Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Batman (1989)

I grew up on the campy BATMAN TV series of the 60's with Adam West as Batman , Burt Ward as Robin the Boy Wonder and a host of over the hill movie stars and comedians as the Arch Villains i.e. Cesar Romero (the Joker), Frank Gorshin (the Riddler), or Burgess Meredith (the Penguin). When I lived in Los Angeles, I even visited the entrance to the Bat Cave somewhere in Griffith Park.

But once you grow older, campy isn't quite as interesting. I was excited when it was announced that a new darker, more mature Batman movie was going to be made and to helm this franchise was the perfect director - Tim Burton.

Burton's BATMAN (1989) jump started the whole super hero film franchises that had vanished after Christopher Reeve's SUPERMAN films in the mid-1970's. BATMAN was the event of 1989 as I recall and producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters did a great job of hyping their film, so much so that viewing it recently, it's a bit painful to watch compared to the bigger, badder, even darker THE DARK KNIGHT (2008). The Prince songs now seem very Warner Brothers cross-promotional and Gotham City is just a big, sterile London movie set. So has the THE DARK KNIGHT completed knocked my beloved 1989 BATMAN from super hero film glory?

Not exactly.  The strength of this BATMAN are the actors.  With all the well earned accolades and awards given to the late Heath Ledger for his rendition of the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, it's hard to believe 21 years ago we were bestowing similar praise to Jack Nicholson's Joker, believing his was the definitive performance.   Nicholson's Joker is a bit more likable and accessible than Ledger's but he'll still kill an innocent bystander or his girlfriend (Jerry  Hall) in an instance.  Ledger's performance is amazing but Nicholson's Joker is inspired. And Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne/Batman is equally interesting. Usually the super hero plays second fiddle to the more colorful super villain but Keaton holds his own, making Bruce Wayne a delightfully absent minded millionaire and his Batman just a hair less homicidal than the Joker. I give Keaton's Bruce Wayne a slight nod over Christian Bale's  Bruce Wayne in THE DARK KNIGHT.  I do like the look of Val Kilmer's Bruce Wayne in BATMAN FOREVER (1995) but I need to see that film to make a final verdict.

BATMAN pits Bruce Wayne aka Batman against his arch-nemesis Jack Napier aka the Joker. Napier/the Joker (Jack Nicholson) works for Boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), Gotham City's resident crime boss. But Grissom doesn't trust Napier and sets him up to be caught by the police at a chemical factory Grissom owns. Batman (Michael Keaton) shows up, Gotham's new caped crusader, and accidentally knocks Napier into a pool of acid. The acid not only corrodes Napier's face into an unnatural grin, it causes Napier to go insane. Reborn as a white skinned, green haired homicidal criminal, the Joker begins a war on his fellow crime bosses, Gotham City, and Batman.

Bruce Wayne/Batman is haunted by the death of his mother and father, gunned down in front of his eyes by a mugger with the catch phrase, "Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?" His parents deaths lead Wayne to use his wealth to fight against the forces of evil. Aided by his faithful man servant Alfred (Michael Gough), Batman matches wits with the Joker and his gang as the Joker poisons the city's toiletry products in an attempt to terrorize Gotham City. The two also battle for the affections of photo journalist Vickie Vale (Kim Basinger).

The Batman/Joker/Vale triangle is an interesting element.  All three are touched and affected by violence. Vale photographs images of famine and war for a news magazine and is drawn to Batman in his crusade to stop violence in Gotham City. Wayne's parents were murdered by a gunmen who we will eventually discover was a young Jack Napier. Because of their deaths, Wayne turns to crime fighting and as the Batman, Wayne causes Napier to become the Joker, in essence creating his nemesis. The chemistry between Keaton and Basinger is great too, a connection of two lonely souls I never full appreciated when I first saw BATMAN in a San Fernando Valley multiplex.

BATMAN falters toward its climax as director Burton and writers Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren seem to run out of plot ideas as the Joker tries yet again to harm Gotham City with poison gas from a giant parade balloon and Batman comes out of nowhere with the Bat Jet to thwart him. Action scenes are not Tim Burton's strong suit and most of the action pieces in this film are clunky and not very well staged. BATMAN was only Tim Burton's third mainstream film and over his amazing career, he will get better with action scenes. Burton's strong suit are his flourishes of macabre and his visual and design flair.  Besides the aforementioned bad Gotham city set, Burton hits it dead-on with the Bat Cave and the Gotham Museum and Vale's apartment and even the Hammer film like Gothic cathedral where Batman and the Joker have their final duel. The late production designer Anton Furst (FULL METAL JACKET) deserves some credit as well for the film's look. I forgive them for the poor Gotham City set, probably a casualty due to the actor's salaries and the the high cost of filming outdoors on location. 

Some of the characters integral to the Batman mythology aren't too prominent in this BATMAN. Harvey Dent (Billie Dee Williams) and Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) are very peripheral.  Only Alfred has a key role, acting as a surrogate parent and partner for Bruce Wayne/Batman.

Tim Burton does tip his hat to the BATMAN TV series. Nicholson's Joker owes a slight nod to the TV Joker Cesar Romero with his crazed laughter and theatrical nature. The Bat Mobile is more a muscle car in this film then the 60's TV car. And when the Joker's henchmen wear Joker buttons on their coats, I  smiled to myself knowing that Burton had watched a few BATMAN TV episodes during his research to get the henchmen just right.

In the end, I was pleasantly surprised that BATMAN held up a little better than I thought to the more recent and well made interpretations of Bob Kane's original hero. Keaton and Nicholson and Basinger contribute immensely to this comic book film being taken seriously and the choice of a young, imaginative Tim Burton put super hero movies back into our consciousness and paved the way for the likes of SPIDER MAN, IRON MAN, and even the Batman reboot THE DARK KNIGHT.

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