“They say he can’t be killed! They say he drinks blood!” These declarations are trumpeted by a minor character in the early minutes of Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman. And indeed the first part is definitely true. Batman has existed for nearly sixty years. We’ve seen him at his highest peaks, such as Frank Miller’s defining work or the 90’s animated series, and his lowest valleys, when he was mangled beyond explanation in Joel Schumacher’s Bat-flicks. Yet, he has been a consistently fascinating figure throughout. The Caped Crusader’s stature and psychological depths have made him a central figure in my life, and so it is appropriate that the first major event on this blog should be centred on him, Gotham’s dark son, and the figure that looms tall within our darkest dreams. He goes by the strange moniker of Batman, and this is 7 Days Of The Bat.
For younger generations, 1989’s Batman is often considered an overhyped film that’s well past its best-before date. This might be true, as I will discuss later. But it was a time when the Dark Knight took mainstream culture by storm. The newspapers reported everything from sequel rumours, to the massive ticket line-ups and even the Bat-haircut craze (Which involved shaving the Bat logo into the back of your head. It was a short-lived fad...). Burger King commercials that blared the arrival of the Bat-burger and Bat-shake. It was an exciting time to be comic-book geek and film-fan. So, as we all know, the movie was reasonably successful, but how does it stand now?
As a time-capsule, it’s invaluable. Sitting down to watch it is an immersive experience that immediately transports me back to my 9-year-old self. I cringe at the Joker gleefully blowing holes in Boss Grissolm or giving a fat mobster a tracheotomy with a quill pen. I thrill at the Batwing eclipsing the moon or Batman punching the smile off Joker’s face. But it has to be said that, under closer analytical inspection, Batman has a lot of problems. The dated matte shots are well past cheesy and the lack of visceral action is problematic, the romantic storyline between Bruce Wayne and reporter Vicki Vale is DOA. As well, the film has very little drive; it meanders pleasantly from twisted scene to twisted scene before arriving at an ill-fitting climax.
And yet, the picture enchants me still. Why? I think it is because the film is one of the most entertaining collages of ill-fitting parts I’ve ever seen. Batman is a movie made of endless great moments. Yes, they do not quite add up to a complete whole, but it’s hard to complain when we’re having so much fun. There’s just far too many classic scenes for it to be anything less than a joyously amusing spectacle. The Joker’s sadistic and satirical commercial which mocks the superficiality of cosmetics ads? Brilliant! The greatest Batmobile of all time's destructive charge through Axis Chemicals? Exhilarating! Joker’s cruel parody of the Macy’s Day Parade? Wickedly funny! Batman standing on the bell-tower, solemnly looking down upon his dear city? Magical...
I think that the atmosphere of the film is the key-ingredient in its enduring popularity. Many critics have called Batman a study in film noir aesthetics, which is true. But rather than trying to be truly nourish, Batman almost feels like a perversion of what we’ve come to expect from that particular genre. The characters act like they are intimately familiar with film noir, and almost seem to be playing dress-up. Take Knox, the crime reporter. Robert Wuhl has the fast-talking beat-reporter thing down, but despite his wardrobe, he seems contemporary. Almost like he knows that he’s a character in a noir-throwback. The beautiful sets, by Anton Furst, twist the classic shadowy cityscapes of noir into an industrialized world of ugliness. Recall Axis Chemicals, with its gaping maw dome, the seedy surgery clinic where Joker impatiently rips away his bandages or the sinister cathedral towering over the dozens of scurrying Gothamites (Ever notice how under-populated this film is?). They are seductively repulsive; we’d hate to live near them but gaze upon them in mesmerized fascination. Who engineered this city?
The characters are equally interesting. Jack Nicholson’s Joker, honestly the star of the film, is a brilliant construct. Foregoing the random psychosis of the comic-book character, Nicholson, hidden behind a frighteningly gleeful death-mask of a grin, makes him a darkly romantic figure, whose internal logic seems based on the artistic and ironic instead of the mindlessly vicious. His kills are a study in the blackest humour, and we can be forgiven for chuckling along with him. He isn’t a scary character, but he holds our attention because we want to like him no matter how pathetic he thinks we are. Even his death robs us of true catharsis, as he still winds up getting the last laugh. Tim Burton casts his Joker as the ultimate performance artist, a man willing to sacrifice anything in the name of irony-soaked artistic expression. He could almost be seen as an expression of the relentless energy which thrives within Burton himself.
