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 2

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

ANTHONY: The film’s outright sins start with the script. First, the pacing’s off and the tone can stray into more surreal territory. The character arcs for Bruce Wayne, Vicki Vale and The Joker are slim at best. Bruce/Batman is essentially a charismatic enigma for much of the film. There are also a range of plot threads and characters that never really offer much: the presence of DA Harvey Dent, the crooked cop Eckart or the comic relief character Alexander Knox. Jack Palance’s role as a gangster doesn’t actually seem necessary (the gang crime sub-plot gives The Joker a bigger character arc than Batman). Sure, all these faces give the film some context in which the primary players move, but they also offer set-ups that never really pay-off. As the third act gets moving, many of these elements seem to fade away.

The script starts as something of a film noir, moves along with some odd plot points (The Joker poisons cosmetics and vandalises art) and then ends in a dark and vivid comic book action beat. Consider that Prince’s pop music inserts itself on the odd occasion and it can all seem very strange (to Burton’s credit, he wisely pairs the Prince music with The Joker’s antics). Aside: I’ve often wondered if Burton might have been distracted by the opportunity to use The Joker to poke fun at New York’s elite art and fashion scene with all his dead models and trashed masterpieces at the ‘Flugelheim Museum’.

The fault with the script doesn’t fall on Burton’s shoulders. Behind the scenes, the script was compromised in two distinct ways while official writer Sam Hamm was on strike. First, Jack Nicolson was a big name and needed a lot of screen time to justify his involvement. A fun game to play is whenever Nicholson has a scene, note the point where the crucial plot and dialogue end, then just watch how long the camera lingers on his glorious mugging and meandering.

Second, Burton had never directed a big budget action film before and found himself being handled by producer Jon Peters. Now while Peters may be widely mocked due to an infamous Kevin Smith stand up routine, he did offer one crucial piece of advice to the young filmmaker (other than wanting Bill Murray cast as Batman) and that was the importance of action beats. Peters believed that a script must contain an action beat every dozen pages. This explains the car chase and street fight that takes place after Batman rescues Vicki Vale from the art gallery. Now this scene makes no sense in regards to plot logic (why did Batman get out of an armoured car to fight thugs in the street?), but it is one of the coolest moments in the film and a standout scene (also consider the action beat where Batman fights thugs on the Cathedral rooftop: why are they there? Did the Joker’s helicopter drop them off? Why do they attack one at a time? You get the point). While Burton may have had no control over the meddling with the script, in these instances, the insertions actually offer a great deal, even as they aggravate the lack of logic.

Given the wondrous aesthetic and dodgy script, the general consensus is that this film is a triumph of style over substance. More than that, I’d argue its style is its substance. Where Donner’s Superman functioned as a Baby Boomer’s nostalgic redemption of a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America, social subtext is not a concern in Batman. Instead, Burton takes this raw iconography (Batman, Joker, the damsel in distress, the mob boss, the corrupt city) and arranges them as living dynamics in a surreal world. In that sense, Batman is a rich celebration of classic cinema and comic book culture. Ben, if you had to sum up the lasting significance of Batman, what are your final thoughts?

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BEN: Before I get stuck into the cultural significance of Burton’s film, I’d like to touch on the script and cast too. As mentioned in the last post, I understand people’s legitimate gripes about how the film prioritises the Joker over Batman, but as also stated previously, I don’t mind. In fact, I like this particular dynamic. The film both bounces off and riffs against the template Richard Donner established in Superman. Like Donner’s Superman, Batman spotlights the film’s villain at the expense of the hero’s screentime, and exploits the villain for comedy as much as menace. In terms of Nicholson’s contribution to both the film and its commercial success, I can’t really fault this business logic: Nicholson’s performance is OTT, greatest-show-on-Earth mugging, and it was and remains an absolute blast, as well as a big part of the film’s audience appeal. However, the film rejects the Donner model in choosing not to provide an origin story for the hero: we see the murder of the Wayne family in flashback three quarters of the way into the film, but until that point Bruce Wayne’s personal motivations for becoming Batman are not revealed. It’s an interesting choice to kick off the film with Wayne already deep in Batman business and then proceed to peel back the layers of the onion over the course of the film. Sure, most of the audience already knows the backstory, but as a storytelling conceit for the film I like it. As Anthony notes, it keeps Batman and Bruce Wayne enigmatic, unlike, say, every other superhero movie where we witness the setup from the outset. And while the action punctuating the storytelling is, as Anthony observed, a bit mechanical, I like the rhythms of those scenes, the way the score compliments them, and the comic notes mined among the fisticuffs.

