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Batman Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 1, 2009

  • With the arrival on BD of Christopher Nolen's triumphant second instalment of his own vigorous Dark Knight saga (without a doubt the most exhilarating film of 2008, folks, and criminally overlooked by the Academy), it was inevitable that the original caped-foursome would receive a full, and long overdue, bells-and-whistles hi-definition makeover. Warner have released the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher quartet on this side of the Pond first, and they have done so with not only uncut editions of all four, but ensured that all the extra features that adorned the previous Special Editions on SD have been bolted on, as well.

    So, finally, we can go back to the original comic-accurate depiction - a time before the neon-nightmares of an irresponsible Schumacher would wreak havoc with the genre's most indomitable of heroes. And, after the adrenaline-blast of Bale's weighty and punishing portrayal of the Dark Knight, it actually feels like something of a homecoming to return to the less animalistic Michael Keaton in the title role. Married to Tim Burton's unique, and fantastically skewed vision, the story of torn psyches and split personalities was a culture-shock upon its cinematic release back in 1989 for less-savvy audiences and for fan-boys alike. The mainstream expected something camp and silly, along the lines of the spoof Adam West series, whilst the fan-boys - who knew their material and the dark direction that the filmmakers had assured them they would take - were anticipating a casting calamity with the puny, mumbling comic wild-card of Keaton assuming the cape and cowl. Of course, in the end, such speculation was proved academic when the film became a monster blockbuster with the masses and even went as far as to enrapture the die-hard fans with the biggest, and surest, movie depiction of their beloved Gotham seen thus far. Me? Oh, I loved it, too. Worshipped it, in fact. And I still do. But ... all along I've known that there was something missing from the story, known that this version was possibly as flawed as its roster of demented characters. Did I say missing? Well, that's probably inaccurate. In honesty, it is more likely to be the opposite - in that we get too much of something. I thought back then, and I do today, that the main man was muscled out by the towering, magnificent opera-house performance by Jack Nicholson as The Joker, which is not the way it is meant to be. We'll probe this more as we go on.

    “I want you to tell all your friends about me.”

    “What are you?”

    “I'm Batman.”

    Bob Kane's immortal creation, from way back in 1939, has many facets, many thematic styles, enabling the character to be re-imagined time and time again for each new generation, each shift in society's tensions and anxieties - but always there in the darkest corner of a terminally justice-bereft world. Batman has been a dyed-in-the-wool detective, a flamboyant avenger, the camp crime-fighter and, in essence, the dark antithesis of DC's other stalwart superhero, Superman. As has now been demonstrated so admirably with Christian Bale's version, he can inhabit a realistic and gritty urban maelstrom, as well as the more familiar Gothic fantasyland spun into vivid life during the comics-run of the 70's and 80's. But, it is as a doomed, psychologically fractured crusader, who is as much a victim as a warrior, when he is at his most interesting, chivalrous and cunningly divisive. Writer Sam Hamm knew this and director/co-writer Tim Burton's own dark and quirky sensibilities seemed perfect for an assignment that would place this incarnation in a truly striking, alternate-reality Gotham of expressionist architecture, art-deco sets and time-out-of-time 40's noir. This was the look and feel of the Batman that I grew up with, a realm of larger than life villains, deliciously grotesque schemes and a sense of dark mystery, all shot through with a vein of humour so black it would take a nuclear flash to light it. This was, indeed, the comic-page milieu that had entranced me and, looking at it now - the set-based claustrophobia of its model cityscape, the artistic flair of Burton's off-kilter angles and the tremendous power-play of good versus evil - it still retains the cool, eye-catching beauty of the best, and scariest, books.

    “You ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight?”

