THE SLINGS AND ARROWS Reviewing Shakespeare

Two writers on the Bard and pop culture

Slings and Arrows and Wonderful Toys: Revisiting Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) Part 1

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25 years ago, Batman landed. Tim Burton’s film wasn’t just the first in the modern Batman franchise but also a landmark release in pop culture and blockbuster cinema. In a world where The Dark Knight made a billion dollars, Heath Ledger won an Oscar for playing The Joker and Batfleck is a global hashtag, Batman started it all. Tim Burton’s Batman was a frequent talking point when we were film students over a decade ago, so we thought we’d celebrate its 25th anniversary with a retrospective look at its impact and legacy, and perhaps see if Shakespeare fits in anywhere at all… Batman poster BEN: If you were to ask me what my favourite film is, you’d invariably get one of two answers. On those days when I’m all about the intellectual, the austere, the 70s American New Wave, I’ll likely cite Chinatown. And on those days when I’m all about the comforts and assurances of the Dream Factory, I’ll likely cite Casablanca. But really, I’m fibbing: my favourite film is Tim Burton’s Batman. Is it a better film, objectively speaking, than Chinatown or Casablanca? Nope. No way. In fact, off the top of my head, I can think of a dozen other favourites that are, objectively speaking, far better films: The Empire Strikes Back. The Adventures of Robin Hood. There Will Be Blood. Lawrence of Arabia. The Seven Samurai. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Unforgiven. The Blues Brothers. An American Werewolf in London. The Thing. Gods and Monsters. The Deer Hunter. All far better in terms of craft, storytelling, and artistry. But if I’m being true to thine own self (to paraphrase Polonius), no other film has impacted me more – in terms of personality, taste, lifelong obsessions, and simply turning me on to films – as Batman did when I saw it at the age of seven 25 years ago. ANTHONY: And that’s where this discussion begins for me, at the age of seven. Nostalgia’s been significant to some of my responses here (Man of Steel, MacbethRomeo and Juliet) and Batman is no exception. However, this isn’t just about sentiment, but context. In 1989 the only other superhero to have had a film franchise was Superman. Star Wars was done. Big spectacle in cinema was limited to action films and historical pieces. When the trailers began to surface for Tim Burton’s gothic comic book adaption, flanked by a highly stylised promotional campaign, it hypnotised popular culture. The resulting trend came to be known as Batmania, with massive marketing, hundreds of pieces of merchandise and a series of singles by the pop artist, still then known as, Prince. Batman was everywhere. No comic book reading child could be unmoved by this. I saved pocket money for toys. I got a Batman costume for Christmas. I tore promotional posters from magazines and went wide-eyed, like an acolyte before the altar, to a department store to see the Batmobile on tour. I delved heavily into my Batman comic books and constantly sketched pictures of the Caped Crusader (a tendency which hasn’t really abated, as evidenced by my instagram habit #batmanaday). Batmania was like kiddie-crack. As a child sitting in a darkened theatre, the film itself was a revelation. It was thrilling, frightening and inspirational. Given that the films of the American summer are released in Australia’s winter, the season seemed to reflect Batman’s mood and I can distinctly recall the film influencing my perception of my quaint hometown. Adelaide is no Gotham, but suddenly its cold alleys seemed haunted, the flashing neon signs reflected on the wet streets in a sinister fashion and the city’s rather limited buildings seemed to reach for darker skies. As a seven year old, Batman literally changed how I saw the world. Now, like Ben, I can’t argue that Batman is an exemplary film, but I’ll certainly argue that it is an effective film, and an important one to a genre which has become big business. Now, some writers have suggested that the Batman myth has an overall Shakespearean angle. Before we sink our teeth into Burton’s film, do you see any of the Bard in the Bat? Entrance BEN: Although my seven-year old memories of the Batmania surrounding Batman’s release are somewhat unreliable and impressionistic (my ten year old memories of anticipating Batman Returns are much clearer), there’s plenty of evidence to suggest my parents helped pay for Tim Burton’s swimming pool. I still have, boxed up somewhere, a tie-in comic book, two different ‘making of’ books, action figures, dolls, badges, and a badass Batmobile, and I remember the toy sections of the local Kmart being stocked with a higher concentration of toys for Batman than I’d ever seen before for a single property, or seen since for that matter. I also remember watching Prince’s ‘Batdance’ music video  on TV multiple times, though I wouldn’t watch it again until I was in my twenties, and over the years had conflated the film and music video to the point where I thought both Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson acted in the clip (I’m not sure they even watched the clip). One other piece of Batmania which I never saw until my twenties was the teaser trailer alluded to above, which was created to put to rest fears that Keaton was miscast and that the film, coming from the director of Beetlejuice and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, was goofy and campy (though of course it is, in its own way, a goofy and campy film). These days, with every new trailer a highly polished Cliff’s Notes version of a film accentuated by epileptic editing and thunderous blasts of noise, this music-less tease feels like an artefact from an alien culture, but I can see how it would’ve gotten an audience’s juices flowing (I’m also a fan of the more polished version that followed, with Danny Elfman’s score top and tailing it). To answer your question about Batman and the Bard, there’s definitely a Shakespearean component to the mythos. Obviously much of the mythos hinges on the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, his quest for justice, his commitment to protecting his city, and his straining to live up to his parents’ legacy both as Bruce Wayne and Batman. These themes and tropes echo elements found in Hamlet, the Henriad, and the Roman plays, and different authors have tapped into these wells in differing ways over the past 75 years, exploring the various thematic nuances and dramatic possibilities within them. In addition to this shared thematic terrain, I think there’s a distinctly Shakespearean element to the world-building in the Batman universe: with a cast of rotating characters including Batman’s wildly eclectic and striking Rogue’s gallery, his fellow freedom fighters, and the citizens of Gotham caught in the crossfire, all dispersed widely across the social, economic, sexual and cultural scale, the Batman universe is not short of colour, variety, or voices articulating competing and often contradictory philosophies, from the nihilism, cruelty and engineered chaos of the Joker to the resilient moral fibre of Jim Gordon. Burton’s Batman doesn’t quite capture this colour and variety, this intermingling of tragedy and comedy, of high and low registers and vantage points, but it’s a hell of an entrée to a remarkable body of stories.

