Monday, November 19, 2012

80s Revisited: Batman

Batman (1989)
Directed by Tim Burton; screenplay by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren; produced by Jon Peters & Peter Guber.

For a while, this held some kind of record for the number of times I'd seen a movie in the theater. This came out the summer I turned 13, and I just kept getting to see it over and over and over again. You know, I just realized: I always think that the last movie I saw in a theater with my entire family (both of my parents and my sister) was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but this came out a month later and I remember all four of us seeing it together... I guess this must be the one. Anyway, I saw it repeatedly. I remember one time riding my bike around town and finding money on the ground with absolutely no one around and being thrilled because it was just in time that I could see a 10 PM show of Batman.

I was already a huge fan of Batman from growing up, and I'd never actually read any of the Batman comics. When I was a kid, I was firmly in the Marvel camp. Marvel was fun; I used to try and read DC books at the barbershop and I always thought they were so boring and would read Uncle Scrooge instead. (Why my barber carried Playboy and National Geographic but no Marvel books, I do not know.) I was a fan of Batman from Super Friends and the Adam West TV show. And I was extremely excited for this movie to come out.

I read all about it in Starlog. I started collecting the trading cards based on the movie before the movie was even released. After the movie came out, I played both the Danny Elfman score and the Prince album over and over again, got the Nintendo game based on the movie for my birthday, quickly read the novelization by Craig Shaw Gardner, and that Christmas, my parents gave me the VHS. I slept Batman. I breathed Batman. I quite literally ate it: I loved the breakfast cereal that tied in to the movie. Tasted like the Mr. T cereal.

So, what I'm saying is, I loved Batman and I was very caught up in that summer's hype over it. I'm astounded to think that all of this happened over two decades ago. It still seems so much closer.

Over the years, I've let the film fall by the way for me. Occasionally I'd see it and my opinion would diminish a bit, and I wouldn't really find myself becoming engaged by it. I felt like it didn't really hold up, and I've never actually bothered to buy it on DVD, something my 13 year-old self would've found unthinkable. Maybe I'd just seen it too many times? After years of not having sat and watched it all the way through, I saw it was going to be on this weekend and decided to see it for the first time in years.

The first thing I'll say is that I practically have the entire film memorized. Still, today, first time seeing it all the way through in probably a decade, and I still remembered every line, every plot beat, every flourish of the score... practically every edit. There are things about my own family that I struggle to remember, but Batman? Nope, got it. It's all there. So if you think that familiarity colors my post, fair enough. I'll give you that one.

I'm just going to come out and say that, even though seeing this movie was like revisiting an old friend that I hadn't talked to much in years, I still think it doesn't hold up. My fondness for this movie is, honestly, nostalgia for a time and place and a version of me that I don't much like to think about: the one who was pulled, kicking and screaming, into a level of maturity he wasn't ready for. That was the summer my parents finalized their divorce. Soon we'd be moving out of the house I'd lived in for 10 years. I had gained weight and was being bullied in school by damn near everyone there. I had just gotten through seventh grade, which was awful. My only friend lived far enough away that we couldn't just get on our bikes and hang out together. It feels now like the last summer I had before all of the misery got overwhelming, and remembering that time period makes me sad. I had grown up a little--just enough to put into perspective what had faded away or been torn away. But soon I'd be forced to grow up even more. It wasn't the best time of my life, but it was the calm before the endless storm of my high school years. Batman was one of the last things that I loved as a child.

So, being objective, it's possible that the reason I avoided it over the years is that I don't like to think about that time in my life so very much.

No, Batman doesn't hold up for me, but I don't think it's all bad, either. The problem is that I think it doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be. Remember how this was supposed to be the realistic, adult version of Batman that took the character back to its dark roots as a crime comic? A lot of people said that not only in 1989, but pretty much for the next 15 years. It's hilarious now when you look at it and see how comic it really is. Comic as in funny. This is a deeply silly movie that too often thinks it's serious. And the tone shifts make the movie uncomfortable, fitfully brilliant, and overlong. It's also largely plotless, relying a little too heavily on its atmosphere to carry what's less of a story and more of a situation.