    There's no need to outline the plot, is there? Burton's take opted for the mythic grandeur of the Bat, shifting a few of the sacred facts about to suit a more complete and symmetrical tale, one that newcomers could take to with ease and also one that acolytes wouldn't have too much of a problem with. Instead of gutter-snipe-nobody, Joe Chill, slaying Bruce Wayne's parents, we have a grinning, young Jack Napier (Nicholson's pre-Joker mob enforcer) doing the deed - Burton, for some reason, feeling that the film's narrative needed to turn full circle. I'm not happy about that, but I can live with it. As a result of this, the Joker's origins have been subverted and placed into a more literal context (“I created you ... you created me.”) with him starting out as a vicious killer in the first place, and Batman's own actions transforming him still further into the demented depravity that we know and love him for. I know many people who still can't forgive this re-invention, but again, I can live with it. Vicki Vale's inclusion was one element that I dreaded - I just don't like my broken heroes getting the girl. I know for a fact that if my life was ruled by one aim, one noble crusade, I'd still give it all up for the bliss of a relationship with someone as hot as that. And, let's face it, Basinger was hot in this, despite her existence here as pure damsel in distress. All that Corto Maltese stuff really irritated me, too. Her set-up is a tad on the heavy-handed side, a sickening atrocity from this fictitious conflict snapped by herself adorning the cover of a mocked-up Time Magazine seemingly enough to convince all and sundry that “Hello Legs” is actually a major player on the world's journalistic front. Pat Hingle's Commissioner Gordon is also something of a let down, as well. Try as I might I could not get the image of Alan Moore's Gordon from the spine-tingling, gut-punching classic The Killing Joke out of my mind, or Frank Miller's iconic The Dark Knight Returns. Only Gary Oldman's great, yet underplayed version comes close to fulfilling the definitive live-action interpretation. And, as for the casting of Billy Dee Williams as DA Harvey Dent - well, I can't believe the fan-boys didn't kick up more of a stink about that than about Keaton's emplacement. Luckily, he was only a bit-parter, but the fact that he was there in the first place led you to believe that his role was going to be considerably expanded next time around. If you're going to have Dent involved then we need to see his relationship with Bruce Wayne and, above all, we need to see him as another noble crusader and not just a smug, vote-happy, cigar-puffing status-boy. Anyway, that's enough of the cast that don't cut the mustard, eh? I mean, they got it spot-on with Michael Gough's quintessential butler Alfred, that's for sure. “I think this way would be best ... sir,” he says as he expertly steers Wayne's klutz of a party-host, and his beautifully comic touches when collecting errant wine glasses at the shindig seem effortlessly in-character. His old school grace and deportment are excellent, but Gough also manages to lace his faithful butler with a faint hint of that creepiness that had been the mainstay of his low-budget horror career until Burton plucked him out and gave him a second lease of life.

    “It can truly be said that I have a bat in my belfry.”

    And so, onto the Bat himself. Keaton is a great actor and he has that intangible something about him, an unpredictability that, to my mind, made him certainly the best Batman until Bale came along. He has an un-perturbed coldness, and an inscrutable, piercing glare when in costume that places him successfully into the man-of-mystery mould. He exudes clinical confidence and a dark detachment that I love as the man of action. But, as Bruce Wayne, he is a failure, and viewing him now, this fact is only compounded by the mastery of Bale in both sides of the character. Keaton's wealthy, orphaned Gotham-socialite is both ineffectual and dull, his dialogue especially, suffering from an indecisive vagueness that actually has you waiting impatiently for his next word in much the same way as you would someone with a stammer. Now, this isn't entirely Keaton's fault, you understand. This was the way that Wayne was written - or should we say underwritten? Even in the comics, from which so many good and great things were culled, Wayne is a confident, smooth achiever with a witty and assuming air, so why Hamm and Burton chose to hollow out this side of their hero is an enigma only the Riddler could solve. The pain of his tragic past carries little gravity, too. Oh, it's in there all right, but I don't feel it's huge, life-consuming weight from Keaton's slowly observed grief and guilt. It is meant to be suppressed, but the haunting power that the double-murder leaves is only a cold reflection in Keaton's eyes.

    “This town needs an enema!”

    Anyway, on the flipside of this movie's Two-Face coin, is the irresistible uber-villain of Nicholson's Joker. Well, being pragmatic, it is, perhaps, fairly easy to see how Keaton got short-thrift from the script when we consider just how greedily Mad Jack devours every scene he is in. Delivering much more than just his trademark over-the-top performance, Nicholson simply revelled in the role he was born to play. By turns infectiously funny and palm-sweatingly scary, he simply dominates the film, lock, stock and barrel. Sure, it is big-time pantomime - but that is exactly what the Joker should be. He's the world's first “fully functioning homicidal artist” and, if he has to stamp his portrayal like a joke-etched hammer into our skulls, nothing on earth is going to stop him. The terrific “Wait'll they get a load of me” scene in which he reads Batman's blood-smeared headlines and then leans in towards us, that horrific clown-face grinning with evil intent from out of the shadows, is a true evocation of the sincerest insanity. His frying of a rival mobster and his subsequent conversation with his charred corpse is a demonic delight, too. The performance is so filled to overflowing with moments of darkly disturbing humour and pathos - “Do I look like I'm joking?” - that Batman struggles to keep up with him in the audience empathy stakes. Now, this is hamming it up. Even Vincent Price would have been proud and bowed down to the Clown Prince Of Crime. Oh, and that's another thing. Prince. Just what the hell possessed them to shovel in the Purple Rainster's over-produced pap? It doesn't fit the movie at all. Warner Brothers marketing their product in such a vile, insidious manner showed them up to be fickle and untrusting in Burton's vision, opting for such a fall-back with their own diminutive, but eminently, bankable star. In a film that would, otherwise, have been timeless, these god-awful songs anchor it firmly at the backside of the 80's.

