Batman (1989)

Change the channel, Batman (Michael Keaton). It’s that weak Tim Burton movie starring The Joker (Jack Nicholson). “Batman.”

Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Sam Hamm, Warren Skaaren; story by Sam Hamm; based upon characters created by Bob Kane and published by D.C.Comics. Produced by Peter Guber, Jon Peters, Benjamin   Melniker, Michael Uslan. Music by Danny Elfman; songs by Prince. Photographed by Roger Pratt. Edited by Ray Lovejoy. Production designed by Anton Furst. Starring Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance.

The biggest problem with Batman…is the fact that it’s called Batman. Of course I understand one would think it should be. But Batman, as it turns out, is not about Batman at all. Not only is the title character robbed of focus during much of Batman’s lumpy running time, but during the crucial moments the film does center on Batman, we can’t help but notice that he’s just plain not worthy of the name, which–like it or not–comes with baggage. He may be a black-clad prowler who knows martial arts and stalks The Joker, but he is no hero, and he is no Batman. Burton, as we survey his filmography, clearly has a lot of idiosyncrasies and concerns that populate his work, but I don’t think heroism is one of them. Whether he intended to or not, he saps Batman of his power (and his inherent interest) by making him what is essentially a sideshow in a psychologically damaged story with zero nobility.

Batman, who is arguably D.C. Comics’ most popular superhero, has always taken place in a world that borrows from the language of film noir. His home, Gotham City, is a nightmare of skyscrapers and shadows…a fantastic cityscape of the mind’s eye, and a festering pit where organized crime runs rampant, and even the good-hearted find their values sorely tested. But Batman takes this conceit and runs with it to an unhelpful extreme, treating the ambiguous mores of hard-boiled fiction as a forgone (and wrong-headed) conclusion. Here, Burton presents a “superhero” that kills people, watches crimes as they happen in order to serve a larger strategy, is monosyllabic, holds few ideals, and has no moral code to speak of. That’s not heroism, it’s a cynical embracing of nihilism, which, when you get right down to it, is a subtle betrayal of the long-running character’s very principles (but a betrayal nonetheless). I can accept this as another in Burton’s long line of freakish protagonists, but I cannot accept it as Batman. No.

It’s clear that Burton is not interested in making a straight-up comic book adaptation. Burton, a brilliant stylist and so-so storyteller, is clearly not a fan of Batman, or comics in general. Instead, he chooses to cannibalize elements of those classic stories and transmute this enterprise into a gothic melodrama with fairy-tale and horror aspects; during one key sequence when Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) is brought to Batman’s cave and bears witness to the depths of his obsession, the parallels to the original Phantom of the Opera are obvious. But Burton’s approach can only work if he consistently treats Batman as a larger-than-life figure, and he doesn’t. Spending time on Batman’s feelings, or spending time with Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, muddies the focus and ultimately undermines Burton’s very intent, because (a) it dilutes the mystery and (b) the characters are scripted too routinely to rise into archetype. Burton wants to make a fragile dream built out of what turns out to be, essentially, inane action movie cliches, and that simply does not work.

The film would be better if told from the point of view of someone—anyone—other than Batman. We know that because for its first hour, it more or less is. During an opening sequence where a family is held up by some thugs, we see Batman (Michael Keaton), in a wide overhead shot, up on the rooftops coldly observing, and we keep our distance. He operates in shadow, in the background, and his movements are whispers and rumors. Even the sworn statements of two muggers roughed up by “The Bat” seem untrustworthy, even though we saw the event in question with our own eyes. Even when we later get clearer views of the ropes and pulleys he uses to disappear from view, The Bat retains a mystique. Police Comissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle), corrupt Detective Eckhart (William Hootkins) and others disavow the existence of The Bat, while reported Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) digs at the truth, later with a notable assist by Vicki Vale.

