Film

Published on July 23rd, 2014 | by Greg Payne

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Batman 1989 – A Relic From A Bygone Era

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Apologies, but I’ve got to kick this off with an annoying bit of autobiography.

Ottawa, May 1989. A week or so before final exams, myself and pile of friends hit the Place de Ville Cinemas for the late show, opening night, of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  This late Spring evening was one of those moments in time that, if you’re lucky, you have a handful of in your young life: a couple of years before any real adult responsibility kicks in, hanging with buds under a warm springtime sky outside a movie theatre, Lucasfilm cocking the cinematic slingshot to launch two hours of joyfully silly escapism down your throat…what could be more perfect?  We waited through the sold out first show and piled into the packed house for the second. At long last, the lights went down and the trailers began. The Warner Brothers logo filled the screen and, oh yeah, there’s a Batman movie coming out this summer, right? By the guy who made the Pee-Wee Herman movie? And Batman’s played by Beetlejuice? Uh-huh.

Any skeptical joking died handily in our throats over the next minute and a half. Our popcorn- and caffeine- addled brains were tied in knots by the nightmarishly surreal model shots of Gotham City, a genuinely dangerous-looking Jack Nicholson in whiteface hissing from expressionist shadows, and a badass hero in ink-black armour rather than flab-emphasizing grey spandex. And then there’s that shot: the Batplane swooping up into the sky and just for a second, pausing in front of the full moon. Forget about hearing a pin drop. You could hear our collective hearts skip a beat. Then came the explosion of cheers and screams and anticipation as the plane drops back down into the cloud cover again and you know the rest of the story: Tim Burton’s Batman owned the summer.

Historically speaking, the final summer of the eighties was a watershed moment in film history, but for reasons that have little to do with the art of cinema.  1989 was the year that the box office became a star unto itself, with opening weekend grosses making front page headlines and star salaries ($60 million+ for Nicholson when the last body had dropped) becoming a mainstream talking point. Recovering from the pains of the previous summer’s Writer’s Guild strike, week after week brought blockbusters to the cinema, and genuinely entertaining and deserving ones, to boot:  besides Batman 1 and Indy 3, there was Lethal Weapon 2, Honey I Shrunk The Kids and Ghostbusters 2. Unlikely dramas like Dead Poets Society and comedies such as When Harry Met Sally… and Parenthood sailed past the $100 million mark in America. Not everything was a huge hit—it was also the summer of the Star Trek movie that nobody liked and the James Bond franchise turning into a big pile of shite—but even those duds ultimately made some bank. And hovering it over it all was The Logo. On posters and t-shirts and the album by the Artist Still Known That Year As Prince, I’m Pretty Sure and later on a videocassette that shattered records of its own sort, was that metallic bat that negated the need for even a printed title.

Twenty-five years is a lifetime in terms of pop culture. And to settle in for the purposes of this Batman retrospective with a bowl of popcorn and a disc of the 1989 incarnation is to hit the accelerator on the cultural wayback machine.  Does it hold up? Does the Burton film add anything to the Caped Crusader’s mythos? And most importantly in 2014, as we take a breather between the winding down of the celebrated Christopher Nolan trilogy and the revving up of yet another imminent reboot when DC Comics and Warner Brothers attempt to pull off their own franchise crossover tentpole project…is it possible to understand how the Batman blockbuster of a quarter century ago was as huge as it was?

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No. No it isn’t. Thanks folks! See you next month! Sigh. Okay, let’s give this a proper go.

As the disc spun and the playful comedy stylings of Robert Wuhl landed with their traditional dead possum thud, and Pat Hingle let his jowls do all his emoting, and Jack Palance demonstrated why his Oscar win two years later had to have been sheer “gonna die soon so we better” sentiment…sorry, where was I? Right. As the story unfolded, I was feeling a curious lack of nostalgia. Batman may have been the biggest movie of 1989, but in many ways it doesn’t feel of the moment, and certainly didn’t bring me back to my teenage years. Still, it’s a fascinating enterprise: for all its failings, and despite how it wears its influences on its sleeve, the film is unlike anything else in the Hollywood mainstream in the late eighties.  Batman falls in the middle of the handful of movies that earned Burton the coveted director’s “-esque” suffix right out of the gate.  A hack couldn’t have made a film that’s this much of a mess; it’s a sign of an odd sort of genius, I’m convinced, to create a work of art so incredibly muddled and confused that still managed to strike a chord in the zeitgeist the way Batman did. Burton is by no means a hack, but rather a filmmaker with possibly the most inwardly-looking aesthetic of any mainstream Hollywood director.

