One of the most persistent and unkillable myths in the history of comics is the “saving” of Batman by Frank Miller. You’ve probably heard it. The Batman comics were just a giggling campy mess after the sixties TV show and it was only with Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 that Batman became dark and gritty again. Cool story, but complete guano (and one I’m pretty sure I helped spread at a much earlier point in my career as a semi-professional nerd rodent). Truth is, the comics had been pushing back hard against the BIF BAM KAPOW image from as early as 1970 in an attempt to bring Batman back to his roots as a grim, brooding nocturnal hero.
What The Dark Knight Returns did do was bring that darker Batman that was already present in the comics to a much wider audience. DKR was published in 1986, the year that also saw the release of Watchmen, and the release of these two comics in the still relatively new graphic novel format made about as big an impact as it is possible for comics to make.
Batman was the first attempt to reframe Batman in the popular consciousness from the Adam West incarnation into something closer to his comic depictions. Did it succeed?
To put it another way, this is by far the single most influential depiction of Batman in any medium in the eighty year history of the character. This movie was where Batman went from “Flagship comic book character and star of a pretty popular TV show” to “Modern Secular God”. In terms of box office, merchandising revenue and pop culture impact it was on the Star Wars tier. “Fine Mouse”, you say. “But what’s it done for us lately? Does it stand up?”
To which I say, “Yes. It does stand up. And then it flaps its wings, like a pretty, pretty butterfly.”
You know, when reviewing movies on this blog I’ll always talk about the actors, often about the writers, occasionally about the directors but only very rarely about the producers. Those unheralded workhorses who toil away to get these films made with only a massive pay day as their reward the poor lambs. I joke, but a good producer is an absolutely vital part of any film crew and I probably should mention them in reviews where the producer wasn’t a massive weirdo who’s easy to make fun of.
Anyway, Jon Motherfucking Peters. God damn.
How weird is Jon Peters? If you were to make a ranked list of all the biggest weirdoes in Hollywood history he would probably rank…ooh, somewhere in the top two or three hundred. That might not sound very weird, but you have to remember, if the people in Hollywood weren’t rich they’d just declare the whole neighbourhood an insane asylum and cordon it off.
This was the guy who wanted to do a Superman movie starring Sean Penn (based on the fact that he could convincingly play “a killer”) where Superman doesn’t fly and doesn’t wear his iconic costume. And fights a giant spider. And Brainiac has a sassy gay robot sidekick. And if you thought “apart from the giant spider, those are all terrible, terrible ideas who could possibly think they were good?” the answer is “the guy who leveraged being Barbara Streisand’s hairdresser into a movie career, that’s who”.
It’s for this reason that I’m perhaps a little more forgiving of Batman’s digressions from the source material. Considering Peters’ involvement, I’m just thankful that the movie didn’t climax with Batman fighting a giant purple gorilla on the moon.
Anyway, after a credits sequence that shows how much it respects us by baldly lying to our faces..
…the movie begins with a perfect introduction to its most important character.
I almost feel that if the movie had nothing else going for it other than production designer Anton Furst’s vision of Gotham City that would be enough. Prior to this, Gotham City had just been depicted as a generic American burg with a slightly higher than usual rate of clown murder. Now, when you hear the word “Gotham” it conjures up an image of Hell as an American city, wreathed in perpetual night and swarming with gargoyles. Thank Furst.
Anyway, we follow a couple of tourists with their young son as they make their way through the filthy streets of Gotham and decide to take a short cut through a dark, grimy alley way. The muggers make their getwaway…wait, did I mention the family got mugged? Sorry, I assumed you all just took that as read. I mean, what did you think was going to happen? They went down the alleyway and got safely to their destination unmolested? Anyway, the muggers hang around a rooftop counting their ill-gotten gains which include an AMERICAN EXPRESS CARD, DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT.
I take this moment to sadly inform you all that this movie is a whore. Somebody who shall remain nameless (Peters) insisted on cramming the film with as much product placement as it could take without exploding in a shower of money. How bad was it? What’s the worst, most egregious, most ridiculous bit of Batman themed product placement you could imagine? If you answered “Nike designing the boots of the Batsuit and putting their logo on it”, congratulations, you won!
