Thursday, September 6, 2012

Batman (1989)

        For as long back as I can remember, I've always loved superheroes, especially the masked ones who have operated in secret. I don't know why, but masks and disguises have always fascinated me. Just the fact that you could place a mask over your face and suddenly become this totally different persona. You could do things with that mask and costume on that you wouldn't do normally. With the right tools and fighting skills, you could jump off rooftops and fight the criminals that plaque the inner cities. Apparently, I wasn't the only kid who found dual identies and masked avengers fascinating as a boy named Michael Uslan felt as passionate about comic book superheroes as I did. In fact, we both had the same favorite hero growing up, Batman. A billionaire by day, a masked crime fighter by night, Batman/Bruce Wayne was the second comic book hero ever created. Since May 1939, he has been in Detective Comics (now known as DC), serials, television, cartoons, and thanks to Michael Uslan, the movies.

      Batman was created in 1939 by a young man from the Bronx in New York City named Bob Kane. Kane grew up loving masked crusaders such as the legendary Zorro and The Shadow. Being influenced by these men who operated under the cover of darkness and having a rough childhood by growing up in the inner city as well as a painting by Leonardo De Vinci, Bob Kane crafted a hero who was Human, the opposite of Detective Comics' first hero Superman. The Batman was the tragic story of billionaire Bruce Wayne who watched in horror as a thug shot and killed his parents right in front of him. The trauma caused Bruce to thrust to bring justice to a corrupt city known as Gotham. The character began as the typical vigilante out for revenge with gripping a hand gun and killing the criminals. That soon was scrapped and it became apparent that Batman would fight the criminals and use fear to intimidate them rather than taking their lives.  In 1940, it was decided to make a more theatrical villain for The Batman rather than the typical drug dealers and low lifes. Jerry Robinson, who helped out Bob Kane and Bill Finger got inspiration for a first big challenging villain for Batman to face. Robinson's inspiration came from a silent film called "The Man Who Laughs", which is about a guy who has his cheeks cut where he is smiling all the time. Batman's first big enemy in Gotham City became known only as The Joker, a man who had the frightening features of a clown but who's crimes were random unlike the more organized criminals on the streets. That same year, Bob Kane decided to give Batman a partner as he felt that it would be a great idea for Batman to have someone to talk to and for kids reading the comics to feel like they could go with Batman on his many cases. Thus, Robin was born.

         After the 1940s, Batman started to become more campy and comical in the 1950s. We got aliens, giant typewriters and pianos, corny jokes, and the like. This new camp fad didn't stop at the 1950s, but ran on through the '60s too. The world had changed so the comics changed too. When Batman was first created, we were going through the two World Wars so the comics were pretty dark. But, once the World Wars ended, the country went into peace time. The 1950s were seen as a more family time. A time of groovy music, greasy hair, and stricter guidelines on comics. Also, a doctor of child  psychology wrote a bullshit book explaining how bad comic books were for kids. He even went as far as saying that kids could get sick because they were busy inside reading comics than outside playing. Parents were also different with calling comics trash and didn't want their children reading them. So, comic book publishers were forced to abide by guidelines and had to be approved with a label of appropriate content in order to publish the comic. Therefore, a character like Batman had to become "safe" for the youth of dear America. Gone were the tragicness of a kid who lost his parents due to crime and in was a guy who smiled and ran around with a kid sidekick dodging giant typewriters and pianos.

      The campy Batman continued on into the 1960s. But, Batman was also going to be seen in another medium, television. In 1966, Fox turned Batman into a television series starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. This news excited comic book and Batman fanatic Michael Uslan, that is until he realized that Batman was turned into a comedy show and that adults were actually LAUGHING at The Caped Crusader!  Anyway, the television show lasted about three seasons and also got an animated spinoff. The show was such a pop culture icon, but was the opposite of what creator Bob Kane had started back in 1939. Thankfully, the camp fad came to an end and Batman was totally reinvented in the '70s bringing the character back to his more darker roots. In the early '70s, one of Michael Uslan's childhood dreams came true, he actually got to write his own Batman comics. But then he realized what he truly desired to do next. Mr. Uslan wanted to bring a dark and serious Batman movie to the cinema! He wanted to return Batman to being a creature of the night fighting the criminals from the shadows. Uslan was able to acquire the film rights to Batman without a hitch, but didn't realize that nobody in Hollywood wanted to make Batman into a dark film due to the cult television series.

