Monday, January 04, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman, 1989

It is hard to imagine now with just how much eagerness and trepidation fans were looking forward to Tim Burton's 1989 feature adaptation of "Batman."

You have to understand, most fans of Batman had never, ever seen the character they loved on screen. The last live-action version had been the Adam West Batman from the 1960's, a campy take on the character inspired by the 1940's serials and the comics of the 50's and early 60's. Since that series had been cancelled, Batman had appeared with Robin on The New Scooby Doo Movies a couple of times, been a regular player (with Robin) on Super Friends, had another brief animated series with Robin (voiced by Adam West and Burt Ward) from Filmation Studios, and appeared on a couple of live-action TV specials with Robin, played by Adam West and Burt Ward.

But the Batman younger fans had been reading about for almost two decades was a different, darker character. Robin had been sent off to college in 1969, and since then, Batman had been adventuring solo in his own books, or with other adult heroes in his team-up books. The Batman being portrayed on television in the 70's and 80's was an older, obsolete Batman; hell, for the mid-70's Filmation series, they even reached back to 50's comics to pluck Bat-Mite from obscurity for comic relief.

And especially since Frank Miller had virtually rebooted the character with his miniseries, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, fans had been anxious to see Batman "done right."

So when a screenplay by a guy named Sam Hamm started making the rounds among fans in the mid-80's, people got excited. Hamm's screenplay was a darker, noirish take on the character, heavily influenced by Miller's first miniseries as well as Miller's Batman: Year One storyline. Hamm portrayed a dark Gotham of crime and corruption, with the Joker portrayed as the psycho killer he was originally, and not the kid-friendly Clown Prince of Crime he later morphed into.

So people were jazzed by Hamm's screenplay. But on the other hand, Hollywood was known for taking beloved characters and fucking them up royally. And it didn't make people any more confident when they learned that the director was the guy who did "Beetlejuice," and before that, a movie starring this guy:

Not only that, but the director had cast Michael Keaton as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Michael Keaton was best known for his starring roles as Beetlejuice and Mr. Mom. "Oh no," we said over our new comics every week, "they're going to do Batman as a comedy again."

But the studio insisted that this Batman would be played straight, and pointed at Keaton's role as a hockey player in the romantic comedy "Touch and Go" as proof that he could handle the physicality, and at his dramatic role in "Clean and Sober" as proof that he had the dramatic chops the role needed. Plus, hadn't Moonlighting funnyman Bruce Willis just stunned everyone with his amazing breakout turn as an action hero in "Die Hard?"

And then we heard that the Joker would be played by this guy...

And we got jazzed again. "How perfect," we thought.

And when the trailer came out, showing us the dark costume bursting in through a skylight and the Batmobile with freaking machine guns on it and Keaton growling, "I'm Batman," we were sold.

And then the movie came out and did insanely huge business, so Warner's gamble payed off. But I have to admit, I was disappointed with the movie at the time, and it hasn't aged all that well.

It starts well, though. The movie grabbed us fans by the balls with the very first shots of Gotham City. I mean, to go from that 60's TV series backlot to this:

You could hear the collective "whoa" from the audience. A family of tourists is leaving the theater and trying to find their way back to the hotel. Dad leads them through an alley, where they are robbed by a couple of gunmen. Mom screams, and up on a tall building, a dark figure in a cape is listening.

As the thugs count their loot, they discuss rumors of a giant bat that has supposedly killed some of their fellow street criminals. As one of the thugs dismisses the rumors as mere hearsay, we see this behind him:

Suddenly, they are attacked by The Bat! They pull out guns and shoot the apparition. He falls, but immediately gets back up and kicks one of them through a door. He trips up the other one with a rope attached to a bat-shaped boomerang, then dangles the thug over the edge of the roof. "Who are you?" the thug cries.

"I'm Batman." Then he jumps off the roof and disappears.

In only a few minutes, we've established that this is a darker, more dangerous world, and a darker, more dangerous Batman living in it. And long-time comics readers sighed in relief. This was Batman done right.

