insane, I mean, villains like Nicholson’s The Joker are rarely seen in films these days, today studios prefer to be extremely politically correct, which is just a bore when it comes to a big bad villain. Back in the 80’s villains were over the top, sometimes taking over a film as was the case with Batman. It’s Nicholson who steals the show, who gives the stand out performance. Nicholson said on many occasions that this was his favorite character, and one can clearly see he is having a blast playing the clown prince of crime. It’s so refreshing to go back and see these films, villains feel more intense, more evil. Even Batman was a little more intense than expected, he actually tells The Joker that he wants to kill him; something that goes against what Batman is all about in the comics. Batman doesn’t kill villains, he brings them to justice, he sends them to Arkham Asylum. He doesn't end up killing The Joker, but you could hear it in his voice that that was his intended to do and he would've done it, had the Joker not done it himself.
Actually, many comic book fans were enraged with this film, starting with the choice to cast Michael Keaton as Batman. I have to admit, like most, at first I agreed. How the hell was Beetlejuice going to play Batman? The two didn’t go together in my mind. But then I saw the film and boom, Keaton is Batman, there was no doubt about it. Now, most people agree that Keaton’s take is the best. I screened both of these films (I screen movies at a local dive bar) and to my surprise, a lot of people came to see both of them. At a certain point in the night one guy said “that’s the real Batman!” We can’t forget Danny Elfman’s amazing music, which is just harrowing. It honestly is a huge part of this films success. We can’t leave out the art direction which is so gothic, so grimy! By the way, the art direction won the film an academy award! Who would’ve thought it right? A comic book movie winning an Oscar!
Since then, comic book films have come a long way. Today we get a comic book film every few months, but back then? A good comic book film was a rare thing! And we have two great films to thank for this, Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Both of these films were two giant steps for comic book films! They showed that comic book movies, when done right, had huge money making potential. People embraced them. Between these two important comic book films, it was Batman (1989) that elevated things to another level, it was simply put an incredibly lucrative hit, the biggest comic book movie of its time, an incredible success all across the world. The phenomenon took a life of its own, but we need to remember that the phenomenon came as a result of an amazing movie, which remains, in the eyes of this comic book fan, a timeless film worth revisiting time and time again.