(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.
Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even given the shake up in the comic books character at the time). Both give him a voice like gargled gravel (Keaton, concerned about logic of his concealed identity, lowered his voice a register). Neither has a great grasp of action (ironic for a superhero, that he has been consistently ill-served).
But Burton’s film is a fantasist struggling to ground his vision, while Nolan is almost competely the reverse. Batman is a movie so weighed down by elements (both of character/narrative and marketing) so foreign to Burton’s unfettered sensibilities that it is frequently left inert, struggling for something, anything to drive it forward. Mostly what it has is art direction, and that just isn’t enough.
I guess Batman is due respect for what it gets right, but I was left profoundly unmoved by the picture upon its release. I couldn’t fathom what people (and critics, including – perhaps surprisingly – Pauline Kael but Rogert Ebert notably aside) were seeing in it. I mean, yes, it was hyped, but it appeared to be genuinely liked. I didn’t actively dislike it; Jack Nicholson’s Joker is irresistible, Michael Keaton lifts his (Bruce Wayne) scenes through merely being present, there are scenes here and there that show off Burton’s more lunatic side to good effect. But overall I found it stodgy, stolid. Revisiting the picture merely reconfirmed this.
This movie’s one of the reasons I tend to respond dubiously when naysayers argue how far Burton has fallen so far of late. He’s always been a patchy moviemaker, and only his first two pictures could be argued as maintaining any kind of consistent quality between projects. Admittedly, Beetlejuice left me cold on first viewing (I’d argue for it as his second best picture after Ed Wood now) but there was never an epiphany when I gave Batman a second or third shot. I’d even say he’s become a much better filmmaker on certain fronts (the action in Sleepy Hollow and Planet of the Apes is leaps and bounds beyond the disinterested fights and chases here, so he at least now knows how to make good use of a second unit).
Evidently, there was a hunger for a Batman done “right”, even if the public didn’t know it until they were told. Jon Peters and Peter Guber had been attached to the project since 1979, and Tom Mankiewicz wrote a script that formed its basis through many rewrites until Burton joined in 1986 and ditched it. This is the one Joe Dante was attached to for a period (he turned it down, saying he could not find a way to relate to the character; I’d have loved to have seen a Dante take on the Batman, even with that qualification), but Ivan Reitman was more concretely involved with it. He proposed Bill Murray as Bruce Wayne (and Eddie Murphy as Robin). Given the casting of comedy actors, it’s probably little surprise Burton found the Makiewicz script too campy. Ironic that Burton in turn would cause much wailing and gnashing of teeth by casting, like Reitman, a comedy actor/star he had previous form with in the lead.
One also has to consider what Warner Bros was expecting, from a guy who had delivered the deranged delights of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice (Batman wasn’t actually greenlit until the latter scored at the box office). It would have been twisted, no doubt, but Burton cited then very recent Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke as major influences. Certainly, negative buzz was in the air, to the extent that Bob Kane was hired as creative consultant.
Sam Hamm’s script stripped down much of the glut of characters that has counted against subsequent Bat versions. A Writer’s Strike gave him permission to blame changes to bat lore on those who revised it after the fact (Jonathan Gems, Warren Skaaren, Charles McKeown), including Alfred allowing Vicki Vale into the Batcave. One wonders if this is at the root of some of the more casual anomalies; why don’t Bob and the Joker know who the “some guy named Wayne” is; they’d surely be aware of millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne? Likewise in the climax, how does the Joker know he killed Batman’s parents when he was a kid (reportedly, Burton didn’t even know how the cathedral scene would end when they started filming it).
More significant in this regard is the Joker revealed as the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents. The latter makes sense in terms of economy of storytelling (if they wanted to get a flashback in to show Batman’s genesis, it was the most logical way to do it), but it can’t help but feel like a contrivance, and one that doesn’t have a palpably moving effect on Bruce (it’s not that kind of movie).