What Burton sees when he looks inward, however, is his biggest problem. As a southern Californian goth kid growing up on Hammer horror and Ralph Steadman cartoons in the sunny wasteland of Burbank, Burton has always identified with the freak and the outsider, a theme that runs through his entire filmography. Attached to a personal or quirky story (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands or what to my mind is his masterpiece, Ed Wood) he delivers a touching tribute to the misunderstood freak inside us all. Wedged unnaturally into big budget popcorn fare like his two Batman films, this tendency butts up against the needs of mainstream genre and turns the outsider into a garish grotesque, on which the camera can’t help but linger. In the comics, the over-the-top nature of Batman’s nemeses is a storytelling technique fitting with the canvas of the comics world; in Burton’s films it’s the raison d’être. To sit through a recent catastrophic kah-beuhm of his like Dark Shadows is to see the aesthetic reach the point where it simply ceases to work, and turns into a greasepainted Hot Topic commercial.

In Batman, more than any other film of his (except for maybe Batman Returns) Burton’s obsession with self-defined grotesquery is ultimately a hollow one. Batman and the Joker are two sides of the same coin in the movie not because psychology backs it up, but because of plot machinations and, I suppose, because the dialogue spells it out for us. Truth be told, though, the yin/yang notion holds no water in this film. Batman’s a blank, given no more motivation in his crime fighting (it’s barely passionate enough to be called a crusade) than the origin story that was laid out in a whole two pages back in his first comic appearance. At the other end of the spectrum is a villain who takes over a crime syndicate and does nothing with it for profit, just uses the seemingly infinite resources to clown around like a twat on a big scale while incidentally killing civilians in a perverse act of performance art.

Can we talk about that for a second? How is it that the character of a 40’s styled mob enforcer seems to harbour the temperament of a frustrated artist? It’s one of the script’s odder conceits, and one that took on a chilling undertone as I watched it in 2014 when I hit the scene in which the Joker transforms his moll mistress (barely played by Jerry Hall) into a masked canvas for his artistic experiments. When the mask comes off and we see that his idea of body art is scarring her face with acid…the film at that point takes a horrific turn from which it never really recovers for me. The Nolan films addressed the war on terror in metaphorical ways both subtle and sledgehammer, but Batman 1989 gave its villain the methodology of the Taliban.

Bringing up the Joker made me realize as I was writing this that almost ten paragraphs in, I haven’t even mentioned the ostensible stars of the film. It’s certainly easy for at least one of them to slip under the radar: standard criticism of the Burton Batmans is that an internalizing Michael Keaton was overshadowed by flamboyant co-stars in both outings. Which is a meme that holds some value, I suppose, but can hardly be laid at Keaton’s feet, yoked as he is with a wardrobe department that dresses him as the most generically modern well-to-do man in Gotham City (he also sports the only blue jeans and sweater combo in the film at one point which practically seems like an anachronistic oversight) while attiring every background extra like they’re in a regional theatre production of Guys and Dolls, as well as a script that delves no deeper than the dime-store psychology mentioned above. Coming hot on the heels of not only Beetlejuice, in which Burton let the actor unleash a performance of unhindered rampaging id, but also 1988’s Clean & Sober, the double whammy of which won him the National Society of Film Critics’ award for best actor, you can almost sense him reeling it in for virtually every scene.

Of course, even the Dick Tracy-esque caricatures of mafiosi who make up the rest of Gotham’s underworld seem subtle in comparison to the vampy, scene-gobbling lunacy that is Jack Nicholson’s Joker. If the leather ninja attire of the title character was meant to signify a clean break from the camp excesses of the 60’s TV show, the Joker is little more than Cesar Romero writ large in Dolby Sensurround. Even before his skin-bleaching acid bath, the then-two-time Oscar winner double-takes, sneers and takes a back seat to his eyebrows in expressing deep thoughts. In other words, a typical Jack Nicholson performance. Once the Clown Prince of Crime hits centre stage the movie becomes almost unbearably shrill and ugly, and barely gives us a respite for the remainder of the running time.

