Movies & TV / Columns

Taken For Granted – Batman

February 7, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

This week, The LEGO Batman Movie hits theaters, and I couldn’t be more excited. While I’ll probably wait until next week to see it (mostly because I want to see John Wick; Chapter 2 just a bit more), I expect this to easily be one of the highlights of the year. I thought it would be fitting to take a look back at the film that first made the Dark Knight Detective an institution at the box office.

Welcome to Taken For Granted; a column where I analyze films that are almost universally considered classics. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Batman

Wide Release Date: June 23, 1989
Directed By: Tim Burton
Written By: Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren
Produced By: Jon Peters and Peter Guber
Cinematography By: Roger Pratt
Edited By: Ray Lovejoy
Music By: Danny Elfman
Production Company: Guber-Peters Company, PolyGram Pictures
Distributed By: Warner Bros.
Starring:
Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne/Batman
Jack Nicholson as The Joker/Jack Napier
Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale
Pat Hingle as Commissioner James Gordon
Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth

What Do We All Know?

Yes, believe it or not, there was a time when comic book movies were not the dominant force at the box office. Back in the 1980’s, the only true mega-hit superhero film was Superman: The Movie. And really, Superman was already a pop culture institution bigger than comics anyway. They may as well have made “Santa Claus: The Movie”. But if you were a comic book fan, you weren’t expecting the Avengers, Green Lantern or the X-Men to ever get greenlit for a movie. But there was one that you could: Batman. The Dark Knight had already starred in a 1966 theatrical movie that tied in with the Adam West and Burt Ward TV show. While that is a vastly underrated movie (and one I may cover some time), it was just an extra-long, slightly higher budget TV episode. Batman had yet to receive the blockbuster movie treatment, but it was only a matter of time.

Batman was the biggest hit of 1989, and made an immediate and long lasting impact on pop culture that can still be felt today. Director Tim Burton’s dark, macabre, violent vision of Gotham City and his portrayal of Bruce Wayne as a loner was a wild departure from the 1960’s TV show. It set the tone for Batman: The Animated Series, kicked Tim Burton’s career into overdrive, and proved that Superman wasn’t just a one-off incident. Superheroes could be huge at the box office. That’s a lot of impact for one movie.

But is it really that great?

What Went Right?

So far, this column has only covered original films, and not one that has source material to adapt. Reviewing an adaptation is tricky; something can be a very direct adaptation and be terrible, while another can be a very loose adaptation and be incredible. My general rule is that it’s more important for a film to capture the spirit of something than the minutia. To use an example from another movie: I don’t mind that Sam Raimi’s version of Spider-Man has organic web shooters and that his Green Goblin has body armor, but I do care that the film captures the essence of the characters and tells a good story.

So does Batman do that? It’s tough to say. In terms of presentation, the scenes of Batman in action are pretty great. There are flaws, sure, but the gadgets, the Batmobile, and the Bat-Plane are all phenomenal. Batman is properly intimidating and the mooks he takes down help to sell that idea. I also really enjoy seeing Michael Keaton as a more quiet, enigmatic Bruce Wayne who struggles to communicate like a normal human being. That’s interesting, and a nice counterpoint to the Batman persona; he’s not cool all the time, and his need for human connection is evident without it always needing to be spelled out for us. Keaton does an excellent job at portraying all of this, and to this day I think he is the best live-action version of the character, or at least tied with Bale.

Also, while Jack Nicholson has received criticism for his take on The Joker, I still find his performance to be one of the strongest aspects of this movie. Yes, he’s essentially playing himself while wearing clown makeup and it pales in comparison to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning take on the character. But Nicholson is a great actor with a lot of natural charisma, he has a lot of worthy one liners, and he’s willing to go for broke to be memorable. The character has problems, which I’ll address later, but Jack is very good in this.

The other characters are something of a mixed bag, but I do want to give credit to Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale. Most Batman movies give the Dark Knight some level of a love interest, but Vicki is one of the best, and their relationship is a major part of Bruce’s character arc. And lastly, no discussion of this movie’s good points would be complete without talking about Danny Elfman’s incredible score. Sorry Hans Zimmer, you’ll never compete with Elfman for iconic Batman music.

What Went Wrong?

More than any movie I’ve covered so far, Batman is riddled with problems. For starters, Bruce Wayne is almost in the background of the movie that bears his name. While it’s understandable that Joker and Vicki Vale get time to develop, it would have been nice to see us get to spend a little more time with Bruce in this film. This would be a trend throughout many Batman movies, from Batman Returns to The Dark Knight Rises. Similarly, characters like Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent feel like they aren’t in the movie enough to be worthwhile, but just enough to be a distraction.

The film’s plot is sort of all over the place, a criticism I would give to most Tim Burton films. While I appreciate Burton’s visual charm and dark sense of humor, having a strong plot with urgency has never been his greatest strength. His movies tend to have a more laid back, almost vignette-style presentation. This certainly works for Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish, but I don’t know if it works for Batman. There are entire scenes, plot threads and even entire characters (hello Alexander Knox) that just seem to be killing time. Burton himself has even gone on to say that he was bored with the film, calling it “more of a pop culture phenomenon than a great movie”.

But a lot of the big problems have to do with The Joker. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of giving this character much of a backstory, but giving him a name and a role as a heavy for a local mob boss really doesn’t work. And honestly, Joker just doesn’t seem like much of a threat in this. His most violent moments are to other criminals, and he just seems to be a guy doing stuff without having a single meaningful narrative with Batman. It’s a lot more Cesar Romero Joker, a mild nuisance, and not the Killing Joke eternal archenemy Joker.

And of course, there’s the real big blow of Joker being revealed as the man who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. This reeks of executive meddling by a Hollywood producer who wants a neat and tidy storyline without thinking about how it actually affects the story. It’s too neat and tidy, it undercuts the point of the Wayne murders as a chance encounter, and it sends Batman on a road for revenge. This is just lazy, contrived plotting and I groan whenever the movie gets to this part. It’s just a bafflingly stupid move that adds nothing to the story and works against the spirit of the characters. Speaking of which, having Alfred reveal the Batcave to Vicki Vale is similarly confounding.

What Went Really Right?

I’ve heard some fans of the movie loved it as kids but get diminishing returns on subsequent viewings. My story is a little different, as I didn’t see Batman until well into my teens, after seeing The Dark Knight, and I genuinely disliked this movie the first time I saw it. But as I’ve grown into more of a film lover as an adult, my need for movies to be perfect adaptations has fallen by the wayside. As such, I’m able to appreciate this film on its own merit.

I don’t view this movie as a perfect Batman movie in the sense that Superman, Captain America: The First Avenger and Spider-Man are perfect encapsulations of their iconic heroes. But as a vehicle for Tim Burton to channel his artistic stylings? This is fascinating. Batman changed the pop culture perception of the hero’s persona and his world. Batman wasn’t just well-known, he was “cool”. That’s a major shift that has allowed the superhero genre to become a major force at the box office. To me, the film deserves its place as a cultural touchstone.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park
Back to the Future
Chinatown
Taxi Driver
The Matrix

Or check out my column with Michael Ornelas; “From Under A Rock”. Last week, I introduced Michael to John Wick. This week, Michael looks to make my head spin with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include The LEGO Movie, Birdman, and American Graffiti.

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