Film: Batman (1989)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Direction by Tim Burton, back before he came the thing he is today. Screenplay by Sam Hamm (the M.A.N.T.I.S. tv show) and Warren Skaaren (Beetle Juice), from characters created by Bob Kane. Atmospheric soundtrack by Danny Elfman and Prince—the atmosphere of the film changes quite a bit, dig? Suitably campy performances by Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Bassinger, Robert Wuhl, Billy Dee Williams, Pat Hingle, and Jack Palance.

Quote: “Never rub another man’s rhubarb!”

Alternate quote: “I have given a name to my pain. . . and it is Batman.”

First viewing by Molly: When it first came to VHS, my parents shockingly allowed me to rent it, so def. still in grade school, possibly as early as 2nd or 3rd grade?

First viewing by Jesse: At the pictures, when I was seven years old.

Most recent viewing by both: Last night.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Substantial. Violent and/or scary movies were rarely allowed in my house—seriously, when I was in high school (yes, high school) my father forbade me from watching Deliverance after a friend told me it was pretty awesome—so anything mildly spooky that squiggled through the cracks made an impression because I was always pretty hungry for dark or weird stuff. Batman was deemed acceptable for some reason, probably because of my father’s fondness for the Adam West Batman, or perhaps because it was directed by Tim Burton, and my parents enjoyed Frankenweenie and Beetlejuice. Super heroes generally held little appeal for Young Molly—too much machismo, not enough decent female characters—but the aesthetic of Batman tempted me, because while my parents were iffy about allowing violent weird movies in the house, they were dedicated to the laudable project of exposing me to Quality Cinema from Days of Yore from an early age. I’d at that point already seen quite a bit of Hitchcock, screwball comedies, and other such fare that tended to have art-deco movie magic goin on, so I could relate to the aesthetics of Batman as seen in the trailers. . . also the little snippits of the Joker really spooked me out in a way that I found interesting, so I begged and begged and lo, Batman was rented.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: High. As far as tights went, I was always a Bats fan—the Adam West series was one of the few programs I watched with any real regularity growing up, and so my appreciating a big budget film about the caped crusader was never really in question. I was a weird kid, though, and thus recall harboring a strong desire to see the Weird Al Yankovic vanity piece UHF instead of Batman when the choice was put to me, but my parents wisely vetoed that selection. The sequel had a bit stronger of an effect, I think, but we’ll get to that when we get to that—the point is, this movie pretty much solidified Batman’s place as my favorite superhero growing up, which is no small thing for children of my temperament.

Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Excited. I own the movie, as my husband is in the process of building his Michael Keaton Collection. I can’t remember the last time I sat down to watch Batman all the way through, but it had been, as they say, a while. I’d seen the Nolan Dark Knight in the theatre as part of the process of mourning Heath Ledger, but as much as I loved Heath’s take on the Joker, it wasn’t Jack Nicholson, who will always, for me, be the person who defined the role.

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Pretty pleased about the prospect—I hadn’t watched it in maybe ten years, long before the Christopher Nolan reboots arrived. The circumstances leading to that last screening involved my going to a flea market, which is every bit as tawdry as it sounds. A greasy creep was selling old vhs tapes, most of which were lacking any kind of case, and there amidst the rubber-banded-together Titanics and Bravehearts I saw a copy of Batman.

“How much is this?” I asked.

The merchant squinted at me through horn-rimmed glasses that hadn’t been wiped off since the Reagan administration. If then. “Two bucks.”

Casually inspecting the dusty plastic vhs, I noticed the tape had long ago snapped off inside, and peering closer through the clear plastic windows that exposed the reels I could see several dead cockroaches. I said, “The tape’s broken off inside, and it’s full of dead bugs.”

“Huh,” said the merchant, wiping funnel cake sugar off on his shirt and inspecting the tape. After a moment he handed it back and said, “No charge, then.”

So I did what any eighteen year old weirdo would do—I took the vhs home, opened it up and cleaned out the bugs, and then spliced the ends of the snapped tape using the special silver splicing stickers I had gotten from a video store through some equally bizarre sequence of events. I realize this diversion had gotten rather far from the point of the movie itself and is instead show-casing my legendary—and unfairly mocked—frugality, so perhaps it would be best if we simply pretended I never said anything beyond, “Batman, yeah, awesome flick, looking forward to rewatching it.”

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: It’s really good. The aesthetics and effects have aged reasonably well for a movie from that late 80s era of OMGNOOOOOO-ness, with excellent set-design and cool costumes—in particular the purple tailcoat the Joker wears is amazing, and Michael Keaton in nerd-glasses is a nice touch, too.

Given that Tim Burton directed the film, I spent a lot of time being just so, so happy that Batman wasn’t being played by Johnny Depp and Vikki Vale’s character wasn’t obliterated by the comedic stylings. . . excuse me, acting, of Helena Bonham Carter. The triple wowza of Batman, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands has long been the reason I get so irritated with the recent epicness of Tim Burton’s directorial failures. Every single damn time a new Tim Burton movie comes out these days to disappoint and horrify all but the most dedicated Hot Topic employees, the 5th grader in me remembers crying her eyes out at the ending of Edward Scissorhands; thinking Beetlejuice was the coolest movie ever; being terrified by the Joker. I’d throw in something about how viscerally I responded to The Nightmare Before Christmas when I saw it a million times in the theatre in 6th grade, but I don’t want to perpetuate the mistaken belief that Burton directed that film. One only need compare Corpse Bride to Coraline to see that Henry Selick was responsible for the awesomeness of Nightmare. Him, and Danny Elfman.