What story there is really revolves around the Joker, the character Tim Burton is most invested in for whatever reason. Batman's not about Batman so much, but about a gangster named Jack Napier who is a little crazy, and then goes off the deep end when Batman accidentally drops him into a vat of chemicals and turns him into the Joker. The Joker is a "homicidal artist," a character unhinged from reality. And Jack Nicholson is excellent in this movie. I often see him charged with overacting and hamming it up and going too far over the top, but that's less his fault than the film's. There's no tether here; there's no anchor in recognizable reality. How can you go over the top when you have no bottom to start from? Jack may play it as a cartoon character, but that's why his performance works. If Batman is psychological grimness, the Joker is completely the opposite. He's barking at the moon while Batman is skulking around under it. Batman has no energy; Joker has nothing but.

I said there's no anchor in recognizable reality, and that's really the film's biggest problem and biggest strength at the same time. It's great looking--designer Anton Furst really carries a lot of the film's atmosphere with his gorgeous sets, a sort of mash-up of Gothic, Art Deco, and several different time periods. It's beautiful to look at, and utilized very well by the film's cinematographer, Roger Pratt, who also shot Brazil. But it's also jarring how a film basically taking place in 1989 (I mean, it does have the Prince songs in it--songs which I actually do like and think mostly work in the movie, particularly the "Partyman" and "Trust" sequences) has cars left over from the late seventies, rich people dressing up like it's the 1940s, and a cheesy flashback to Bruce Wayne's parents' murder that basically takes place in 1939. It's a jumble of all of the major eras of Batman, but also places the film in no time at all. It's a great idea, but it's approached in a very 1980s sort of way (as opposed to something without a time in mind), so it doesn't really come off. There's some great work here, but the film itself doesn't do a good job of supporting it.

And as I said earlier, the film's not really about Batman. It's about how Gotham City reacts to the presence of Batman. Batman himself is just sort of a force/mystery figure, which would be fine if Bruce Wayne were interesting, but he's not. Michael Keaton downplays everything in both roles, and comes off as a block of wood. It doesn't help that he has no chemistry with Kim Basinger--who is just terrible in this movie--and in scenes where he's supposed to be introspective he's completely unreadable. He's boring, both as Bruce and as the Bat. I kind of blame the film for this, too; Tim Burton seems to be totally uninterested in who Batman is or what motivates him, and is more interested in how he affects Gotham City. Why should the actor know what to do with a character the screenwriters and director seem to have no interesting take on? What's so intriguing about Bruce Wayne that captivates Vicki Vale so much? He's got no personality, and on their single date, Alfred provides all of the interesting conversation. Most of Michael Keaton's scenes as Bruce Wayne, especially when he's with Vicki Vale, just suck all of the momentum out of the film. I had previously assumed they made me fitfully bored because I was 13 and not interested in the romance; nope, turns out they're just a black hole. When she asks "Are we going to try to love each other?" it connects to nothing, because the romance just doesn't exist.

As for Robert Wuhl and his plotline... why did they bother? Do you even remember it's there? He plays Alexander Knox, the reporter trying to uncover the truth of the Batman, and his story just seems like it's either an afterthought, or like it was originally the main plot but kept getting pushed so far to the sides during rewrites that it's become inconsequential. It's like that reporter character that's always in 1930s horror movies; the "gee whiz" American guy whose sole function seems to be to use his cynicism to reassure the audience that things aren't going to get too European here. No foul on Robert Wuhl, whom I always found likable (loved him in Bull Durham just the year before). But the movie starts like he's going to be the main character, then forgets about him. The whole thing only seems to exist now to get Vicki Vale into position to be the movie's heroine/damsel in distress. And all Kim Basinger does is, well, distress. And lots of screaming that just gets incredibly irritating by the halfway point.

That the film works at all really is because of the sets, Jack Nicholson's Joker (who is so hilariously likable and silly that you end up rooting for him, since he's really the main character), and Danny Elfman's marvelously grand score, which should be totally preposterous but actually gives the film a great deal of its character. Elfman, more than anyone involved (except Jack), really gets the tone here. It's not a dark, adult, serious movie in any way, and that it still has that reputation is confounding to me. It's grand, silly, even campy. It's like the Adam West TV series, but where only half of the actors are in on the joke and the director doesn't have a sense of humor so much as an appreciation of a sort of tame version of weird. I'm glad I saw it at 13 because it really is a movie for kids. It's goth camp. To take it seriously would just be to court frustration.

