Jun 5, 2008

Batman (1989): C

Despite representing his newfound status as a major Hollywood player, Tim Burton’s much-hyped 1989 smash Batman remains little more than a curious relic deprived of personality – a manufactured widget less influenced by poetic artistry than capitalistic greed. There’s plenty there, for sure, but for a movie so purportedly big, Batman is disconcertingly small, conceptually and visually, as if Burton’s own input was deliberately siphoned off lest the end vision be too unique to trust with such potential blockbuster revenue at stake. Whether executive pressure or the sheer intimidation of the production put the squeeze on Burton, the end result has always been one of supreme apathy to these eyes, both in its lack of stylistic fervor and in the impression left on the heart and soul; the film screams out for an expressionistic wallop of action, romance, and fright, but finds only a void of underdeveloped style and halfhearted execution to call its own, as if rushed to completion without a moment's glance at the dailies along the way. A feature-length nip and tuck, it suggests – among other things – a film edited so as to squeeze in as many showings per day as possible. The beast isn’t quite soulless, but the flashes of euphoria are so few and far between that it may as well be, if only to put an end to its own misery.

At their best, Burton’s films are not unlike miniature universes unto themselves, clearly defined spaces populated as much with people as with teeming feelings and ideas manifest within the visual sphere. This alone would make him a prime choice to breathe life into the world of the Dark Knight, but being loosely cobbled together with matte paintings, poorly shot miniatures and scrunched together sets, Batman’s Gotham City feels less like a genuine setting or character than it does a half-hearted production design. The detail work is there but there’s no connective thread running throughout the picture, no point of reference by which these characters exist within their cinematic realm. Cutting immediately from the opening wide shot of the cityscape to the ground level of urban decay, Burton fails to grasp the largeness of Gotham, both physically and spiritually; the landscape wants for a sense of placement within and between its scantly established locales (one imagines how much of the budget that went to securing star power would have been better spent producing a more encompassing vision of Batman’s world). Ultimately, it’s Blade Runner for tykes, as the film falls back on preschool conceptions of film noir to suggest the city’s sickly moral infestations. From the grizzled, crooked cop who appears ready to die via heart attack at any moment to the shrieking, faceless henchman trained in martial arts by way of Saturday morning cartoons, Batman trades in extreme caricatures played straight, a relative flaw that may have proven otherwise were the film more substantially concerned with its character’s supposedly weighty psychological foreplay.

While more recent superhero fare may have rendered Freudian 101 character studies all but moot, at least even the most simplistic of offenders (I'm looking at you, Ghost Rider) at least made an effort to explore their heroes’ tortured souls. Batman bears witness to Bruce Wayne’s (Michael Keaton) troubled past – a fateful encounter that saw both of his parents murdered before his very eyes that ultimately led to his secret life as the caped crusader – but fails to connect the character’s history to his vigilante activity in ways more than incidental, culminating in a flashback reveal so obvious that it only serves to solidify our billionaire hero as a grade A idiot. Keaton works small wonders given how underwritten the part is, using his subdued charms (as opposed to contrived tics) to emphasize Wayne’s repressed emotions, but the psychological connection to Batman is so tenuous that, whenever he dons the costume, the impact of his screen presence can be said to equal that of The Matrix’s spoon. The top-billed Jack Nicholson, then, is the one who gets the spotlight, in a performance so overboard that it may very well qualify as the most self-indulgent of his career. It doesn’t help much that his Joker makeup looks like shit (the character’s permanent grin looks less like frozen muscles than a Greek theater mask missing its tragic counterpart), but Nicholson does no favors to his character’s thwarted humanity, his constant winking to the audience coming off less like the mannerisms of a madman than the obnoxious antics of a hammered celebrity (one must imagine, though, how leaden the film would be without his chewing of the scenery, given that it already comes close to qualifying as an all-out sleep aid).

Though lack of cohesion can be said to summarize the bulk of Batman’s far-reaching flaws, that doesn’t stop the occasional moment of wonder from shining through, be it the rare instance when a performer approximates the pulpy wonder the film perpetually reaches for, or the handful of shots readily identifiable as coming from Burton’s keen and deliberate eye (it's a sad state when the high water mark of a film is the opening credits sequence, here a miniature masterpiece of music and shadows from which the rest of the film could take a lesson or three). Pity, then, that the majority of Batman feels like it was crafted by McDonald’s executives intent on selling as many Happy Meals as possible with minimal advertising investment. Even when the scenery proves visually striking, the film rarely fails to shoot it from the most mundane angle possible, editing patchwork sequences together so wildly that one can’t help but think of Ed Wood, assembling stock footage together from earlier, now dismantled productions. Batman should be a dark and brooding world; rather, it’s just a hole into which bits and pieces of inspiration have been dumped: blatant attempts at iconic imagery, stock characters lacking necessary genre heft, and a script that mistakes surface scratching for deep probing. Nevertheless, all this and more would prove a worthwhile sacrifice when Burton would go full throttle for the sequel Batman Returns, a film as atmospheric, profound, emotional and thrilling as this unfortunately misbegotten predecessor is not.