ANTHONY: Yeah, as we discussed previously Burton’s follow up Batman Returns does riff off Richard III wonderfully with Devito’s Penguin. There have been origin tales focusing on the listless and grieving Bruce Wayne that have had something of Hamlet about them (Nolan’s Batman Begins for instance). As Ben suggest, the aristocracy battling for revenge and the fate of a kingdom is certainly Shakespearean and so the billionaire Bruce Wayne fighting for the soul of his city and the ghost of his parents fits that bill well enough. The general motif of a nobleman taking an outlaw alter ego to fight for justice owes more to Robin Hood, Zorro or the Shadow. In fact, when the cartoonist Bob Kane was commissioned to create another hero character after the success of Superman, he went straight to pulp characters for grist. Kane was no real literature buff and it was pulp, not classic drama, that gave inspiration, (as well as cold, hard cash as, in true comic book business fashion, he also screwed his co-creator Bill Finger in the process). Burton’s Batman offers a general dramatic mood and operatic aesthetic and at least feels like it could be Shakespearean, even if it’s just in incidental touches (notions of vengeance and privilege, asides from cackling villains, a city on the brink of chaos and the significance of red roses). Truth be told, there’s more of Webber’s Phantom of the Opera evident in this film, as the producers found their third act had nowhere to go and simply took the musical’s gothic finale and put it on a Gotham rooftop (much to Burton’s surprise). Which brings us to the substance of the film itself. As an adult with years of cinema theory and popcorn munching under your belt, how do you think Batman functions and fares as 126 minutes of cinema? imbatman BEN: Well, each time I watch the film I’m increasingly aware of its shortcomings, which have been reinforced by wider reading about the film and its development history, critical reception and cinematic context. One of my favourite film critics, Drew McWeeny, has been particularly vocal about his dislike for the film, and I see where he and others are coming from. I get the many criticisms that have been levelled at the film: that the sets make Gotham feel very stagebound, that some of the effects and matte and model work are ropey, that some of the action is stilted, that the design of the costume limits Batman’s movement, that the film is very Joker-centric at times, etc. I also see why hardcore Bat fans are deterred by some of the character choices, like the Joker killing Bruce Wayne’s parents, Batman killing the Joker and a thug that beats the bejesus out of him, Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave etc. I get that these are legitimate gripes. But for the most part, they don’t deter from the film for me. I like the conceit that the Joker and Batman create each other; I like that there’s a certain level of handcrafted artifice to some of the effects, giving them a tangible charm; and I like the theatricality of Michael Keaton having to turn his body 180 degrees because he can’t turn his neck to look behind him. And honestly, I think the negativity of many of the film’s harshest detractors is heavily coloured by the succession of inferior sequels that degenerated further into crass camp, retrospectively tarnishing the film’s merits, as well as the fact that its merits have been overshadowed by Christopher Nolan’s grittier and, I would concede, better-made films. Ultimately, the film itself resides somewhere in the middle ground between the fondness of enthusiasts like Anthony and myself and the scorn heaped upon it by detractors. It’s neither a transcendentally great film nor a terrible one, but rather a solid film with serviceable writing and direction. Having said that, those qualities that made the film pop and sizzle back in 1989 still work their magic on me in a big way. First and foremost, there’s a certain level of stylisation running through the film that continues to entertain me, and that stylisation played a big part in switching me on to cinema as a medium and an art form. I’d certainly watched plenty of films and television before then, but never really thought about the way that a film worked, and while I didn’t necessarily understand the way that films worked until a long time after Batman, I definitely began to notice how they worked. I was fascinated by Batman’s composition: the framing and lighting of scenes, the rhythms created by the editing, and the way that music accentuated scenes (and boy oh boy does Danny Elfman’s score invest the film with bombast and grandeur). The seams in this composition would become more evident over time, but never before had these things registered with me as a viewer, and I thank Batman for introducing me to the mechanics of what became and remains my favourite art form. Of course, part of the reason I noticed them was because the direction was sufficiently showy to stand out, and that visual flamboyance and theatricality also made me a Tim Burton fan. Thanks to photographs of Burton’s gangly silhouette directing Michael Keaton in the ‘making of’ books I owned, Burton became the first filmmaker I was aware of: I proceeded to gradually catch up on his previous films and watch his subsequent ones, and until the start of the noughties – until he started making truly terrible films from Planet of the Apes onwards – he was my favourite director. In fact, as a result of my Burton fandom, showiness and flamboyance became the characteristics I looked for from filmmakers, and my other favourite directors throughout the nineties – filmmakers like Sam Raimi, Brian De Palma, and Sergio Leone – were all similarly visually inventive. My tastes have changed considerably since then, though I remain fond of those directors and learned much of the grammar of cinema from them, thanks to Burton and Batman. And while the film introduced me to other things that would become ongoing interests – to the broader Batman lore, to superheroes and comics books, and to pulp heroics (from the Batman-influenced films of the early nineties like Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer and The Shadow to the pulp literature of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs) – it’s that awakening to cinema as more than just a diversion to be passively consumed that I’m most grateful for. And I’d like to think that, even as a dumb kid, I was sufficiently discerning enough not to be seduced to the medium by a ‘bad’ film.

