Recently revisited these two classics and though they still cause controversy amongst Batman and movie fans years later, they are true classics whether you are for them or against them. I think they sit fine as their own series next to Christopher Nolan’s darker and more grounded films but, however, I did find that one of them has aged more gracefully then the other. It’s also my favorite of the two so, that might have something to do with it …
Warner Brothers was trying to get a Batman film going for years with various directors attached and in various tones and with numerous actors sought for the lead from Bill Murray to Steven Seagal. But with the success of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, the studio settled on Tim Burton as a new upcoming director and fans began to buzz with interest. When Burton announced Beetlejuice star Michael Keaton as his Batman, the interested turned to outrage, though the outrage calmed down somewhat as it was also announced that film icon Jack Nicholson would be his arch-nemesis, The Joker. The film was finally made and after years of waiting, I remember enjoying it upon seeing it opening night on 6/23/89 but I had some problems with it that kept me from loving it. With a recent revisit, I found those problems still haunt it and to be honest, it is kind of dated especially with the Prince songs, which I never liked being in the film in the first place. They totally contrast and work against Danny Elfman’s moody and gothic score. But I digress…
Batman opens with a mysterious bat suited figure thrashing two criminals on a rooftop and the subsequent investigation by hard-nosed reporter Alexander Knox (a completely annoying Robert Wuhl and a character that could have been totally removed without any effect on the story) and intrepid photographer Vicki Vale (a bland Kim Basinger). We also get a second storyline of mob enforcer Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) who is sleeping with crime boss Carl Grissom’s (Jack Palance) girlfriend (Jerry Hall) and Grissom knows it. Grissom sends Napier on a job which is actually a set-up and when the police arrive, so does ‘The Bat” and Jack winds up shot in the face and falling in a vat of chemicals. The Joker is thus born, but so is a hero as The Batman (Michael Keaton) is secretly orphaned billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, a man who is avenging the murder of his parents by taking the criminals of Gotham head on as his masked alter ego. And with the Joker planing to ruin Gotham, he and Batman are fated to collide. But Wayne and Joker are also fated to collide too, as both men set their sights on the beautiful Vale…
And that plot element brings me to one of my first and biggest problems with Batman and that is the love triangle (quadrangle?) between Vale, Wayne, Joker and Batman. Not only does it not really work, but it provides some of the worst written scenes/dialogue in movie. The film stops dead for two scenes in particular when the Joker come to woo Vale and I never bought that the Joker would throw aside and endanger his nefarious plans, just for a girl… at least in how I see the character. That and Bassinger is just boring as Vale and one wonders how it would have been if Sean Young hadn’t been injured and lost the role. But this is also the product of the really weak script by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren that was reported to have been continuously tweaked throughout production. The script continually stops the already weak plot…The Joker messing with hair and beauty products? That was the best ‘evil scheme’ they could come up with for the greatest comic book villain of all time?…to pay attention to this subplot and takes the iconic Joker and Batman characters and makes their disagreement over a girl, like this was a John Hughes high school movie or something. At least Keaton shocked the world by being a great Batman and he gives this film a lot of the weight it has. He makes a brooding and mysterious Dark Knight and a perfectly aloof and eccentric Bruce Wayne. He even retains his dignity in an awfully written scene with him trying to explain his double life to Vale with an intrusion by The Joker. There is that ‘Vale’ factor again. As for Nicholson, despite what appears to be perfect casting…and I know I’ll get flak for this…Jack’s Joker is a mixed bag. He goes from dead-on threatening, such as the infamous “Wait’ll they get a load of me” scene, to just plain goofy and silly. I do understand that the Joker’s tone did change from dangerous psycho to goofy clown over the years in the comics, but the movie needed to pick one. I don’t know if it was Jack being overindulgent or Burton mishandling him or a product of the script, but Nicholson’s Joker is all over the place. He fails to solidify the proper threat and menace to make the character a solid villain as there are times when he appears to be a little too demented and silly to get away with his plans. He has some really effective scenes…his treatment of Alicia (Hall) is the kind of cruel streak the character needed a bit more of to remain frightening…but they are totally sidetracked by his sillier moments, but in his defense, and I can’t say this enough, the script doesn’t give him the best material to chew on. And as Burton isn’t always the strongest storyteller, so maybe Jack just winged it from scene to scene.
