Monday, January 11, 2010

Movie Monday - Batman, 1989 Part Two

So last week, I discussed the good aspects of Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman." But I also mentioned that the film hadn't aged well, and that I had never liked it as much as some of my peers had.

So what didn't I like?

I didn't like the way the film veered into cartoonish comedy as we got further into the Joker's story. In the process of preparing this recap, I finally hunted down the Sam Hamm screenplay that had the fanboys raving and drooling before the movie came out. And frankly, I can see why they didn't make the film as written. The script gets the Joker as crazed madman down fairly pat, but doesn't include enough "joke" in the Joker. Plus, the plot gets a bit too convoluted in the last third.

So I'm guessing that the changes made between the Hamm screenplay and the novelization (which was adapted by Craig Shaw Gardner from the screenplay) are due to Warren Skaaren's rewrite, which improves on the Hamm draft in several ways--it streamlines the narrative, gives Batman a more central role in creating the Joker, and simplifies the Joker's final gambit while making it more Joker-y. On the other hand, it eliminates Robin and makes Joker the killer of Batman's parents, which I don't love it for.

But when I read the novelization (before I saw the movie) I was excited, because it seemed to have just the right balance of humor and menace in the Joker character. He was a psycho, but he was a funny psycho. Yet behind that humor was definite menace.

But Tim Burton seemed determined to undercut that. For instance, the scene where Joker confronts Grissom right after his transformation starts out with the noir tone that the screenplay and novel had in common: Jack Napier, in shadow, confronts Boss Grissom about setting him up. Grissom thinks to kill Jack, but Napier beats him to the punch, pulling a pistol before Grissom can reach his. Then we get the big Joker reveal, and at that moment, we are seeing the best live-action Batman villain to date. Then Joker shoots Grissom, and shoots him again, and behind the back, and over the shoulder, and the music changes from menacing to this Blue Danube-y waltz that sounds like something you'd hear during a trapeze act at the circus, and the entire dramatic impact of the scene is gone.

And Burton does this over and over again. Vicki Vale survives a gas attack at the Flugelheim Museum due to a Joker-supplied gas mask, then the door opens and in walks the Joker along with several thugs. One hits a button on a boom box, and suddenly, it's a musical...

With the Joker gang dancing along to one of the Prince tunes that comprised the other soundtrack (Warners released two soundtracks for the movie: one of Danny Elfman's orchestral score, and one of Prince's songs "inspired" by the movie).

The big climax, where the Joker shoots down Batman's high-tech Batplane with a looooong-barrelled pistol he pulls from his pants was another moment that totally undercut the dramatic tension of the scene.

None of this was helped by a series of inept or subpar performances. Robert Wuhl plays Allie Knox as the worst reporter ever, asking jokey questions in interviews designed more to show the other reporters how clever he is, rather than elicit actual information (for instance, after Grissom's death, another crime boss holds a press conference to announce that Grissom left him all his business interests--Knox's question: "He must have really liked you. Did you two do a lot of time together as kids or what?")

Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale is no better. Supposedly a smart, professional photographer recently returned from a combat zone (so good, in fact, that she gets credited on the cover of Time magazine--"Pics by Vicki Vale"), Basinger's Vale comes across as a total ditz. The Basinger Actor's Toolbox includes wearing glasses in scenes where you are supposed to be smart, wearing short skirts in scenes where you are supposed to be sexy (she's very good at this one, admittedly), and biting your lip to indicate thought.

Michael Keaton similarly portrays Bruce Wayne as an absent-minded bumbler, perpetually confused and socially inept.He takes Bruce Wayne through an amazing range of emotions, from smitten with lust...

to blinded by grief and rage.

Can you see a real difference between those two scenes? He just looks befuddled in both. Granted, the Sam Hamm screenplay included a lot of over-hyped language in the latter scene:

A moment later, it's all over but the screaming. VICKI emerges from the crowd and finds BRUCE slumped against the wall, nearly catatonic. She moves to touch him.
As if by reflex he reaches out and GRABS HER BY THE ARMS -- with a grip so strong it could crush bone. She GASPS, looks up -- and sees, in his traumatized EYES, a look so raw, so desperate, that it virtually defies comprehension.
Even the best actor would be hard pressed to do justice to that sort of overheated prose. But Keaton doesn't even seem to try. Plus he uses the same trick as Basinger, donning glasses in his "smart" scenes to make himself seem thoughtful. And all he has to do as Batman is stand still and let the costume cast dramatic shadows.

Which was another thing I didn't like about the movie. In the comics, Batman was a guy who had become obsessed with avenging the wrong done to his parents, so he had trained himself to the peak of mental and physical perfection. But in the movie, he's just this rich guy who has bought himself some superpowers. He has a suit of specially sculpted body armor, a ton of gadgets on his belt for every possible situation, a super car, a super airplane.

And while I kind of like the concept of Batsuit as body armor (although it makes Batman so immobile that he literally has to bend back at the waist to look up)...

I'm not a huge fan of the influence it had on other superhero adaptations. For instance, in The Flash TV series, he was given the same type of heavy, sculpted, virtually immobile body armor even though he's supposed to be a lithe runner.

Similarly, in the many excellent Batman cartoons, he often becomes too dependent on having the right gadget on hand at all times. I just watched "Superman/Batman: Public Enemies," and about halfway through, as Batman hit one villain with a handful of exploding batarangs followed by a bunch of pellet bombs, it struck me that he had been fighting a succession of villains for a good percentage of the film's running time, but seemed to show no sign of running low on whatever gadgets he needed, let alone running out. And that portrayal seems to originate from this movie's version of Batman, where instead of using an all-purpose batrope and batarang, he has a bunch of specialized winch guns for all sorts of situations. Batman always had gadgets, but never this many or this specific.

Likewise, although the Batmobile looks wicked cool in this movie, the 20-foot-long auto was unwieldy to drive, resulting in one of the s-l-o-w-e-s-t car chases ever put on film. It's not as noticeable on first viewing, but on repeat viewing, you realize that the Batmobile never gets above 30-35 miles per hour during the big chase against the cops and the Joker's goons. Not impressive for a jet engine on wheels. Batman would have done better to keep the crappy Mercury.

Worst of all, though (for me, anyway) was the miscasting of the Joker. Yeah, you read that right. Look, I think Jack Nicholson could have made a really good Joker if he had taken the role around the same time as he did "The Shining." Nicholson showed in that film that he could portray a convincingly homicidal psycho who was both menacing and funny at the same time. But by the time "Batman" rolled around, Nicholson seems to have gotten lazy. With every big scene, Nicholson seems to make a dramatic choice I disagree with, opting instead to play off the wacky Nicholson persona. He looks like he had great fun making the picture. I just wish I had nearly as much fun watching it.

Next week: Catwoman and Penguin

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