The two muggers are suddenly attacked by a weird figure of the night dressed as a bat (of all things). The movie takes a sudden, unexpected turn into gritty realism as we see exactly what would happen if a man in fancy dress tried to accost two armed criminals.
So this movie has a weird habit of setting Batman up to this badass, unstoppable force and then…completely undercutting him. To put it another way, this Batman spends more time on his back unconscious than Rip Van Winkle. Notwithstanding that, I think there’s a lot to like here. I mean, the costume is so restrictive that Michael Keaton is clearly having trouble moving. And can’t hear anything. And is trying desperately not to have a claustrophobic panic attack. But it looks cool. And whatever else you might think about his rightness for the part, he has got the voice down. None of that idiotic Christian Bale/Attack of the Asthma Monster shit.
While that’s going on, a gangster named Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is watching the new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams) on TV vowing to take down his boss, Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). As well as sleeping with his boss’ moll, Alicia, Jack has designs on Grissom’s job. Unfortunately for him, Grissom knows both of these things, and orders Jack to break into a chemical plant he owns, ostensibly to destroy records but actually so that Jack can be killed by the cops that Grissom’s going to tip off.
We now find ourselves in stately Wayne manor where billionaire Bruce Wayne is hosting a fund-raiser for the Gotham bicentinniel. So Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne. Michael Keaton. As Bruce Wayne. Hmmmm.
I dunno guys. Michael Keaton gives an extremely likeable performance of Bruce Wayne as a charming, slightly eccentric oddball which is kind of like playing Godzilla as a sassy gay best friend. Perfectly enjoyable but that is is no way the character you’re supposed to be playing. Anyway, Bruce gets talking to reporter Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) who’s in Gotham
holding Michelle Pfeiffer’s place until she arrives investigating Batman. They arrange a date but Bruce ducks out when he sees Commissioner Gordon getting called away.
At the Axis chemical plant, Jack gets ambushed by both the GCPD and Batman and ends up falling into a massive vat of chemicals. I’ve read reviews that claim that Batman actually throws Jack into the vat and cite it as an example of this Batman breaking the no-kill rule, but that’s really not the case. He clearly tries to save his life. This Batman does indeed kill, but only nameless extras because fuck the plebs. Batman flees the scene and, outside the plant, a strange white hand emerges from the polluted water.
At stately Wayne Manor (never get tired of writing that) Vicki Vale has dinner with billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.
We get an honestly quite charming scene where Vicki and Bruce try to have dinner in the cavernous mansion dining hall before deciding to amscray and eat in the kitchen while listening to Alfred (Michael Gough) telling embarrassing childhood stories of Bruce. There’s plenty this movie gets wrong, but fair is fair, Michael Gough as Alfred ain’t one of them. You can see why he was one of only two actors who retained their role through all four of the Burton/Schumacher Batman films. He plays Batman’s batman with a perfect mix of dignity, gravitas, sardonic wit and compassion. He is inimitable.
Hey, while we’re on a hot streak, how about that surgery scene?
How bizarre is it that Tim Burton has only ever directed one horror movie (well, two if you count Sweeney Todd and three if you count Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but I don’t think that last one was intentional)? Because he was born for that shit. Every single detail of this scene was indelibly burned into my mind the first time I saw it; the bloodied surgeon’s tools, the mirror being smashed, the swinging light-bulb and Jack’s shambling, twitchy, zombie-like gate as he ascends the staircase like a nightmare rising to the waking world. So perfect that I can actually overlook the fact that this movie gives a definitive origin of the Joker.
See, Batman breaks three of the absolutely sacrosanct rules of any Batman story:
- We should never, ever learn who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents.
- We should never, ever, ever be given a definitive origin for the Joker.
