The Batman Project: Batman’s Almost-Dark Side, 1989
1 Comment »Jun 18, 2012
It is a fascinating thing to watch Tim Burton’s foray into the Bat-Franchise – a two-part adventure beginning with 1989′s Batman. The film is part homage to the those films that came before it, and part complete series reboot. The project that would eventually become ’89 Batman, began as a kind of nuts script by Joe Mankwiecz, best known around these parts as the guy who gave life to our Editor In Chief’s fantasies by penning Superman. It never made it to production, and was still sort of hanging out in the ether until Burton made good, surprising the money men and audiences alike with Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure followed in rapid succession by Beetlejuice in 1988. Warner Brothers, at the behest of Pee Wee Producer Peter Guber, gifted Burton with this albatross and the guy was all “THIS SCRIPT IS A TRAIN WRECK!” and began basically from scratch.
The film takes its tone and design from the world of the Kane comics, and from an idealized rendering of the 1922 Batman Serial. It’s no revelation when I say that Burton can distill magic from almost any source. But I maintain the belief that he’s at his best when he culls from the world of B Cinema. It’s no coincidence that the 1949 Batman serial is often lumped into the “So Bad It’s Good” category along with most of the works of director Ed Wood, a director who fascinated Burton, as can be seen in his 1994 film, Ed Wood. In a way, the landscape of largess that permeated the 1980s was a perfect opportunity to try and revive the Batman mythos.
The 80s themselves rediscovered the allure of 1920s style men’s tailoring as modern trend, so the slightly nostalgic, completely contemporary if left of center styling of the characters themselves is all at once dated, and inspired. The only cringe worthy 80s tells are Basinger’s wardrobe and perm, and the hilarious – if still brilliant – choice to have Prince write and record music for the film. While I bow to his majesty, it’s Danny Elfman’s now highly revered theme that is musical take-away from this feature.
People love to talk about what city inspired Kane’s Gotham. And by people I mean my sister, a Chicago dweller who has been crowing that Gotham is supposed to be Chicago ever since Bale and Nolan graced it with their presence. Burton’s Gotham is a comic city whose civic roots are all its own – something demonstrated to even greater effect in the bigger budget Batman Returns (1992). While the New Yorker in me must insist that Gotham is Gotham, it is impossible to argue with the totally fictive urban sprawl that Burton creates, it’s practically reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The scenic design, led by Anton Furst, struck a chord with comic writers’ as well – with Furst and Burton’s Gotham making it onto the pages in the early 90s. The film takes the smart tact of alluding to several cities and states – with the map of Gotham used by Wayne and Vale actually being a map of Toronto, and the Gotham City flag serving as a would-be double for the State flag of Indiana.
Starring Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and Kim Basinger’s Hair, this script was started off by the unfortunately named horror-author Sam Hamm who dropped out due to a writer’s strike and generally being too big of a comic book nerd to bow to some of the sacrilege demanded of him (Namely Alfred letting people into the Batcave willy nilly and Joe Chill being excised in favor of the Joker as the killer of the Waynes.) It was later made manifest by Warren Skaaren, a Burton team member responsible for penning maybe one of the best film’s ever (really, in terms of uniqueness, and the creation of a new world, think about it) Beetlejuice. The casting itself was not without incident. Sean Young was originally cast as Vicky (with ‘y’ this time guys) Vale, only to be thrown from a horse during filming (in a sequence subsequently cut) and break her collarbone. She was eventually replaced with Kim Basinger but the damage was done and Sean Young had FIXATED Y’ALL! (But more about that when we hit Batman Returns) And as for Keaton – Burton was 100% behind his early-era muse (WHY HAVE JOHNNY DEPP AND MICHAEL KEATON NEVER MADE A FILM TOGETHER? HAVE THEY? IS IT IN MY PANTS?) but the world at large was sort of “eh” about if. If by sort of “eh”, you mean fans DRAFTED A PETITION demanding he be recast.
Every hottie with a body was considered for the role – from Kevin Kline to every single Baldwin t0 Harrison Ford (hilarious, Batman would be all “WHERE’S MY FAMILY?” and then everyone would be like “They are dead Bruce,” and then Harrison Ford would punch them, dye his hair, and go on the run.) to Mel Gibson to…Bill Murray. Which I actually sort of understand? Regardless, Keaton was the man who won, and I think he’s perfect. In the role I mean, I’m not strangely fixated on Michael Keaton or anything ( this is a lie ). Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne the Playboy, Bruce Wayne the man, and Batman was captivating.
