Batman Week Day 3: Michael Keaton in Batman (1989)

Batman 1989Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance, Jerry Hall, Tracey Walter, William Hootkins

Plot: As a pair of muggers in Gotham City go through their loot, a black-clad figure wearing a bat symbol attacks, incapacitating them both in seconds. When one of the criminals begs for his life, the man in black tells him he wants a favor… he wants him to tell all his friends. When the crook asks who he is, he hisses in reply, “I’m Batman.”

Commissioner James Gordon (Pat Hingle) and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) make a public pledge to take down crimelord Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), an announcement watched on TV by Grissom’s chief lieutenant, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson). Jack has been having a fling with Grissom’s girlfriend Alicia (Jerry Hall), but is confidant Grissom has no idea what’s going on under his nose. Reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) is approached by an award-winning photographer named Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger). As two of the only people in town who believe the Batman exists, they form a partnership to try to dig out the story. They attend a casino night hosted by Gotham’s richest son, Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), hoping to get the authorities on record about the Batman. Encountering Bruce, who comes across as somewhat absent-minded, leaving a bizarre impression before he is called away by his butler, Alfred (Michael Gough). While at the party, Gordon is given a tip that Napier is robbing a local chemical company. Bruce, now in a hidden cave beneath the mansion, listens to Gordon’s conversation as picked up by a hidden camera.

At Axis Chemicals, corrupt police Lieutenant Eckhardt (William Hootkins) prepares his men to take down Napier’s gang, giving orders to shoot to kill. Inside, Jack finds the safe empty and realizes they’re being set up. The cops and gangsters begin a shootout, but Gordon arrives and commands the police to take Napier alive. Batman rounds up the criminals and manages to grab Jack, but his chief goon Bob (Tracey Walter) threatens to kill Gordon if he doesn’t let him go. Although Batman tries to save him, Jack tumbles over a rail into a vat of chemicals, his face damaged in the battle.

The next evening, Vicki returns to Wayne Manor for a dinner with Bruce. It goes well, but she can’t help but notice that so much of the image of the playboy doesn’t fit as she begins to get to know him. Jack, meanwhile, has escaped the chemical bath, but not without damage. As he removes the bandages from his face, he smashes the mirror and stumbles away, giggling maniacally. He returns to Grissom’s home, confronting him over the double-cross. He reveals the extent of the damage – his skin bleached, his hair turned green, his mouth frozen in a permanent grin. Calling himself the Joker, Jack guns Grissom down.

Jack (wearing fleshtone makeup) meets with the rest of Gotham’s crimelords, announcing he’s taking over Grissom’s operation. One of them indicates an unwillingness to cooperate, so Jack offers a friendly handshake, roasting him with a supercharged joy buzzer. His power solidified, he instructs Bob to trail Knox and find out what he knows about the Batman.  Vicki leaves Wayne Manor the next morning, happy with Bruce and looking forward to seeing him again after he returns from a business trip. As she bids farewell to Alfred, though, he lets it slip that no such trip is forthcoming. She leaves, confused, and trails Bruce to a bad part of town, where she sees him lay a pair of roses on the ground in an alley.

That night, Gotham’s Action News reports on the deaths of two models who died after an extreme reaction to cosmetics leaving them with horrible grins on their faces. A bulletin announces three more similar deaths, when suddenly one of the anchors has an uncontrollable laughing fit and keels over. Suddenly, the Joker cuts into the feed, announcing his “Joker Brand” products – products that, chances are, everybody in town has already bought. Bruce studies Jack’s past, learning he has a background in chemistry, and he and Alfred go on a shopping trip. Gotham begins to struggle as everyone is terrified to use food, cosmetics, or anything that may contain the Joker’s “Smilex” chemical.

Vicki leaves a message for Bruce to tell him she’ll be late meeting him at the museum, but he has no date planned. It’s a trap by the Joker, who has become infatuated with her after seeing one of Bob’s surveillance photos of Knox. The Joker and his goons come in, smashing and defacing the exhibits. He approaches Vicki, proclaiming himself to be the “world’s first fully-functioning homicidal artist.” As proof, he has Bob bring in Alicia, whose face he has horribly scarred, and tells Vicki he wants her to record his “art” in photography. Batman rescues her, but the Joker’s thugs pursue him and nearly take him down. Just as Bob is about to remove his mask, Vicki snaps a picture, distracting them long enough for Batman to fight free. He brings Vicki back to the Batcave, where he tells her he’s cracked the “Joker Products” code – there’s no one single product that’s harmful, but certain combinations of products that are deadly. He gives her his research, instructs her to bring it to the press, and gasses her. When she wakes up, she’s safe at home, and realizes he took the film from her camera with the picture of his upturned mask.