- Okay, but seriously, Batman should never, ever, ever, ever kill.*
But, I’ll level with you. Only one of these transgressions actually bothers me. The Dark Knight could get away with just having Heath Ledger show up apropos of nothing because by 2008 the Joker was every bit as much of a cultural icon as Batman and needed no introduction. But Batman has to actually introduce these characters to an audience that probably wouldn’t be able to just accept the simple wonder of a murder clown sans explanation. And honestly, I don’t mind an origin story if it produces a Joker this good. And make no mistake, this is a damn fine Joker. And if he’s not the best Joker (and you could make the case that he is) that only speaks to the insanely high standard of Joker performances. There’s some debate as to whether Jack Nicholson is actually giving a good performance or a show-boating, over the top, scenery chewing version of his own screen persona.
Whatever, it works, and isn’t it just so refreshing to watch an actor who just goes HAM in every single scene just for the sheer, unbridled joy of it? There’s a story about the making of A Few Good Men where they’re just trying to get the lighting right for the “You can’t handle the truth!” scene. Literally just running through the scene over and over to get the lighting right and Nicholson gave that performance at that intensity every single time. And that’s what you need with a Joker. An actor who doesn’t know how to not give 100%.
Plus, the makeup work is just perfect.
Joker returns to Grissom’s penthouse and murders him and then sets about taking over all crime in Gotham City.
Because this movie is set in the eighties, date rape is still socially acceptable like smoking in restaurants, so Bruce sleeps with Vicki despite the fact that it’s their first date, she’s plastered and he’s stone cold sober. The next morning, she invites Bruce over to her place to look at some photographs of war zones and he’s all “aw shit love to but I gotta thing” but as she’s leaving Alfred cheerfully tells her that there is no thing and there never will be. So Vicki is understandably pissed and uses the Gotham Gazette’s archives to learn everything she can about Bruce Wayne. Seriously, before Facebook came along to make stalking easy, that’s why 90% of people got into journalism.
So it’s at this point that the script decides to just throw its hands up and let the Coincidence Fairy take the wheel. Vicki JUST DECIDES to stalk Bruce as he goes and lays flowers for his parents in Crime Alley after which he JUST HAPPENS to pass by a press conference where some of Grissom’s old mob lieutenants JUST AT THAT VERY MOMENT are holding a press conference to announce they’re taking over his old business which is when Joker decides to kill them in a place where both Bruce and Vicki JUST SO HAPPEN to be there to witness it. Also, Joker’s henchman Bob, who was taking pictures of the whole thing JUST SO HAPPENS to snap a picture of Vicki and Joker RATHER CONVENIENTLY becomes instantly infatuated with her at which point Zeus JUST BECAUSE descends from the heavens via machine and makes all well.
Joker releases a video ad warning Gothamites that he’s begun poisoning random products with Smilex, a chemical that causes people to laugh until they die with a hideous rictus grin on their faces which he knows how to do because he’s got the equivalent knowledge of eight doctorates in bio-chemistry, like all mid-level mafia capos. Joker abducts Vicky Vale who then gets un-abducted by Batman, who brings her to the Batcave to give her the list of Joker’s poisoned products to publish in the Gotham Gazette.
Realising that he’s developing feelings for Vicki, Bruce visits her apartment to confess to her that he’s Batman because…
Guys, I dunno what to tell you. If I had to rank all the love interests of the Burtonmacher Batman films it would go Selina Kyle…………………………………………………………………………………………Dr Chase Meridian, Vicki Vale and *stops to Google because I am now genuinely curious* Julie Madison. And while you might think it’s no shame coming third behind Michelle Pfeiffer and Nicole Kidman you’re wrong, there is shame. And I don’t want to put all the blame on Kim Basinger, both Pfeiffer and Kidman were given more to work with in their movies (Elle MacPherson as Julie Madison was little more than a speaking extra). But yeah, I expect my gal reporters to have a bit more life and let’s just say, Margot Kidder she ain’t.
Joker drops by with a gift for Vicki and when he sees Bruce, he shoots him, but only after asking him if he’s ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight, a line which is real pretty and means absolutely nothing whatsoever. Bruce survives through the clever use of silverware (Alfred taught him that, obviously) and in flashback we see Bruce Wayne’s parents being gunned down by a young Jack Napier.