From the film’s start, we can see that this is going to be a departure from Swinging 60s Batman and war-propaganda lovin’ Batman. We follow three tourists, a father, mother and son, lost in contemporary Gotham City at night. They take a wrong turn and wind up in the mother of all terrifying alleys. The sort of alley that makes you go “This is totally where Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered you guys,” if you are me and have been drinking and are lost in Bushwick.
After the tourist father refuses an insistent pan-handler he and his family find themselves being held up by the panhandler’s fierce partner and are beaten up and held at gunpoint. Later, as the baddies sit and count their loot, they discuss the potential existence of a shadowy figure called the Bat, who has been killing off their fellow underworld dwellers. On cue, the Bat himself arrives and in no short order puts them out of commission. He tells the conscience half of the duo to tell his friends about him – to tell his friends that now that Batman’s in Gotham, life won’t be so easy for them.
It’s a great opening scene for a variety of reasons, but the one that gets the hairs on my neck standing upright (and the one that didn’t rest well with all the critics) is the fact that we’re opening the film with a clear reference to the moment when Bruce Wayne divided into three parts – the death of his parents. The film starts, not with a jaunty helicopter ride, not with a sinister and offensive portrayal of a Japanese doctor, but with portents of death and obsession. Bruce’s fixation on the death of his parents, on the evil that he believes fundamentally rules the world (because Bruce is not Anne Frank – he does not believe in goodness, really.) will be, in effect, his greatest battle of all. In this film, it’s this obsession that keeps him from engaging fully with Vicky.
Bruce’s obsession is not without foundation. While only he truly understands and recognizes that evil permeates every facet of life in Gotham – that doesn’t preclude these feelings from being absolutely true. Gotham is corrupt, it’s always been corrupt, the only thing that changes are the names of the players in the game. In this case, crime boss Guss Grissom (as played by Jack Palance, the only guy you can cast as Jack Nicholson’s intimidating boss) is the man pulling with the strings, with folks like the Mayor and would-be attorney general Harvey Dent doing a careful dance of avoidance.
Did I mention that Billy Dee Williams plays Harvey Dent? Because he totally does and it is basically hilarious – think about Billy Dee as Two-Face you guys, in any of the movies where Two-Face is featured! Think about it! The fine folks at Warner Brothers did and they bought out Billy’s option when it came time for Two-Face to shine. They opted for Tommy Lee Jones instead which was awkward because then Harrison Ford ran in wearing a cape and an ill-fitting mask going “I DIDN’T KILL MY WIFE!” and then Tommy Lee Jones was like “I HAVE TWO FACES” and then Aaron Eckhart walked in wearing a robe drinking some milk and was all “Uuuuuuuh?” and then I was like “Wait, are you Aaron Eckhart or Tom Jane? I CANNOT TELL YOU APART!”
While the elected officials strive to run a clean city – virtually impossible given Grissom’s stranglehold on the local economy, even the crime king can’t escape corruption and betrayal. His “Number One Guy” Jack Napier is indulging in a little game of hot dog down the hallway with Grissom’s own “sugar bumps” Alicia – as played by the one-time Mrs. Jagger, (depending on your belief in Balinese wedding ceremonies) Jerry Hall. Napier is cocky and disdainful – he’s not just dismissive of Alicia’s worries over Grissom finding them out, he’s dismissive of Alicia herself – when she tells him he looks great, he delivers – in perfect Nicholson sneer, naturally – “Did I ask?” and continues to saunter off unknowingly to an attempt on his life.
While Jack is busy walking into his doom (Or his making? I mean, if you believe because a crazed super villain with a thirst for revenge trumps being the average heavy?) the script gets to work, bringing in Batman’s love interest – Vicky Vale, everyone’s favorite obsessive photographer. Her introduction is written poorly but shot well. Robert Whul’s Albert Knox, sassy gum-crackin’ reporter with a thirst for the truth and a fixation on the existence of this alleged Bat person is returning to his office at the Gotham Globe (because a newspaper of record is not a newspaper of record unless it’s alliterative) where he’s mocked at all sides, and fair enough. If you’re able to separate the idea of a man dressed as a bat solving crimes and gliding away from the comic we all know so well, it’s absolutely ridiculous. But Knox doesn’t think so, he thinks he’s on to something, and we’re right there with him. His co-workers aren’t, and they spend their morning laughing at him and handing him original drawings by Bob Kane.
But Vicky Vale’s legs aren’t laughing. They believe Knox, and have flown into Gotham specifically to meet the man who’s been reporting on the Batman. It’s a weak, weak, weak, introduction and only Basinger’s legs propped up on the table, her torso initially hidden from view behind a copy of the Globe make up for it. Knox has heard of Vale, known for her spreads in Vogue and Cosmo. Spreads of photos she took, but was not featured in. Knox being a male features reporter at a city paper is well versed in fashion and knows all of Vale’s work. Weirdly. He also knows her work photographing corpses in the Corto Maltese. (Fun fact – this imaginary island was created by Frank Miller and pilfered as an homage by Burton.)