And as ridiculous as the movie got later, that first impression was strong enough, along with a succession of visually breathtaking moments, to change the equations on everything you ever thought about Batman movies.

Because before the movie was released, it was sometimes hard to imagine a movie without any of the basic touchstones from the 1960's series. Even if they got rid of the comedy and the main actors, would they also replace the perfect Batmobile with something lame? Would they replace the theme song? And the answers, of course, were yes and yes, and we ended up not missing them. The new Batmobile was just as cool in its own way as the Barris-customized 60's version...

Like a jet engine with tires bolted on. And Danny Elfman's bombastic, martial score was perfect for the movie's darker tone, with no hint of the jazzy guitar theme from TV.

In fact, pretty much the only thing that carried over from the 60's TV version was this:

So the plotline in a nutshell:

Reporter Alex Knox and photographer Vicki Vale (played by Robert Wuhl and Kim Basinger) team up to investigate the mysterious reports of the Batman.

During their investigation, they meet millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton). Vicki then goes on a date with Bruce and sleeps with him that same night (Batman got busy!), but the next day, he lies and tells her he's too busy to see her again.

Meanwhile, mob enforcer Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) has been sleeping with his boss's wife or mistress or somebody. Napier is a vain and violent man...

Who is sent by Boss Grissom (Jack Palance) to eliminate incriminating evidence at the offices of Axis Chemical, one of Grissom's front companies. What Napier doesn't know is that Grissom has been tipped off to Napier's cheatin' ways by corrupt cop Eckhardt...

Recognize him? Let's try it with a different hat:

Yes, it's Porkins (William Hootkins). Anyway, the chemical plant job is a set-up planned by Grissom to get Napier killed. Both the cops and Batman show up at the chemical factory and there's a big set-to. Napier is shot through the face (cheek to cheek) by a ricocheting bullet, then falls into a vat of chemicals. Everyone assumes he's dead. But between the wound and the chemicals and the botched surgery by a back-alley butcher, Napier ends up with this familiar visage:

Napier, now the Joker, kills off Grissom and the other crime bosses in town to consolidate his power. Then as he descends into madness, he begins a reign of terror. He contaminates cosmetics with a special nerve toxin that causes people to die with their facial muscles drawn into a tight smile (in the movie, it's called Smilex). Batman manages to foil that plot, rescuing Vicki Vale in the process.

Eventually, Bruce and Vicki fall in love, and she discovers the secret of his dual identities. But before they can enter their new relationship, Batman must stop the Joker from poisoning the entire city at a 200th anniversary gala.

Although there are a lot of familiar names and faces in the film, the real star of "Batman" was a guy moviegoing audiences had never heard of: Anton Furst. He was the art director who designed the retro, grit-rust-and-rivets look of Gotham City, as well as the new Batmobile and Batplane, which gave fans a little wet spot in their pants when this image appeared on screen:

Along with costume designer Bob Ringwood and director of photography Roger Pratt, who gave us dramatic images of Batman that almost look as if Alex Ross painted them.

Of course, it helps that the suit is sculpted rather than sewn, so for the first time on screen, you see a comic book character displaying the same extreme hypermuscularity you see on the comics pages.

There were also scenes that seemed drawn directly from the comics themselves, such as this shot of falling pearls during Bruce's flashback to his parents' deaths...

That is an homage, shall we say, to this moment from Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

BTW, that's a brilliant piece of silent storytelling there by Miller, since it's obvious that the reason the string of pearls breaks is the recoil of the pistol blowing Mom's head off. And the idea that Bruce would fixate on the memory of the pearls rather than the sight of his mother's head coming apart... It feels just right.

So with all this neat stuff in the movie, what's not to like?

Well, basically, once you get past the opening 15 minutes or so, the progressively sillier tone and the performances. Oh, most especially the performances.

But we'll talk more about that next week.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Furst's first movie (ha!) was a little indie brit film called "The Company of Wolves", Neil Jordan's first movie as well. A fabulous little werewolf movie that I have had lying around on Blu-Ray until I can talk friends into watching it.