Tim Burton’s generally well-regarded 1989 Batman, starring Jack Nicholson as the Joker and Michael Keaton as Batman (in that order), set the stage for a franchise that ran four films, with three Batmans and two directors, before collapsing under its own weight. Unquestionably, the series degenerated with each installment before arriving at the abomination that is Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin — yet the seeds of its demise were sown in the very first film.
Critics adored Batman for its eccentric, Burtonesque take on a pop-culture icon, for its moody, noirish gothic art-deco Gotham City, and of course for Nicholson’s showy performance. Comic-book fans, meanwhile, appreciated the film for rescuing the Dark Knight from the over-the-top camp comedy of the 1960s series and making him suitably dark and brooding.
For all that, though, the film’s flaws are hard to overlook. The story is a mess. To start with, the love affair of Bruce Wayne (Keaton) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) has no substance or emotional resonance. Bruce and faithful butler Alfred (Michael Gough) are constantly reminding one another how “special” Vicki supposedly is, though she’s done little to show it, unless you count sleeping with Bruce after their awkward first date. (Peter Parker and Mary Jane’s romance in the original
Scenes and lines of dialogue make no sense. Take the bit where Bruce Wayne, protected only by a small metal tray under his shirt, gets jiggy with the gun-wielding Joker when the latter bursts in on Vicki’s apartment. Forget the absurdity of relying on a book-sized tray as a bulletproof vest — what’s the point of Bruce’s actions? What’s he trying to accomplish?
What’s the point of the Joker’s “Who do you trust?” PR campaign against Batman, as if the two of them were running for mayor? This theme makes sense when it recurs in the Burton-directed sequel, Batman Returns, where the Penguin (Danny DeVito) really is running for mayor, but in the original it feels like a private issue of Burton’s that’s been imposed on the story for no reason. (That the Joker is crazy is not a sufficient explanation. As depicted in this film, the Joker is an “artist”; he may be bizarre and sociopathic, but his actions are never simply irrational or pointless.)
Then there are sloppy little things. When Bruce asks Vicki on their first date whether she had “any trouble finding the place,” it’s meant to be funny because Wayne Manor is presumably a major Gotham landmark — but the movie seems to have forgotten that Vicki was just at his place for the big cocktail party. Then there’s the bit in the newsroom with Vicki and reporter Knox (Robert Wuhl) musing about who Bruce Wayne really is, how there’s “nothing in his file… no photos, no history, nothing.” Hello? Nothing on Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy? That’s like saying they have nothing on Donald Trump or Paris Hilton.
Then there’s the depiction of Batman himself, starting with the casting of Keaton, hardly anyone’s idea of an action hero. Years later, when the director was briefly attached to the long-delayed Superman movie project now in development by Bryan Singer (
An even bigger problem, perhaps, is that Keaton makes hardly any impression in the role, in or out of the mask. Keaton lets his arched eyebrows act for him, and while it may be said that they give a great performance, there’s only so much an eyebrow can do.
As Bruce Wayne, rather than coming off either intense and driven or charming and frivolous, Keaton seems merely distracted, socially stiff and awkward. As Batman, he seems — no, he is stiff and awkward, literally — less a lithe super hero than a toy action figure with a limited range of motion. When Batman clobbers bad guys in one swift move, it’s not because he’s just that bad, it’s because he can’t do two moves. The effect is never more ridiculous than when he has to look around; since he can’t turn his neck, he’s left swiveling his whole body, or leaning back to look up. Yeah, that’s going to strike fear into the hearts of criminals everywhere.
Who is Batman, anyway? In the opening sequence, we see a couple with a young boy wandering lost in Gotham’s mean streets, stumbling at last into a dangerous alley where a couple of thugs rob them at gunpoint. The resonances between this incident and the seminal event in young Bruce Wayne’s life, emphasized later in the film by a flashback to the murder of Dr. and Mrs. Wayne, are too striking to be ignored. Yet when Batman shows up, what does he do? Kicks one of the thugs through a door and menaces the other one a bit, telling him to warn his criminal friends about their new enemy. Does he recover the stolen property and return it to its owners? Does he see to their safety in any way? Is this helpless family any better off than the Waynes were when there was no Batman looking over Gotham? If the movie doesn’t care, why should we?
Still more troubling is this Dark Knight’s willingness to kill, as when Batman sends the Batmobile into the factory manufacturing the Joker’s killer cosmetics line to firebomb the place, giving the thugs inside no opportunity to escape. In the climax, Batman tries to kill the Joker, then finally does kill him.
Finally, there’s Nicholson’s celebrated performance as the Joker. Critics of the film have observed archly that it ought to have been called Joker rather than Batman; and certainly Nicholson, also giving a great eyebrow performance while otherwise doing what he can with his cheeks wired back in a perpetual grimace, blows Keaton off the screen.
But even Nicholson’s performance doesn’t really work, at least not until the final act. It’s a fine Jack Nicholson performance, commanding and dangerous, but even granting the legitimacy of different takes on a fictional character, for the most part Nicholson doesn’t seem to understand the Joker any more than Keaton understands Batman.
The Joker, whoever he may be, isn’t surly and quietly menacing like this fellow. He’s more manic and wild-eyed, and while (depending on the depiction) he may or may not be actually be funny, certainly he thinks everything is a riot, whereas Nicholson’s Joker doesn’t really seem to have much of a funnybone. Only in the climax, in a cathedral belfry showdown reminiscent of the climax of Metropolis, does Nicholson seem finally to grow into the character — just in time for him to be killed off.
It’s not a complete waste of time. Burton does pull off some striking images, such as the closeups of Batman donning his battle gear, and the closing shot of Batman silhouetted against the Gotham skyline with the Bat-signal in the distance. And Gotham itself, all seamy, steamy alleys and decrepit concrete canyons, is a triumph of art direction. But when the Joker shoots down the Batplane with an unimpressive-looking handgun with a telescoping barrel, or when some anonymous thug kicks Batman around for several minutes in the cathedral climax, it’s hard not to be frustrated with the film.
Batman’s best conceit is the notion that the Joker, the arch-enemy that Batman helped to create, also happens to be the thug who murdered Bruce’s parents, thus helping to create Batman. While some may object to this massive coincidence, it has undeniable poetic appeal, and works in a fairy-tale sort of way.
Even so, I’m glad that Christopher Nolan chose to ignore Batman and its sequels in Batman Begins, a film that at last “gets” the soul of the Dark Knight. Indeed, there’s a real sense in which Batman truly does begin with Nolan’s film, and that it is not merely the best Batman film to date, but the only one.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.