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How is it that a film that was so huge also be so entropic? The tumultuous attempts to bring Batman to the movies through the eighties, a tale too tangled for this piece, leave a complete jumble onscreen. City Hall, based in an edifice designed like Mussolini’s condominium side project, yells about how the city is in the grip of terror, but life seems pretty normal aside from nighttime muggings. The most wanted man in Gotham noisily kills a cop (a corrupt one, but nonetheless), right in front of the police commissioner, who stands there in a dead-eyed tableau, and the incident is never mentioned again. The Joker’s police file mentions that he has skill in chemistry…and how fortunate it is that he’s got a whole chemical plant to play with that handily supplies all the cosmetics sold in the city. And nobody figures out that’s where he’s based! The acid into which Napier plunges eats through his glove leather but not the cardboard of his playing cards. When the prop-makers don’t seem to have a current copy of the script and thus produce a fake Time magazine cover with Vicki Vale’s name spelled “Vicky” on it, it’s a warning sign that nobody’s in charge. Which for a film helmed by a director with one of the most identifiable and meticulous visual styles in Hollywood is utterly baffling.

So if the screenplay, which wasn’t even complete during shooting –the final act atop Gotham Cathedral was largely improvised, reportedly—isn’t the selling point, we’re left with the visuals. And here is where Batman shone in 1989. Burton took what we’ve come to accept as straightforward genre material and rather than playing it straight (a notion utterly foreign to the director, as even a cursory glance at his oeuvre makes abundantly clear) gave it a bizarre aesthetic twist that almost drags the movie into the realm of the art film.

Gotham City in the comics has always been portrayed by drawing on the look and feel of film noir. Even in the forties, the city was portrayed as a darker twin of sunny Metropolis. It’s a city of nearly perpetual night, whose heroes have a seedier, more dangerous sense of self. Skyscrapers may shoot heavenward, but the streets below are all dark alleys, burned-out streetlights and neighborhoods in which you wouldn’t want to walk at night. Two of its most notable architectural features are a mansion in which (as far as the public is concerned) a brooding orphaned billionaire sits in the dark and seethes at life’s injustices, and an asylum for the criminally insane whose fortress walls and gothic spires only hint at the mediaeval nightmares contained within. During the comics’ “No Man’s Land” arc of the 90’s, in which Gotham was cut off from the rest of the United States by a devastating earthquake, it only made sense for the government to treat it like a conveniently lanced boil and to tell the burg that it was on its own.

Burton grabbed the basic underlying leitmotif of baseline Gotham, 40’s noir, and went to town with it. His imagined Gotham City was brought to life by production designer Anton Furst, whose work on this film made him one of the few in that field with a name known to even casual filmgoers. (Go ahead, name another production designer off the top of your head…this site has a film-literate readership but be honest, how much further than Ken Adam did you get? Thought so.) Burton and Furst’s Gotham City is an American—though still shot at Pinewood—retrofit on Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, a decaying metropolis in disarray populated by men in fedoras and trenchcoats, and women in veiled hats and pencil skirts, who drive massive American steel down narrow city streets between towering Art Deco edifices as rusty factories spew toxins into the sky.

Gotham is also, in this cinematic incarnation, a total fake. The film was shot almost entirely on soundstages and with model work, which at times adds a dreamlike (or nightmarelike, at times) quality to it that befits a work of comic book fantasy. Actors portraying iconic ideas of characters rather than characters proper belong in the enclosed ecosystem of a city of false building fronts, perspective model shots and the occasional intrusion of animation, Roger Rabbit-style, into three-dimensional reality. I find it bizarre that the imdb lists the instances of hand-drawn action in Batman as “goofs” when, for former animator Burton, they were an obvious personal stylistic choice, one of his few moments of subtlety among the bombast.

In his Boston Globe review at the time of its release, film critic Jay Carr wrote that Batman “isn’t a great action movie. It’s something better—a great city movie.” and he was right…sort of.  The star of the film is neither the brooding, repressed billionaire nor the tiresome psychotic clown, but rather the field of battle on which they meet. Burton and Furst’s Gotham was instantly iconic, a film location just as immersive and memorable as the aforementioned Brazil, Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles in Blade Runner and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In subsequent years perhaps only Alex Proyas’ Dark City took up the mantle as effectively, and the debt it owed to Batman was obvious.