And as for Burton, he is a great visualist and this film has a sort of grimy Blade Runner meets 1940s detective thriller look to it. The storytelling here is weak, but it is said the script was sometimes changed without the director’s knowledge, so not sure if the film’s weakest moments are totally his fault. There were apparently a lot of hands in this pot and that’s why the following sequel seems more like a “Tim Burton” film then this one. All its flaws aside, this movie is still endearing to me. Keaton is great and would get even better in the improvement of a sequel. There is a lot of fun action and when Jack is on, he is a delight to watch when he gives his Joker the appropriate menace and isn’t sabotaged by some bad dialogue or cartoonish behavior. I wish he had been given a better story then hair and make-up tinkering, but this is what we got. The film has a classic score by Danny Elfman and a very underrated performances by Michael Gough as Alfred and his scenes with Keaton are magic. Put all four of this era’s Batman flicks together and Gough is the jewel of this uneven series. The Phantom of the Opera-ish climax is also a lot of fun and The Joker’s last scene might ironically be one of the most fitting scenes for the character… always having to have the last laugh.
So, in conclusion, despite a lot of flaws and the signs of a tumultuous production, the movie still has a lot to entertain and certainly has its charm, especially now that it’s aged somewhat…though not as gracefully as we’d like. And as my idea of Batman and his Joker were better portrayed by Nolan’s The Dark Knight, I can now let this movie slide on a few of its issues as it is no longer the only film on the subject. Also stars Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent and Tracey Walter as Joker’s top henchman Bob.
… as a final note, it’s kind of interesting that I’ve read where Tim Burton has been said to say he finds the movie boring and proclaim that it’s not a great movie. I agree it’s not a great movie, but it isn’t boring and will always be regarded, even by me, as a classic despite its flaws. These statements only give more substance to me of the notion that this film was not totally his and there were a lot of cooks involved in the bat soup which may explain why many aspects of the production are so uneven.
Rated 3 (out of 4) bat signals!
BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
Now this was more like it! As for what I wanted from Burton’s first Batman, this sequel is a lot closer to it. The film feels a lot more like a ‘Tim Burton’ film and a lot of the problems from Batman, have been eliminated or fixed such as booting the Vale and Knox characters and having a more consistently sinister villain and a far livelier and sexier leading lady… and no Prince music to date the film like last time…And for the record, I think Prince is a musical genius and has some great tunes, but they don’t belong in a Batman movie. The story is still not the strongest…none of this era’s Batman movies had strong plots…but it makes up for it by strengthening a lot of other weaknesses including a more gothic look and a snowy Christmas setting with a bit more of a devious sense of humor.
We start out with the wealthy Cobblepot family (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure vets Paul Reubens and Diane Salinger) welcoming a new baby boy into their family…an unfortunately deformed baby whom they proceed to send a la Moses sailing off down a creek in a basket. The basket sails into the abandoned Gotham City Zoo and down into the sewers beneath where it is greeted by a group of penguins apparently left over from the zoo’s closure. Cut to over three decades later as Gotham is battling a new criminal element and there are urban legends of a ‘penguin man’ stalking the sewers of the city, and now that he’s established as a hero, the apparently useless Commissioner Gordon (Pat Hingle) calls upon the Batman (Michael Keaton) to combat these problems. Meanwhile unscrupulous businessman Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) is scheming to construct a power plant that will actually steal power from Gotham and is forced to throw his shy secretary Selena Kyle (Michelle Pheiffer) out a high-rise window when she stumbles on his plans. But all these characters and stories are destined to clash as the criminal gang is actually run by The Penguin (Danny DeVito) who is the vengeful, deformed outcast son of the Cobblepots and he tasks Max Shreck to help him get his revenge on the city that abandoned him. Miss Kyle is resurrected, in a scene that evokes the Japanese horror flick Kuroneko (1968), by the touch of some stray cats and emerges as Catwoman, yet another vengeance seeking individual with chaos and bedlam on her mind. And the one thing they all have in common…none of their plans can come to fruition without the elimination of The Batman. The only hitch is that Batman and Catwoman may have found soul mates in each other just as the emotionally scarred Bruce Wayne has with the equally damaged Selina Kyle. But will the feline femme fatale side with the caped crusader or join the other villains to do him in?