         During the 1980s while Uslan struggled like crazy to get a Batman movie off the ground, the character received some of the best treatment in comics. There was the classic A Death In The Family series where Robin was killed by The Joker in an explosion after being beaten to a pulp with a crowbar. There was the awesome Jepth Loeb graphic novel The Long Halloween, which dealt with the Holiday killer picking off the members of the mob families as well as the fall of Harvey Dent into becoming Two-Face. But, the most iconic ones were by one Frank Miller who first gave us the phenominal The Dark Knight Returns about a 55 year year old Batman in a grittier and futuristic Gotham City and also Batman Year One, which explored The Dark Knight's classic origin story and the beginning of his alliance with Jim Gordon over the course of a year. Alan Moore also wrote a great short graphic novel called The Killing Joke, which finally revealed an origin story for The Joker and had him torture Commissioner Jim Gordon after shooting and paralizing his daughter Barbara.

         In 1988 however, Michael Uslan was finally able to get a deal with Warner Bros. to distribute Batman into a major Hollywood film. While the movie was definitely on the way, a rough pre-production and production took place. Batman is a film that could have easily fallen apart, but all the stars were in alignment. From getting up and coming director Tim Burton to the controversial yet genius casting of Michael Keaton as Batman to the even more genius casting of Jack Nicholson as The Joker, Batman turned out better than its cast and crew could have even dream imaginable. It was the start of Batmania. Not only was the film a huge blockbuster hit back in June 1989, but when it made its debut on VHS later that year, it changed my life forever.

          Gotham City is one of the most crime infested cities on Earth. There's prostitutes. There's drug dealers. There's that homeless guy who just wants  a dollar. There's crooked cops. There's mob boss Carl Grissom. And there was the murders of Gotham's most prominant doctor, Thomas Wayne, and his wife right in front of their young son.  But some mysterious figure dressed as a bat is striking fear in the criminal underworld.  The media consisting of reporter Alexander Knox and photographer Vicki Vale team up to try to find the truth about the mysterious Batman. Gotham's new D.A. Harvey Dent and Commissioner James Gordon promise to bring down Grissom.  Meanwhile, Grissom and his gang lead by Jack Napier want to break into Axis Chemicals to trash the place.  A shootout breaks out when the Gotham Police arrive to stop Napier and the boys. Batman confronts Jack Napier on the catwalk and during a struggle, Napier's bullet bounces off and pierces his cheek muscles causing severence as well as Napier falling into a vat of chemicals. Soon, a rising criminal known as The Joker reveals himself by killing Grissom and electrifying a man with a hand shake. Joker has developed a deadly toxin at Axis Chemicals that he has hidden in various make-up and wash up supplies to kill fellow Gothamites by causing them to laugh maniacially till they die with a smile on their face. Joker has targeted Bruce Wayne and Batman's main squeeze Vicki Vale. It is up to Batman to stop The Joker once in for all, but Bruce soon realizes that Joker is the same man he's been searching for all these years. The same man who came out of the shadows, shot his gun two times, and created The Dark Knight.

          Batman is a movie that truly changed my life at such a tender age. I will never forget sitting on the couch at my grandmother's house and watching this film on VHS for the first time. That scene where we first see Batman will always be with me. Two thugs sitting up on the rooftop counting the cash they stole from a woman and her family. Behind them, you can see a smoky spot. A shadowy figure glides down in the distance. The two guys hear a footstep. BAM! Batman spreads out his cape and flies down. Kicks one guy through a wooden door. The other guy tries to run. Bat-A-Rang wraps around the man's foot, tripping him up and pulling him as he panics and tries to grab on to something. Batman lifts the guy up in the air and hovers him over the edge.

         "Don't kill me! Don't kill me man!", the thug screams out.

      "I'm not gonna kill you. I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me.", Batman tells him.

              "What are you?!"

                  "I'm Batman."

         Then Batman just throws the guy back onto the roof and jumps down. The man looks over and nobody is there and then cries in fear. Just a phenominal way to introduce the audience to the character. I'm sure those who laughed at Batman back in the 1960s or didn't like the casting of Michael Keaton just creamed their fucking pants.  The thing that drew my toddler self to the character was the badass costume first and foremost as well as Danny Elfman's phenominal music score and the atmosphere of Gotham City. I've always been attracted to dark and gothic material probably because Tim Burton's movies were huge parts of my childhood. I loved his previous film Beetlejuice. Had the action figure, the mask, and watched the animated series all the time. Monsters and ghouls fascinated me even if I was frightened by some of them at an early age. So there is no real shocker why I loved Batman. This movie really began my fandom and obsession with the character. Soon after I saw this movie, my grandma bought me a Batman doll, a Joker action figure, Batman pajamas with the little cape, bedroom slippers, birthday cake, the plastic Halloween mask, and the list goes on.