Enough—back to Batman. The script is pretty awesome, especially the Joker’s one-liners, though this time round I kinda noticed there are some. . . problems with the movie. I mean, OK. So at the beginning, it’s mentioned a bunch of times that Batman is a newcomer to the Gotham city crime scene. . . but then later on Bruce Wayne goes on and on about how he “has” to do this, and all this additional weirdness that makes it seem like he’d been the World’s Greatest Detective for a lot longer than, say, a month or two? I mean—did he just get all his Batman gear at once, plane, car, suit, computer station, and all? How? Who manufactures it? How does he know how to research stuff? Where does he get all his files on criminal proceedings in a pre-The Smoking Gun age? Is he naturally good at detective-ing? Was it like in Kick Ass and he started out in a black jumpsuit punching people in the face? If he’s such a great crime fighter, why isn’t he going after Jack Palance’s skyscraper full of organized criminals, instead of beating up street punks, some of whom are likely turning to crime due to, and I’m just speculating here, a damn-plausible lack of social services available in Gotham City?

But none of that seriously takes away from the film as a whole, though. I know Jesse will follow my write-up with a burn on the decision to make the Joker responsible for Batman’s parents’ death, but I like it. I think the single best thing about Tim Burton’s Batman is the careful effort to make the Joker and Batman mirror-perfect foils for one another.  This is illustrated so perfectly in the scene where Bruce Wayne tries to tell Vikki Vale about being Batman, which I could not for the life of me find on YouTube, but no matter—at first, it just seems like a nice gag when Wayne says “Nice apartment—lots of space” and the Joker reiterates that same sentiment verbatim. It becomes more apparent what’s really going on when the Joker goes on to break his former girlfriend’s mask after placing it on Vikki’s mantle, and then Brucie proves himself to be just as fucking. . . well, nuts, as the Joker:

After all, they’re both grown men who put on elaborate costumes to shape the world according to their unique vision, whether or not anyone thinks that’s a good idea or not, right? I think it’s handled lusciously, and the “we made each other” weirdness at the end works for me.

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: When Batman Begins came out people were falling all over themselves to point how much darker it was than the previous four Batman films. “It’s just so dark,” they would say, as if they had just spent two hours sitting in a cave. “The old ones weren’t, you know, so dark, but this one was just, like, a really dark movie. Dark dark dark.” Sometimes that was a bad thing, as in, “it’s way too dark,” but more often than not it was a sign of respect, because we all know darkness is totally cool. Personally, although I enjoyed Nolan’s films I hate his fight sequences—they’re not “dark,” they’re muddled (Word! exclaims Molly), and while he’s obviously trying to convey the frantic feel of actually being in a fight, I for one like to see what is going on in a movie, especially when something cool is presumably happening inside all that dark dark darkness. The thing is, Tim Burton’s first crack at the Caped Crusader is plenty dark in its own right—the tone is much, for lack of a better word, darker than the Adam West series, which admittedly isn’t such a feat, but it also manages to retains some of the camp and humor of the old show while still bringing bite to the proceedings.

Jack Nicholson is clearly having the time of his life, and both his impressive costumes and accompanying Prince jams compliment his Joker nicely—but for all his campy lines and dances, this is a Joker who doesn’t think twice about murdering anyone he can get a hold of. Though he isn’t played as straight as Heath Ledger’s take on the role in The Dark Knight, Nicholson is no mustachioed Caesar Romero, either. Then there’s Batman himself, who doesn’t even attempt to take the Joker alive in the end, and Burton does some nice—if not always subtle—layering to highlight the similarities between hero and villain, though the decision to make the Joker the one who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents is a bit overkill. Michael Keaton makes a surprisingly satisfying Batman, though his Bruce Wayne is more late eighties super-nerd than playboy.

Batman is Tim Burton near the top of his game, with a superficial noir atmosphere layered nicely over the timeless Gotham his set design team assembled. The problematic class issues inherent in the Batman mythology are on prominent display here—blue collar good guy Knox gets his ass handed to him when he tries to take on the bad guys with a baseball bat, whereas Batman swoops in with his private plane and not only saves the girl Knox is after but also the whole city—but that’s always been an issue with the character, and even Christopher Nolan’s ham-fisted swipe at subverting it in The Dark Knight didn’t quite wash the taste of moldering class trash from the mouth, but so it goes. Batman may be a crypto-fascist, but he’s always been a damn cool one.

High Points: The Joker doing his thing, especially the scene in the museum. Being reminded of how impressive Tim Burton is when working with a good script and predominantly practical effects—the small uses of jarring animated effects here are a grim reminder of the over-reliance he would put on CGI in his later films. The soundtrack—Danny Elfman and Prince, together at last. The part where Conan’s sidekick from Destroyer gets shot in the gut and left in the dirt (Jesse Says: Molly’s hatred for Tracey Walter is kinda spooky—I like the guy, personally). The costumes. And, really, the Joker, who steals the show from Bats every moment he’s onscreen:

Final Verdict: We’ll dance with that devil in the pale moonlight any time.