Vale’s transition from artfully shooting pretty faces to full-blown photo-journalism is never addressed – and that’s a huge piece of the puzzle to leave out. Fashion photography and covering genocide are very, very different spheres. After all, Anna Wintour and Christianne Amanpour have very different life priorities. Still, no one thinks to ask Vicky why she made the switch, which is a shame – as her reasons are probably the only thing other than sex (was that spoilery? I DON’T CARE, I AM ANNOYED) that could legitimately emotionally tie her to Bruce Wayne – I mean, even peripherally. In a hilarious effort to move the plot forward, Vale convinces an already smitten Knox to let her play Girl Friday – “Your writing, my photographs!” and her tickets to Bruce Wayne’s big fundraising gala that night, where they can hopefully convince all the higher-ups of Gotham’s government to give them the inside scoop on the Batman.
I watched Vicky’s entrance and introduction three times. I actually stopped and went back you guys. Because it’s so discordant, it’s a jarring, unapologetic insertion of a sex object, and Basinger’s line readings do not help. (Guys, she has an Oscar.) In a lot of ways, it reads as a more believable introduction of a villain – the sudden, inexplicable arrival on the scene, unexplained life change, interest in violence – her ridiculous hotness (Kids, I am not playing – I wanna rock her ponytail and glasses look so hard.) It would almost make more sense to have the third act find her in costume holding a gun at Batman going, “You never ever saw it coming, DID YOU BATMAN!” than to have her mewling, “You didn’t call!”
But unfortunately Basinger doesn’t have Super Villainess in her future (unless you’re Alec Baldwin – HA! I’ve got a million of them, am I right, Alec?) Instead, she has a charming romantic-comedy meet cute at Wayne Manor, where, taking a page from the Zooey Deschanel book of adorakability she asks Bruce if he knows where Bruce is. Get it? Because she doesn’t him? And she’s at his party? Awkward! Not as awkward as when she and Knox later mock Wayne at length while standing in his armory and are caught by the man himself. But still, being Bruce Wayne, he is quietly charmed by Vale’s straight dickishness and we know that soon they will go on a date. The by-rote nature of this initial meeting is saved only by Keaton’s quiet and deft portrayal of Bruce Wayne. It’s certainly on point. The biggest “playboys” I know aren’t men who are all flash and flagrant negging – they are affable, sweet, guys who, by pretending not to know how appealing their ‘aw shucks’ attitude is get more ass than Brad Pitt. Who gets only one ass. If he and Angelina Jolie practice monogamy.
If Keaton isn’t enough to distract you (and if he isn’t, WHO ARE YOU?) there’s also the beauty of the truly Gothic Wayne Manor, a nice change from the white, clapboard suburban special of the early serials and a clearly Burton touch. So is Wayne’s armory – a collection of full suits of armor taken from several countries and time periods. It’s this glimpse into the mind of the real Bruce, a man quietly fascinated by the art of war, a man who has trained, a man whose curiosity of the practice of disguise and defense while at war with an enemy that will quietly come to the foreground of Christopher Nolan’s Batman.
But love isn’t the only thing happening at Wayne Manor – thankfully. Operating on a hot tip, Gordon learns that he’s got a rotten sergeant and leaves the party early. And because he got this information at Wayne Manor, it means Alfred knows. And if Alfred knows, than Bruce knows, because, upholding the brilliant tradition that without Alfred Batman is too clinically depressed to function in any capacity, Michael Gough’s Pennyworth interrupts Bruce’s eye-sexing Basinger to insist he go to the Bat cave. This is a hilarious moment because it highlights just how stupid all reporters in comic books are. It is also a hilarious moment because Michael Gough is a genius, and I thank my lucky stars that Burton was such a devotee of Hammer films and recruited him.
As Bruce goes Bat, things are getting out of hand downtown. Grissom isn’t king of the castle for nothing and he’s onto Napier, sending the man – along with his lucky deck – to a chemical factory, under the guise of clearing the place out of anything incriminating. What Jack only realizes as they rifle through the empty chemical factory office, is that he’s been set up. In a strange way, Jack’s intelligence works against him – he realizes he’s been duped almost too quickly, which leads to a shoot off with the greasy cop on Grissom’s pay. You know what’s a terrible idea? A SHOOT OFF IN A CHEMICAL FACTORY? And you know what’s worse? EVERY POSSIBLE DO-GOODER IN TOWN SHOWING UP FOR THE SHOOT OUT. The greasy cop is soon outranked by Gordon and his phalanx of officers, and then Gordon is outranked by the arrival of Batman. The only thing the scene is missing is the arrival of Knox and Vale and then I’d be forced to used the phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen.” As it stands, it’s more of a clusterfuck than a full-blown disaster, which is perfect – as it’s this level of manic disarray that leads to Jack Napier falling from Batman’s grasp into the toxic green sludge that will shortly transform him into the Joker.
