As you may have gathered from my many posts on the subject, I’m really into comic books. I started breaking into my brother’s room to read Frank Miller’s Daredevil and John Byrne’s X-Men at a young age and a world opened up in my head.
Nowadays, that opening has extended to my wallet which may never close. The moment I think the comic companies have nothing to show me, they strike back and I’m hooked on 11 titles.
This was the case during the first Batman film. At the time I was deeply embedded with Marvel Comics and had no interest in DC Comics in general or Batman in particular. As the movie’s release date got closer, however… that story changed. I recalled liking Batman a lot as a child and taking the 60′s TV program seriously (I still can’t explain that one).
As a result of this navel gazing into my fanboy, I discovered the Batfan within and was in line for a late night premiere in Saugus, MA.
Many moons have passed since that night when I first witnessed a grown man in a home-made Batman costume ‘flying’ up and down the cinema aisle before the screen went up. I never purchased the DVD, never re-watched it and by and large have forgotten the film, allowing it to rest in my memory as ‘important’ for starting the comic book movie craze that Hollywood is currently engrossed with. That also has changed as the film was on TV last night. Steeling myself for a treat, I sat down to concentrate on the one motion picture that has motivated so many business meetings for over the last decade.
What a very bad movie.
Let me elaborate by saying that I do still like Michael Keaton because he’s at least, as actors say, doing something in the role.
It’s never clear exactly what he’s doing, but the distant glint in his eye and permanently pursed lips definitely say to me… he’s doing something. It reminds me of my dad before he would erupt into a fit of anger when someone cut him off in traffic or maybe when he was about to sneeze… either one.
As Batman, Keaton looks absolutely absurd. This is the first ‘rubber costume’ movie and I’m still not sure why they stayed with the idea. For some reason after Batman a super hero equaled a rubber costume. The ears wiggle, the seams bend, it looks uncomfortable and our hero must turn his entire body to look at one of the Joker’s many ineffectual henchmen before embarking on a fight scene that would make renowned carnival clown Emmet Kelley blush.
As far as chronicling the problems with the movie, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. While Burton completely understood The Joker, he was clearly unsure of how to handle Jack Nicholson.
The best Joker scene in the entire film is the infamous ‘transformation’ scene. Set in a dingy street doctor’s office, the screeching laughter from Nicholson at the sight of his disfigured face is so poignant and perfect that you’d think it was based on a comic book.
However, after the transformation, the tragic and terrifying Joker is replaced with… Jack Nicholson at his campiest. I do like Nicholson as an actor. His performances in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Five Easy Pieces and even The Pledge are all incredibly moving and heartfelt. But that is not the Jack we get here.
I understand that the 1989 Batman movie set the stage for a new ‘adult’ take on a genre that had been predominantly thought of as being for children, but there are many mis-steps along the way.
The plot, which introduces the Batman‘s origin story and explains the story-behind-the-story, as it were… is clunky and awkward. The connection between Batman and The Joker is almost entirely based on coincidence rather than the stronger bond over them being egocentric geniuses in a world of idiots. While Batman sees his role as protector, The Joker sees the entire city as a kind of playpen and all the people his toys to break as he pleases.
If the Batman movie centered more on this angle, rather than pausing to let the Prince soundtrack strut through, it would be a stronger film.
The love interest of Vicki Vale is forced upon the film so roughly that not only does Bruce Wayne have no idea what to do with her, but The Joker insists on falling in love with her… as does Robert Culp‘s character Knox.
I’m not sure, but I think that Pat Hingle‘s bumbling Commissioner Gordon also holds a torch for Ms. Vale.
The Batmobile designed by Anton Furst is without a doubt the best real-life design of the car I’ve ever seen… sorry to all you Barris fans out there. Both graceful and alien with its brutal design, the car tears through the film. Yet it is involved in the most benign car chases over a sound stage that you wonder why they bothered.
This brings me to the biggest problem with Batman and most other super hero films. The filmmakers stress so much over making the character ‘real,’ including the insertion of a love interest and background characters that they forget that it is, in essence, an action film. Batman has so little action in it you can easily forget this.
The dramatic moments that Batman has on the screen are so contrived and stagey that the villains stand around waiting for him to do things. From the scene in the smallest art museum set I’ve seen where Batman uses that ‘repelling thing’ to get from one point of the room to another to the previously mentioned non-fight scenes that look more like comedic opportunities… there’s not much to get excited about.
While important for introducing studio execs to the idea that a serious comic book movie can work and for making moviegoers excited over Batman, the 1989 movie is simply a bad motion picture. Tim Burton‘s vision is inspired, dynamic and inventive, but not quite complete. It took four movies and three directors to finally get the mix correct in 2004′s Batman Begins.
But the Chris Nolan/Christian Bale franchise is still in its infancy. Who knows what stumbling blocks it will encounter next Summer when The Dark Knight hits the big screen.