Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Batman (1989)

The Joker (Jack Nicholson) laments when his crimes are overshadowed by the Caped Crusader's heroics. "Can somebody tell me what kind of world we live in where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press? This town needs an enema!" The irony of the line is how the Joker and his antics upstage Batman (Michael Keaton) throughout the movie. The Joker is colorful, gets all the good lines and gags, and undergoes a transformation from gangster Jack Napier to the scarred, psychotic, cackling Clown Prince of Crime.

Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne are an enigma, both to the audience and the other characters. The police don't know what to make of him and try to arrest him. A reporter  seeks him out, and the criminal underworld is afraid of him, not knowing if he's man or monster. A man of the shadows, he is a bubble of barely restrained psychosis. Bruce Wayne can only find an identity and purpose when he dons the cape and cowl and becomes Batman. He is a determined outsider who refuses to allow anyone past his defenses. When Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), the photographer who loves Bruce Wayne, tries to see past the mask, he turns away. Their encounter ends when he steals the photographs she took of him.

The clash of these two damaged psyches is at the center of Tim Burton's Batman (1989), a visually splendid and psychologically fascinating look at the hero and terror of gloomy Gotham City but not without its flaws. While certainly the best Batman movie of the four films in the series produced in the eighties and nineties, it's not everything it could have been.

The same problem that would befall Batman Returns can be found here: Batman is essentially a supporting character in his own movie. This is really the story of the Joker, where he came from, what made him what he is, and how Batman deals with him. Thankfully, Joker is the only main villain, so we do get some more scenes with Batman/Bruce Wayne, but they feel more disjointed and less developed, although Keaton does what he can to make them work, really conveying a detached nervousness and slight paranoia.

Another problem that would return in Batman Returns is Batman kills people. If there is one element to his character that I always admired, it's his refusal to take a life. No matter what the criminals do, Batman will not (not cannot) cross that line. Otherwise, he'll start down a path to where he's no different from them. Plus, by making Joker the murderer of his parents, it turns one man's crusade against evil and injustice into a simple case of revenge. Batman also blows up a factory, presumably taking out dozens of henchmen, which seems so out of character.

Burton also spends much of the first part of the film establishing a number of important characters, some from the comics and some not: Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle), District Attorney Harvey Dent (Billy Dee Williams), and the reporter Alexander Knox (Wuhl), but they're seemingly forgotten about by the film's end. Even Vicki Vale goes from a determined photographer to a swooning damsel in distress. That seems like it's by design rather than oversight. By the end, it comes back to Joker and Batman.

Still, it must be said, but the Joker is extremely entertaining. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Nicholson is essentially playing himself as the Joker, but unlike Schwarzenegger, his  persona is a perfect fit for the character. Nicholson has always had a devilish charisma and wicked fiendishness, and that allows him to craft a psychotic yet funny villain. He gleefully does some pretty freaky and outlandish things, whether it's destroying art at a museum or killing people with his laughing gas, and it works both at establishing him as a threat and generating laughs. As Heath Ledger would later portray in The Dark Knight, the Joker is about creating anarchy and chaos while laughing the world. Ledger would play that for that terror while Nicholson goes for darkly funny, and since he dominates so much of the movie, it's worth watching just for him.

In contrast, Batman is about order. We see him do what he can to stop crime, but sometimes, he only makes it worse or is too late. A family is mugged outside a theater before he can act, and his efforts to apprehend Jack Napier results in the creation of a much more dangerous foe. Wherea Joker makes people laugh (just before killing them), Batman frightens them.

The look Burton creates in the film is astounding, something of a Gothic cross between comic book, film noir, and grand opera. It's dark and edgy throughout, but it brightens up on occasion. The score by Danny Elfman is iconic, and I'll even admit to enjoying the contributions by Prince. Still, I don't think they delved deep into the character of Batman.

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