Countdown to “The Dark Knight Rises”: Part 2 of 11 – Tim Burton’s “Batman”
If you missed it here is Part 1 of 11: Introduction to Batman “The Gift”
It’s arguable that 1999 was one of the greatest cinematic years in recent history (I certainly argue on that side of things). Directors were all in fine form. There were star-making debuts from first-timers Spike Jonze and Sam Mendes, with Being John Malkovich and American Beauty, respectively. There were auteurs continuing to define their style in Magnolia, Election, Rushmore and Fight Club, by Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson and David Fincher. There were films catapulting their helmers into another stratosphere with Three Kings (David O. Russell), The Matrix (The Wachowskis) and The Sixth Sense (SHame You cAn’t MAke ‘em aLl Award-wiNners ). Two guys I know you can recall brought us a Sundance hit which may or may not have scared you out of some money with The Blair Witch Project (Okay, you may not remember Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez). And one of the masters of the form left us with one last piece to forever ponder and admire (Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut).
Though it’s not listed above, nor should it be associated with the best of its release year, there was one film that dominated all movie and even non-movie-related discussion during the run up to its release. It had “60 Minutes” specials, a mother lode of merchandising and had fools camping out for weeks in line prior to its release. I remember thinking it’d be at least a month before I could stand to see it with a small enough crowd. That film was, of course, the mammoth disappointment, Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. During the rapid snowball-to-avalanche evolution of hype, my older brother informed me that the last movie to stretch so wide, to receive expectations so large, was 10 years prior, when Tim Burton directed Batman. One of that film’s much-touted elements was its acquisition of Prince to contribute to its soundtrack, an artist whose most famous song is titled “1999.” Coincidence? I think yes. But we’ll get to that later. Actually, let’s just get it out of the way now. Prince performed songs on the Batman soundtrack. That’s a fact. And that’s all I have to say about that. Moving on.
Given Burton’s most recent sittings in the director’s chair, which can only be described as “Burton-esque” (i.e. bizarre, strange, weird-as-all-get-out), it’s impossible to imagine the mind behind “Ed Wood” being handed the keys to DC Comics’ most popular character and one that would need to be reinvented after veering a tad askew during the 1960s. Heck, just take a look at what Burton planned on doing to Superman. However, it was no less risky back then as it would be now. The director had only two feature films under his belt (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice). The gamble only made smaller by the fact that comic book-based films were nowhere near as prevalent back then as they are today and there was perhaps a little more free reign in creating an aesthetic. On the flipside, the future of comic book movies ultimately lay in the man’s soon-to-be Scissorhands.
Being so young at the time, I wasn’t really aware of all the hyperbole surrounding the production and would never be able to compare Batman and The Phantom Menace, myself, but I was no less a victim to the hype machine. Already entrenched as a BFF (Batman Fan Forever), which I’d like to think was established last week, being older, wiser and more savvy brought me closer to my main man Bruce than ever before. I upgraded Batman action figures from a leg-squeezable, blue/gray-costumed Caped Crusader to a utility-belt utilizing, black-suited Dark Knight. Then came a flower-lapel-water-squirting Joker, a big-ass Batmobile and the crags of the Batcave.
Apparently the toys were supposed to satiate my appetite. I fabricated my own Batman film day after day, as I wasn’t allowed to see the movie at that point. The MPAA wielded as much power over my parents as an oasis to a deserted islander. Due to this, I actually have no idea when I saw the movie in full for the first time. It certainly wasn’t in theaters. And in 1989, it appears I was the only one, as it was the top grosser of the year.
Watching the film recently, I was surprised it didn’t begin with an origin story. I seem to recall this being odd the last time I watched it, too. The movie opens following a young son and his two parents as they venture about the streets of Gotham looking for a cab. It’s a mirror of what the Bruce Wayne-to-Batman origin story encompasses, but that thought is immediately thrown off by a seemingly dimwitted Dad. This certainly can’t be Thomas Wayne. And it’s not. This scene introduces us to the thugs of the city preying on its inhabitants, and in turn bringing out the Bat.