Burton may not be the strongest storyteller, but he does far better guiding this one then the last. Maybe it was less interference from producers?…a less demanding actor as his lead bad guy?…or that Daniel Waters’ script is a vast improvement over that last film’s. Either way this flick is a lot more fun, while retaining its dark tone. It seems to move faster and despite its complicated story and numerous characters, seems to flow a lot better in the context of the telling of that story. The characters all seem to fit together better, especially Keaton and Pfeiffer whose scenes together both as Wayne and Kyle and their alter egos are a delight to watch and crackle with a sexual tension that was completely absent in the last film’s romantic pairing. They are also far better written and have some nice crisp dialogue between the two especially with Batman and Catwoman’s love/hate relationship. While it may be debated that Walken’s villain is one too many, his scenes with all three leads are amusing to watch as he basically seems to be playing everyone for his own benefit and also seems quite amused with himself that his partners in crime don’t see the wool pulled over their eyes or his thinly veiled contempt for them as he does it. Keaton is even better here as Batman/Bruce Wayne and seems to be more relaxed in the role and while he is still a wounded soul, I dare say his Batman here is enjoying his superhero role a little more now that his is out of the shadows and an outright hero instead of an outlaw. He works well with all the cast especially recreating the magic between Batman and butler with Gough’s wonderful Alfred. As for DeVito, his Penguin is a grotesque and sinister creature that instills discomfort and menace. He is having a blast with the role and is far more consistent with his portrayal then the all over the place performance Nicholson gave and this helps establish his character more solidly. Penguin may not be as quite iconic as The Joker, but in my opinion, DeVito is far more successful in his portrayal than Jack was in his, because he picks a tone for the demented and sly Oswald Cobblepot and stays with it. It may also help that he has a better script and a director who is not having his script changed underneath him like last time. Pfeiffer is simply hot and spicy as the kitten with a whip that is her Catwoman. She is adorable as the shy and clumsy Selena Kyle and then is delightfully hot as the twisted and sexy villainess. She and Keaton have a wonderful chemistry together and make good use of the witty dialogue between them. She also has some fun scenes with DeVito, whose creepily horny Penguin would like nothing better than to get into her vinyl catsuit.
The production on a whole seems more relaxed. The budget is almost twice what the first film’s was and Burton goes with a more gothic look with less pipes and girders and more stone and castle-like architecture, and the colors are less rust and rot with more blues and cool grays to accent his cold weather suited villain. The first film looked appropriately grungy, but here it more ‘Transylvanian’ and he makes good use of the snowy winter setting to present a beautiful snow swept city in contrast to the dirty dark sewers in which Penguin calls home. There are some fun action scenes too and the film benefits from the larger budget with better FX and model work. Even back in the day, some of the model work in the first film’s cathedral scene made me wince. Danny Elfman returns to once again composes a wonderfully fitting score. The two Batman scores are among his best work.
All in all, Batman Returns is a better film in every way and it’s a shame the studio decided to change direction in the next film and go with Schumacher who treated the next two Batman films like a gaudy burlesque show complete with bat nipples and gratuitous latex covered ass shots. Keaton sadly but wisely walked away as the next two films went from neon drenched car wreck to neon drenched train wreck respectively. Odd that the studios wanted the films to be lighter and more family friendly yet, Schumacher gave them far more of a kinky sexual subtext then the darker Burton films and were ultimately less successful.
Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) bat signals!