Indeed, while Burton holds that he was fascinated with the freakish natures of his main characters, and the duality of Batman, this only really comes across in terms of the Joker. And the latter is a big, bold caricatured maniac in the vein of Beetlejuice; anarchic, immoral and gleeful in the mayhem he causes. It works thematically that Keaton, someone who could easily have played the Joker, is set opposite Nicholson, as it creates a tension of two figures who are on the edge. Keaton gives good incipient madness behind the eyes. But he’s ill served by a script that does little to give either identity much substance.
Batman: I want you to tell your friends about me.
Hoodlum: Who are you?
Batman: I’m Batman.
As Batman, Keaton has no trouble dismissing the doubters. The trouble is more what Burton does, or doesn’t do, with the character. There’s nothing thrilling about Batman’s antics, because Burton has zero interest in action scenes. There’s almost a perverse disinterest in creating anything approximating tension. One might argue the chunky shots are coded to give a sense of the comic book, except the blocking of the action is clumsy, the staging of the sequences crude, and the languid pace conflicts directly with the reader’s ability to enjoy a series of panels as breathlessly as they wish. Nolan would take the reverse approach; lots of cuts with any sense of coherent space made up in the edit. With Burton, it the problem isn’t confusion over where things relate to each other spatially, it’s that the environment is slack and slow. This is ‘60s Bond filmmaking (or slower), not post-Spielberg.
Batman can descend on someone and berate them efficiently enough, but fighting a ninja is painfully unexciting (and that’s probably the “best” bit of action in the movie). Where Burton succeeds is in perfectly understanding the iconography. He doesn’t always shoot Batman with the greatest of ease, and the employment of dry ice becomes a self-aware crutch after a while, but he gets and seems to enjoy the mythic aspect (all the talk of Batman drinking blood, you get the impression Burton would have preferred it if he actually did).
Bruce Wayne: He’s psychotic.
Vicki Vale: There are some people who say the same thing about you.
The conversation about Bruce’s own fractured development is more lip service to the themes underpinning Wayne/Batman that anything able to take root in the picture (when Vicki suggests he is “not exactly normal” he replies that it is “not exactly a normal world”). This is evidence of a picture required to play to the needs of too many masters. Bruce’s childhood trauma: okay, dealt with that (“Ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” is a memorable phrase, but the scene is very much of the mandated kind; it’s only a blessing that Hamm prevailed in not going the full origins route). By the end Wayne’s out batting about while Vicki waits for him at home, getting sloshed on champers.
The Joker: Where does he get those wonderful toys?
The failures in Bat action extend to his wonderful toys. The much-vaunted Batmobile is pretty uninteresting when it comes to utilising it in a chase sequence. The Batwing never looks like anything other than a model, probably explaining how the Joker can shoot it down with a four-foot pistol. I do actually like that bit, but it serves to emphasise the disconnect between Burton’s planes of action. Burton has created an arresting vision of Gotham, a Gothic noir combination of Anton Furst’s production design, a ‘40s dystopia of over-elaborate architecture and hat-wearing gangsters, but it only ever feels studied. The cityscape (like Derek Meddings’ visual effects) only ever looks like model work, while the streets are filled with not nearly enough extras to convince as a thriving metropolis (the opening scene is an exception, but only before it takes us to the backstreets).
As Bruce Wayne, Keaton has more to work with. Admittedly, the romance with Vick Vale (Kim Basinger, who has zero presence, and less chemistry with Keaton; none of this is particularly her fault, as the script leaves her stranded, either to be placed in peril or scream, once it has established her Pulitzer winning credentials and her fascination with bats) is the dampest of squibs and, since a large measure of his scenes concern this, the overall impact of Bruce is impaired. Likewise, I may be in a minority, but Michael Gough’s fusty Alfred meets the idea of the perfect Alfred rather than someone who particularly suits the movie or has a good rapport with Keaton.