As Gotham returns to normal, Alfred urges Bruce to tell Vicki the truth about his identity. He visits her apartment, intending to do just that, but they’re interrupted by the Joker, who tells her that Alicia tragically “threw herself out of the window.” Bruce reveals himself and threatens the Joker, who casually asks him if he’s ever “danced with the devil in the pale moonlight” before shooting him. He leaves Vicki alone, and she turns to find Bruce gone, a tray from her mantle lying on the floor with a bullet-sized dent.

Knox has researched the alley where Bruce left the roses and discovered his parents were murdered there before Bruce’s eyes when he was just a child. Bruce, meanwhile, is delving back into the case himself. The Joker’s “dance with the devil” taunt has dredged up memories, and he realizes Jack Napier is he nameless thug that murdered his parents. The battle is personal now, and becomes moreso when the Joker seizes Gotham’s airwaves again to announce he’s going to dump $20 million on the crowd for Gotham’s 200th anniversary celebration that night, challenging Batman to a confrontation.

Using the Batmobile via remote control, Batman destroys the Axis Chemical Plant, taking a number of the Joker’s goons with it, but the Joker remains at large, flying above in a helicopter. He retreats to the city, where he’s started a parade full of balloons and floats, hurling money into the crowd before gassing it with Smilex. In his Batwing jet, Batman cuts the gas-filled balloons loose. The Joker shoots the Batwing down with an improbably long-barreled gun, but Batman survives the crash. The Joker snares Vicki and leads her to the bell tower in Gotham City Cathedral where he awaits his helicopter. Batman and the Joker face off at the top of the Cathedral, where Batman vents his rage at Jack Napier for killing his parents. The three of them wind up dangling over the edge of the Cathedral, Joker dangling from a ladder to his helicopter. Batman snares him with a line, attaching him to a gargoyle broken from the cathedral. The added weight is too much, and the Joker plunges to his death. Soon afterwards, the police round up the Joker’s men and announce an alliance with the Batman, complete with a signal – an enormous spotlight that casts the emblem of the bat against the night sky. Vicki meets Alfred in a waiting limo… he apologizes for Bruce. He’s going to be a little late.

Thoughts: When Tim Burton’s Batman came out I was 12 years old, just at the perfect age to be heavily influenced by it. The prospect of Batman on the big screen was thrilling to me, and I was excited as I’d ever been to see a movie in my life. Looking back, my perspective has changed a little. While I never achieved the level of distaste I sometimes have for the Adam West incarnation, looking back on this film nearly 25 years later, I realize that it’s a good Tim Burton movie, but it isn’t really a great rendition of Batman.

You see, Tim Burton is a particularly distinctive filmmaker. He’s got lots of visual tricks, certain pacing techniques and other elements that all combine to make a movie distinctly his. This would be the first time he did a major adaptation of somebody else’s characters, but it sets the stage for his career in the future. Years later when he’d tackle Planet of the Apes, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the like, it would become clear he had his own sub-category of film… adaptations run through a Burton filter. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a disaster. This Burton-filtered Batman is a good movie, much darker and more serious than the movies we’ve discussed in this project so far, but still lacks certain elements that keep it from being great as a Batman film.

There is a lot of good here. This is the first film in the project to tackle Batman’s origin, for instance, and it does it in a very good way. Certain superhero origins are so well known that it’s become redundant to go over them yet again, and working it in as exposition rather than taking an hour to cover it works very much to this film’s advantage. It’s also the first time we’ve seen a Batman that isn’t a fully authorized officer of the law. The outlaw status works better for the character, even when he’s allied with the police.

I also really like Michael Keaton’s version of Bruce Wayne. There isn’t a lot of comedy in this movie, but Keaton (who previously worked with Burton in Beetlejuice) supplies most of it when he’s trying to maintain his absent-minded playboy image. There’s a sort of awkward sincerity to him, but he has a distinct competence right beneath the surface that makes it easy to accept him as Batman when the transformation begins. There was, I’m told, quite a controversy around casting Keaton (best known as a comedic actor) in the role, but he balances the humor with the depth of the character very well. The scene where he struggles to explain the truth of his double life to Vicki is just fantastic – very human, very charming, very honest.