More protagonists enter. Even an anti-hero, oddly enough. During an important moment where criminal Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is stalked by both police and Batman through a maze of steps and catwalks, we empathize more with him than with Batman, which is an interesting touch. When Napier is dunked into a vat of chemicals and exits as the sadistic, in-your-face, pasty Joker, we note the imbalance between the forces of evil and the underrepresented forces of good, but we’re curious, and will wait to see where this is going. Perhaps this will be a gritty crime story from an evil perspective. Scarface crossed with a comic book, maybe. The hero has been underdeveloped, but perhaps he is not necessary. Clearly our story is here.

But, no, it is not. Gradually, Batman shifts its story perspective, to its detriment. Eventually we get more and more of Batman and Bruce Wayne, and more is less. Bruce Wayne’s home life is dull, his romantic conquests are a bore, and even when dressed as the world’s greatest detective, he trades poor dialogue with faithful butler Alfred (Michael Gough), goes shopping, punches some buttons on a computer, and sits and stews. Burton, when he does convey a vision during Batman, clearly thinks that anyone who would fight criminals dressed like a giant bat is insane (notice the scene where he sleeps upside down, his feet clinging to a balance beam). But that will not do for a story that yearns to take a depressingly conventional shape, and so Batman is saddled with cliches and a trite romance with Vale, all trucked in from an old 80’s action movie blueprint. He is an impotent hero, and an unworthy subject, and Burton’s fragile spell is, ultimately, broken. For an example of how bad this material gets, look no further than the scene when Vale is let into the Batcave and talks about love with Bruce; it’s the worst moment in this schizophrenic film. Burton clearly doesn’t care about that stuff, and neither do we.

What Burton cares about are the sets, the costumes, the visual effects, and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Nicholson, I think, is the key to understanding Burton’s whole approach in Batman, because the Joker effectively does become an inhuman grotesque, and therefore worthy of Burton’s attention (in his own estimation). Joker clocks in more screentime, gets the best lines, and generally is much more potent than Keaton, who is stiff and unconvincing as both Batman and Bruce Wayne. Burton is only interested in Batman as a yin to the Joker’s yang, or a worthy opponent on an operatic playing field. Therefore, only during the times when Batman can fall (or rise) to the Joker’s demonic level of fiendish brutality is Burton even interested in Batman at all. This is of a piece with Burton’s affinity for outcasts, although here I honestly think Burton has more sympathy for the Joker, who has left the human world behind, than for Batman, who still plays at the pretense of being a man.

In Batman’s final act, Burton ultimately reduces the Dark Knight’s quest when Batman (who seems a slow study) discovers that Jack Napier killed his own parents (it’s a different gunman in the comics). The murder of the family is what sets the entire Batman legend in motion, so of course it makes sense to address that in the first film in a series, but it is misused here. Burton appreciates the theatrical aspects of Batman and his urban legend status, but he does not accept the myth, transforming it instead into the story of two monsters who created each other, and must now fight to the finish. It’s a revenge plot, in other words, desperately shoehorned in in order to make the upcoming confrontation of these two titans mean something, because so far nothing has been at stake. But even now, there’s still nothing at stake, because the script tries to boil itself down to the final battle of a powerhouse and a non-entity, and we cannot be made to care about a power dynamic that lopsided.

But it’s even worse than that. This late-game script attempt to reformat Batman into a hero is informed entirely, again, by 80’s action movies, many of which incorrectly latched onto revenge as a form of heroism. Today we see that more clearly as vigilante posturing with slight fascist overtones, so not only is the film’s retreat to formula disloyal to the much-established tone, but it’s in favor of a code that is just plain corrupt. Burton, who I think does have perspective on this, envisions the story as a battle between two monsters of equal stature with an innocent woman caught in between, but the script is at odds with this approach in perverse fashion, giving the main character a “heroic” drive that, in the harsh light of day, is monstrous. This creates a confusion of tone, and so even by film’s end, we have no idea what to make of Batman; he seems beset by moral dishonesty, even though the film clearly hopes we should see him as virtuous.  The film is never more fraudulent then when it attempts to posit itself as an actual superhero film, because there is not one present.