         But, Batman and Gotham City weren't the only things that grabbed my attention, so did Batman's greatest villain The Joker. What a great character this guy is! Whether he is the pranksterish clown prince of crime or the agent of chaos, The Joker remains the greatest villain in comics to this day.  I know some people didn't look happy that The Joker had an origin story in this film and felt he should just be a total blank. I think those people were using Brand X! But, with the new Joker brand, they'll get a grin again and again. That lushest tan, those ruby lips, and hair color so natural even your undertaker knows for sure.  The Joker is The Joker no matter how you place him unless it is that horrendous The Batman portrayal. Whether he used to be the gangster Jack Napier, a failed comedian who got talked into portraying the Red Hood in a heist gone bad, or a mysterious agent of chaos wearing war paint and having nothing in his pockets but knives and lent, as long as you get the core concept of the character right then The Joker is still The Joker. He is the embodiment of evil. He is the man who will kill you with a smile on his face and a song in his heart.  He has no soul and lives to cause misery and despair. Just look what he did to poor Harvey Dent back in The Dark Knight!

          The screenplay by Sam Hamm while flawed due to re-writes is pretty good. The highlight of this film besides the fantastic visuals, costumes, and interesting characters would definitely have to be the dialogue. In fact, the dialogue has been the highlight in all of the Batman movies from this movie all the way through The Dark Knight Rises. In the original four films though, the villains were always the dialogue masters. Joker has the best dialogue and is always a pleasure to watch. My favorite scene of the film has got to be the mob meeting where Joker gives a man a hand shake, which roasts the guy into a skeleton corpse. It made me laugh at 2 years old and it still makes me giggle to this very day.

         I also really dug the look of the Batmobile and the scene where Batman is driving through the dark woods with Vicki Vale in the passenger seat. It just had such a glow that I didn't know if it was art, but I like it!  The Joker museum scene was fucking awesome. From him dancing to Prince's song Party Man to his boys painting the place in red, green, and purple to him trying to give Vicki a withe of his pose'   Gotta also dig the scene at Vicki's apartment where Joker asks Bruce Wayne if he has ever danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight. Joker was just such a twistedly poetic, artistic, goofy, and homicidal maniac. Always having fun, spreading laughter, giving Batman a hard time, and didn't understand why people were so serious.

      Aside from the mob meeting and museum scenes, the most epic Joker scene was during the parade where he was giving away free money and battling Batman on top of the Bell Tower.  Loved the scene where the Batwing stole his balloons as well as flying in front of the moon causing the shadow of the bat symbol. The Bell Tower stuff is always fun with Batman throwing Joker's goon down the tower to Joker dancing with Vicki, and to the Batman/Joker fight with chattering teeth. The part that to this day makes me laugh is when Batman and Vicki are dangling on the edge and Joker is laughing and trying to knock em' off.

          "Here, let me give ya a hand." Hand snaps off. "HAHAHA! Get it! Give ya hand!" Joker looks at the Gargoyle sculpture.

       "What are you laughing at! HAHAHAHA!"

         He starts stomping on the bricks trying to kill Batman.  "They don't make em' like they used to eh Batsy! HAHAHAHAHA!"

            Then the helicopter comes for him to make his get away and he replies, "Well, it's time to retire. Feel free to drop in."

           I know some people had an issue with Batman actually being much darker and psychologically damaged by his parents' murders in both this film and in Batman Returns, but it worked for me. Granted, I prefer a Batman who will not kill, but still dug this much darker portrayal of the character. Batman is supposed to be a dark character and Tim Burton definitely gave us the total opposite Batman than what we got back in the '60s.   With all the things I loved about this first Batman movie, I do have some minor issues regarding the film.

           My biggest problem, which seems to be mostly everyone else's problem too is the scene where Alfred just lets Vicki Vale into the Batcave, thus revealing to her that the man she was dating was also Batman. As I understand it, this wasn't Sam Hamm's call. The studio had the script re-written some while the film was in production.  I also had an issue with The Joker wearing make-up and hair spray to make himself look like Jack Napier again after his transformation into The Joker.