This was the first time the Joker’s back story was introduced in film, and was an important sequence in so far as it presented Batman’s moral compass – he doesn’t want Napier dead, he wants Justice. Had he known then what he later discovers – that Napier is responsible for murdering his parents (within the context of this film – the murderer of the Waynes shifts from version to version, most interestingly in the early comics where Batman pictures each villain he’s battling at the killer.) he would have had no hesitation in killing him. Wayne’s got a an interestingly locked in moral compass, and that makes him much more interesting that your average super hero. It’s also interesting because by having Batman lose his grip and drop Napier into the sludge, responsibility for Napier deformation is pinned on Batman, giving Joker an object towards which to direct his need for vengeance once he has killed the more obvious target – Grissom himself.
Grissom isn’t the only one to feel Napier’s crazed wrath – Alicia, his one-time-paramour, won’t be killed, but in fact made to suffer something worse. Napier has her disfigured, keeping her face covered with an opaque mask that is in its way more unsettling than the scars the acid left on her face. She becomes truly faceless, the destroyed token on his arm, proof positive of his power and insanity. It’s here where I have to say – and not because of what this site is but because of who I am – that this is not a very female positive movie. (Though kudos to the animated Batman series spawned from this hit – it introduced a much better lady companion for the Joker in the form of Harley Quinn.) The film presents more than one multidimensional male character, but, in addition to featuring not very many women period, does not even feign to believe that their depth is worth exploring or utilizing to move the story forward. The woman are objects, and while that’s pretty clear with Vale (she’s effectively Career Barbie) it’s almost a deliberate trope – Alicia will eventually go on to take her own life, and the first victims of the Joker’s chemical warfare are supermodels and shortly thereafter, a female news anchor.
It sticks out because it’s a weak spot in another wise strong film, an influential one – the way in which it was marketed and the gravitas with which the medium was approached by the filmmakers would set the standard for contemporary Superhero blockbuster film making. The Joker’s evil scheme is one of pure chaos – he uses his brilliant chemical mind to begin killing people off with their cosmetics – combinations of products would leave folks laughing to death,wearing the same pale skin and grazed grin that characterized Napier’s face post cheap, gnarly surgical intervention. Because Batman is also a genius, he figures this out and quickly spreads the word care of Vicky Vale’s connections at the Globe (TOO EASY WRITERS) and identifies himself as more than an easy target for Joker – he’s become a true enemy.
It takes Bruce a little longer to develop such clear feelings of enmity for the monster he helped create. He extricates himself from the clingy grasp of Vicky Vale, telling her he’ll be out of town for a while, so that he can privately go mourn the death of his parents – because he is Bruce Wayne and that is basically how he rolls – sex, and mourning. Unfortunately Bruce didn’t get Alfred the memo because the dude outs his master and Vicky, learning she has been royally shafted goes full-blown psycho chick, and not only follows Bruce to the alley where his greatest trauma took place, BUT TAKES PHOTOS OF HIM THERE. Girl, I know the sex was probably good, because he is Batman, but he took you for A SOUP DATE IN HIS HOUSE and made you LISTEN TO ALL OF ALFRED’S ANECDOTE’S and then you banged him on the stairs because you were too wine-drunk to make it up to one of the manor’s many, many bedrooms – in the immortal words of every dick ever addressing some girl with the wrong idea, “YOU KNEW WHAT THIS WAS.”
Fortunately, Bruce has bigger fish to fry than the fish that is Vicky Vale’s neediness – because the joker and a posse of machine-gun wielding mimes announce their takeover of Gotham city as they put the other crime bosses who’ve risen to the surface, out of commission. This scene had a huge impact on me as a kid. I think it was this scene more than any other single aspect of the Batman story that initially drew me in. Something about the totally Burton-esque arrival of the mimes, followed by Joker’s pun-laden murder of the asshole crime boss (stabbing him in the neck with a quill-pen) and then, most importantly of all, Joker’s utterance of the phrase that outs him as the murderer of the Waynes: “Have you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” Keaton’s Bruce is so take aback by this revelation that a bullet grazes his forearm and he LITERALLY DOESN’T BLINK.
