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BATMAN (1989)

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"Could you tell me which one of these guys is Bruce Wayne?"
"Well – I’m not sure…."

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BatmanDirector: Tim Burton

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

Screenplay: Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, based upon the characters created by Bob Kane

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Synopsis: After mugging a family visiting Gotham City, two criminals are dividing their spoils on a rooftop when they are attacked by a mysterious caped figure. One of them shoots at the man in black, but he is unharmed. The first hood is sent crashing through a door with a single kick; the other is grabbed and dangled off the roof. As he shrieks for mercy, the man in black advises him to "tell all your criminal friends about me", announcing, "I’m Batman." He then leaps over the edge of the building and vanishes…. The Mayor (Lee Wallace) and the new D.A., Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), announce a crusade against crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). Across town, Grissom’s right-hand man, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), sneers as he watches their TV broadcast. He then dallies with Alicia (Jerry Hall), who is also Grissom’s girl. As the two muggers are being hauled away by the police, both babbling about a "giant bat", reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) tries unavailingly to get a statement from Lieutenant Eckhardt (William Hootkins). Eckhardt then meets with Jack Napier, to collect his payoff. The Mayor insists on going ahead with Gotham’s 200th anniversary festival, despite advice to the contrary from Harvey Dent and Police Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle). At the newspaper office, Knox’s colleagues ridicule his "giant bat" story. However, photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) tells him that she wants to work on it with him. Knox bemoans the fact that he can’t get a statement from anyone. Vicki points out that all the city officials will be at a benefit being hosted by millionaire Bruce Wayne, to raise money for the Gotham Festival. She then produces two invitations. Carl Grissom is angered by news that Harvey Dent is linking him with the company Axis Chemicals. Napier suggests that they "break in" and remove all the company’s records. Grissom not only agrees, but asks Napier to handle the job personally. When Napier has gone, Grissom calls Eckhardt…. At the charity benefit, as Knox tries to get a statement on the bat from the city’s officials, Vicki asks a stranger if he knows who Bruce Wayne is. The man replies that he isn’t sure…. Commissioner Gordon is informed of Napier’s break-in at Axis Chemicals – and that Eckhardt is "handling" it. Vicki and Knox explore the house, staring in disbelief at a room filled with armour and battle-dresses from all over the world. The man to whom Vicki spoke earlier enters the room behind them, and quietly tells them that he is Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton). Wayne’s butler, Alfred (Michael Gough), also enters, announcing in a significant voice that the Commissioner had to leave. Wayne takes the hint and excuses himself. In a room filled with surveillance equipment, he replays the scene of Gordon receiving news of Napier’s activities. Outside Axis Chemicals, Eckhardt distributes pictures of Napier, ordering his men to "shoot to kill". Inside, Napier finds the safe empty, and realises he’s been set up. A shoot-out follows, stopped by Gordon’s arrival – and Batman’s. Napier kills Eckhardt, then shoots at Batman. The bullet deflects, hitting Napier in the head and knocking him over a railing. As he dangles above a tank of chemicals, Batman grabs his hand – but Napier slips away and falls into the tank. As the police close in, Batman makes his escape. Outside in the river, what’s left of Napier emerges from the factory’s sluice-pipes…. The next day, Knox invites Vicki to go "bat hunting", but she tells him that she has a date – with Bruce Wayne. At Wayne’s cavernous mansion, the two start an awkward dinner in the huge, formal dining-room – then sensibly move to the kitchen, where Alfred tells stories of Wayne’s childhood. Napier undergoes plastic surgery at the hands of a back-alley doctor. He examines his new face in a mirror – then smashes the mirror, shrieking with maniacal laughter. Carl Grissom receives a visit from Napier, recoiling in horror when he sees his henchman’s face – the skin dead white, the mouth frozen in a hideous grin. He is informed that "Jack Napier" is dead; that the man who stands before him is – The Joker….

Comments: I feel obliged to open this review with a disclaimer. When it comes to Batman, I’m almost wholly ignorant. I’ve never seen any of the Bob Kane comics; and I’ve only caught occasional glimpses of the recent animated series. Worse still (at least, I imagine some people will think so), I’ve had my mind poisoned by the fact that I grew up on re-runs of the sixties TV show. Thus, my readers need to be aware than in reviewing Batman, I’m doing just that – reviewing the movie, not analysing it as an adaptation of its source.