    “You dropped me into that vat of chemicals! That wasn't easy to get over. And don't think I haven't tried.”

    Of course, I can't let the Nicholson Joker off the hook that easily. We've just seen - well, experienced - the late Heath Ledger's portrayal and it would be remiss of me not to make some comment on the character's filmic evolution. For many, Mad Jack's will be the definitive version, but his interpretation exists in the quasi-surreal limbo-land between the comics, the TV series and Burton's own dark milieu. As over-the-top and hero-smothering as his take is, Nicholson's fits perfectly within his era and his scenario. Ledger's is, without a doubt in my mind, a much more dangerous and charismatic evocation of anarchic dementia, though. Whereas, I could certainly tire of Nicholson's performance, Ledger's is simply addictive and taps, believably, into a more despicably human psychosis. Nicholson's Joker couldn't possibly exist, whilst Ledger's is only removed from reality via the thinnest layer of greasepaint. His actions, though eventually epic in scale, are still etched along a razor's edge that is intimate and deeply troubling. At the time of writing, there is the shocking news of that terrible incident in Belgium in which a deranged sociopath, his face painted white and his eyes blackened-out, calmly walked into a nursery and knifed two toddlers and a carer to death! That, sadly, is the type of thing that Ledger's fiend could do. Thus, watching this earlier interpretation now seems positively cosy and almost endearing ... which just can't be right, can it, given the deeds that are actually committed by 1989's Joker? His is avant-garde villainy, flippant and unpredictable but still, essentially, civil and gentlemanly. Barring his earlier scenes of leering, mind-collapsing transformation, there is little that this Joker does that will intrude upon your slumber and the feeling of pure dread slips ever-faster through his whitened fingers the more that Nicholson comes to enjoy his own performance. But the star is clever enough to know that he can get away with such film-swallowing, and the saga takes on an comic-opera ambience that may not stand up to scrutiny, but certainly guarantees a dramatic flamboyance that manages, appropriately enough, to nudge the funny bone just as much as it darkens the soul.

    In a way it is better that Burton's vision has such flaws - perhaps because of them, it is easier to be in two minds about it. Which is exactly what the entire Batman mythology is built on - two-faced enigmas and duelling desires.

    And, man, the good bits, are good. The gadgets are a love 'em or loathe 'em type of deal, but I think “those wonderful toys” are a cool throwback to Batman's own camp origins. Sure, that zip-wire escape from the Museum might have been more successful if Batman had skewered the Joker's head with a piton first, but hey, I'm nit-picking. The awesome Batmobile's drive back through the spectral woods with a stunned - and slightly heavier than she makes out - Vale riding shotgun is a moment of pure splendour, set to the mightiest and most rousing of Danny Elfman's melancholic melodies. The pivotal Axis Chemicals sequence is a majestic piece of excitement build-up, with Batman despatching goons left and right and the Commissioner finally coming face to cowl with the masked vigilante he's been struggling to deny the existence of. Again, Elfman's pounding score keeps the breathless pace rising. Joker's heinous toxin causing hygiene-havoc with the newsreaders and the throwaway sight of Bruce Wayne sleeping upside-down like a bat are smart touches, taking the film into gleefully absurd terror and casually glib visual asides. Even the Batwing (something I once hated) seems cool in a not-too-kitsch fashion, a vehicle that, given the wholly agreeable new Batmobile we've just seen exploding in The Dark Knight, I'm actually hoping will be utilised in the new franchise at some point. Hell, I dreaded the arrival of Nolen's Batpod, but even that ended up blowing me away! And the set-designs from Anton Furst are an absolute revelation, conjuring up an image-barrage of intricate beauty, his goth-noir tableaux sowing the seeds that would later become legend with the infinitely darker Batman Returns. The old cathedral is as awesome a sight as it is simplistic in design, yet the final confrontation captures the mesmerising memory of such classic horrors as The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Whale's Frankenstein - both revolving around tortured, misunderstood monsters that ended-up running for the high ground, as well. The theme turning full circle again. Love the way Batman rolls with a blow across the floor and then just stands up again, unfazed to face his burly assailant.

    “Never rub another man's rhubarb!”

    Batman remains a wonderful, if flawed movie. The comics certainly had villains who were huge and larger than life - Batman's Rogue's Gallery possessing the most colourful and frightening assortment of the deranged and the depraved you could ever hope not to meet - yet they never served to sideline the hero, himself. Thus, the only mistake that this film makes that really matters is that it allows the Joker to have the last and most enduring laugh. Nicholson gets it right, but the screenplay should have made more allowance for Keaton to inhabit the dual role more fully, in compensation. So, much like our split-personified characters, I'm in two minds about the movie. But then, one mind totally loves it, whilst the other, the more critical one, loves it just a teensy bit less. Now, that can't be bad, can it?