Friday, July 13, 2012

Batman-a-thon Part 2: Batman (1989)

[Note: These links will be available as the reviews are posted: Batman (1966)/Batman Prime, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), Batman Awards Blog]

Batman's television series ended in 1968, following three seasons of what can only be described as a Silver Age fan's hallucinogen-prompted wet dream. While the tone of the comics naturally shifted to suit the original readers from the Golden Age, no one really took note of the Dark Knight being, well, dark.
That is, until Tim Burton came to the Batman universe and created what was seen for about two decades as an incredibly dark take on the character. What proceeded to be created was Batman and Batman Returns.

I will get to the latter tomorrow, but today, let's focus on the original of Burton's creations.

First of all, I would like to note that this is one of the few Tim Burton films I've seen that did not feature Johnny Depp, which gives it a unique place in my understanding of Burton. From what I've seen, Burton's non-Depp films turn out to be excellent (at least in their first incarnation - See: Nightmare Before Christmas).

This time, the leading man was Michael Keaton. I will say this, I LOVE Keaton as Batman, but I DESPISE Keaton as Bruce Wayne.

Keaton played Wayne as Batman without the cowl. Wayne is a brooding character, but he puts on far more of a facade than Keaton did. Keaton's Wayne was depressing at best and bland at worst. I feel like Burton might have been aiming for that, but Batman should not seem like the more interesting person to hang out with in comparison to a billionaire playboy.

Anyway, the film starts with the origin for all of one scene. I will say that this was done beautifully and sets the tone for the film. It sets the movie as a stark contrast from the 60s series, where the tragedy of Wayne and Dick Grayson were barely even alluded to.
I'm a little undecided on the fact that Jack Napier (played by Jack Nicholson and the eventual Joker) kills Bruce's parents and not Joe Chill. On one hand, with the Joker being set for only one film, this gives a circular dimension to the film where Batman and Joker effectively create each other, and that's great.

On the other hand, the contrast between Batman's serious, orderly, justice-based demeanor and Joker's loose, random, anarchy-based mindset are a product of circumstance, not calculated as is clearly the case with Joker's comic character.

Overall, I like it for this film, and it fits with the style of story Burton wanted to tell.

After the origin, the film goes right into Bruce being established as Batman. He's been around for some period of time, and I like that. Given the Joker story that was coming, I don't need to see Bruce's long training sessions.

Batman ultimately stops Napier - a second-in-command of the mob at the time - from robbing a chemical factory and sends him into a vat of chemicals that turns his skin white, his hair green and his lips red. Additionally, a batarang cuts Napier's face, scarring his face into a jester's smile, causing him to name himself the Joker.

Between all of that, Vicki Vale and Alexander Knox are introduced as reporters looking for Batman. It is then that Vale and Bruce begin their "romance."

I say that because Keaton's acting with Vale provides very little heat (albeit more than in some films). This romance was little more than a plot device and served as the least interesting major theme of the film.

By contrast, Napier's takeover of the mob and subsequent scenes with Vale and Batman steal the show. Nicholson plays the Joker the way you'd expect Nicholson to: over the top, silly at times but ultimately threatening and psychotic.

It really seems clear that Nicholson got top billing in this film, as he just steals the show and Batman is practically his foil. Then again, that's kind of the point of the Joker character: He's the focus of Batman's energy and by the end, it's more a Joker story than a Batman story (See: The Killing Joke).
Joker's ultimate killing technique is to use a mixture of chemicals to kill a person in a way that gives them a post-mortem grin. This technique has been used in the comics as well as the Animated Series and it's genuinely terrifying if you think about it.
When Batman stops the initial plan by destroying the factory, Joker decides to hold a parade and use lethal gas to kill everyone in town. I'm not sure why people jumped at this chance, which is a weak point, but mob connections and the already-established corrupt police department make it fairly believable.
Oh, and during this time Alfred lets Vicki into the Batcave and Bruce organizes with her to destroy the factory (because Joker also seems to like Vicki, though with most Joker stories, his motives are never as easy to pin down as one would like). I am actually OK with this reveal individually, though I dislike the concept in general on the principle that it literally happens with EVERY love interest with the exception of Batman Prime and Batman and Robin. 

After the parade is stopped, Joker kidnaps Vicki and has one final fight with Batman. The two realize each other's identity and that they are responsible for each other's existence just before Batman wins and Joker falls to his death.
Following the fight, Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent (who has a very minimal role here) accept Batman and create the Bat-signal. I guess here it's seen that Gordon respects the role Batman tries to play and accepts the help, whereas in Batman Begins, the pre-Gordon commissioner dislikes any vigilantism.
This film is more iconic for what it represents now than it is a legendary masterpiece, but it is still a great Batman film. It's a fairly accurate portrayal of a Batman vs. Joker storyline, although liberties were heavily taken with the origin.
This was the live-action Batman image I think of when I think of Batman, specifically the opening scene where he's threatening the small-time thugs. These Batman scenes are done wonderfully.
What drags the film, though, is the Bruce Wayne scenes. One thing I feel can be said about Tim Burton is that he does the surreal so well that when he tries to get down-to-earth, his work is bland by comparison.

I think the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory shows that point perfectly. The factory is so surreal and interesting, but the Charlie character up until that point is just a chore to listen to and the world is uncomfortably creepy for some reason. The factory was what made the film strong (Depp's performance as Wonka excluded), and it's the only thing that gives the film something to hang its hat on vs. the original.

As I'll explain in my next review, that balance really begins to show in the sequel, as the non-Batman scenes get even more unsettling. However, this film balances out the creepy enough that the bland nature doesn't detract from the Batman story as a whole (with the exception of the random Prince songs and dance routines. That was just awful.).
On reputation and absolute, kick-ass strength of the hero scenes, weighed against the boring but not overly deterring Bruce scenes this film gets rounded up to 3 stars out of 4 and gets a 7.2 out of 10. 
I feel weird having this below Batman Prime, but that film did hold to its source material and stayed on focus with its plot (no matter how insane it was). This one had a better plot, but it only made up about half the film. It shifted tone like crazy and got distracted, I felt. I can see the strong story and excellent work but I also see the aspects of the movie that took me out of the film, and it came at the cost of the score.

Tomorrow is Batman Returns, so everyone come back tomorrow! 

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