Okay – now that’s out of the way – let’s begin!

Like this year’s Spider-Man (which inspired the current Roundtable), the release of Tim Burton’s Batman was a hugely anticipated event. Fans and critics alike waited for it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, hoping for the best and fearing the worst. As it turns out, the film falls almost mid-way between those two extremes. It’s imaginative, it looks gorgeous, it’s got lots of action and fabulous gadgets – and yet it’s somehow disappointing; hollow. It would be simple to lay the blame for this at director Burton’s door – certainly, his talents lie in his visuals, not in his narratives – but personally, I’m more inclined to point the finger at screenwriters Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren. Granted, writing this kind of project is a difficult assignment. Decisions must be made as to how much background information needs to be filled in, and how much "assumed knowledge" is allowable. Narrative must be balanced with action; exposition with plot. It’s not easy; and unfortunately, the writers of Batman failed to hit the mark.

Although I’m not a superhero buff, I’ve always found something perversely attractive in the very concept of Batman; or rather, of Bruce Wayne – in the fact that, having the means at his disposal, he simply chooses to become a Superhero; that – to put it less grandiosely - he’s so psychologically screwed-up that he feels compelled to don a fetishistic costume and fight crime. And for me, this is where Batman, the movie, falls down. The casting of Michael Keaton in the lead dual role was highly controversial, but in my opinion, he gives a good and subtle performance. The problem is, he’s simply not given enough material to work with. In an effort to get their film "moving", Hamm and Skaaren seem to have decided that Bruce Wayne’s backstory – and, even more damagingly, his psychology - were the best places to start cutting. The film almost drowns in its unanswered questions. Who built the Batcave? Who designed and built the Batmobile, the Batplane, and all those other "wonderful toys" that The Joker so covets? And what about the laboratory? Who built that? – and where did Bruce Wayne come by the knowledge that allows him to foil The Joker’s first elaborate act of vengeance against the world? For that matter, why does Wayne suddenly go from wreaking vengeance on petty criminals to appointing himself the protector of Commissioner Gordon, when he has neither established a working relationship with Gordon, nor as yet has any precise reason for interfering in the affairs of Jack Napier? None of these issues are ever addressed; they simply hang there, to be accepted or rejected (or fretted over), according to the temperament of the viewer. Infinitely more detrimental to the story, however, are the unaddressed psychological issues. When we first meet him, Bruce Wayne is Batman; a shadowy figure intent upon terrorising the criminal element of Gotham City. We’re never allowed to know how this came about – and the why is sketchy at best. Although the film dutifully trots out Wayne’s famous childhood trauma, those scenes are not there to explain his actions before the film opens, but rather to motivate its climax. Nor, frankly, is the Bruce Wayne that we see here quite screwed up enough. He’s shy, awkward, introverted, wracked with doubts about himself and his activities (hence his instinctive "I’m not sure" response when questioned about his real identity, one of the film’s cleverest moments) – but he has no trouble at all establishing a connection with photographer Vicki Vale, and little more in getting her into bed. The "relationship" comes about much too fast, and much too easily; it rings completely false – as indeed does Wayne’s abrupt decision to tell Vicki the truth about himself. These are not the actions of a man as emotionally damaged as Bruce Wayne must be. The screenplay does toss in a couple of moments underlying Wayne’s "eccentricity". He doesn’t initially see anything amiss with himself and Vicki attempting to converse from the opposite ends of a huge, formal dining table (a scene of which more should have been made, as emphasising the habitual isolation of Wayne’s existence); and Vicki wakes during their night together to find her new lover hanging upside-down, and gently swinging back and forth, from an exercise frame. However, these snippets seem like throw-away gestures, visual jokes, not surface manifestations of Wayne’s psychological disturbance. Similarly, the film’s "happy" ending feels completely wrong; tacked-on, in fact. With no prior knowledge of the denouement, I found myself anticipating the moment when Vicki told Bruce that she couldn’t cope with his alter ego’s activities, and walked away from the relationship. Her cheerful resignation in the face of the announcement that "Mr Wayne" might be "a little late" seems disturbingly out of place – and is in disquieting conflict with the tone of the film’s closing image of Batman framed against the Gotham City sky, isolated again.

