Monday, December 5, 2011

Movie Review: "Batman" (1989) by David Pretty

Greetings, Dark Knights!

Notwithstanding Return of the Jedi five years earlier, Tim Burton's 1989 release of Batman was one of the first movies to disappoint me profoundly.  Hoping that the same respectful treatment given to the Man of Steel in 1978's Superman would be given to the Caped Crusader, I followed the development of this production constantly via the now-defunct Comics Scene magazine.  During that time my expectations were inexorably dialed up well past "11".    

But it wasn't just me who'd been swept up in the film's omnipresent marketing blitz.  Prior to the film's release, everyone was going Bat-shit insane.  Critics and movie-goers alike debated the selection of Tim Burton as director and the unlikely casting of Michael Keaton in the titular role.  Kids were getting the bat-symbol faded into their skulls.  Batman comics were flying off the shelves.  People began mining for deeper meaning in Prince's inexplicable "Batdance" video.  And through it all long-term fans were just hoping that it wouldn't be a disastrous repeat of the campy Adam West T.V. show from the 1960's.

The film's bat-tastic trailer certainly went to considerable distance in ramping up the hype...

Since everyone who's reading this probably already knows the story of Batman's origins, I certainly won't rehash it here.  Which is also one undeniably smart thing about the script by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren.  It dispenses with the turgid back story and begins with a preamble which sees Batman whaling the bejesus out of two petty thieves who appear to be Tim Burton's prediction of what meth addicts would eventually look like.

Meanwhile, reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and photog Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) are trying their darndest to quantify this mysterious, pugilistic, cape n' cowled figure that's been terrorizing Gotham City's criminal underworld.  To try and get an inside track on this "Bat-Man", they infiltrate a gala ball held at stately Wayne Manor, where sparks immediately begin to fly between Vicki and billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Micheal Keaton).      

We soon learn that Gotham City is in the grips of a ruthless crime boss named Carl Grissom (played by a wonderfully asthmatic Jack Palance).  After learning that his major-domo Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) has been making time with his trophy wife Alicia (Jerry Hall), Grissom orders Jack to march willingly into an ambush.  During his resulting tete-a-tete with the Caped Crusader, Jack falls into a vat of goop and later re-emerges as the decidedly pallid and cheerfully homicidal Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker.     

The Joker wastes no time ganking Grissom and assuming control over his crime syndicate.  The balance of the film then documents the turf war between Batman and the Joker, with Gotham City and its residents caught in the middle. 

The film certainly certainly begins on the right foot, with the aforementioned in media res treatment of the main character.  Tim Burton's keen visual eye is further complemented by some top-notch production design from Anton Furst, which establishes Gotham City as a grimy fusion between Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner.
The costumes are also pretty cool, ranging from the gangster's zoot suits, to the Joker's many tasteless outfits, to the proto-fascist cop uniforms.  The Bat-garb itself is still a bit too "fetish gimp" for my tastes and it just astounds me that, fifteen years later, Chris Nolan failed to significantly improve on this design for Batman Begins.  At a distance, the suit looks better but in closeups Michael "Babyface" Keaton just looks like some diminutive shmoe sealed up inside a rental Halloween costume.   

But this is just a minor quibble compared to film's noncommittal nature.  Although the movie was sold to fans as a darker treatment of Batman, it suffers terribly from incongruous moments of levity which make the film's tone almost schizophrenic.  Robert Wuhl's Alexander Knox sounds as if he's ad-libbing from a painfully unfunny stand-up comedy routine.  Many of the action sequences have the same slap-stick quality that hobnailed Richard Lester's version of Superman II.  Prince's soundtrack contributions are totally out of whack, sticking out like Macy Gray's presence in Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man flick.       

I said it when the film was first released and I'll say it again: Tim Burton stunt-casting Micheal Keaton was a wrong-headed moment of hubris. Keaton does a servicable job as Bruce Wayne, but he just doesn't posses the physical presence nor the gravitas to properly inhabit the role of Batman.  Also, casting Jack Nicholson might have seemed like a no-brainer, but at the time he was just too old for the part.  Someone like Ray Liotta, who was only thirty-five at the time, would have been a more suitable and interesting choice.  To make matters worse, they also gave Nicholson one of the worst makeup designs imaginable.  So poor in fact, that I spent the duration of my last viewing constantly reminded of a reverse Edward G. Robinson.

Nicholson is also permitted to run completely amok in the film.  He soaks up more screen time then a ten year old kid in his own birthday video.  In fact, I might humbly suggest retitling the movie: Joker.  I'm not sure who's more to blame: Nicholson for his imposing personality or Tim Burton's unhealthy obsession with the grotesque.  I tend to believe it's the latter since Batman Returns also suffers from the villains getting more marquee value then the supposed hero.      

In a completely unrelated point, I'm also reminded of how much of an uber-hottie Kim Basinger was at the time.  I'd claim that she was underused here, but that's more of an observation about the sad state of roles for women in movies lately.  In fact, if you compare how much Kim has to do here compared to Rose Huntington-Whiteley's turn as a mobile mannequin in the latest Transformers flick, the character of Vicki Vale looks like Blanche friggin' DuBois in comparison.  Amidst all the bombast of this massive production, even the gorgeous Basinger seems diminished and self-conscious.

By the mid-way point, the relative tightness that characterized the first half of the script goes right down the Bat-dumper.  At one point during a chase scene, the Batmobile just stops in the middle of the street, presumably just to show off it's "shielding" ability and engage it's driver in yet another round of street-level fisticuffs.  And although I really treasure Hammer horror veteran Michael Gough in the role of Alfred, I'm convinced that the Bruce Wayne of the comics would have deported him after he willingly admits Vicki Vale into the Batcave.     

More idiocy is apparent.  When the Joker appears on his parade float, why the fuck don't the police arrest him?  And why does he take Vicki Vale to the top of that cathedral?  I know the Joker's crazy, but he's never been depicted as stupid.

And which monkey at what typewriter decided to link the Joker to the death of Bruce Wayne's parents?  And what on earth possessed the writers to make such a colossally stupid decision RE: the Joker's final fate?  Honestly, large swaths of this script appear to be written either by a Magic 8-ball or (worse) though executive decision.

I'm beating up on this movie pretty badly, but it really was a huge disappointment to me and it hasn't gotten any better with subsequent viewings.  In my opinion, it wouldn't be until Bryan Singer's X-Men in 2000 before Hollywood began making good movies that just so happened to include super-heroes, versus wallowing in the shlockier aspects of comic books.

In spite of its many flaws, Batman was still important if only because it finally forced the general populace to give a shit about something that only us geeks had loved and felt protective over for years.  Pity the final product wasn't good enough to inspire comic book nerds to collectively stand up and shout: "See?!?  This is what you've been missing all of this time!"

    Tilt: down.

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