So I had always meant to see this again, but it became more urgent with The Dark Knight Rises coming out, and lo and behold, it happened to hit my mailbox the very day the new film was released. I saw this film when it came out, and remember the hysteria around it, and have seen it maybe four times previously. But I must say, I have never enjoyed it and appreciated what it was doing as much as I did this time.
For the kids today, some historical context. It has to be understood that this film was reacting against the popular Batman television series, which was extremely silly and campy. Some might even say moronic. So although this film might seem campy in comparison to the Nolan films, this was actually a great leap forward in terms of treating Batman seriously, and with a dark side, from where things were. It was also perhaps the first movie to treat superheroes seriously, which echoes up til now. And much as the Nolan films seem different, they have to be seen in the context of reacting against THIS film. They've also stolen innumerable things from this film--not least of which is the suit--which have passed virtually without comment. So while this film took Batman from the silly TV show and made it semi-serious, the Nolan films took Batman from this film and made it not just serious, but as realistic as possible.
So we open with a credits sequence I have always liked, in which we hear Danny Elfman's moody score as we fly around some gothic architecture, which soon is revealed as the Batman logo. We then have a long shot of Gotham City as a dirty, mucky and grim place, and I recall this shot alone getting a cheer when I first saw the film, just because people were thrilled to have this story treated with appropriate darkness. We open with a couple and a young boy leaving the Monarch theater (Monarchs being things that will gain wings as they grow older) which has deliberate, exact echoes of Bruce Wayne's parents being killed, revealed much later in the film, after leaving that same theater. Thugs attack the kids' parents, and are later beaten up by Batman, who is introduced with a great deal of theatricality. Batman tells the thugs to tell his friends, and the sequence comes to a dramatic head with the utterance of the line "I'm Batman." This line and moment were stolen directly for Batman Begins.
We now have some stuff establishing Jack Nicholson as a gangster. By now we've noticed that Gotham City is more Blade Runner than anything, and that all of the action takes place on sets, with mattes and models filling out the long shots. This allows meticulous control over the atmosphere of the city, which becomes its own major character. Everything is in a style of overblown industrialization, with huge statues showing people suffering under great burdens. One can note how in the later, Schumacher films, Gotham became a much brighter, neon-filled place that seemed relatively fun, whereas here even the nice restaurants and museums look as tough they were meant to be flooded with water.
The gangsters have all been given a classic 30s gangster look with pinstripe suits and fedoras, inhabiting spaces with art deco flourishes. All of this pays homage to the era in which Batman comics were first released. I had forgotten that we got so much background on the Joker's story, but we see a fair amount of Nicholson before the transformation, and how people thought he was psychotic even then. Batman accidentally drops him into a vat of chemicals, and then we have some nice, very comic book-like scenes as the Joker tries to be fixed through plastic surgery, before he finally accepts who he is. When I first saw this film I guess I was trying to take it seriously as a story, so the Joker's tale didn't have much intrigue, but this time I was viewing the whole thing as more of an artistic construction, which makes it work much better. In our first view of the Joker, he is a darkened shadow, but we can see that he has a bizarrely white face. This helps set up the theme of this version, that Batman and the Joker are both truly warped freaks, one black, one white.
After introducing Kim Basinger as Vicky Vale, we next meet Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne, as well as butler Alfred, introduced as following just behind the bumbling Wayne and cleaning up all his messes. Now, Christian Bale does a nice, introspective Bruce Wayne, who has been through a lot, but he just doesn't seem a bit mentally warped as Keaton does here. He plays Wayne as a bemused stranger in his own life, as confused as anyone else. Bale seems to create Batman because he chooses to, whereas Keaton's Wayne creates Batman because he HAS to. It has often been said that in the Burton films, Batman is more of a real person than Wayne, and this proves to be true. You can decide which version is the more interesting.
The movie also takes pains to point out that Wayne is strange (but not THAT strange) by having Vicky see him sleep by hanging upside-down, and having her follow him as he goes and lays roses in an alley, which we will later find out is where his parents were killed in front of him. In the Nolan films, Wayne is private and secretive, but essentially sane, and you have the feeling that if he became close to someone he would let them in. Keaton's Wayne is truly off in some crucial way, and one senses that no one could get "in" with him, because there may not be any "in" to get to.