Bruce Wayne’s relationship with Vicki Vale is perhaps the film’s greatest weakness. Of all of Batman’s characters, Vicki is the least developed – and that’s saying something. Instead of giving Vicki a personality, Hamm and Skaaren fall back upon the ploy of having all the other characters, in particular Alfred, talk about how "wonderful" and "special" she is, as if that were enough to convince us. It isn’t, and the fact that two such, uh, "interesting" people as Batman/Bruce Wayne and The Joker end up fixated upon her is both implausible and annoying. Vicki also features in the film’s most staggeringly awful moment, when (quite unbelievably) Alfred takes it upon himself to reveal Bruce Wayne’s secret identity to her. Vicki’s reaction to this revelation is remarkable – she doesn’t react at all. She doesn’t even (if you’ll pardon the expression) bat an eyelid. Brought into the Batcave, she hardly bothers to look around. When a scene plays this badly, it’s hard to know whether to blame the director or the actor. If I’m inclining to the latter, well, that’s because I’m prejudiced. For me, the Vicki Vale subplot is difficult enough to swallow without the additional complication of Vicki being played by Kim Basinger, who is pretty, I suppose, but who I’ve always found totally lacking in any kind of magnetism or screen presence. Certainly, there’s no chemistry at all between her and Michael Keaton. Of course, in fairness to Basinger, she’s not helped by the fact that Vicki does nothing for two-thirds of the film but scream, faint, and be kidnapped/rescued. Even the greatest and most charismatic of actresses might have trouble making anything of the underdeveloped role. Clearly, Vicki’s not there to contribute anything, but merely to give the two central characters something else to fight over – as if they needed it.

This underdevelopment of two of the film’s three main characters seems to have come about largely as a result of a decision to focus the film upon its villain rather than its hero. In terms of both impact and screentime, Jack Nicholson’s grotesque, wisecracking, psychopathic supercriminal dominates this production. Indeed, the film as it stands could legitimately have been called "The Joker" rather than "Batman". The question we are left with is why this should be so; whether a conscious choice was made, or whether the situation was forced upon the production by external circumstances. The deal that Jack Nicholson cut in exchange for appearing in the film – with billing – is legendary; and it’s hard not feel that the producers, determined to get value for their money, simply made up their minds to keep their pricey star in front of the cameras for as long as they possibly could. (They were greatly assisted, of course, by the fact that this was the one instance where letting Jack Nicholson "do a Jack Nicholson" was entirely appropriate.) It is also easy to see how attractive the idea of focussing upon The Joker might have seemed to the screenwriters. After all, the history of Jack Napier/The Joker is comparatively brief, able to be presented in its entirety within the framework of the story, with none of the complicated do-we-explain-or-do-we-not? issues that surround the telling of Bruce Wayne’s story. And finally, you get a sense here of a problem that frequently crops up in Good vs. Evil scenarios, namely, the very obvious difficulty that a great many writers have with creating characters who are believably "good". The reason for this seems to be the notion that (with apologies to Tolstoy) people who are "good" are generally "good" for all the same reasons; whereas those who are "bad" are "bad" for reasons of their own, and thus offer much more grist for the writer’s mill. It’s not surprising that cinematic villains so often emerge as more interesting than their heroic counterparts. In the case of Batman, however, this danger should have been averted; the "hero" is, after all, just as disturbed and emotionally complex as the "villain"; the two should have been an almost perfect balance.

Screenwriters Hamm and Skaaren did try, I think, to work towards such a scenario. Certainly, the two scenes that bookend the "relationship" between Batman and The Joker are amongst the film’s most interesting. Firstly, we have the moment in which The Joker is created: his plunge into a vat of chemicals, having slipped from Batman’s grasp. But was that slip an accident, or did our hero let him fall…? As shot, this sequence is deeply ambiguous – as indeed it should be. This is one of the screenplay’s few true concessions towards making Bruce Wayne/Batman as enigmatic as the story demands. Doubts about Batman’s motives are planted in the viewer’s mind early on, when the two muggers in the opening scene debate whether a fellow criminal slipped off a rooftop, or whether he was pushed. As the film progresses, there is a growing sense of Batman not as a do-gooder, or as a crime-fighter as such, but as a vigilante; one willing to punish all criminal actions with death. This is further underscored by The Joker’s reaction to Batman, whom he regards not as an opponent, but as a rival who must be one-upped. "‘Terrorises’?" jeers the newly-created "homicidal artist" as he scans a newspaper headline about Gotham City’s "Winged Freak". "Wait’ll they get a load of me!" A tennis match-like conflict ensues, with the innocent bystanders of Gotham City being mowed down in packs as the two terminally damaged psyches do violent battle. Their climactic face-off, when it comes, swiftly descends into an orgy of recrimination, each blaming the other for his existence – and his actions. (This scene is unsettlingly reminiscent of the final moments of Conan The Barbarian.) Disappointingly, this showdown almost immediately shifts from the moral and psychological to the purely visual. By its end, Batman has become just another action movie, with lots and lots of gunshots, explosions, and faceless extras dying gruesome deaths.

