Let’s stop here, this is Bat Movies: a five part article series exploring the films and cultural impact of Bruce Wayne and his night moves as justice-dispensing vigilante. In this first installment: Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. (You can see the full Bat Movies schedule here.)
Say it’s 1987. The Superman franchise has properly imploded. It will be another decade before we get a decent Marvel movie. Yet, there’s no keeping down the superhero! Once The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke redefined Batman for a new age, Warner Bros opted to pursue a film adaptation with a similarity gloomy tack in mind. Tim Burton was hired to direct, Michael Keaton cast, Gotham built as a gnarled landscape of rising steam, crime, and nightmares.
Of all the Batman movies, this is the one most at war with itself: The architecture clashes and Gotham’s citizens are killing each other, going all the way down to a millionaire loner who can’t reconcile what it means to have seen his parents gunned down before him. Burton himself is ambivalent, once quoted dismissing Batman as more of a cultural phenomenon than a functional movie. Burton is always more interested in villains than heroes and, in this case, you can’t blame him: Batman has far and away the best villains in comics lore. As The Joker, Jack Nicholson’s performance remains deliriously unhinged. In Nicholson, and in Heath Ledger’s portrayal, one can witness the necessary commitment to the character’s paranoia and mania.
Fans were understandably miffed by two things: that Jack Napier/Joker, not Joe Chill, is revealed as killer of the Wayne couple, and that late in the movie Alfred has the audacity to invite Vicki Vale (love interest played by Kim Basinger) into the Batcave. I find these forgivable: Burton and Keaton weren’t contracted to do a sequel and so focused on putting all they had into one movie. Flesh out Napier as the parents’ killer and allow Vale into the Batcave to boost the romantic tension and all of a sudden you have a very full-bodied drama. It’s refreshing to watch a superhero movie that actually feels like a complete movie and not a starter kit to an insta-franchise.
Here’s an aside: I was very young when the movie came out so was only vaguely aware Something Big was happening. However, the NES video game, which came out a few months after the movie, was introduced into my homestead. The Batman game is known for both its brutal difficulty and fidelity to Burton’s aesthetic. Cut scenes are lifted from the movie, along with the film’s dark palette. The years I spent trying to conquer it was enough to maintain my interest in the character even when there were movies were coming out I wasn’t allowed to go watch. Batman, the video game, prompted me to start reading Batman, the comic books, and Batman, the fantastic animated series. In that regard, Burton is correct: The film was truly a cultural phenomenon: blockbusters had ceased becoming just another type of movie and, for better or worse, became monoliths upon which empires of media are borne.
If Batman didn’t figure too heavily in his own movie (and that’s fine, the best Bat stories feature byzantine casts and stories), he’s virtually a supporting character in 1992′s Batman Returns. Directors tend to show off their true sides in Batman sequels. Here, the film’s set design is unified to Burton’s liking (loads of arches and spirals), the violence is purely comic, and all the characters depicted with a sort of tender horror.
Batman Returns is a pretty terrible vehicle for Batman but it’s great for Burton. The first one is far more entertaining but the characterizations are weak, especially Vicki Vale (I wondered if she spent that much time screaming and fainting while covering the Corto Maltese). This probably irked Burton, who usually takes care to unearth the humanity in inhuman lands. Thus, Returns depicts Catwoman, The Penguin, and even Batman as utterly bizarre characters who wish to find their place in Gotham. Michelle Pfeifer was fantastic as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, striking a comfortable balance between sad and sultry. Danny DeVito: also fine, but Burton relished the gross-out makeup a bit too much, and Penguin’s subplots of running for mayor and then kidnapping firstborns I felt were both half-baked.
Upon release, the film was criticized for being darker than its predecessor. Burton refutes this assertion and again I’m going to agree with him. Seeing the electrofried face of Max Schrek (Christopher Walken) at the end of the movie was played for shock and laughs, in what Roger Ebert once defined as the cinematic equivalent of your older brother putting worms up to your face. In Batman, when The Joker is prancing around and holding conversation with a realistically charred board executive, that’s dark.
I’m fascinated at how distinct the Batman movies are to each other, the way a predecessor directly influences on what and what not to do in the next installment. The heightened Burtoness and lowered box office of Batman Returns caused Warner Bros. to initiate a more family-friendly outing for sequel. And, well, we all know where that road’s gonna take us. See you tomorrow, same Bat channel.