by Mark Greig
Remember how everyone cheered when Batman Begins was first announced? A Batman movie from the director of Memento, with Patrick Bateman as the Dark Knight? Brilliant, where can I get my ticket? And yet I can't help but wonder what it was like for audiences in 1989 when Batman came out. Imagine it, a new Batman movie from the director of Beetlejuice starring, well, Beetlejuice as the Caped Crusader? That just sounds crazy and never should've worked. And yet it did, although maybe not perfectly.
I'll be the first to admit that – despite my fondness for them – both of Tim Burton's Batman films have their fair share of faults, starting with their treatment of the main character. Unusually for a superhero movie, Burton's film skips the hero's origin story altogether, relegating it to a single (slightly controversial) flashback sequence. Batman starts off with the hero in already in costume and fighting crime. This isn't the story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman. This is the story of how Jack Napier became the Joker.
Michael Keaton might be playing the title character, but this is Jack Nicholson's film from beginning to end. Even when he is restrained (which is rarer sight than the Loch Ness Monster), Jack Nicholson is a magnetic screen presence. Physical appearance aside, Nicholson is perfect for the Joker and makes a three course meal out of the film. With Jack on the scene, Keaton is pushed into the sidelines. While I think he does well as Bruce Wayne, I never once buy Keaton as a one man crusade against crime. His Batman is just too limited by that costume to be an effective fighter.
Which brings me to one aspect where I feel the film falls short; the action. Burton is no action director and the film's action scene suffer as a result. What he might lack as an action director, Tim Burton makes up for with his visuals. Nolan grounds his films firmly in a believable reality. His films are basically Bond movies with superheroes. Burton's exist in a purely comic book world. His Gotham City is a decaying mess. It's Fritz Lang's Metropolis gone to rot, with cathedrals the size of skyscrapers. And it looks fantastic.
That said, I still can't escape the feeling that Burton was holding himself back with this film. Something that becomes even more obvious after Batman Returns came out. There are still some moments that are pure Burton: the scene of the Batmobile racing through a forest, while Elfman's score goes into overdrive, is probably the best example. But they are few and far between.
Perhaps the weakest part of the film is Bruce's relationship with Vicki Vale, one of the blandest love interests in cinema history; although, also one of the most stunning due to the fact she's played by Kim Bassinger. Looks aside, I have no idea why anyone would fall for Vicki Vale. The Joker's goons have more personality than she does. Her entire role in this film is to look pretty and scream. The thing the annoys me most about Vicki Vale is that she's the genesis of this horrible trend in Batman movies (Nolan's included) of saddling the hero with one dimensional love interests. Let's face it, if Catwoman isn't in your film, don't bother giving Bruce Wayne a love interest.
Notes and Quotes
--Nicholson's already got the perfect Joker smile, I'm not sure why they even bothered giving him a fake smile.
--Making the Joker responsible for the death of Bruce Wayne's parents is a pointless addition. A silly attempt to make the conflict between hero and villain more personal.
--Michael Gough (Alfred) and Pat Hingle (Commissioner Gordon) are the only two actors to appear in all four Burton/Schumacher films.
--There is no real purpose for the Batwing to fly up to moon but it looks bloody good. Speaking of the Batwing, I'd take that back to the shop if I were you, Batman. Can't hit the Joker when he's standing in the open, and is taken down by one bullet.
--Danny Elfman gifts the film with a wonderful, rousing score, which has to be one of the most copied film scores of all time (often by Elfman himself).
Grissom: “Your life won't be worth spit!”
Joker: “I've been dead once already. It's very liberating. You should think of it as, uh... therapy.”
Alfred: “I have no wish to fill my few remaining years grieving for the loss of old friends. Or their sons.”
Vicki Vale: “You're insane!”
The Joker: “I thought I was a Pisces!”
The Joker: “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
Batman: “I'm not going to kill you. I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me.”
Nic: “What are you?”
Batman: “I'm Batman.”
Three out of four Prince soundtracks that I have chosen to ignore.