Debriefing #24: ‘Batman’ (1989)

batman1989-title

Batman (1989)
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriters: Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren
Cast: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Michael Gough, Billy Dee Williams

Edgar: If only I could have been my age in the summer of 1989. I was only 6 and therefore my memory of the Batman craze that took over is a little hazy. In fact, I don’t believe I saw Batman in cinemas but rather on home video some time later. Today, Tim Burton is seen as something of a hack, an uninspired choice for movies that could do well by hiring directors with fresher takes on the stories. 1989 pretty much put Burton on the map. His 1989 Batman is celebrated by many, fondly remembered by most and was for all intents and purposes one of the most important comic book to movie adaptations ever. James, I’m obviously curious to know what your general opinion of the film is but I’m almost more interested to know if you think ‘Batman’, to you, is mostly a Batman movie, a Tim Burton movie or a solid combination of both?

James: That’s a great question because when I watched this film, for a good 20 minutes I was thinking that this doesn’t seem like much of a Batman film. It’s quite a while before Batman even shows up on screen, the film spends a lot of time setting up the tone and atmosphere of the film, this seedy city of crime with crooked cops and corporate greed. It feels more like the setup for a noir film. It’s a film oozing with atmosphere and style, and so in a lot of ways it’s more of a Burton movie in that opening act. However, once we ease into the Batman and Joker stuff, this is undeniably a Batman story. So my answer is that it’s half and half for me. There’s a lot of stuff that is style and atmosphere, but the core conflict and story is Batman through and through. What’s your take?

E: Batman to me feels like a dry run for the second installment, Batman Returns. We’ll certainly get to that film at some point in the future and talk about Tim Burton’s influence on that picture. But, with respect to today’s movie, I feel Burton is given some leeway to do his thing if you will whilst having to tell a basic Batman storyline. You mention atmosphere and style and I’ll definitely agree that in those regards the Burton-isms are clearly felt. I would also point towards Michael Keaton’s performance. Less so as Batman and more so as Bruce Wayne. Burton seems to like casting actors who can play parts with unorthodox ticks and odd little body movements and so forth (just think of all those bloody movies with Johnny Depp). Keaton fits that bill tremendously and I love him in this movie, in part because he’s such a strange choice to play Bruce Wayne. On the whole however, I think Burton was forced to juggle with too much material and some of it is utterly pointless, some of it dealt with briefly before being totally forgotten about, etc. We’ll get into the details soon enough but I’d like to know where you stand on Michael Keaton as an actor and in this movie.

batman1989-brucewayne

J: In general, Keaton is one of those actors that I’ve never been wowed by. I did enjoy him in Jackie Brown, but he’s one of those stars that I watch and find passable most of the time. I feel the same way about him here. I think he’s a lot better as Bruce Wayne. There’s a nervous energy to him that doesn’t get into that quirky territory and I think that works at playing this Bruce as less of a playboy and more of an eccentric slightly out of touch with the world. Still, he feels paper dry through most of this movie, more of set dressing than an actor. That seems cruel to say, but I just never felt any sort of energy behind his performance. It felt so inert to me. I mean he does have those interesting, dramatic,but awkward, physical mannerisms as Batman, but it didn’t really work for me beyond that. Am I alone in this or did you have trouble with Keaton here as well?

E: Well, I can’t say I was enamored by his portrayal of Batman specifically. It must be so hard to play that sort of character. The actor wears a thick rubber suit, you can barely see his face and he has to put on something of a gruff voice when delivering dialogue. Some actors can pull that stuff off, others are less adept at it. I’m willing to admit that maybe Keaton isn’t the best. As Bruce Wayne however, I have to say that I think he’s a lot of fun in this movie. The eccentricity you alluded to earlier plays a large part in why I love his interpretation of Bruce Wayne. It’s very different from what we’ve seen in the Christopher Nolan films and the books we’ve read since starting this little project of ours. Obviously it’s not the definitive version of Bruce Wayne, it’s a little too much on the silly side of things, but that’s what I like about Keaton in general, he can balance sincerity with silliness really quite well. It’s ridiculous but I believe it. Opposite Keaton is one of Hollywood’s great legends, Jack Nicholson as The Joker. Now, I think there’s a lot to discuss about this version of the Joker. Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first. What do you think of Jack here?

batman1989-joker

J: Nicholson is a whole different ballgame. I’m a big fan of this performance. I know for a lot of people now, Ledger is the defining Joker performance, but I think Nicholson’s performance is putting the character in a different space. He’s playing the character loud and large and Jack Nicholson is just the kind of person to get to play that kind of performance. He’s got the expressive face, the bulging eyes and the unbridled energy to pull it off. His delivery is consistently able to push things over the top in just the right doses. The “You’re my number one guy” bit teeters on the edge of being too much, but his timing is just great. I think it’s a magnificent performance and easily my favorite part of the film.