Keaton’s left trying to salvage something, then, and it’s to his credit that he pulls out memorable moments. There’s the dinner scene with Vicki, where they’re sitting at opposite ends of a long table and he suggests uncertainty if he’s ever actually been in this room before. And the earlier scene with Knox and Vicki, where he reveals himself as their host (“Oh, and er, give Knox a grant”) invests Bruce with an offbeat, slightly goofy energy, which is seen to best effect in his one scene (as Bruce) with the Joker. He’s shown to be inventive (utilising an ashtray as a bullet proof vest) and crazy (wielding a poker at the Joker). Generally though, we get little more idea of Bruce than, say, the one Knox has. It’s down to Keaton that there’s a sense of a guy uncomfortable in his skin (Christian Bale, in contrast, can only ever bring the intense).
Then, of course, this isn’t really about Bruce Wayne. It’s about the Joker. Just look at the top billing and who made the most money: Nicholson. Jack Napier lets his freak hang out, and Burton only comes alive during the Joker’s weirder antics. Any chance to go “off script”, and you can practically hear Burton cackling. Unfortunately, such craziness can’t sustain the whole. Perhaps that’s more obvious now as a consequence of Nolan’s Bat world, where he’s watchword is grounded. Really though, I think it’s a result of the sorry state of a listless script. There’s no momentum, and this isn’t exactly rare for the series. Batman Returns was all over the place too, but it had the virtue of being a fully-fledged Tim Burton movie. The Schumacher pictures fully embody the “villains in the place of a plot” crutch of too many superhero movies, their benefit (the first at any rate) being they pulled the wool over the eyes of the public through being fast-paced and glossy.
The Joker: Winged freak, terrorizes, wait until they get a load of me.
Jack as Jack Napier plays with the conventions of the small time hood, and there’s a passing resemblance to his boss (Jack Palance), helping the overall conceit. But this pre-Joker is only psychotic because other characters tell us he is. That’s to the good, since it holds back for his transformation. What’s most appealing is how slapstick and unleashed Nicholson’s mugging is. He’ll try anything, and fortunately enough of it works. He adopts a crazy cackle or a Herman Munster wheeze. His lines come most frequently in staccato bursts, rather than eloquent expositions. There’s also an effective dissonance Burton is fond of returning to, with Jack playing it big to the background of classical or serene music.
The Joker: Haven’t you heard of the healing power of laughter?
His dialogue often takes the form of asides, almost commenting in the third person. There are some standout scenes and moments. The first reveal of his new face at the basement plastic surgeon is a dank, Universal horror moment with added deranged sizzle. Later, the Joker assembles a meeting of hoods that ends soon after he has electrocuted one (“Oh, I’ve got a live one here”). He then conducts a conversation with the smouldering corpse before concluding “I’m glad you’re dead”.
The Joker: Honey? You’ll never believe what happened to me today.
The perfunctory relationship with his unfortunate squeeze Alicia Hunt (Jerry Hall) is far more engaging than Bruce’s with Vicki. While Bruce is given some slightly off moments with Vicki (what were the makers thinking in the scene where Batman says he wants something else from Vicki, the screen cuts and then she awakes in bed; it’s an unsettling transition, designed to suggest the possibility of assault until we learn he’s only stolen her camera film), the Joker’s gleefully abusive treatment of Alicia makes for an effective illustration of his infectious insanity. It’s unsurprising that she commits suicide (‘But, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”) and notable for the mockery the Joker makes of the henpecked male (“Jack, you said I could watch you improve the paintings”; “Oh, I’m in trouble now”).
The Joker: He was a thief and a terrorist. On the other hand, he had a tremendous singing voice.
Nicholson is given/improvises a raft of memorable lines (“Never rub another man’s rhubarb”; “This town needs an enema!”; “Stop the press. Who’s that?”; “I have given a name to my pain, and it is Batman”; “If you’ve got to go, go with a smile”; “And where is the Batman?”) and sudden impositions, be it showing up at the Town Hall steps in a top hat, wielding a murderous quill, or his mock-TV commercial complete with shopping cart (“Love that Joker”). He’s big, broad and very much what the movie needs. Burton’s buttoned-down elsewhere; just compare the vibrant Beetlejuice score to Danny Elfman’s earnestly portentous work here. It dilutes any sense of fun and, without going whacky, Burton (tends to) has little to offer.
