Saturday, August 30, 2014

Film Review: Batman

"Batman"  *** (out of ****)

From out of the shadows and onto the big screen director Tim Burton brings us "Batman" (1989) starring Michael Keaton as the caped crusader and Jack Nicholson as his greatest arch-nemesis, The Joker.

The Batman character created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger first appeared in 1939 in Detective Comics and since that time has become something of a cultural phenomenon along with Superman. Batman first appeared onscreen during the war years in a movie serial in 1943 and was played by Lewis Wilson. Most people, of a certain generation, remember Batman from the 1966-1968 television show starring Adam West, it was considered to be a campy take on the superhero, though it remained the dominant interpretation of the Batman character for years afterward.

Fans of the comics (which I am not among. Nothing against Batman, I just never read comic books) often claim the original Batman comics had a dark side to them. It was this dark side, a more mature approach, that Tim Burton and Michael Keaton were after when they worked together on "Batman".

When "Batman" was first released in 1989 I was six years ago. I saw this movie in a theatre. I didn't like it. It was "too dark", "too violent". It lacked the light-hearted joy I was expecting as someone who watched the television show. I had seen the 1943 movie serial growing up too but that one was more of an action/adventure story. It wasn't intentionally campy. It was more of a piece of American propaganda during WW2. Batman goes after a Japanese spy.

My reaction, as a child, to "Batman" was actually the reaction of others. A lot of people felt the project was doomed from the beginning. Was Tim Burton the best choice to direct? At this point in time, he had made "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" (1985) and "Beetlejuice" (1988) also with Michael Keaton. Others felt Keaton was a bad choice for Batman. It was thought Keaton lacked a hero's presence. Prior to this movie, Keaton had appeared in light-hearted fare such as "Mr. Mom" (1983). After the movie was released some did complain it was too violent, especially the scenes involving Jack Nicholson as The Joker.

How strange, 25 years later, the things people complained about then are now what fan-boys and some mainstream audiences, enjoy about these movies. They prefer their comic book movies be serious. They want to have dark and brooding characters. Look at how much audiences have praised Christopher Nolan and his re-booted "Batman Trilogy". "The Dark Knight" (2008) was the highest grossing movie of 2008. Some claimed it was one of the greatest movies ever made. A bit of an over sell in my opinion (I'm usually more reserved in my praise of movies) but I suppose it expressed people's enthusiasm. It is currently ranked number four in IMDB's top 250.

Would any of these later Batman and comic book movies exist if Burton hadn't made "Batman"? They probably would, but, it would seem Burton and company were a bit ahead of the game. They were asking audiences to look at Batman and The Joker differently. They wanted audiences to see these men as troubled and disturbed. Batman deals with the psychological trauma of having seen his parents killed as a child. The Joker is not a harmless prankster, as portrayed by Cesar Romero in the TV show, but a deranged lunatic. In the original comic book, it was intended to present these characters as opposite ends of the same coin. We get a bit of that in this movie.

I wouldn't consider "Batman" though to be a completely "serious" film. It over does some bits with The Joker. Jack Nicholson takes the character in all directions. At first, he is menacing but then the character starts to engage in comical behavior. His antics at a museum, destroying art, I found unnecessary. His television broadcast, when he informs citizens of his plans, felt misplaced. There is a bit too much screen time for the character (another complaint back in 1989) as well.

While I wouldn't consider this as comical as the television series there is certain comic feel to it. What it reminds me of most is a graphic comic book, say something written by Frank Miller, perhaps best known for "Sin City", which was also made into a movie. In fact, Miller did contribute to the Batman comics in 1986 with a series called "The Dark Knight Returns". I haven't read that comic (again, I don't read comics) but it wouldn't surprise me if Burton was aware of this at the time and did draw influence from it.

"Batman" does a pretty good job at creating a story-line for The Joker and how he became this character. There have been different origin stories over the years. One involved The Joker disguising himself as another criminal and falling into a vat of chemicals which distorts his skin color, hair, and lips. In "Batman" they take basic elements of that and combine it with "The Man Who Laughs" (1928), a German expressionist film directed by Paul Leni, based on a Victor Hugo novel. In the story, a man is disfigured when a group of thugs slices his mouth open giving him the permanent appearance of having a grin on his face. The Joker is believed to be based on the physical appearance of the character from that story.

The downside, however, is, for all the time the movie spends explaining the origins of The Joker character, that same attention to detail is missing in explaining the origins of the Batman character. Also, take a look at the film's billing. Nicholson is billed first. The movie is called "Batman" but the guy playing The Joker is billed first. No doubt about it, Nicholson is an acting legend and a bigger name than Michael Keaton, but, it is just one example, from many, why some people feel too much attention was focused on The Joker and not enough on Batman.

As I already mentioned Jack Nicholson was definitely an interesting choice to play the character. He has the acting ability to pull it off but whether it was his decision or Burton's or a combination of both, I feel the character goes in too many directions. There is not a constant line of action. Sometimes it seems his motivation is not clear.

This is in contrast to my feelings of Michael Keaton as Batman. Keaton never seems comfortable to me in the role. I always had the impression he wanted to do something comical. There is a scene when he meets The Joker, as Bruce Wayne, where he gets his opportunity to engage in silly, comical behavior. But, Keaton looks too stiff in the role. There is a charisma missing.

With all Batman movies, there is a love interest presented. This time it is Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) a photographer who has teamed up with a local reporter, Knox (Robert Wuhl) to track down "the batman", a person believed to be a criminal himself. No one believes Knox about this "thing's" existence, especially since the police are not talking about it, but, Vicki wants to help him with his story. Why? I'm not really sure. Her motivations aren't made clear either.

Batman is, of course, the alter-ego of billionaire Bruce Wayne. Vicki finds herself attracted to Wayne and he to her. Is she what he needs in his life? Is it time to stop fighting crime and demons from the past and settle down? Should he reveal to Vicki, he is Batman? These are the questions Bruce Wayne and his butler Alfred (Michael Gough) ask one another.

All of this story is told against the backdrop of Gotham City, which at times looks like a technical marvel. The first scene we see of Gotham is of buildings sky high and traffic as people walk by. It honestly looks like "Metropolis" (1927) the great Fritz Lang movie. "Batman" has such a dark, sinister look to it. The costume and art design compliment the dark, tortured nature of the characters. Gotham City is not a happy place. Crime is rampant. Businesses have left the community. The visual design of Gotham City gets this despair across. The art direction was nominated for an Academy Award and won. This was the film's only nomination.

"Batman" is a much better movie than I remember. I am glad I saw it again. I don't think it is great, a masterpiece, but, it is an interesting movie. It goes on too long, the songs by Prince are out of place, The Joker character goes in all directions, Michael Keaton seems a bit stiff in his acting, but overall I like the movie. I like the tone of the story. I like the look of the film. I find certain aspects of Nicholson's performance effective and I love Danny Elfman's score.