Now’s a good time to talk about my favourite thing about Batman: Michael Keaton. I love Michael Keaton as a performer. LOVE him. In addition to providing me with a gateway for the assortment of genres and things mentioned in the last post, Batman also provided me with a gateway to discovering the work of Nicholson and Keaton, who, much as Burton became the first director I really recognised, became the first actors I really recognised and followed. I’ve spent the last 25 years working through pretty much their entire bodies of work, and while Nicholson has the more distinguished filmography – what with Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining etc – I find Keaton consistently fascinating. From the broad comedy work like Night Shift, Mr Mom, Johnny Dangerously and Beetlejuice to more dramatic stuff like Clean and Sober, Pacific Heights, The Paper, Jackie Brown etc, I find the choices he makes onscreen fascinating and am never not engaged when watching him work, even when the film itself doesn’t work (and unfortunately there are lots of those from the late 90s onwards, though the upcoming meta Birdman looks like it could be something special). Batman’s a great example of these fascinating choices. As Bruce Wayne, Keaton rejects default leading man posturing, playing up Wayne’s social awkwardness, unfocused energies, and the troubled psyche underneath the amiable exterior. As Batman, meanwhile, he adopts a cool Clint Eastwood-esque whisper and highly theatrical yet minimalist body movement, a concession to the limitations of the costume but also a really cool choice. It’s an unshowy (on the surface) but at the same time very accomplished performance, and a perfect counterpoint to Nicholson’s OTT work. And while I’m talking about the performances, I’ll also shout out to the support cast: Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Billy Dee Williams, Pat Hingle, Michael Gough, and Tracey Walter, while never given more than one dimension to work with, do just fine with their one dimension.

Ok, now for the film’s significance. The summer of 1989 was brimming with big blockbuster brands: it also saw the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, and Lethal Weapon 2, among others. Being seven, I was oblivious to most of this stuff (though I did see Ghostbusters 2 theatrically and was traumatized by Vigo the Carpathian, who isn’t so much scary as nightmarishly ugly in a way children shouldn’t be exposed to). But to those counting the commercial beans, the combined success of those films and Batman certainly reinforced the adage that known brands equal bigger box office (though other franchises took a financial hit that same summer, like Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, The Karate Kid, and the James Bond films). I also think that Keaton’s casting helped level the action movie playing field a bit and broke down some action hero stereotypes, paving the way for more unconventional action leads like Nicolas Cage and Matt Damon to join the ranks of more conventionally heroic types like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford. Moreover, Batman represented a stepping stone towards the era of superhero movies we’re now in, though for most of the nineties it was an odd mix of pulp throwbacks like The Rocketeer, Dick Tracy, The Shadow and The Phantom, adaptations of cult characters like Judge Dredd, The Crow, Spawn and The Mask, oddities and curios like Steel, Tank Girl, and Barb Wire, and TV adventures for The Flash (which was VERY closely modelled on Batman) and Lois & Clark.

And, of course, there was more Batman in the wings (pun intended). Burton’s 1992 sequel Batman Returns is, I think, a tremendous film: it has poor logic and dialogue, but it’s a truly batshit, subversive, eccentric piece of expensive mainstream filmmaking from a director clearly cashing in all his chips and doing whatever the Hell he wants. Exhibit A: The Penguin is hideous to look at, eats raw fish, bites people’s noses off, hangs out with scuzzy circus folk, sleazily paws an intern’s breast, threatens to kill a cat, rides a giant mechanical duck, kidnaps children, and nearly destroys Gotham using an army of penguins with rocket launchers. That’s just scratching the surface of how bizarre a cut of blockbuster meat the film is. It’s also got a bit more going on thematically than Batman – with the characters of The Penguin, Catwoman and Max Shreck each embodying different aspects of Batman/Bruce Wayne’s personality, i.e. the orphaned freak, the costumed vigilante and rubber fetishist, the rich businessman – and another great, even more stripped-down Keaton performance (he actually asked to have his Batman dialogue reduced, something of an anomaly in Hollywood). Sadly, the other two Batman films of the 90s, Joel Schumacher’s lightweight Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, are garish endurance tests. Then, after lying low for almost a decade, Christopher Nolan revived the series with his Dark Knight trilogy. While those films looked, at the outset, to be a definitive take on Batman on film, they ultimately ended up being yet another very particular, auteur-driven take on the character and mythos. And I’m fine with that. Batman as a cultural icon is flexible and renewable enough that I’m happy to see lots of different takes on film, be in Burton’s, Nolan’s, even Schumacher’s and, despite whatever issues I had with Man of Steel, I look forward to seeing what Zack Snyder does in Batman vs Superman. Having said all that… I really dislike Batman: Dead End. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a short film that’s a drab series of gags in which Batman fights Joker in an alley, then fights the Alien, then the Predator, then the Blob, then Chucky, then Warwick Davis’s Leprechaun, then Tim Curry’s Pennywise, and then the Borg from Star Trek. Ok, some of those I made up, but it’s still crap. But I digress… Anthony, where do you stand on the film’s legacy, and its place in the Batman canon?