So the Joker gathers all of Gotham's gangsters and takes control of them--a scene virtually recreated for The Dark Knight--then later shows up in public to assassinate a prominent member of their ilk. One thing I appreciated this time is how trouble shows up in the form of mimes, something inherently playful--also inherently creepy--and Burton uses them excellently to draw out the Joker's deadly sense of whimsy. That's what the Joker does here that, to me, is more in the sense of what his character is supposed to be about: this elevated sense of humor and whimsy that gets exaggerated to the point of becoming manic and terrifying. This time I appreciated that almost all of the Joker's lines were ironic twists on cliches, and that most of his pranks are deadly versions of things commonly considered cheerful.
So one thing you have to appreciate about this film is that Warner Brothers handed it to Tim Burton, at a time when he had only made two movies, and said "Here you go, here's a massive canvas to display your personal sensibility on." And of course, he ran with it. One of the amusing aspects is a distrust of consumerism implanted here by having the Joker poison common household products, resulting in "Gotham's shopping nightmare." Then there's a hilarious joke right in the center of the film as we see some typical, buffed-to-a-sheen newscasters, then a moment later, after the cosmetics scare, we see them again, hair all straggly and out of place, pimples marring their faces. This is one of the key things I remembered about this film, twenty years later.
So blah, blah, it goes on, introducing the Batmobile as black and shiny and hyper-stylized--which Nolan would specifically react against in having it become essentially a tank--and having Batman arrayed with so many gadgets ("Where DOES he get all those wonderful toys?" the Joker wonders) he's got something for every occasion. The movie also has the Joker abruptly (and unconvincingly) suddenly decide the he, too, wants Vale, setting up that conflict, sure, but in a way that comes out of the blue and exists only to... set up that conflict. Obviously the kindest thing that can be said about Kim Basinger is that she's not quite as horrible as she always is.
And now! The one line of dialogue that nearly single-handedly destroyed the entire film! Alfred decides to take it upon himself to let Vicky into the batcave. So she has JUST found out that her boyfriend is Batman. But does she want to know how he started this secret life in the first place? Does she want to know how he manages to keep his two identities going? Does she want to know how he amassed this crazy costume, and car, and plane, and other wacky things like that? No, she "just gotta know... are we going to TRY to love each other?" For me, the first few times I saw this... KA-boom, the whole movie is destroyed, right there, with that single, astonishingly moronic line. You just found out your boyfriend is Batman and THAT'S the only question you have? It took Pauline Kael's review to get me to understand that Vicky is actually canny--not a vacuous, simple-minded narcissist--in realizing that her competition comes not from any other woman, but from his split identity. Okay, I get it now. But still--couldn't we have said it some other way?
So onward into the climax. We introduce the bat-jet, which is itself a little joke as the whole thing makes the bat symbol, and this movie gets big points from me for including the little grace note that has it silhouetted for a moment against the full moon (above). I like it because it adds nothing to the story, it's just a nice touch that they went out of their way to include just as a little extra. That is also one of the key things I have remembered about this film since I first saw it. I forgot the story and characters, but remembered that.
The climax makes explicit the intended duality of Batman and the Joker, how they "made" each other, which works better on a structural level than it does on a plot level. It's resolved, we have some wrap-up, and then Burton adds a nice touch and ends on an iconic shot of Batman standing guard over the city with the bat-signal lit in the sky.
That very sense of drama and style seems to be exactly what Nolan was reacting against. The achievement of his films is to bring a sense of realism to this story, to the extent that with Dark Knight I came out feeling like it wasn’t really a superhero story at all, but really just about this guy with the drive and money to develop this secret identity, etc. So, yay Nolan.
But that’s not to say that a sense of style and drama isn’t welcome. My personal taste, I kind of like it (in retrospect) the Burton way. I like the elevated sense of drama and I love all the art direction. Like look at the shot above, which just effortlessly creates an iconic Batman image but without great fanfare or calling attention to itself. I love the big, fake look of Gotham City and all the attention to costumes, and the use of models, and the sense that this is all happening in some self-contained fantasy world. By this time I am so, soooooo over Tim Burton, but watching this again made me appreciate his sensibility when applied intelligently (and when someone else writes the screenplay), and made me understand the debt the Nolan films owe to this one. As it recedes in the distance, it’s looking more and more like a classic.