Did Nicholson deserve the huge pot of cash he made? Well, they were willing to pay him, so I guess that’s the answer. He brought Tracey Walter on board, which is to his credit (and causes him to exit in casually impressive fashion; “Bob: gun”).
Knox: Lieutenant, is there a six-foot bat in Gotham City? And if so, is he on the police pay role? And if so, what’s he pulling down, after tax?
The rest of the casting is sufficiently in place that Burton really had little excuse not to make more of his Batman/Joker relationship. He was young of course (he turned 30 during production) and there was pressure on him like he’d never conceived, but hardly any one comes alive. Not Basinger, Not reliable Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, not Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent. They’re dull and reliable. Palance brings some fire to his few scenes, but surprisingly the most engaging character outside of Nicholson is Robert Wuhl’s quick-fire journalist Alexander Knox. He’s kind of annoying, but that’s as it should be. Apparently he improvised a lot, and that’s pretty obvious from the way he attacks the material and the looser, more invested feel of his scenes.
Because this picture really plods along. By the time we get to the big climax, with the floats, the Batwing, and the cathedral showdown, does anyone care any more? It’s been said the cathedral scene plays out in real time, and it certainly feels it. The plus side is Nicholson getting to go for broke, spitting out clockwork teeth, donning a pair of glasses so Batman won’t hit him, and thoroughly disrespecting the rules of engagement through responding to Batman’s continued assaults by laughing in his face. The final shot, of the fallen Joker in the rubble with a recorded laugh on loop, emanating from somewhere upon his person, might be the best single moment in the picture. There’s a reading here that America, as Batman, creates its own monsters through its unchecked aggression, but it isn’t one that resonates. The picture has too many masters for such consistency.
One of those is the soundtrack. I recall really being nonplussed by Prince’s contributions at the time, including with the Number one hit Batdance. Today I don’t mind them really, even though the crutch of sampling dialogue causes the lines he appropriated to pop out when revisiting the picture. Bits of Prince even show up in the first scene, but the centrepiece is Partyman. The song’s okay, but the choreography of vandalising the art gallery never translates as anything other than a strained pop video obligation on Burton’s part (cut off with a decent art crit line as the Joker sees a Francis Bacon and instructs “I kind of like this one Bob, leave it”). It’s a sign of things to come, almost instantaneously run aground when Disney procured Madonna for Dick Tracy. The next instance of merchandising might pulling out the stops for a picture would be Jurassic Park, mercifully sans song tie-ins.
That’s the Peters and Guber effect, though (for some reason Burton was inclined to reteam with former for the ill-fated Nic Cage Superman Reborn/Lives). They wanted Michael Jackson as well (he didn’t have time). Batman became a merchandising monster in the summer of 1989, selling more than $750m worth. The picture was Oscar nominated, and won, for Best Art Direction. It took The Dark Knight to become more of a Bat phenomenon at the box office (inflation-adjusted, Batman is the second most successful movie). Big as it was, it had to settle for second place to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade worldwide that year. Nothing else came close to those two, however.
Burton probably should have taken note of the challenges of Batman more closely. Whenever he sails close to a big brand, or potential behemoth, he experiences artistic, if not financial, woes. He would be roundly savaged for Planet of the Apes, undoubtedly the picture he has made with the least of his personality in. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory might have too much; a gaudy, sugar rush mess, while Alice in Wonderland dwarfed everything else he’s done but may have been his most misjudged adaptation of existing material yet. Batman wins on tone and design, and bundling Nicholson all that money at least partially pays off, but it’s hamstrung in almost every other apartment. A series of disconnected elements waiting for a screenplay to coalesce them, it ends up stranded. And, as Burton surmised, boring. Artists aren’t always the best judges of their own work, so it will be interesting to hear if he can interrogate Alice in Wonderland as clinically when a few more years have passed.