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ANTHONY: Agreed, Keaton is still the best Batman. Kilmer’s Batman was bland. Clooney’s was lame. Bale is a great Wayne but his caped crusader is silly and carried by Nolan’s craft. Keaton communicates a great deal with very little and his suitably quiet Bat-voice could be both menacing and deliver a gag. Funny. Moody. Badass. Keaton rules.

And I also agree that those aforementioned script issues are nagging complaints but not fatal to the film’s gravitas. Nicholson’s garish extroversion and Keaton’s haunted introversion forms a dynamic that becomes necessary to the film (the final battle takes place after the Joker calls Batman out and the antagonist drives the plot). Even if it struggles at points, it works on its own terms.

As for the film’s legacy and place in the Batman canon? First, as Ben points out, it kick-started the genre and paved the way for the trend of the tent pole superhero film. While Donner’s Superman proved that a superhero feature film was possible, Batman proved that it could be possible for other characters, especially with commercial tie-ins and merchandising (look closely and you might see the Nike Swoosh on Batman’s boots). In a universe where Iron Man can make a billion dollars and bloody Ant-Man is about to start shooting, Burton’s Batman was the big bang.

After considering the tone of the earlier Superman flicks and some the superhero franchises that quickly followed Burton’s film, we see that Batman was directly responsible for black being the new black. Sure, we had colour and pulp as Ben pointed out, but Batman ensured that superhero films got dark. It wasn’t just the gothic aesthetic, but the scarred faces, charred corpses and grinning cadavers the Joker leaves in his cackling wake (to this day I do not know how this film nabbed a PG rating, nor how I managed to sleep the night I saw it as a child). Now every superhero film and franchise reboot has to be dark, but consider how innovative and brave Burton’s approach was when Gene Siskel responded like this:

  • We have so many films that are being made for the teenage audience… Here’s a picture with adult stars, troubled characters and a dark look. It’s a shame that that approach has to be considered a risk these days.

Today, creating an optimistic superhero film for an all-ages audience would be considered a risk. For good or ill, Batman set a new dark sensibility and potential adult audience for superhero films.

I think Batman’s lasting significance in the Bat-canon, and the wider genre, lies in its most potent sensibility: awe. Given the camp history of the 60s TV show, Batman resituated the character as a mythic avenger and a meaningful brand. It took pop music and star power and gothic sound and fury and made the bat symbol a golden cultural sigil. From the film clips, to the toys, t-shirts and the VHS cover, that bat symbol was slick and almost religious. Batman felt like it meant something.

This sense of awe was sown deep into the film’s treatment of the caped crusader. Each glory shot of Batman dramatically descending (the first appearance, the siege in Axis chemicals, the art gallery rescue) surrounds the character with darkness, smoke or broken glass and is underpinned by Elfman’s swelling bombast. Consider Jack Nicholson’s response to seeing Batman swoop out of the darkness and grab him by the throat: wide-eyed, he lets out a genuinely startled ‘Jeeesus!’ Batman is shot in slow motion, silhouette, shadow and sometimes with a Lugosi-esque portion of light falling only on his eyes. Dancers and stuntmen donned the suit to give Batman the appropriately graceful movement when Keaton couldn’t. Even the first dramatic glimpse of the Dark Knight was achieved with animation on a matte painting for a truly iconic effect. Burton went to any and all lengths to present the character of Batman in an awe-inspiring fashion, the surrounding players reacting to this mysterious figure with fear and wonder. No one has matched that. Certainly not Schumacher. Nolan crafted finer and more successful entries in the franchise but still did not meet that operatic and mythic sense of awe. Burton took the comic book story of a billionaire who dresses in an animal costume and treated it like Götterdämmerung with genre-defining results. Superheroes are a dime a dozen these days, but as a rapt seven year-old in a theatre in 1989, Batman was, and is still is today, awe-inspiring.