E: Wow, ‘Magnificent’ you say. I didn’t know you’d come down THAT positively on Nicholson here. Geez, you probably ended liking him more than I do! The Heath Ledger performance from a few years ago really did win over a staggering number of people. I feel as though if you dare utter a single misgiving about what Ledger did you’re immediately scolded for it. But you know what, I kind of dig Nicholson’s performance a little more! The Joker needs to be feared and fun. Ledger is terrifying but he’s not at all fun. Nicholson can balance those too pretty nicely. I think there are moments when the dialogue he has to deliver is a bit on the weak side but most the time he’s quite hilarious. I remember when these Burton and Schumacher films came out a lot of people kept saying that the villains really stole the show away from Batman each time and if there was ever case where that applies, it’s here. Okay, so we’re good on Nicholson’s work, but let’s get into the character as is in the film. A lot of the mythology is turned on its head here: where the Joker comes from, what his relationship with Bruce Wayne is…Where do you stand on this elements?

J: Yea, that part I didn’t like. As a character, part of what makes The Joker so interesting is not having that background on him. There’s something unnerving and mysterious about that. I find that the Batman stories that try to give The Joker a past suffer for it. I can see that the wanted to make the antagonist and protagonist have a personal connection, but what has always made Batman and The Joker interesting is that they’re a thin line away from each other. There’s a common obsessive drive, but they fall on different sides: one wants anarchy and one wants order. When the stories make that connection, I find them far more interesting. This background feels forced and means that the story drags in some places by trying to make that connection. It’s the safer storytelling mode, but it fails to get at what makes the characters compelling.

E: Hmm, I’m mixed on the whole matter. Let me start by saying that I don’t mind the idea of Batman having created the Joker. It adds that interesting bit of responsibility on Batman’s shoulders which I appreciated. He made him and now he has to deal with him. That I did like to a certain extent even though, yes, traditionally we have no idea where the Joker came from and his past is pretty much a mystery. As for him having killed Bruce’s parents when he was a younger hoodlum, I absolutely loathed that choice. It’s such a ‘movie’ decision. The audience needs that extra bit of drama to connect dots that really don’t even have to exist in the first place. Is this a Batman fanboy complaint? You bet your butt it is, but I’m a Batman fanboy so i’ll whine about it all I bloody want. There are a host of other characters that pop up in this movie, some which prove worthy of notice, others that I found essentially useless. Vicki Vale: damsel in distress or solid supporting payer?

batman1989-vicki

J: I went back and forth on her. On the one hand, as a reporter, she has her own agenda in the story, but as we get to the last act, it’s clear she just exists so Batman and Joker can battle over her. That was lame given that she’s this famous photojournalist that just got back from photographing war atrocities in a third-world country. You’ve got to be tough to do that and it felt like the cheapened her character in the final act. I really liked her spunk early on, especially in those early scenes with Bruce. I’m interested in your thoughts on here, but also, what about Gordon and Dent? Are you with me in thinking those were essentially pointless additions to the cast of characters?

E: Okay, this is where we get into the part of the discussion where I elaborate on what I wrote earlier, about ‘Batman’ having some Burton-esque elements but too often hampered by what either a script or the studio wanted him to accomplish as a gun for hire. Vicki Vale’s saving grace is that she is played by the delightful Kim Basinger. At least I think she’s delightful (always have and always will). Vicki Vale the character is a waste of space. There’s nothing there, literally nothing. Why introduce as a highly touted photojournalist only to have her scream her way through the picture? If she’s played by anyone other than Basinger, I’d probably hate her character. To your next point, again, Burton is forcing or was forced (I’m not sure to be honest) to shoehorn way too much content in the early going, so much so that some of it has to be done away with early and cheaply, other parts of which are just forgotten. Billy Dee Williams shows up as Harvey Dent, has a few scenes is basically never heard from again. Is this setup for a future movie? What is that? And then there’s the crooked cop named Lt. Eckhardt. No point, absolutely no point. I had no idea why he’s in this movie. The worst one of all is the newspaper journalist, Knox, played by Robert Whul. He’s funny, has some decent early scenes, you think he and Vale are either going to hook up or at least form a professional partnership but he vanishes too! All of that really disappointed me.

J: Yes, I agree about Burton having too much material here. This version of Batman has a fantastic 90 minute movie trapped inside of it. If you lost some of those side characters, introduced Batman about 10-15 minutes earlier into the film, I think you’d have a better film. It’s one of those movies that makes me want to do a fan edit and cut out the fluff. So far, we’ve focused a lot on plot and characters, but I’m interested in what you think of Burton’s visual interpretation of both Batman, his gear, and Gotham City?