  1. I remember seeing The Crow in theaters for the first time and wishing Burton's Batman had some of the same grit in its Gotham City. It's been more than a decade since I've seen it (and The Crow for that matter), but I just recently re-watched Batman Returns and was surprised at how well it held up, especially Keaton's Bruce Wayne.

  2. Somehow, I knew you would be the first to comment on this post. Anyhow - I really need to see The Crow, not only for its place in film history but also since I'm something of an Alex Proyas fan (even I, Robot, being mostly by-the-numbers, has some cool visual flair that I can get behind). And Batman Returns is incredible, and once my copy gets here in the mail, a review will appear for that film as well.

  3. Batman reflects the excess of the Reagan Age (yeah Bush I occupied the White House but only as the caretaker of Ronnie's third term) - and serves as Patient Zero for what is today referred to as tent pole marketing.

    Warner Brothers knew the money would flow with a movie version of the flying mammal. The trick involved balancing the cartoonish humor from the 1960s series that so many of my era watched in afternoon re-runs with the serious nature of the comic book.

    The end product, while lackluster overall, nevertheless satisfied the desire of everyone to cash in with gusto. Even before production began, Burton and Warners caught flack for the casting of Keaton. And given how he sleepwalks through the role, it's difficult to reconcile his zanier performances, starting with Night Shift, that made him star.

    As for Nicholson, let's just say someone had to give the movie a pulse. Hammy? Self-serving? Over the top? You bet. He's Jack freakin' Nicholson, after all. And by shrewdly taking points on the gross, Jack smirked all the way to the bank (perhaps as high as $50 million by some accounts).

    Hell, even Prince got into the act by claiming he felt "moved" after seeing a rough cut and laying down an embarrassingly bad soundtrack. As for Burton, he got his payday, much like Sam Raimi with the Spider Dude. Burton sacrificing art for dough - hmm, Planet of the Apes , anyone?

    How interesting that when Burton gained the opportunity to make the darker Batman Returns, the audience revolted and Warners freaked.

    Batman was an event movie that proved the superhero genre still breathed, despite the failures of Superman III and IV. And in a pre-CGI universe, flaws and all, at least it didn't have politically-conscious giant ants coming to the rescue.

  4. Its funny, I've always liked the '89 Batman but never loved it like every other person seems to. Glad to finally hear from others who feel the same. That said I can't quite endorse Returns as a markedly better film, which is due to my Burton gag factor more than anything. I agree, Returns is a comically darker, less studio friendly flick, and yes, presents a self contained Burton universe with its own physics and inspired wardrobe choices. I think its just the whole penguins strapped with rocket launchers scene which goes a little past the deep end. Actually, just thinking about it now has me in a fit of giggles, maybe I'm being a little too harsh. I wouldn't want to live in a world without the joys of rocket launching penguins.

  5. I never saw Batman Returns when it first came out due to the mixed to negative reviews I read at the time.

    Then years later this passage from Mike Nelson's Movie Megacheese made me no more anxious to seek the movie out:

    Danny DeVito, I think we can all agree, is the enemy of everything good and decent in this world, and Batman Returns is simply chock-full of the freakish little gnome. Why anyone thought that the sight of DeVito ramming alewives into his twisted, purple maw was something to be projected onto a large screen for viewing by other human beings was a good idea, I'll never understand.

    But maybe I'm missing something....

  6. W. Australopithecus:

    Much as I love all things MST3K, Mike and company often tend to latch onto the petty and relative in their "criticisms", and his bemoaning of an unpleasant character's unpleasantness is just another example of their occasional flirtations with the juvenile and mindless. I'm not a fan of DeVito's on the whole but I know I'm not alone in thinking he deserved an Oscar nomination (if not an outright win) for that performance, and if a noir-infused world of open sewers and disturbed characters is supposed to be nice and "pretty" (though I do think the film absolutely beautiful), then I don't know what is good about cinema. As for the initially negative reviews, no clue and nor do I really care - public opinion is like a tide, and one I'm content with merely getting my feet wet in on occasion.

  7. Anonymous6:23 PM

    What's disappointing about this review is that the blogger seems to like Batman Returns, yet doesn't realize that Returns thematically picks up where B89 left off. I don't know how anyone can appreciate Returns yet not seem to understand what Burton was going for in the first film.

  8. Just because two films are conjoined thematically doesn't make them so quality-wise. That being the case, why was Batman Returns so poorly received after the wild praise for the original? Shouldn't it have been *obvious* to everyone, or is it something else?