To be fair, Batman came at an early time in the comic-book-movie age, where it wasn’t necessarily expected that a big-budget studio production would be faithful to the Batman characters first conceived for print in the 1930’s. We live in a different age now, where fidelity to source material is studied with an electron microscope, and a filmmaker could not possibly get away with the fast one that Tim Burton tries to pull in Batman. But I still think he miscalculates, because his vision is not unified. The film is a bastard child of both superhero comics and Burton’s weird sensibilities, and is effectively torn apart by being pulled in two very different directions. This is why I reject any defense of Tim Burton’s Batman that trivializes that plays up Burton’s vision, because at the end of the day…there isn’t one.

Batman’s screenplay is a bit of a mess, and while we can excuse that due to the fact that at the time no one had mounted a successful superhero film except for Superman (1978), we can’t ignore the laundry list of problems. It’s biggest issue, however, is a failure to conceptualize Gotham City as a character, limiting the citywide perspective to being a few press conferences, some streets, some news reports, and some random extras. Despite the film being a titanic battle for Gotham City between two superegos, you never get the sense that anyone at ground level really cares, aside from one scene where townspeople are assembled by the Joker just to perish in a cloud nerve gas. Even then, these characters aren’t treated like human beings whose death would be tragic, they’re treated like props and besieged by bad traffic direction. Burton doesn’t have a legitimate handle on these big crowd scenes, and it shows.

What works about Batman are the technical credits: the Oscar-winning production design (by Anton Furst), the special effects, and Danny Elfman’s terrific score. And also one of the performances: Nicholson. He hams it up big time, but he does effectively distract you into thinking you’re watching an entertaining film, disassociating himself entirely from the parts that don’t work. The film isn’t an actor’s showcase except for Nicholson, but he does the job and earns the massive paycheck he received ($6 million salary, plus a large chunk of the back end). Whether his performance is so good that he earned the percentages he got for Batman’s sequels (which he did not appear in), I can’t say.

What really does not work are the other performances, namely Keaton and Basinger. Not only is their love story vapid and devoid of chemistry, but Keaton is miscast as Batman, playing both Batman and Wayne as essentially the same person, without nuance or subtlety. Basinger, who is not really a very good actress, is saddled with an awful part in Vicki Vale. Vale, who was not even an important character in the Batman stable at this time, is that most annoying of action movie characters: the female sidekick who’s I.Q. changes from scene to scene. She enters the picture as a confident woman, and spends much of the rest of it as a damsel with an irritating scream and a horrid survival instinct. The rest of the bit players don’t amount to much, especially Billy Dee Williams, who only took the role of Harvey Dent because he wanted the opportunity to play Two-Face at some point, much good that coveting the role did him.

There was a time in my life that I loathed Tim Burton’s Batman, but I have since mellowed (helped by the release of Batman Begins, which is a more faithful take on the character). My attitude towards Batman is now more an antipathy tinged with nostalgia. Batman, being one of the first films I can remember seeing in a theater, was a very important film for my childhood, but now after 23 years of retrospect, I cannot for the life of me call it good. It’s too muddled and too confused about what it’s trying to do. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting much emotional satisfaction out of it, because it is essentially the story of a sociopath masquerading as a force for good. That’s an interesting dynamic, and could lead to some interesting places, but it isn’t Batman, and it isn’t an action movie. It’s a dark fable, and you can’t make all of those fit. Sorry, Tim, but you missed the point. And, for that matter, your own.

GRADE: C

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One thought on “Batman (1989)

  1. Deathstar2 September 7, 2016 / 12:02 am

    costumes, sets, props … it’s why i like burtons batman, classic star wars etc. if you want story, don’t go looking for it in children movies. knolan has beetlegeuse running around in new york city, i prefer burtons joker in the first place. who cares for story anyway. your review is full of animosity to burton himself. rating c.

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