Batman (1989)

Posted by on Dec 30, 2011 in Comics & Superheroes | 0 comments

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Disclaimer: Let me tell you about the villain: mean kid, bad seed, hurts people.

Some kids prefer superheroes like Spider-Man or Superman. Superheroes characterized by special powers that make every youth swell with envy. But my favorite has always been Batman, a superhero unlike so many others in that he has no special powers. If kids see Batman as I did, they’ll notice an imperfect human not unlike themselves and think they can be a superhero, too. Born in an era of fascism, from the pen of Bob Kane and paper of DC Comics, Bruce Wayne was one man against the unjust world. And though we rejoiced his anecdotal victories, the shadowy figure’s fight would never end. In later years, fueled by 50s optimism and a campy TV series, Batman became just another Superman. Thankfully, Tim Burton’s film revived the schizophrenic hero and his noir-era surroundings as originally conceived.

As the police commissioner notes, “The words ‘Gotham City’ have become synonymous with crime.” It’s over-run with crime lords and gun-toting thieves. In hopes to take back the city, the mayor welcomes a new district attorney (Billy Dee Williams). But we know its only hope lies with Batman. A journalist (Robert Wuhl) is following the winged crusader after an increase in sightings and criminal arrests, and a fashion photographer-turned serious journalist named Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) joins the search for a Pulitzer Prize. With the new DA, crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) gets itchy feet and intends to remove evidence at his front companies. He sends underling Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) – his “number one guy” – to one of those companies, but Jack winds up in a vat of chemicals thanks to Batman. After surviving the face-altering ordeal and becoming a supervillain, Napier intends to unleash a series of plagues on the city.

Taking notice all the way is wealthy industrialist and eccentric introvert Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton). After a madman killed his parents when he was just a child, Wayne is left with his caring butler (Michael Gough), a strange obsession with bats (“they’re great survivors”), and unquenchable thirst for revenge. Like most superhero and serial killer movies, Batman draws obvious comparisons between enemies and heroes (both at odds with their ego and superego). “He’s insane,” Wayne says of Napier. “Some people say the same thing about you,” Vale coyly interjects.

After the chemical incident, Napier Batman (1989) Directed by Tim Burton Shown: Jack Nicholson (as The Joker)becomes maniacally distorted. But the purple-draped and green-coifed lunatic doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he’s all smiles. From the moment he mysteriously creeps out of the shadows and introduces himself to his soon-to-be-holey victim, the Joker steals the show. “Wait ‘til they get a load of me,” he says. Nicholson’s wickedly funny and sinister turn earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Perhaps the best part about the character is his endless array of one-liners: “Do I look like I’m joking?” or “You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” or “Never rub another man’s rhubarb.” He’s a cultured man who quotes Edgar Allen Poe, appreciates art, and even creates his own movement as the “world’s first fully functional homicidal artist.” And, despite his eventual fate, the Joker still manages to get the last laugh.

The only aspect more likeable than Nicholson’s Joker is Anton Furst’s Oscar-winning set design, which rivals Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and Alex Proyas’ Dark City. In this wasteland of crooked cops and vicious villains, Furst blends all manner of architectural styles to match the bleak and ominous Gotham. Though the costumes, newsroom, lighting, and angles resemble that of 40s noir, the city has a modern framework and infuses elements of architects Antoni Gaudi, Otto Wagner, Shia Takamatsu, and Louis H. Sullivan. This murky combination proved so successful that the look was incorporated into the comics.

Before this $35 million blockbuster, which Warner Brothers threw around for about nine years, director Tim Burton was known for off-the-wall, low-budget comedies (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetle Juice) and, in many ways, Batman is just an effects-laden dark comedy. Many die-hard fans of the DC comic, some of whom I know, were upset by Batman’s back story, which was altered from the original somewhere along the line (by writers Burton, Sam Hamm, or Warren Skaaren). What some people seem to forget is that books and film are different media, and the choice to make Napier the killer was necessary to scrape the surface of Wayne’s back story without lapsing too much screen time away from action sequences. Whether the film benefited from it or not is another matter. Danny Elfman, a Burton regular, helmed the superb score and Prince provided some pop tunes, both earning Grammy nominations.

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Kids will definitely like Batman’s fancy gadgets in the film, including a wire boomerang, wire gun, smoke bombs, car with voice command, airplane, cave with unlimited AV equipment, and lots of black leather. The Joker has a few twisted gags himself, including a lethal hand buzzer, acid flower, and revolver that could emasculate Dirty Harry. “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” the Joker quips. But the Joker has a few twisted gags himself, including a lethal hand buzzer, acid flower, and revolver that could emasculate Dirty Harry. The marketing team promptly loaded merchandisers’ store shelves, leading to an estimated $750 million alone.

As the comic series did in the 50s, the Batman movie series quickly became humorously campy after this initial success. The Burton-directed sequel, Batman Returns, adds Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, and Danny DeVito, but began the spiral downward that plummeted all the way to the pitifully nipple-suited Batman and Robin. But like Frank Miller’s revival of the comics in the mid-80s, director Chris Nolan has taken the mortal hero back to the shadows for undoubtedly superior results, which are far too dark and scary for young-uns.

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