Jack Nicholson also puts in a bravura performance as the Joker. He’s got some of the chaos of Cesar Romero, but unlike that earlier incarnation, he actually manages to apply some menace to it. Romero’s Joker was fun, but never scary. Nicholson’s Joker is both. There’s a great moment in the boardroom scene where it really starts to come through… not when he murders the unsuspecting Antoine, but a few seconds later when he orders Bob to trail Knox. Nicholson imitates a speech Palance gave to him just before sending him to his death, and although he’s not planning to have Bob killed, the result is downright disturbing. His cheerful chant that he’s glad Antoine is dead a few seconds later simply compounds it. While not the best Joker of all time (we’ll get to that), Nicholson is a great Joker.

The performances really are excellent. The elements that make it harder for me to accept this as a straight Batman movie and more of a Tim Burton movie come in plot, tone, and atmosphere. For example, the first moment where the “Burtonian” elements overtake the “Batmanian” is when the newly-christened Joker kills Carl Grissom. While not at all out of character for him, Burton uses a rousing carnival tune as the background music for the scene, something that stands in stark contrast to what we’re watching. It’s a very effective moment, something that encapsulates the madness of the character, but it’s also a very Burtonian trick, and the first point where we’re clearly seeing his fingerprints on the mythology.

From there, there are many other such moments that feel Burtonian. The more we see of Gotham City, the more it feels like the sort of world he’s conjured up for films like Edward Scissorhands – not exactly reality, but a strange sort of postcard that depicts a version of some stereotypical  world at Halloween. (In Scissorhands it was a Leave it to Beaver-style community, in this it’s a grungy cityscape.) Even the woods outside of Wayne Manor, where the Batmobile drives to reach the Batcave, are distinctive. Something about the bare, sparse trunks of the trees combined with the pounding Danny Elfman score (the #2 superhero theme of all time, after John Williams’s Superman) give an effect that reminds me more of Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas than any other film I can think of. The cathedral where the climactic battle takes place appears to be deserted, the wood rotting away and everything is ready to break for the sake of the fight scene. For sheer Burtonian symbolism, though, there’s no bigger moment than when the Batwing sweeps up in front of the full moon, forming a perfect Bat-Signal for absolutely no reason other than the rule of cool, before diving back down at the city.

Burton and the screenwriters introduce another element that happened in a lot of superhero films afterwards and, in fact, continues to this day: the idea that the hero’s origin has to be tied into the villain of the piece. From a purely thematic standpoint I understand it – it makes things much more personal for the characters and gives you a tighter narrative. From a larger perspective, though, I think it’s often a mistake. It requires either an uncomfortable level of coincidence or a ridiculous level of conspiracy that only a few movies have pulled off well.

Then there’s one thing that I’m never comfortable with in any incarnation of this character – a Batman who kills. His bombing of the Axis plant bothers the hell out of me… no matter how scummy the Joker’s goons were, they were still humans, and it’s hard to accept Batman killing them. The end of the film presents a similar problem, where Batman first opens fire upon the Joker with an array of bullets and missiles (all of which miss, but still), and then apparently drops the Joker to his death. Ironically, in the earliest comics Batman had no code against killing, and even used guns to cut down hoods on more than one occasion. The no-killing code has worked its way into most versions of the character, though, to the point where a Batman who kills feels wrong in any context.

I like this movie, I like it a lot actually. It’s just that being years removed from the childhood excitement of actually seeing Batman on the big screen, the various faults and flaws are a lot easier to pick out. None of them are enough to kill the movie for me, but shifting perspectives over the years have made me want something different out of Batman than what Burton gave us. Still, it was leaps and bounds ahead of the Adam West incarnation, and lightyears ahead of what was to come, when Burton stepped back from directing with the third film in the franchise and ushered in the disastrous Joel Schumacher years. Either way, though, the popularity of this movie helped to lead to the first screen version of Batman that I felt – and still feel – was truly, purely, and amazingly true to the character, and it’s that version we’re going to look at next.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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About blakemp

Blake M. Petit. Author. Podcaster. Teacher. Actor. Geek Pundit.

Posted on March 27, 2013, in 4-Icons, Superhero and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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