Batman1989-batmobile

E: I like that Batsuit for the most part. For me the one crack in the armour is the brilliant yellow Batman insignia. I doubt Batman should go prancing around with that kind of a logo in his chest. I mean, it looks like a target for marksmen for crying out loud. That’s one area where I thought the Batsuit design in the Nolan films got it right. That said, his car, the Batmobile, however impractical, is absolutely beautiful to look at. I don’t know why it needs to shoot out grappling hooks onto to posts to perform sharp turns (you’d think the freaking Batmobile could do that without resorting to such tricks) but I’m love with the design. Even better is when the bullet proof coating covers it. Ooh, just plain sexy. As for Gotham, I can’t say enough how much I enjoy watching a movie from a bygone era where filmmakers had to come up with actual sets. You know, as in build them. Yes, the movie looks like it was made on a set, but there’s a inventiveness to how Gotham looks. Earlier you used the term film noir and that came to mind as well watching the film again. The wet streets, the smokey alleyways, the tall buildings that overshadow the citizens, it feels right. It feels authentic for this world and I really really like it. How about you?

J: I’m with you on most of these points. I did want to mention that I know that one Batman comic explained the bright yellow logo by saying Batman made it as a target so people would aim for his chest instead of his head, which I always thought was a clever explanation. Can’t for the life of me remember which comic that was, though. Also, while I liked the atmosphere of the city of Gotham, I was a bit on the fence about the art-deco style of the architecture. I always associated that look more with Metropolis. It does kinda work here, but I always felt Gotham was a bit more of an industrial meets gothic vibe. More of a nitpic than anything else. There’s also one other major element we haven’t talked about yet: Danny Elfman’s Score. It’s obviously the iconic Batman theme, so much so it’s used in the Batman: The Animated Series. I don’t think it will surprise anyone when I say I really enjoyed this soundtrack. What about you?

E: Is anyone allowed to retain their Batman fan membership is they admit to not enjoying Elfman’s work on Batman? Let’s be clear, this is the golden era of Danny Elfman, a time when he could basically do no wrong. I think that lasted right up until Spider-Man 2. After that it’s a lot of generic, uninspiring dribble. His work on Batman sets the bar extremely high for any other composer tasked with writing any sort of Batman score in any sort of medium. My favourite, Hans Zimmer, the Zimmerman, failed to outdo Elfman, that’s how good the latter’s work is. Yes, the actual Batman theme is fantastic but there are a variety of lovely touches throughout the score. There’s a frantic pace to a lot of the pieces that almost feel as though they could work in the ‘60s show, which sounds crazy I’m sure, but they fit in perfectly with this darker interpretation. Elfman is extraordinary in finding that balance between dark and brooding and genuine fun, some craziness. There’s more music we need to discuss but I’ll let you share some thoughts on the score first.

J: I think you hit a lot of what makes the soundtrack work for me. It’s Elfman at his best. He’s able to go for that iconic bold feel that made him work so well back at this time. It’s funny that you talk about it working in a ‘60s show, because I also got that feel that there was a playfulness to it that could fit into that campier feel of the first Batman show. I also felt like this was more of an atmospheric score. It’s evocative without ever coming across as in your face, which is where I think Zimmer’s Batman scores fell apart for me. But let’s not drift too far off topic, I feel like the other thing you’re alluding to is the musical workings of a certain Prince. What did you think of those songs?

batman1989-pricemusic

E: Heh heh heh… It’s really quite strange discussing the inclusion of these Prince songs in the film. In fact, I’m constantly wrestling with my own feelings on the matter. Look, I don’t listen to a whole lot of Prince. What I’ve heard I find quite catchy, quite cool so I guess I can say I like his work okay. These songs in Batman, “Partyman,” “Trust” and so on and so forth, they are so catchy it’s ridiculous. I absolutely love them. “Partyman” is a tune I can probably listen to on loop all day as I walk downtown, I’m not joking. Where do they fit in a Batman movie?…I think the movie gets away with it because they represent the Joker’s personal soundtrack. He’s an eccentric in his own right, a homicidal maniac, a nutjob and you give him these outlandish Prince songs to back him up…I know it’s really weird. Why should these songs be in this movie?!? But I don’t know, I think because they’re restricted to accompanying the Joker’s dastardly deeds they work. James?

J: Hum, well, I dunno. It feels of its time. I get that you could say that about a lot of contemporary songs put into films, but for some reason it doesn’t do much for me here. It might just be that Price does nothing for me. I’ve listened to him outside of this film and he’s not for me. Music is so subjective that it’s more of a personal preference than anything else. It’s certainly not bad and I do agree that I feel that for an interpretation of Joker at that time, having him do these maniacal things to a Prince song fits the character. It work for the film, it’s just not something that I feel strongly about either way.

E: Batman is a good if imperfect start to what would go on to become one of the movie franchises ever and certainly a significant turning point in Hollywood’s desire to choose and pick from comic book stories to sell movie tickets. What it gets right is gets very, very right. What it gets wrong sometimes feels pretty boneheaded I must admit. That said, the good outweighs the bad, so much so that I still fall quite positively on it. I do think however that the better Burton film is still to come. James, have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?

J: Only in my dreams.

E: Don’t worry, I won’t kill you. I just like the sound of it.

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