My biggest problem with the movie--besides Basinger and Keaton--is that the film doesn't embrace its campy spirit enough. It should revel in its tilted angles, its cartoony dialogue, its immobile rubber suits and its carnival lunacy. It shouldn't take Batman so damn seriously. Doing that destroys the tone. It should be perverse and ridiculous at the same time. It should be funny--as it is, unintentionally--that Batman doesn't seem to win any fights except by accident. The climb up Gotham Cathedral, followed by the waltz in the belfry, and then the Joker's chattering teeth and last ditch "You wouldn't hit a guy with glasses, would you?", all accompanied by Danny Elfman's score, is nearly perfect. It's almost exactly the tone the movie should have had: a sort of dementedly hilarious version of a Tod Browning movie. Instead, it's an average product designed more to make money than to be enjoyable, but it almost gets to be more subversive than it deserves and has some truly great aspects to it.

I have to say, though, I still enjoy this more than the Christopher Nolan movies. That's because of Burton's approach, which is not to take the idea of Batman too seriously. It's not caught up in symbolism, but unfortunately, it's not caught up in its characters. But it understands that, at the end of the day, superheroes are inherently silly. They're power trips for 12 year-olds. They appeal to someone too young to exercise any power or real agency, and give them a world where ideals like justice haven't given over to adult pragmatism and weariness. The problem, I think, is when comic book fans grow up and too often run from the idea that it's okay to enjoy things that are silly for what they are. So we get a parade of grim and gritty reboots that just shine a light on the inherent ridiculousness of a superhero. Making Batman serious only turns him into a sociopath with severe issues, a gy who uses money that could be spent on bettering the society he lives in to instead dress up in bat drag and punch criminals over and over again to soothe the pain of mommy and daddy getting taken away. He breaks the law, but only in order to force everyone else to adhere to it. That's not fun, it's just sick, and it's what happens when a filmmaker comes along, enshrines immaturity, and calls it realism. Sadly, that's what most fans seem to want to see.

I'm not one. I can handle that I used to put a lot of stock in silly things. And I can still enjoy them now, even if I know how silly they really are.


William Mercado said...

I felt so alone in my opinion about the Nolan films. When the Joker asks 'where did he get those wonderful toys" I didn't want to watch almost 3 hours of Bruce Wayne filling out requisitions.
The Dark Knight did have some flashes of brilliance again the Joker, Heath Ledger had a great career ahead of him. The moral questions were intriguing you don't see those in summer block buster movies but again it was too long and turgid.

Al Bigley said...

Have to agree on your main review..

I also wanted a "serious" Batman movie, one that would hue closer to his portrayal in the comics. But, I was 13 at the time. 1979. When a serious Batman film started to be talked about, after what seemed like ages!

So, yes, the highly-anticipated '89 movie SEEMED very dark and serious and exciting then, especially to those of us who grew up with the great 1966 BATMAN TV show, but...

Recall the outcry over the casting of Keaton, then know as a comedy actor? Fans, even then, blew a collective gasket thinking that was a sure sign the film would be campy...Fans also rented BRAZIL, BEETLEJIUCE, and CLEAN AND SOBER, just to get a bead on Burton and Keaton....Folks went to any films that had the BATMAN advance trailer just to see it..Taped ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT to get a first glimpse of the Bat-suit from the film!

And I also agree with you about Nolan. Technically great movies, but no fun at all. I WANT the silly car with the big fins on the back, and the kid in the yellow cape and the odd and colorful foes...It's part of the character!

Maybe that's why my fave Bat-flick is BATMAN FOREVER.

No joke.

Al Bigley

SamuraiFrog said...

I think one of the things that's most interesting about Batman is that he's existed in so many different interpretations that there's no one "right" version of Batman. Different people like different aspects of it, so there's something for everyone. I don't hate Batman Forever the way a lot of people do, I just find the last third a little tiring. Pretty much from when Jim Carrey enters the Batcave, I just get a little exhausted by the Jim Carry-ness. But you know, I have to credit Joel Schumacher with at least committing to it and running to the goal line with it. He doesn't ever seem uncertain or apologetic, and I think that counts for something.

Kind of like a 50s version of Batman combined with the Adam West show and touches from 90s comics, I always thought.