The cold gunning down of Bruce’s mother and father is saved for a flashback later in the film. Instead, the story of how Joker came to be is the one the film is more concerned with telling. Batman is almost a secondary character in his own movie as Jack Nicholson was the bigger star and the man who would be Joker gets top billing.
As Bruce’s flashback to the turning point in his youth shows, both his and Jack Napier’s lives would be inextricably linked. Napier is responsible for rearranging the existence of a young heir from a boy to a symbol of justice. Batman is an accidental immersion of chemicals away from transforming a right-hand Mafioso into a cackling madman hell-bent on destroying the city not big enough for the both of them. Though there are other characters surrounding the film – including Kim Basinger’s photojournalist, Vicki Vale, Robert Whul’s reporter, Andrew Knox, and Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, a man who sadly never materialized into Two-Face in Burton’s world – this is purely a Batman versus Joker story.
It’s interesting to recall the outcry amongst fandom when Health Ledger was announced to be playing the Joker role in The Dark Knight. Part of the whining was due to disbelief that Ledger had the acting chops to pull off the role. The other part was, “He’ll never be as good as Nicholson.” Truckloads of crow have been digested by the masses since Chris Nolan’s 2008 sequel. It’s been suggested that the performances are diametrically different, but though I prefer the latter depiction and the latter film, I’d argue that Nicholson’s joker is more similar than typically accepted.
Undoubtedly, one of the more beloved moments of The Dark Knight was the “pencil trick” scene. Joker meets with some of the Gotham crime syndicate and asserts his dominance and dementia with the first person foolish enough to challenge him, by banging a pencil through his brain. This scene echoes one from Batman when Nicholson’s Joker convenes with his former cohorts, taking control of the situation with a clownish hand-buzzer that shocks one of them into the afterlife.
Nicholson’s Joker may be a bit more fun-loving and Ledger’s more dark, as evidenced during their takeover of Gotham’s airwaves. Burton’s Joker makes faux cosmetics commercials with sunny backgrounds and actors with smiles plastered on their faces, while Nolan’s makes a hostage-style video apropos of the Taliban. However, they’re very much two sides of the same coin (a phrase I’ll do my best not to dig up when getting to Two-Face, later in this series).
On the opposite end of the good/evil spectrum lies Bruce Wayne as played by Michael Keaton. The initial quadrilogy of Batman films in the 90s turned whoever was set to play Batman into a revolving door joke. Keaton has a leg up over the others in that he was the only one to play the character twice, but I still think he might be my favorite Wayne on film. A lot of that has to do with Keaton’s persona that interests me, but he carries himself with an assertive elegance I find to be fitting for the character.
Christian Bale has the billionaire playboy trait down pat after warming up in American Psycho and his Wayne is far more psychologically damaged than Keaton’s. He’s also had more than his fair share of tragedies over and above the death of his parents. Keaton brings very little of that disrupted mental makeup to Batman. In fact, the scenes in which I feel Bale and he share a similar space is when they’re in full daddy-mack mode. Bale escorts two dressed-to-impress ingénue’s to his fundraising party in The Dark Knight and Keaton throws a soiree of his own while managing to steal the breath from Vicki Vale as she and Knox admire Wayne’s collection of artifacts and ability to make extra cases of champagne available to his already-hammered guests. These men embody a character in complete control of his surroundings even at full exposure to the outside world, as opposed to needing to hide behind the shroud of a cape-and-cowl-concealed identity.
As much as I admire the lead performances in Batman, the film serves little purpose other than a wad of clay to be molded in future iterations. Its existence may have been necessary in order to arrive at our current state of comic book saturation, but the stories in the world have been improved upon tenfold since and there’s not much reason to revisit a half-painted sketch when full masterpieces are available. But hey, at least it wasn’t The Phantom Menace.
Next week: See how Burton tops his first incarnation with a second helping in Batman Returns.