Batman (1989)

Bold, uncompromising poster image that stopped 1989 traffic dead in its tracks.

3.5 stars out of 4. Uncannily mesmerizing while dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight.

What Batman did for the comic book industry and comic book film in 1989 is incalculable. It was simply everywhere that summer and its aftereffects are felt to this day, as every single new comic book film that comes out bears the hallmarks of the founding comic book films: Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). These two films have even more in common. Both are compromised but ultimately great films that feature a developed narrative around their respective character’s origin into their heroic counterparts. Batman forms a kind of dark reflection of the lighter and more robust Superman, much as the character did upon debuting in 1939.

The plot of Batman is simple enough: Batman (Michael Keaton) prowls the night in Gotham City, wreaking havoc on the criminal underworld. This underworld falls under the mob boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance in a great bit part), whose right hand man is Jack Napier (Jack, is any other name necessary? Nicholson), a man with a certain fondness for the color purple and cards…

Reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) investigates “The Batman” to no avail until the arrival of photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger, who sticks out like a really sore thumb). At a party held in Bruce Wayne’s manor, Vale and Knox try and get Commissioner Gordon to admit facts about this mysterious Bat-creature. Bruce is taken by Vale, but is forced to go off after Gordon, who was called away on a big tip off.

This tip is that Napier is cleaning out a chemical plant acting as a front for Grissom’s shady dealings. In fact, he has been set up for having an affair with Grissom’s woman and the police close in. Batman attempts to apprehend Napier, but a stray bullet forces Napier over a railing of chemicals. Batman tries to save him, but Napier falls to his death and lands in the boiling green murk.

Over the course of the film, Napier arises to become the Joker, takes over Grissom’s command and wreaks havoc throughout Gotham. He develops a fondness for Vale, and the film culminates in a final showdown with the two grand foes of comic book lore high atop a Gothic church tower. (You can’t help but notice the giant visual and staging reference to Vertigo.)

Throw in a flashback to Bruce’s parent’s murder and you have basically the general version of every single major comic book origin film that has been released since. (Sequels non withstanding.) But the genius of Batman isn’t in the story. It isn’t even in the monumental production design that was responsible for the construction of a full scale Gotham City that is a third star of the film. The genius and reason why so many have re-watched this film is subtext. Like Superman before it, and Batman Returns to a much greater degree after it, Batman creates a fully realized world and characters entirely through subtext. The seemingly simple story takes on new meaning because the audience is allowed to savor and digest the events onscreen. Burton allows the story to progress naturally and is never afraid to let the camera linger on a scene lest we forget the whimsical dark fantasy that is Batman.

He and in turn we are fascinated with the idea that a man can be so divided into two different personalities. The day and the night, dark and the light sides of Bruce Wayne/Batman are probed in this popcorn blockbuster in ways that are totally unexpected. Keaton gives us a portrait of a haunted man, a man unable to forget the traumatizing night when his parents were gunned down in front of him. His role as Batman is not a child’s desire for revenge but a duty he has assigned to himself that only he can ever perform. It is at once both his existence and the means to save that tortured life. His Bruce Wayne is an educated but preoccupied man who in turn comes off as ineffective and somewhat clumsy. This provides an excellent cover to the Batman persona without resorting to the smarmy playboy. It also forms a protective barrier around the brooding and intensely focused core inside the Batman. Burton cast Keaton because he could picture him needing to put on a big costume to go out and fight crime.

And god, those eyebrows…they seem almost unreal, always questioning and I’ve always thought they resemble bat wings.

The film’s Batman is at once familiar and unsettling. There is something demonic about the Batsuit, primarily in the way the cape can flap like wings and how it makes the man appear more like a creature than just a man in a suit. Even the chest symbol is more like a demonic bat instead of the instantly recognizable standard logo. Batman moves in a semi-robotic way that further reinforces the idea that this an unstoppable force and not a man. (In actuality this is of course because the actor inside could hardly move at all) But it is still definitely Batman, right down to the utility belt full of Batarangs. And Keaton’s eyes just make the burning desire for vengeance come alive in the cold dark shadows of nighttime Gotham.

On the other hand, Jack plays…well Jack. His Joker is really a more whimsical version of his own screen persona. And it doesn’t really work for the character, but is able to work in the context of the film. It’s a good performance with some really wonderfully quotable lines, but all in all I just wish they had gone with a stronger performer in this vein, one who could more accurately portray all the aspects of the Clown Prince of Crime instead of a nuanced caricature deriving heavily from Caesar Romero’s portrayal in the TV series.  Oh heck, I think that not casting Tim Curry here was one of the biggest casting blunders in film history. Whew, glad I finally got that out!

The obligatory love interest of Vicki Vale feels unnecessary because she is unnecessary. The script gives her few options: Look for Batman, be saved by Batman, be confused about Bruce Wayne. That’s it. Really. As portrayed by Kim Basinger, Vale is almost a non-entity. Her performance is completely dull and we really can never see just what both Bruce/Batman and the Joker see in her. (We can’t fault her that much, as she was a last-minute replacement) This would harm the impact of the climax if it weren’t for one other little addition to the story.