Bruce Wayne is so mesmerized that he TAKES A BULLET WITHOUT BLINKING! AHHHH!
That my friends, that is obsession. That is darkness. That is language. That is PATHOS! I WANT THAT!
I promptly dressed as one of these mimes for Halloween. I was seven.
From here on out, it’s a true battle of freak versus freak – because at their core, really, and think about this now, The Joker and The Batman are not dissimilar. They are both deeply mentally and emotionally disturbed people whose alter egos have been granted full power in order to keep them from existing in a state between total madness and insanity as best they can. The difference is their moral compass – Joker doesn’t have one, Batman’s is stalwart, and fundamentally tied in to his hyper-driven now-dominant alter ego. Bruce’s obsession is so all-consuming that he literally cannot relate to this woman who has insisted on inserting herself into his life unless it is within the context of the crime he is trying to put a stop to. It can read as cheap, the way Alfred keeps harping about how Vicky is good for Bruce, but the truth of the matter is, it’s just Alfred being Alfred – looking out for his boy-master and finding ways to keep him healthfully tied to the more proscribed version of reality.
This is never more clear than when, after destroying the factory where the Joker is making his killer chemicals, Vicky is escorted by Alfred into the Bat Cave where rather than discuss this revelation of his identity Vicky instead asks, “Why won’t you let me in?” I will admit to bellowing “YOU ARE IN! YOU ARE IN THE BAT CAVE! WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT VICKY?” literally every time I watch this scene. Which is roughly once every three days.
But in reality it’s kind of perfect – because while I am willing to love Bruce Wayne while totally accepting that he is an emotional cripple whose development stopped when his parents were murdered in front of him by a guy who hilariously looks both nothing and everything like a young Jack Nicholson, I will never have to actually date him, which, let’s be real, would suck the hardest anything has ever sucked. The only reason his relationship with Vicky continues past the one-night stand is because Alfred insists on it*, and because Vale herself becomes an object of the Joker’s obsession. Bruce KNOWS he’s not capable of being with anyone in the way most women would want – you know, like all being open and shit and what have you – because in order to function and not go mad, Bruce has got his shit compartmentalized. He can’t even sleep in the bed with Vicky. He has to dangle shirtless upside down with his feet in manacles. WHICH I WOULD BE TOTALLY OKAY WITH BECAUSE SHARING BEDS IS NOT MY JAM BUT SHIRTLESS MICHAEL KEATON IS.
While this is happening the Joker is dancing to Prince and destroying a museum and then dancing to Prince and throwing money at the people of Gotham City while poisoning them all with some gas issuing from a giant Burton-classic balloon float. There is also a hilarious gag in the museum that I missed as a child – they destroy all of the paintings until they hit a Francis Bacon painting, which the Joker is all “No, no, I like it.” about, because Francis Bacon’s work is fucking grim, you guys. Also Love Is The Devil is an upsetting movie that I have mixed feelings about, but the naked men wrestling was awesome. I watched it in a Subway sandwich shop.
Eventually, as the film reaches its climactic crisis, Batman and Joker are facing off over Vicky Vale on the roof of the apparently totally falling apart Gotham Cathedral. Seriously. They are like, kicking off bricks, and breaking the giant bell and things as though the building is made of Twix bars. Delicious, delicious Twix bars. You kind of try to forget that Vicky has just been saying things to Bruce like “Are we gonna try and love each other?” and instead hope that she does not fall from a building – although I’ll be real, between her case of the relationship crazies, and her near-constant screaming, it almost wouldn’t be bad if she plummeted to her death – it is for Bruce’s mental health alone that I wasn’t rooting for that.
When Joker’s death comes, it’s a classic – he plummets to his death, a bag of laughs in his pocket still hauntingly guffawing. Batman, having proven himself a worthy servant of Gotham, gives the police the Bat Signal to summon him with, should he be needed again, and the Bat signal being too enticing to ignore, they light it up against the sky and somewhere on top of a building Bruce is like “Seriously guys? That is for emergencies!” Meanwhile Vicky is told by a waiting Alfred that Bruce will be late, and Vicky murmurs how she isn’t surprised and we are left feeling bad for Vicky that she is ready to settle for this completely dysfunctional relationship, and bad for Bruce that by staying in this relationship he’ll have another corner of his fragmented life to hold together.
Luckily for us all…it doesn’t last for long.
*(but really, as a purist I have to say THERE IS NO WAY ALFRED WOULD HAVE LIKE, LET HER SAUNTER INTO THE ‘CAVE. EVER. But within the context of the movie and the movie alone, it makes a certain kind of crazed sense.)