Batman

Since last December, a coming-attractions trailer has provided some sights that often outclassed the movies that followed it. It was the preview for Batman, a new treatment of the great comic-book character (created 50 years ago by Bob Kane), and the trailer was full of tantalizing visions of a slick Batmobile, an incredible Bat-costume, and an outrageous look for Batman’s arch enemy, the Joker.

That the Joker is played by Jack Nicholson and Batman by Michael Keaton helped fuel the anticipation. So did the fact that the movie was directed by the gifted young director of Beetlejuice, Tim Burton. And the news that the budget had climbed to anywhere from $30 to $50 million suggested all the stops had been pulled.

So, how is it? Well…Batman is fun, offers an evening’s worth of thrills, and contains a few shots and moments that are quite flabbergasting. It is also not a very good movie. On some basic level, Batman doesn’t really know what it’s about, and from the first, it fails to find a satisfying groove.

One reassuring aspect becomes clear from the beginning: This Batman has nothing to do with the campy 1960s television series. Bruce Wayne, the millionaire, spends his free time wearing tights and a hard-shell bodysuit and scaling the skyscrapers of Gotham City in search of evildoers. He’s avenging the death of his parents, shot down in the street before his eyes when he was a child, and he’s serious about it.

In the film’s early scenes, a loopy criminal, Jack Napier (Nicholson), is cornered by Batman in a chemical plant. Falling into a vat of toxic material, he is transformed into the Joker, whose hideous face is matched by his hideous jokes (and yet, as he points out, “Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?”).

The Joker takes Gotham on a roller coaster of terror, but Batman is there to counter every move. What’s a criminal genius to do: “Can somebody tell me,” the Joker wonders, resplendent in his purple suit and green hair, “what kind of a world we live in where a guy dressed up as a bat gets all of my press?”

These battles are played off against the rather pallid romance of Bruce Wayne and Vickie Vale (Kim Basinger), a photographer who falls for the troubled millionaire.

Burton achieves some dazzling angles on Gotham City, a weird, overgrown metropolis, and he catches the menace in the dark clouds than glower over the church tower that serves as the setting for the final showdown of the adversaries.

A triumph of design, the film can’t seem to tell a story. It took 10 years for the project to pass through various scripts and directors before this version hit the screen, and no one found a coherent tale to tell. Scenes feel isolated, unconnected; a scene in which the Joker parties down in an art museum is weird and funny, but what does it have to do with anything else in the movie?

Burton cast Michael Keaton as Batman because he thought an everyman was needed (the theory: if Bruce Wayne were a superman to begin with, why would he dress up like a bat?). Keaton is not bad, but the conception of the role renders him nearly catatonic—an eccentric who simply doesn’t hold down a 9-to-5 job.

This leaves the field open for Nicholson, who is not about to miss this opportunity. Of course Nicholson attacks the role with demonic fury; he twists out the Joker’s punchlines with heroic energy. When Batman flags, just watch Jack: he’ll pump in the laughing gas.

First published in the Herald, June 22, 1989

Yeah: shrug. I remember that summer, hearing people quoting lines from the movie to each other, and thinking that a new generation (I was 30) was taking over the watching and processing of movies, somehow. The word “fanboy” wasn’t in use, as far as I know (and I wouldn’t have known then whether it was), but this movie, and the increasingly complicated arguments about its authenticity and faithfulness to the spirit of the meaning of Batman, was a turning point that has led us to movies today.

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