In this film, it is the Joker who killed Bruce’s parents. I know what you’re saying: “Wait, what happened to Joe Chill?” the intent is to bring the themes of dual identity and induced transformation closer together so that the balanced yin and yang of the Batman-Joker conflict also becomes intertwined. It is an admirable thought, but ultimately a bit too convenient to have each create the other. Bruce/Batman lost his family and his life in a random act of violence culminating in two gunshots. It is too easy to say that the Joker pulled the trigger because it then gives Batman’s crusade a direct tangible opponent that he can overcome and possibly even surmount his oppression. Batman is doomed to be a creature of the night, united to his code forever so to have the reason for his torment be his primary aggressor is at once to clean and too melodramatic to actually work.

Burton’s Gotham is a cross between a flatter version of Blade Runner and Dark City. It is a grimy metropolis full of both people and steam, darkness and drab colors so that realism and comic book fantasy come together in one giant visual clash. The city becomes a breathing organism that looks as if will swallow its inhabitants whole. Shadows lurk at every corner even in broad daylight so it becomes a perfect habitat for our pointy eared friend. Oddly though the setting itself looks slightly fake which gives this eerie feeling of surrealism so that we are never sure whether this is the 1940’s, the 1980’s or a studio backlot. It is yet another aspect of design that entices the mind.

And then we come to the score. One has to remember that Danny Elfman was not a renowned film composer at this time. His Batman score can easily be defined by the march heard over the opening titles. Dark, operatic, ominous, heroic, orchestral, and ultimately perfectly suited to the film’s take on the Caped Crusader. It’s really a multifaceted score that is also able to provide humor and whimsy to suit even the smaller moments. Modern comic book  film scores should take note of this. It’s not all heroic and dramatic themes. Unfortunately, some folks in the production thought it would be a good idea to bring in some outside talent to make a hit record. They called in Prince to write a song or two and he returned with enough material to release an entire separate soundtrack album inspired by the film. Several of these are rammed into the film, and aren’t bad as backing music in some scenes. But the Museum sequence where Joker destroys all the priceless art does not, repeat: NOT need Prince’s “Partyman” to accompany it. But it’s quickly brushed over and forgotten so the movie can continue. They continued this practice with the other three films in the first franchise but thank goodness with the external songs featured hardly at all.

Most importantly, the film creates a universe for Batman to inhabit. I’m not referring to the production design, which is stellar, but just look at how Returns achieves similar results with a vastly smaller scale. The film shows us an alternate world that truly needs a Batman to watch over it. It may be somewhat like our own, but it is still somewhat comic. This is what Tim Burton really nails in his direction because everything always comes back to this notion of being in a real world. And it is a world that slowly reveals itself, a world for all but primarily aimed at adults. Over time things seep into focus and further enhance the idea of reality. This is the reason why the film is so re-watchable. It doesn’t care to give us everything on first glance. It doesn’t want to give us the easy way out. We have to work a bit too. And for a movie that is a founding pillar of huge commercialization in film, that is a huge achievement.

EDITIONS: Batman was quickly released on VHS and Laserdisc. This master was then released on an early 90’s era DVD, which was riddled with artifacting, cropped to 1.78:1 from 1.85:1. Finally in 2005, the film received a 2 Disc Special Edition fully loaded with in depth documentaries, Director commentary, and a brand new master struck for all four films in the franchise. All of these look strangely soft, as if there had been some grain removal and noise reduction. Audio gets a bump from the original Dolby Stereo surround to 5.1 via Dolby and DTS mixes. These are nice additions but both feature a tinny quality with little low end information. The original track would have been nice.

The Blu-ray edition is the same HD master from 2005 used for the SE DVD, just like the other three films respective Blu-rays. Video is improved with the jump to 1080p, but there’s still that inherent softness and lack in fine detail which once again suggests that these old HD masters were tinkered on in the ways of DVD false enhancement. Audio is 5.1 in a lossless Dolby True HD track. This appears to be the master source for the SE DVD’s 5.1 mixes, and all three are identical in content.

All things considered, I watch Batman on Laserdisc. The pressing is from 1990, done by Pioneer USA. It is an exceptional transfer, full of detail and clean as any LD image around. Framing is at the original 1.85:1 so all of the little details aren’t lost on the sides. But the big draw here is the audio. I’ll admit that when I watched the DVD’s I never liked the 5.1 mixes. They seemed tinny and too accentuated in the highs. Plus the separation seemed to modern for 1989. On LD, the digital tracks present the original Dolby Stereo surround mix in lossless PCM. Here there’s plenty of low end that provides a punch sorely lacking from the remixes. The rear mono surround channel is exceptional for this format and features fantastic stereo separation, so much so that you feel like there’s 5.1 going on sometimes. And your subwoofer will rumble with joy at all kinds of things that wouldn’t be covered by a discrete LFE channel.

There is a downside however. The VHS and LD were color timed upon their release so that they would appear brighter and more visible on CRT televisions of the day. The original film is a bit darker and more clouded in shadow. But the modern transfers are only minutely darker in comparison so this is kinda negligible. In any case, the 21 year old Laser kicks tail. And yes, I think it’s even better than the Blu-ray. Sue me. When Warner finally does justice to all the Bat-films transfer wise (yes, even the Nolan films aren’t done very well) then we’ll see. Until then, “I’ve got work to do.”

NOTE: I just picked up a copy of the film’s novelization, and will read through to see if there are any differences. So far every Batman novelization I’ve read has a multitude of material that was either glossed over or dropped altogether.

PS: What was Alfred thinking when he let you know who inside?!?!?!?!?

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Batman, Film Directors, Film Review, Tim Burton

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