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BEN: Correct. The first time I saw Batman, from the opening credits tracking through cavernous terrain before pulling back to reveal a giant Bat symbol, to the final shot of Batman standing against the night sky with the Bat signal in the background, I was awed and hooked in a way no film had awed or hooked me before and few films have awed or hooked me since. I’ve probably watched it more times than any other film, and if I wanted to I could probably close my eyes right now and see the whole film play out in my head top to tail, beat for beat. Every single day lines and moments from the film spring to mind, some iconic, some minor: “Who are you?” and the iconic retort “I’m Batman!”; Jack Palance’s obscene mugging as Grissom; “Eckhart, think about the future!”; Napier’s plummet into the vat of chemicals; Napier tearing off his bandages post-surgery; crime boss Rotelli being fried to a black crisp; “I’m glad you’re dead!”; Wayne leaving flowers in Crime Alley; the mimes outside City Hall; “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”; “Check his wallet”; Batman vs. the machete maestro; the Batmobile charging through Axis Chemicals; “You wanna get nuts? Come on, let’s get nuts!”; “He stole my balloons”; the Batplane silhouetted against the moon; Bob the Goon’s undying loyalty to the Joker being rewarded with nonchalant murder; the Joker’s giant rifle in his pants; the cathedral ascent; “Have you ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight?”; “I made you, but you made me first!”; and so on. There are dozens of other moments, big and small, I could rattle off. Like I said at the outset, whatever its shortcomings, Batman’s the most important film of my film-viewing life, and it’s done more to shape my tastes, interests, preoccupations, fetishes and personality than any other film…

ANTHONY: Absolutely. This film gets in your head and doesn’t leave, in part stoking a continuing fascination with the character that I’ve written about before. Batman helped form a childhood love of cinema, superheroes and comics that led me to engage these mediums and ideas as an adult (now my plug: my superhero mockumentary film Justice Squad, where one of the prop masks was moulded and sculpted from scratch as homage to Burton’s costume aesthetic, and also my comic book Dead Ends, which actually contains no superheroes whatsoever). I still regret not being able to see Batman on the big screen again recently at the Astor cinema when I lived in Melbourne. I recall Donner’s Superman got a restoration/director’s cut rerelease in 2000, taken from a quality transfer and given a fresh colourisation and sound mix to repair some of its inconsistencies. I can’t help but think a similarly remastered Blu-ray release of Batman might help correct the disparities in the visuals and effects and present the film’s rich qualities closer to how they first appeared on the big screen. For now, we can content ourselves with the standard DVD/Blu-ray and perhaps the odd screening of Batman Returns. Foregoing that, I also may concoct an elaborate heist whereby I purloin Ben’s childhood collection of Batmania merchandise from his parent’s basement and reenact the film in my bedroom (not even joking).

Finally, something occurred to me when I attended the Tim Burton exhibition at Melbourne’s ACMI with a friend a couple of years ago. There were displays for Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow, amongst others. I found scenes from Batman screening in one corner with Elfman’s magnificent theme on a loop. There was also a screen worn bat-cowl behind lit glass. I pushed through the bustling crowd, who were mostly drawn to props from Alice in Wonderland and Sweeney Todd, and stared at the decaying rubber mask. I remarked to my friend, “you know, this is still the best Batman movie.” My friend didn’t reply. They were elsewhere, looking at the artifacts from Burton’s later films. I turned back to the prop, one of the cowls that Keaton wore on set, and it was inches from my face. My reflection was visible in the glass and my eyes seemed to peer perfectly from the prop behind it, as if I wore Batman’s mask. And that’s it I suppose, Burton’s film may not be the best Batman movie, but from my perspective at least, that’s how I see it. Batman left an impression, and now I, as well as Ben, still see myself in it all these years later…

P.S. Two Batmania stories for the road. First, I visited a candy store in a country town in 2001 and found a bunch of small, candy-filled plastic Batman busts for sale. The candy was branded from Tim Burton’s film and dated 1989. That’s right. Batman candy was still on sale 13 years after it was produced. I bought it (didn’t eat it thankfully), then sold it to a collector a few years later. Second, back when the film was released, one young friend of mine was so excited to be seeing Batman in the cinemas that he refused to let a full bladder interrupt his viewing experience. He held his pee for as long as he could before devising a cunning plan: release a small amount of urine into his trousers, wait ten minutes for it to dry and then released another small amount, and so on. And this is how he peed his pants, undetected, throughout the rest of the film. Such is the power of Batman.

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June 26, 2014 at 8:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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