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This is a retrospective, so the question must be asked: does the movie still hold up? As a Batman story, that’s barely an issue. It barely skims the surface of canon, and violates it (*kaff* Joe Chill *kaff*) in the name of half baked psychology, but as any superhero franchise movie released nowadays (Watchmen being a notable exception) is drawing on four or more decades of continuity, that wouldn’t be a fair charge to make.  As a superhero film specifically, it fares better, but primarily from a business standpoint, and even that’s best viewed through the prism of many years long gone.  Batman proved that comic books could be, in the right hands, a big box office success, but aside from the sequels, there wouldn’t be another proper hit until 1998’s Blade, nor a genuine blockbuster until 2000’s X-Men. Nowadays, in a year when a “them?” property like Guardians of the Galaxy is offered up as a major tentpole and gets a couple hundred million thrown at it in the attempt, it’s easy to forget that Batman arrived only two years after the other big DC icon staggered and wheezed to an ignominious cinematic end with Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.  For a while, Burton’s film was the lone success in the field, but a case can be made that it planted seeds within the culture of the Hollywood boardroom for the movie culture in which we now live, in which we get a capes-and-spandex epic gracing our screens every couple of months.

And what about as an actual movie? Well…I hate to pull the Nolan card one last time, but here it goes.  Look, it’s unfair to compare Batman to The Dark Knight on any number of aesthetic criteria the same way it would be unfair to compare, say,  Dr. No to Skyfall, or the old Incredible Hulk TV show to Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, because the very vocabulary of film has evolved so much in the interim. It’s not just CGI (which helps) or budget (which helps even more), or the sheer scope and scale that both of those factors allow. For better or for worse, we view film through different eyes now, because the overall technique of cinema no longer resembles what it did five years ago, ten years ago or a quarter century back.  To watch any older genre movie and compare it to a contemporary version of the same source material is not unlike watching some piece of trashy pop culture from an extremely foreign country. It still might work as a story, but something’s a little…off. To watch the two eras of Batman films side by side is to see two franchises that may as well not have been produced within the same medium.

Fifteen year-old me thought Batman was the shit. I’m jaded enough now to watch it and have a hard time getting past the nonsensical script (I mean, Alfred just brings Vicki into the Batcave…), the hyperstylized acting of virtually everyone onscreen and the toy cars that get flipped over when the Batwing crashes (I love Blu-ray, but it can make any vintage special effect laughable). I can’t help but compare Jokers: one a pudgy, howling middle-aged vamp, the other a scarred Johnny Rotten for the new millennium watching the world burn, and I know which one resonates both as a watchable movie character and as a new icon for urban terror.

But then again, I can remember that summer night when the trailer blew the collective minds of a theatre full of Ottawa teenagers…oddly, I have a harder time remembering seeing the actual movie. I remember the power of an iconic image, and the hold it can have over the imagination. I remember that bat: that heartstopping silhouette, whether beamed onto the clouds by a spotlight on top of Gotham Police headquarters or slowly filling the screen in lieu of a title card. That symbol of hope in the darkest hours of a city terrorized by crime and paralyzed by fear…not that, as middle-class Ottawa teens in the late eighties, we had even the vaguest concept of living in that kind of city.  That symbol that in that moment not only said that we, the teenaged audience, were all in it together but also that our imaginations would be set ablaze by a dark guardian looking out for us, which is the kind of moviegoing experience that lasts. Tim Burton’s Batman movie is both loved and hated by critics and fans, by comic aficionados and people who just like a big dumb blockbuster. Whether it works or not in 2014 is almost beside the point. In 1989 it was the both the weirdest and the biggest thing in the world, and that doesn’t happen nearly often enough.

Greg Payne

Greg Payne

An anglophile trapped out in the Commonwealth, Greg was born in Ottawa, did uni in Montreal, film school in L.A. and is now in Toronto. He idolizes Paul Weller, may actually favour Skins over Doctor Who, and studies Welsh for no easily understood reason. Recently drawn into the world of cosplay photography, you can find his page on Facebook at Very Frank Pictures.
Greg Payne
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