      Didn't he accept his new look when he started laughing maniacially in the plastic surgeon's office? Some may say that he wanted to make himself look normal again, but he just accepted his new look when he decided to use the Joker persona to match his new face. Plus, it was all over the news that Napier fell into the vat of chemicals at the plant so he would have no reason to wear make-up to make himself look normal again. He still has that stupid grin for crying out loud! We all know he's The Joker!!!!

      I do wish that Harvey Dent had played a much larger role in this film. After all, he is Gotham's White Knight. He's also the guy who ends up becoming Two-Face, the very thing that he has sworn to fight against. Dent should be just as important to the film as Batman and The Joker! Commissioner James Gordon is another one who not only got the shaft in this movie, but in the three sequels as well. Gordon like Dent should be a MAIN CHARACTER. Not just seen in one or two scenes. I will say that at least Gordon has more to do in this movie than just turning on the batsignal and thanking Batman for saving the day.

     I liked the Vicki Vale character who is the typical love interest to Bruce Wayne and is basically Batman's Lois Lane. Every time she gets into a jam, Batman saves her. I did take some issue with her constant screaming though, but it doesn't hurt the film. Bit of trivia, Bob Kane's inspiration for Vicki Vale in the comic books was his then current girlfriend, famous starlet Marilyn Monroe but the character accidentally became a redhead in the early comics.

      The Alexander Knox character was okay. He made me laugh at times and also came across a little too obnoxious at times.

       And then you have Bob The Goon, Joker's "number one guy", of course until Harley Quinn came along. Bob was a pretty slick and cool bad guy. He always had Joker's back and had a funny death towards the end.

        I did kinda take issue with The Joker getting killed because I think it would have been fun for him to appear in some of the sequels. There was also no Arkham Asylum. That place didn't appear or was mentioned until the Schumacher and Nolan films.

        The acting in Batman was really great. Jack Nicholson was the perfect Joker for the time. His portrayal was more the early '40s Joker who was more of a prankster than the anarchist that he became in the '80s comics.  Michael Keaton was a controversial casting decision at first due to his previous track record in comedy, but proved everybody wrong by playing the darkest and most tragic Batman/Bruce Wayne to date. While I enjoy Kevin Conroy, Val Kilmer, and Christian Bale, it was Keaton who turned me into a Bat fanatic! Kim Basinger who is now known for her fantastic role as Eminem's mother in 8 Mile was pretty good as Vicki Vale. I definitely enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer and Nicole Kidman as Bruce Wayne/Batman's love interests more but Ms. Basinger did good with what she was given. Robert Wuhl was okay as Knox. I honestly really dug Billy Dee Williams as Gotham City's District Attorney Harvey Dent and so wish that I got to see what he would have done as Two-Face. Shame we never got to see him as Two-Face as Tommy Lee Jones would replace him in Batman Forever. The late Jack Palance was great in his short role as crime boss Carl Grissom.

          The late Pat Hingle was okay as Commissioner Jim Gordon. While he looked nowhere like Gordon unlike Gary Oldman in the current Chris Nolan Batman trilogy, Hingle did okay with what he was given. The late Michael Gough was great as Batman/Bruce Wayne's butler and father figure Alfred Pennyworth. While I prefer Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (Batman: The Animated Series) or Michael Caine (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), Gough was really good in the role.   Tracey Walter was decent as Bob The Goon.  All in all, the cast was great especially Keaton and Nicholson.

         The direction by Tim Burton was amazing. I will never understand why Burton wasn't happy with the film. It looked very much like the comics. Gotham looked like Gotham. The Batcave looked awesome. The Batmobile was so badass! The Batsuite looked amazing. The Joker was awesome and creepy looking. Batman had a great visual style and a fun story to go along with it. Might not be a perfect film, but dammit if it ain't one fun ride! I also loved the blue tint of the batsignal light and the shot of Batman facing it on top of a building at the end. Burton really started to shine with this film and Beetlejuice. I know people hate that Joker turned out to be the killer of Bruce Wayne's parents, but I personally dug it. It gave the two characters even more of a reason to hate each other. Joker killed Batman's parents. Batman caused Napier's skin to get bleached. It works in this particular franchise anyway. Not that I would want that twist in other incarnations of the character.

          Overall, Batman is a very good movie and was a game changer for the way Hollywood looked at comic books and superheroes. While it was some rocky roads getting it made and some even rockier roads getting the franchise back on track after 1997, Batman is the hero who may have come in second in the comics yet RISES to the top of the superhero movie genre to entertain audiences and readers for generations to come.


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