Monday, 23 June 2014

Some Thoughts on the 25th Anniversary of Tim Burton's "Batman"

Richard Donner’s Superman (1978)- starring Christopher Reeve- made people believe a man could fly and laid the seeds for the domination of the superhero genre years later. But if Superman is the father of the superhero genre than Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) is its creepy uncle. Today marks the 25th anniversary of Batman’s release and in the 25 years since the superhero genre has evolved significantly, with superhero films becoming the dominant blockbusters of modern cinema.  Many superhero films now feel manufactured but Batman is still a distinct and twisted vision- funny, dark, and compulsively re-watchable even after the impact of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
Before Batman’s release many non-comic readers’ image of the Caped Crusader was of the 1960s Adam West TV series. Those more familiar with the comics became accustomed to a darker vision of the character thanks to late 80s takes on the character such as Frank Miller's Batman Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, as well as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Batman brought that more mature take on the character to life, aiming to satisfy comic fans and to show that the character was more than the comedic West series.
Though before the film was released many were afraid the film would be an updated version of the 60s series. These fears stemmed from the casting of Michael Keaton, best known for his performances in comedies such as Night Shift and Mr. Mom. People presumed Keaton’s presence meant the film would be a comedy. Upon hearing about the controversy Jon Peters- one of the film’s producers- released a trailer, highlighting the film’s dark tone, to squash peoples’ fears about the casting. In many ways Keaton’s casting was the first controversial casting in a superhero film. Heath Ledger, Robert Downey Jr., and now Ben Affleck as the new Batman would follow in the years to come.
While actors such as Willem Dafoe (who would go on to play the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man), John Lithgow, and Tim Curry were considered for the role of Batman’s nemesis the Joker, screen legend Jack Nicholson was chosen. He had been a favourite of producer Michael Uslan for the role since the early 80s. Nicholson’s contract gave him a large percentage of the film’s gross along with his salary for the film.

Many criticize Nicholson for playing himself in the role of the Joker but whether you’re a fan of the performance or Nicholson as an actor, he’s much more memorable than several recent super-villains of the superhero genre. Personally, I find Nicholson incredibly entertaining in the role and get a kick out of his dialogue: “Can somebody tell me what kind of world we live in, where a man dressed up like a bat gets all of my press?” “Where does he get all those wonderful toys.” This film established the tradition of getting big names to play Batman villains- Jim Carrey as the Riddler, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, etc.  A significant flaw in the Batman franchise is that the villains would always get more back-story than Batman and would often overshadow the character in his own movies.

Tim Burton was a relatively new director to feature filmmaking at this time, having mostly directed shorts and two feature length films- Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, which starred Keaton. Burton was a risky choice to handle such a big property but this film would solidify Burton as a big Hollywood filmmaker. Burton was not a fan of comics growing up but he admired The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns.

Burton actually pays homage to Moore’s version of the Joker’s origin story. In both Batman and The Killing Joke the Joker’s origin involves Jack Napier (in the film)/the unnamed engineer (Killing Joke) falling in to a vat of acid and going insane upon seeing his reflection, his skin now bleached. What’s noticeable about Batman is it’s more of a Joker origin story than Batman origin story. While Superman and future superhero films focus on the hero’s origin, in Batman the titular character has already taken on the mantle of a vigilante. It's not until later on in the film that Batman's origin is revealed when Bruce Wayne thinks back to the night his parents were murdered. One of the most striking departures this film makes from the comics is that Napier, when he was a young hoodlum, was the murderer of Bruce’s parents. To my knowledge this is the first and only incarnation that interprets the Joker this way. This controversial re-interpretation is one the boldest changes in a superhero themed film and foreshadows the risks filmmakers would take when re-interpreting comic book mythology.
Burton keeps the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman largely a mystery to the viewer. Thus we need a character to be a representation for the audience. The character we actually follow throughout the film is Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), a photographer who’s come to Gotham City due to her interest in the rumours about Batman and teams up with reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl), who's also obsessed in discovering who or what Batman is. Vicki begins a romance with Bruce and it’s through this relationship we discover who the real Bruce Wayne is behind the rich playboy facade. A large theme of the film is that Bruce has been locked away behind facades for so long that he doesn’t quite know how to embark on a courtship.     

Unlike West, Keaton creates a distinction between the two personas of Bruce Wayne and Batman, emphasizing the character's dual psyche. Keaton puts fears to rest as soon as the film opens with Batman beating up two criminals who committed a mugging that echoes the character’s origin. Gone is the “old chum” Batman of the 60s series. Keaton’s Batman is a stoic, intimidating creature who strikes fear in to the hearts of criminals.  
Batman came out in 1989. At this time the blockbuster/action movie scene was populated by Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Indiana Jones and John McClane. This was long before the comic book superhero was the dominant franchise headliner at the cineplex. Despite his popularity, Batman wasn’t the hero people were used to seeing on screen.  And Keaton was not anyone’s image of an action hero. But this is what makes the film and why it had such an impact upon its release. It wasn’t like anything people were seeing at this time.
This is largely due to its production designs, which places Batman outside of any specific time setting. There’s a distinct 1930s/1940s vibe to the gangsters’ outfits, cars, etc. but the film doesn’t specifically take place during that period. Aside from the inclusion of music from Prince in one sequence the film’s aesthetic qualities lend it a timeless feel. Similar to the Christopher Reeve Superman films, the film attempts to creates a stylized reality rather than place the character in a modern setting.

The success of Batman led to the creation of the great Batman: The Animated Series, which premiered in 1992 and ran until 1998. The style of the series was influenced by Batman. The film's success also made Warner Bros. give Burton creative control over the sequel, Batman Returns. The result was one of the darkest, depressing,  and most twisted films, superhero or otherwise, to come out of a major studio. The darkness turned off people, namely parents who dragged their kids off to see it.. Warner Bros. then went in another direction and hired Joel Schumacher to helm Batman Forever, a much lighter take on the character.
I can’t call Batman a masterpiece or a great film but it’s a memorable, highly entertaining piece of pop entertainment. It's beautifully gothic and an interesting prototype for the future films in the franchise. Happy 25th anniversary Batman.

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