If Batman ultimately fails on a narrative level, visually, it is a joy to behold. Anton Furst’s production design is nothing less than exquisite, creating a Gotham City both beautiful and terrifying. "Stately Wayne Manor" makes a couple of brief appearances, enough to fill us full of pity for the orphaned child raised within its forbidding walls; and the film’s climax takes place in a cathedral that soars impossibly into the chilly Gotham sky. (Bats in the belfry? – how could they resist?) The Batmobile and the Batplane are simply gorgeous – sleek, sexy and threatening all at once; we don’t wonder at The Joker’s helpless envy. And Batman and The Joker both look right too, thankfully – although the design of the Batsuit is more decorative than functional. In truth, it’s pretty obvious that there’s no way Batman could do what we see him doing here if he were actually wearing the thing. (Of course, it’s equally obvious that it’s a stuntman inside the suit most of the time and not Michael Keaton – so perhaps we should just move away from this subject altogether….) But all of these positive things inadvertently create another problem - although admittedly, I might be displaying my ignorance of the movie’s source here. (Or perhaps by this time I should say, displaying it again.) The Gotham City we see here simply doesn’t seem a place where "ordinary" things might happen, yet the crimewave plaguing the city during the opening scenes is ordinary in the extreme; or is "real world" the expression I’m looking for? The overall ambience of this film is deeply peculiar, with gothic architecture forming a backdrop to a forties world full of nineties problems – and language – and relationships. Having been indoctrinated with the notion of Gotham City as a place of depressingly familiar criminal activities, when Batman makes his appearance, when Jack Napier survives his fall into a vat of chemicals, when people start dying as a result of murderous hand-buzzers and noxious cosmetics, it’s jarring rather than natural, as it should be. What we seem to have here is yet another film made by people ambivalent about the "Superhero" concept, and unable to commit themselves wholeheartedly to something so decidedly otherworldly.

The film has other shortcomings, too. Danny Elfman’s score, overly Bernard Herrmann-esque as it is, is one of its virtues, but the inclusion of songs by Prince was a hideous miscalculation. They not only jolt the viewer completely out of the Gotham City world, they reek of commercial interests overriding artistic integrity. (And as if all this wasn’t bad enough, the intrusive way in which the songs are imposed upon the film, particularly during The Joker’s demolition of a museum, simply shrieks "Instant MTV Clip!" – although at this distance I can’t remember whether they were in fact so used.) Another disappointing aspect of the film is its waste of a good supporting cast. While uninteresting actors like Robert Wuhl are given substantial screentime, Pat Hingle and Michael Gough are criminally underused, although the latter does get a few good moments – and a couple that make the jaw drop in disbelief. As for Billy Dee Williams, you really have to wonder why he bothered turning up. (Well, actually, we do know: because he was supposed subsequently to land the plum role in the sequel that was eventually given to Christopher Walken.) The screenplay, although lacking sufficient depth and complexity, does maintain a thread of pitch-black humour which is in keeping with the film’s overall sense of darkness. It also provides Jack Nicholson with the means of delivering one of the cinema’s most maniacally over-the-top performances; and indeed, your enjoyment – or otherwise – of the film as a whole might well be determined by your response to Nicholson’s scene-stealing antics. I’m not overly fond of them myself, as you’ve probably gathered from the tone of this review; I kept thinking how much of Jack’s rant time could have gone into developing the other characters a bit better – particularly the titular one. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Michael Keaton as you watch Batman. It should be his film, dammit! – but it never is. Still, it was his co-star who got killed off (they probably couldn’t afford to keep him), and Keaton himself who went on to Batman Returns – a still darker and much more disturbingly twisted effort than its predecessor. And after that, of course, Keaton bowed out and Tim Burton retired to the producer’s chair, the franchise being left to the tender mercies of Val Kilmer and Joel Schumacher – but that, as they say, is another story….

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