Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Batman (1989) - Retrospective Review

Here I sit a few hours out from seeing The Dark Knight, easily the most I've anticipated a film since The Return of the King five years ago. But something weighs heavy on my soul, a confession I must make, if you will. Batman is probably the most beloved superhero of all time - Superman is more classic and more symbolic, but he's so simplistic and goody two-shoes that most people don't LOVE him - and between Batman's comic books, graphic novels, animated shows, live-action show, and of course films he has become legend. But I haven't read any comics (with the exception of The Dark Knight Returns, which was good) or watched the shows, so until June 2005 the only audio-visual media I had to judge Batman on was the Burton and Schumacher films - Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin.

And, frankly, I thought Batman was stupid. Christopher Nolan's stewardship of the series has obviously 360ed my opinion, but until then, when I was engaging in conversations with fellow nerds about nerdiness and the awesomeness of Batman came up, I had to either keep mum or be "that guy," because I didn't think Batman was cool, I thought Batman was the most mediocre thing I could think of. I won't find much argument there in regard to the Schumacher duo, but most people will go to bat (pun?) to defend the Burton films, some even passionately. To some Batman is as nostalgic and beautiful a masterpiece as Star Wars or Back to the Future or The Princess Bride is to me. And that's fine - I certainly respect nostalgia - but through five or six viewings, starting from as a really little kid of five or six years up through my last attempt at enjoying it a couple days ago, I've always thought Batman is perhaps the most overrated action film of the 80s.

It doesn't help that I don't like Tim Burton much at all. I've seen nine of his films - this one, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Sweeney Todd, and of those nine the only one I could unconditionally recommend is Edward Scissorhands (Mars Attacks! is also goofy but fairly amusing); he knows how to craft visuals but has a forcedly quirky tone and an off-kilter aesthetic that I personally find lends itself to a really manufactured atmosphere. For me he may be the most overrated filmmaker outside of Lars von Trier. And my problems with the aesthetic style he crafted for Gotham City begin with the second shot of the film:

What's the problem? Well, just look at it! It's an orgy of visual nonsense that looks nothing like an actual city! The entire movie has a very synthetic fiber to it and not a single shot that supposedly takes place outside convinces you for even a split second that the actors are anywhere but a soundstage. There's not a frame of sky that actually looks like sky, there's not a plant that looks like anything but plastic, and everything from chemical plants to back alleys to news studios all scream "THIS IS A MOVIE." at you - something that bothered me even as a kid but now plays especially bad in light of Nolan's Chicago location shooting.

The atmosphere is just as synthetic. Okay, I DO recognize that it was surprisingly dark at the time, in contrast to the Adam West style people associated with live action Batman, and it deserves props for pushing it further than a lot of people expected. It's still "dark" inasmuch that it has a relatively high body count - higher than Batman Begins by quite a bit - but of course there's more to mood than that, and everything takes place in such a one-dimensional comic world that seeing these people getting taken out isn't really particularly engaging. The plot involves the Joker poisoning the makeup, cleaning, beauty, and other common chemical products of Gotham City, killing lots of people and holding the city in a fearful captivity. You'd think that there might be some kind of tone of panic or terror, right? Or if Burton didn't want to push the mood that far, even some kind of, say, tension or drama? Instead it's treated with all the tension of Dr. Evil's ransom demands in Austin Powers. I understand the movie wasn't meant to be as heavy as Nolan's films, but if you've seen Spider-Man 2 or Iron Man, you know a superhero movie can obviously balance a lot of comedy and an overall light tone with an actual villain who exudes some degree of a threat, and some sense of drama.

The lack of drama bleeds into the action scenes - since the whole thing is a joke, why should our pulse quicken when Batman starts driving his over-the-top oversized action figure Batmobile around Gotham, set to Danny Elfman's circus tunes? And the fights between Jack Nicholson's old man Joker (which I'll get to in a minute) and Batman are such a muted exchanging of blows that it's all I can do to not fast-forward them. And Batman's propensity to have a gadget for any obstacle rivals that of James Bond in any Roger Moore movie. In fact I just overall dislike Batman in this movie, a lot of which is due to:

Michael Keaton. When you think of the action heroes of the late 80s - Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Timothy Dalton, and so on - Michael Keaton clearly stands out as the one least likely to kick your ass in real life. His Bruce Wayne comes across as just an unlikely millionaire playboy as his Batman does a vigilante warrior. And his character is given so little psychological depth that he's pretty much the "designated goodguy," appearing fully-formed in the first scene because this movie needs someone to fight the Joker and it might as well be him. He's given a two-minute flashback of his parents' murder near the end, although they have no dialogue and no explanation of what happened between the murder and him becoming Batman is given (and the decision was made to have the Joker murder his parents, which is hokey and embarrassing). And despite the movie being called Batman, he has a shockingly little amount of screentime, having just a tiny handful of scenes as Bruce Wayne throughout the entire movie, most of them spent with Vicki Vale, a.k.a. Kim Basinger, a nothing character who bizarrely has as much screentime and dialogue as Bruce Wayne / Batman himself. Her first line is "Hi, I'm Vicki Vale!" but it might as well be "Hi, I'm Romantic Interest!" She is given no background, motivation, or reason she loves Bruce Wayne so much. Not to claim that she's any more shallow than some of Roger Moore's Bond girls, but last I checked Mary Goodnight in The Man With the Golden Gun didn't have more goddamn screentime and dialogue than James Bond.

And that brings us to the most significant of the movie's scant few developed characters (four or five at the most), the Joker, as played by Jack Nicholson, in a performance that some still claim to be nothing short of brilliant. He's first-billed, and he deserves to be, easily having more screentime, development, and dialogue than Batman. And I won't deny for a second that he is probably the most entertaining thing in the movie and the thing that elevates it to somewhere approaching watchability - it's impossible to deny that "I'm glad you're dead. Hahahahahahahaha! I'm glad you're dead!" is incredibly amusing - but it's not really a performance at all. Jack Nicholson does not play the Joker, he does a song-and-dance routine of Jack Nicholson as Jack Nicholson as the Joker, with the filmmakers going so far as to give the Joker the name of Jack Napier. Yes, Jack N. Real good, guys. It's like in The Fresh Prince when Will Smith plays a "character" named Will Smith. And I'm not to deny the legend of Jack Nicholson - he's been awesome in Chinatown, The Shining, and The Departed - but his Joker has nothing resembling a hint of menace. You don't feel like he's a criminal mastermind ready to run a town, let alone battle Batman. He dances through museums tossing paint on portraits and all you get the sense of is bizarre, semi-funny performance art.

So yeah, I wasn't crazy about this movie. Never have been, never will be. I won't bother reviewing the other three of this series, because Batman Returns is if anything more Burtonesque than this one and the less said about Schumacher's films the better. However, I will say that I'm glad Batman & Robin was made - had Schumacher's second film been crashingly mediocre like Batman Forever rather than apocalyptically awful like B&R, then it might have eeked out just enough profit to make a fifth utterly mediocre film in 1999, then a sixth in 2001, and so on, rendering it impossible for Christopher Nolan to reboot the franchise from scratch with his awesome movies. Batman & Robin was the killing fire necessary to burn the franchise to the ground, allowing the phoenix of Batman Begins to rise from the ashes. Speaking of which, it's about time for me to drive to Universal Studios and get in line for The Dark Knight.

2 Stars out of 5

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