Now, obviously, if they tried that shit in the comics I’d be fit to be tied. But remember, this movie is introducing these characters to most of the audience for the first time. And having your main hero and main villain having a personal beef rather than just dispassionately doing their jobs? That’s kind of screenwriting 101 so again, like with the Joker origin, I’m willing to give it a pass and move on.
The Mayor announces the cancellation of the bicenntenial because the Clown Terrorism Threat Alert is flashing pink and going “woopwoopwoopwoopwoop”. But Joker hijacks the broadcast and announces that he’ll be holding his own parade and distributing a million dollars (which will actually be fake with Joker’s face on it). And you just know, you just know someone in the White House had to shoot down that idea in the last few weeks.
Batman figures out that Joker’s planning on using giant parade floats filled with poison gas to take out the whole of Gotham. So Batman sends the Batmobile to Axis chemicals and just straight up blows it up. I counted at least seven of Joker’s hoodlums in there. Not to mention the health ramifications to Gotham of a chemical plant just going up in flames in the city limits. And the best part? THERE IS NO REASON FOR THIS. THE JOKER’S NOT THERE. THE CHEMICALS ARE ALREADY AT THE PARADE. THIS IS SHEER MINDLESS CARNAGE FOR THE HELL OF IT.
And that is not what Batman is supposed to be about unless he’s being written by late-period Frank Miller.
In order to wipe out a little of the red in his ledger, Batman then flies the Batwing down onto the parade and scoops up the balloons and flies them away to safely, pausing only to form his own logo with the moon.
So, it’s at around this point that we get the clock tower scene which is usually derided even by people who love the movie and for good reason. It is frighteningly bad. The climax wasn’t in the original script and was inserted after Jon Peter’s saw Phantom of the Opera on Broadway and pointed his chubby, sticky finger at the stage and shouted “Want it!”
Which, fine. There are definitely worse things than Phantom to take inspiration from in a Batman film. I suppose we should just be glad he didn’t see Annie Get Your Gun. But it’s generally not considered a good idea to just throw your climax together at the last minute and by Christ it shows. The fight choreography is terrible, the dialogue is improvised, nonsensical mumbling and none of the characters seem to know why they’re there, because, y’know they don’t.
And look, I know I sound like a broken record but Batman should not be killing people. I mean, no one should, really, but especially not Batman. If the only way Batman can defeat a generic, nameless mook is by watching the lights in their eyes go out, that’s not Batman.
Anyway, Batman rescues Vicki Vale and kills the Joker and everyone in Gotham is just swell with that.
And the movie ends with the GCPD unveiling the newest weapon in their war on crime.
By no means perfect, and it kind of collapses into nonsense by the end. But think of what this movie gave us; the definitive onscreen Gotham, fantastic versions of the Batmobile and Batwing and Danny Elfman’s iconic Batman theme. Not too shabby.
Our Heroic Heroes: 15/25
Looks good, sounds good, kills henchmen, moves like a malfunctioning Disneyland president. Mixed bag.
Our Nefarious Villain: 23/25
Our Plucky Sidekicks: 19/25
Lot of interesting and quirky supporting characters here. Gough’s Alfred, obviously. Then there’s Billy Dee Williams channelling all his mighty charisma into the minor role of Harvey Dent which he took with the understanding that he’d get to play Two Face later on. Which he did. Almost thirty years later. In the Lego Batman movie.
And of course, Tracey Walter as Bob, the greatest henchman in the history of henching.
No small parts, guys. Only small actors.
Batman NEVER kills, except: Batman blows up the AXIS chemical factory with a considerable number of Joker’s henchmen inside. He also throws one of Joker’s goons down a belltower to his certain death and oh yeah, kills the Joker in their climactic battle.
Where does he get those wonderful toys?: Let’s be honest, the idea of a stealthy urban vigilante using an instantly recognisable car is more than a little silly but goddamn if we must have a Batmobile let it be this one. Absolutely gorgeous. And that goes double for the Batwing.
FINAL SCORE: 73%
NEXT UPDATE: 15 August 2020
NEXT TIME: As part of our ongoing series of “Mouse reviews actual grown up movies”…
* Yeah, yeah, yeah Joe Chill, Detective Comic #168, most of the Golden Age and the KGBeast, I KNOW.