Keaton’s Batman is even stranger. His dialogue consists of disjointed mutterings and awkward silences. His Wayne isn’t really a playboy, he’s a man clawing to escape the skin that envelopes him. The cowl is his release, and only way of feeling in control. Keaton, a controversial choice at the time, is very good at playing the discomfort of Bruce. He’s shifty, with a weird nervous energy yearning to escape. As he speaks little, Keaton lets his eyes and body language do the talking, and they say far more than words could. Even under the burdensome garb, he seems commanding in his stillness. His Batman isn’t a hyperactive ninja; he only needs to strike once, with purpose. And yet Keaton lets some vulnerability creep in, such as the beaten down exhaustion of Batman’s ascension to the cathedral’s higher sanctum, or taking on the trio of Joker’s toughs who dwell within (How’d they get there?). He’s the hero we’d never want to be, an angry, self-hating man who can only release steam through reliving past tragedy.
The supporting characters are of varying quality. Vicki Vale, as I said before, is a wash-out. Kim Basinger relies far too much on screaming and frantic behaviour. Though to be fair, she’s let down with a poorly written character that isn’t even given the opportunity to be surprised when she finds out Wayne is Batman. Wuhl’s Aexander Knox is a bit more interesting, as he acts as the audience’s voice within the film, commenting on the irony of each event. The actor is a lot of fun, but his disappearance during the second act is unfortunate. Also, isn’t it strange that these two intrepid journalists lack any knowledge regarding the city’s biggest success having had his parents murdered?
Jack Palance gets to gnash his teeth and play up his image with his gang-boss character Grissolm. It’s a fun little performance that benefits from familiarity with the actor’s back catalogue. Less endearing is Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent. He’s a pointless addition to the cast, emphasized as being important in the early scenes, but forgotten shortly after. Similarly, Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon is weakly handled. Gone is the driven professional who reluctantly sides with the Bat. Here, he’s something of a buffoon. A wasted opportunity, as his relationship with Bats is a key theme of the comic books. Michael Gough is a great Alfred, however, and he makes the most of his handful of moments. Although his character, like Gordon, deserved more screen time.
The greatest supporting character, who deserves infinite credit, is Danny Elfman. His score elevates the film far beyond its quality-level. "The Batman Theme", yet to be outdone, is absolutely majestic, sending chills of excitement up my spine every time it is played onscreen. As well, his Joker theme and Batmobile/Axis Chemical Attack compositions are positively energizing.
These strengths that I’ve mentioned are what elevate the often clumsy writing of Batman to a level of near greatness. It's the quintessential mood movie, in that if you are susceptive to its charms, you’re willing to overlook its flaws. And while it is far from a perfect representation of Batman’s world, it is a hypnotic journey into the imaginations of its creators, as well as the shadowy souls of its characters. Joker’s famous utterance of “Wait’ll they get a load of me!” was fitting, as Batman blew our minds back in ’89, and still continues to do so nearly two decades later.
Best Batman Dispatch:
The back-hand punch that Batman delivers to an unsuspecting gangster in the Axis Chemical set-up scene.
Best Villain Dispatch:
A toss-up: Napier’s deadly farewell to the crooked Eckhardt, or his amusingly blasé execution of right-hand man Bob the Goon.
Best Batman/Bruce Wayne Line(s):
“You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts!”
Best Villain Line(s):
(All delivered by Joker)
“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”
“I make art until someone dies.”
“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
“Wait’ll they get a load of me.”
“This town needs an enema!”
Best Iconic Bat-shot:
The closing shot of Batman on the top of the bell tower.
The Bob Kane-signed “Bat-Man” on Knox’s desk.
Bruce And Vicki’s soppy chat about their “perfect world” in the Batcave.
Success As A Batman Film:
3.5 out of 5
Success As A Film:
4 out of 5