Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Tim Burton: Batman (1989)

The question of whether or not Tim Burton's dark and whimsical vision could support a major popcorn studio picture with blockbuster aspirations was answered,and answered forcefully, with the smash hit "Batman." Never a comic book fan and with no history directing action sequences Burton was not an obvious choice to tackle the material. Yet, in retrospect the match seems perfectly obvious. It's important to remember that, apart from the comics, the last mainstream representation of Batman for the general population was the jokey, over-the-top 1960's television series starring Adam West.

With Burton's involvement the new Batman was inevitably of a entirely different stripe. His Batman was to be a dark noir fantasy that centered around a truly conflicted hero who almost compulsivley takes on his crime fighting persona. Many purist comic book fans had reservations about casting Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne, an understandable reservation given his history in comedic roles. The choice turned out to be inspired. Keaton gives Wayne real pathos as well as an edgy, unhinged quality that is deepened by his sly sense of humor. The traditional square jawed, humorless Bruce Wayne is no where in sight (audiences would have to wait for Val Kilmer for that). Keaton's Wayne is a man who finds his alter-ego as mysterious as does the general public. He still remains the best of the actors to tackle the role. Even more perfect is Jack Nicholson as the joker. As witty as he is vicious, Nicholson nails every moment. They even name his his character Jack! Indeed, so scene-stealing is he in the role that Nicholson threatens to take over the whole movie. He even gets top billing in the credit sequence. He also made $60 million dollars for the role thanks to good contract that guaranteed him a share in the profits, probably more than Keaton and Burton combined. Kim Basinger is serviceable in the role of Vicki Vale, though the role is little more than a classic damsel in distress. She still has ten times more personality than the non-characters passing as leading women in movies like this today. (Katie Holmes and Kate Bosworth I am talking to you!)
The look of Batman, with incredible production design by Anton Furst, is a neo-expressionist fantasy filtered through the lens of realism and grunge. Highly stylized yet palpably dirty, Gotham City on film never looked this perfect again. Danny Elfman's score is one the composers most robust and grand; yet undeniably his. Burton was able to take all of his favorite elements to serve mainstream, blockbuster purposes. Batman's outrageous success and the clear connection between Burton and box office cemented the director a long and very free career as a major Hollywood player. Each Batman film since has been something of a diminishing return artistically, with Joel Schumacher practically returning the series to it's kaleidoscopic 60's camp heyday and Christopher Nolan going too far the other direction, turning Batman into a generic, though well-made, action movie. Burton's own sequel will be discussed later on this blog, but it was only this first Batman that balanced whimsy with menace and humor with seriousness. It is the greatest film inspired by a classic comic book hero and one of the most enjoyable summer blockbusters ever made. While still limited by it's somewhat silly conceits (and a man fighting crime in a Batsuit against a sociopath clown is a little silly) Batman should be remembered as a total financial and artistic triumph. Below is my favorite scene in the movie which shows Keaton and Nicholson (and for that matter, Basinger) at their best.

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