ANTHONY: And Tim Burton’s role as a highly stylistic auteur is what gives this film its wings (pun intended). From his favourite composer Danny Elfman, to the counter-intuitive casting of Michael Keaton (a 30-something comedic actor with a receding hairline and a slim build as Batman?) and the startling choice in art direction (helped by the design of the brilliant Anton Furst), this film is filled with Burton’s dark eccentricity. His artistic vision for Gotham city is cool and eclectic: a town of Prince music, gangsters with sunglasses and tommy guns, 80s rockers on motorcycles and women in pillbox hats. The Gotham Globe set appears maybe four times and it’s a stunning recreation of the 1940s newsroom. The foley work also fits right in the retro aesthetic with each gunshot and punch sounding straight out of a vintage crime film. Don’t even get me started on how the exquisite score works with the film’s visual dynamics. As an auteur, Burton stylises each detail and it leaves an impression. Some of his choices, like the art-deco matte paintings and model work, have aged the film as Ben pointed out (even reviewers at the time noted how obvious the model work was). Consider that Jurassic Park comes four years later and we begin to see how Batman was one of the last in the classic model of blockbuster production values. However, Burton’s very deliberate choices create something of a timeless feel, reminiscent of German expressionist cinema and film noir. Batman has aged, but I’d like to think in a similarly graceful fashion as classics like Blade Runner, 2001, The Wizard of Oz, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or Metropolis. vicki-joker This concludes Part 1. In our next post, Anthony critiques the sins of the script, while Ben loves on Michael Keaton and hates on Batman: Dead End. To be continued…



June 25, 2014 at 10:17 am

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  1. […] Previously on Slings and Arrows. All caught up? Good, now continue reading… […]

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