Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Retro Review: Batman (1989)

 Independently of the impending release of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, I had the urge to watch Tim Burton's 1989 reinvention of Batman last week. It's been a while since I watched what amounted to the first major re-launch of the Dark Knight on screens since the 1960s, and despite the fact that I've written at some length about Batman Returns (here, for example), there were certain lingering assumptions I'd made about the film that I wanted to test.

 One of the arguments I've long held (and one that appears in the Batman Returns review) is that Burton's first go-round with Bruce Wayne was filtered by studio involvement, including the prominence of a Prince-heavy soundtrack that doesn't really match Danny Elfman's score. I also contended that Michael Keaton was overshadowed throughout most of the film by Jack Nicholson's iconic take on the Joker, and that as a result the sequel represented a more "pure" expression of director and material. It's an easy position to take when you haven't watched Batman in its entirety for several years, so does that judgment hold up after revisiting the film?

 Well, I think I let memory dictate a lot of what I thought to be true about Batman. It is true that making Jack Napier (and by extension, the Joker) the killer of Bruce Wayne's parents elevates his role in Batman's origin story (thus allowing a "you created me, I created you" motif), and that Nicholson dominates every scene he's in, even ones with legendary scenery chewer Jack Palance ("You... are my numbah one guy!"). However, I allowed memory to disproportionately increase Nicholson's screen time, so it was a bit surprising how much of the first half of the film is devoted to Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) and Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) trying in vain to track down something, anything about the mysterious Batman. We're introduced to Bruce Wayne through them, accidentally at that, and in more than one way - they go to Wayne Manor in order to track down Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle), District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), the Mayor (Lee Wallace) and get them on the record about the vigilante terrorizing criminals.

 What's interesting is that Burton and screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren set up Batman as the more important component of the Wayne / Dark Knight dynamic, but then devote most of the screen time to Michael Keaton with the mask off. Yes, the film begins with Batman in action (after a clever misdirection regarding whether we're starting with the origin story up front) and then shifts largely to Wayne and Vale, interrupted by the Joker's romantic advances. Unless you count the final showdown in Gotham Cathedral, the interactions between this unorthodox love triangle are split evenly between Batman (in the art museum) and Bruce (in Vale's apartment). While the art museum sequence is more visually dynamic, the Wayne / Joker showdown has more character resonance.

 The museum sequence is, for the record, the first of two (and only two, unless you count the closing credits) Prince songs that appear in the film. Despite my lingering memories of "Batdance," "Party Man" and "Trust" are the only songs featured in Batman in their entirety, and both are linked to the Joker, who dances along, making them diegetic to the world. So let's say, for the sake of argument, that the Joker is a big Prince fan. So much so that he has Prince songs you've never heard before that are, in one form or fashion, very appropriate in the scenes they appear. If we accept that the Danny Elfman score represents Bruce Wayne / Batman and the Prince songs are expressions of the Joker, I can overlook the apparent clash of styles. Also, while I don't love the way Nicholson gyrates to "Trust" in particular, it is a good fit for his attitude and style.

 I also found myself more fond of Keaton as Batman than as Wayne (even though the lack of a strong chin and smaller frame make him look like a skinny guy in a suit). Maybe it's that Wayne, while being in a LOT of the movie, doesn't register much as a character until the inevitable flashback to the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne (which happens more than an hour into the film). In fact, Bruce Wayne doesn't have much to do other than look intense or deep in thought between his charming introduction to Knox and Vale and when he unleashes on the Joker ("You want to get nuts? Let's get nuts!") and is blindsided by the clown's reply ("You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?").

 But watching the film again, Batman himself isn't all that interesting - he's not a lot more than the sum of his "wonderful toys." The fight scenes aren't very memorably, his movement is a little awkward (watch him sneaking around Axis Chemicals or even when he lands on the rooftop in the beginning of the film) and without his grappling hook, Batman doesn't even defeat the Joker or save Vicki Vale at the end of the film. He's thwarted by his nemesis and left dangling as the Clown Prince of Crime escapes in a helicopter. The most impressive detective work done by the Dark Knight happens offscreen, as Wayne and Alfred crack the secret chemical reaction that causes Gotham's beauty products to become lethal (and effectively so - those frozen death grins stick with you).

 Additionally, I like how Billy Dee William's Harvey Dent is introduced in such a way that never indicates he'll ever become Two Face. He's just the District Attorney of Gotham City, trying to nail Carl Grissom and to contend with the new threat of the Joker.

 Still, Batman is not particularly the ineffective setup to a better sequel for Burton and Keaton. I found myself frequently engrossed by the film, by the world and art design of Anton Furst, and it was a strong reminder of when a Danny Elfman theme really stuck with you. I've been trying not to compare Burton's Batman to the Nolan films (in particular Nicholson to Ledger), but I do think that Batman is more successful in relaunching Batman the icon than Batman Begins is. Batman Begins is a great Bruce Wayne story, but Batman does a better job at balancing the necessity of the myth that Wayne must become. It doesn't always balance the two as well, but then again neither does Batman Begins. I can't help but wonder what Batman would be like if the necessity of linking Wayne to Napier hadn't been in place, or if the film had focused more on characters on the outside experiencing the vigilante (as much of the first forty five minutes is), but the film still works. It still entertains, and I'm amazed how dark this "family friendly" movie is, considering I saw it when I was ten.

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