Thursday, April 7, 2011
Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Jack Palance, Michael Gough
By Alan Bacchus
It was a monumental summer of 1989, the summer of Batman. As an impressionable 15-year-old, I got sucked into the tremendous and then innovative marketing push for this film. Warner Bros. somehow made this film feel like the most important thing in the world – a monumental shift in how we see comic books and superheroes on film. Before anyone even saw it, we were compelled to it. Looking back, the film is not that great. Only in the context of the history of comic book adaptations, Tim Burton’s career and the Hollywood marketing techniques does the film resonate soundly as a milestone in cinema.
In 1989, to the masses, Batman was synonymous with the kitschy satirical Adam West TV series from the 1960s. The only other legitimate comic book adaptation as a feature film was the Superman series, which in 1979 started out with a strong sense of literary credibility, but over the course of its sequels devolved into juvenile parody. Remember, 1989 was long before the Internet, so information was sparse. However, it was made clear by Warner Bros. that this wasn't Adam West’s Batman, but a leaner darker, brooding caped crusader. The teaser campaigns said it all. First, we saw only the ultra cool black and gold logo and then the teaser trailer, which featured starkly under-lit noirish-style visuals of a superhero we hardly see, instead covered in shadow and highlights.
The buzz manufactured on this picture was palpable, and to this 15-year-old it didn’t disappoint. Before I could understand the elements of cinema, I knew Danny Elfman’s score was different than anything we’d heard before, and Tim Burton’s vision was dark but wholly playful, ironic and fun. Nicholson was over-the-top crazy, and Michael Keaton was surprisingly thoughtful, charming and strong as a superhero.
Now, in 2011, we’ve been through a four-film string of sequels since this first Batman film, plus Warner Bros. is just about to begin production on the third chapter of the reboot. The success of Batman helped birth other DC and Marvel stories onto film, including another two Superman reboots, four X-Men films and almost every other recognizable superhero property.
Now, unfortunately, Tim Burton’s Batman seems like a relic, like the aging old champion of former glory. Some parts of the film still feel inspired and fresh. The opening credits, for instance, are driven by Elfman’s aggressive opening cue (which sounds so close to The Simpsons theme), and all of Elfman's music for that matter. The same goes for the Bob Ringwood-designed Batman costume, which has never been improved upon, even 5 or 6 pictures later. Michael Keaton is still better under the cowl than Kilmer, Clooney or Christian Bale.
But it’s also an awkward and stagey film. The action set pieces feel as heavy and inelegant as the gigantic pimpmobile Batman drives. And the attempts at injecting the mythic pathos of the Batman origin story into the Joker’s transition never gets under the surface of the camp. Burton’s retro-campy playfulness still feels original and distinct to Burton, but it certainly doesn’t generate any laughs. If we got the feeling of any kind of real tension in the Joker’s antics, his jokes might have effectively been disarming to the danger, but it’s just too goofy to take seriously.
And so my opinion of the film seems to be coloured by a) my perception of it as a teenager and b) the subsequent films and visions of other filmmakers on similar subject matter. Though it was a career leap into the superstrata for Burton, I suspect it’s as difficult to watch for him as it was disappointing for me.