Ray-wind: Batman (1989)

Ray-wind: a hilariously-named segment (look up at the blog title, okay, back to me.  See what I did?) in which I watch a film that I’ve not seen for years, and see how it holds up.

The opening credits dance around the Batman logo.  With a Danny Elfman score, even this feels like an adventure.  I was emotionally exhausted by the time the film began.

From the first scene there’s a palpable sense of Gotham City; it feels alive.  Bustling streets of beggars, hoes, newspaper vendors, Gotham feels alive right away.  It’s an efficient scene also, introducing Batman, giving us a sense of the myths around him (by way of the two robbers), showing a crime reminiscent of the Bruce’s childhood tragedy, and illustrating Batman’s sense of justice.

An important part of Batman’s character in the comics is that he won’t kill, despite it possibly being the best thing to do (given what, say, the Joker will do if he escapes from Arkham Asylum, as he often does).  This film, however, muddies this.  Two muggers talk about what happened to unseen characters Johnny Gobbs, the rumour being that he was thrown off of a building by Batman.  Of course this may just be junkie-whispers.  But later Batman fires rockets at groups of Joker’s henchmen, knocks Joker off of a church roof, and soon kills him by attaching a gargoyle to Joker’s leg, the weight of it dropping him to his doom.  Batman may never murder, but he’s guilty of manslaughter.

Batman (the film) is lighter and more theatrical than I remember.  Scenes featuring Robert Wuhl and Jack Palance are hammy and typically 80s.  Yet as soon as Joker, the true star of the film, arrives, the film improves.  The theatricality of the film is now appropriate for Jack Nicholson’s wonderfully over-the-top performance.  Batman is like a stage show without its lead, looking for someone to pin it’s aesthetic to.  Once Joker arrives, everything falls into place.

Joker’s emergence is a great scene.  Jack recovers from his injuries in a backstreet doctors.  The doc removes the bandages and is shocked at what he sees.  A cackle rings out.  The Joker is born, a comic book villain comes to life.  He soon enacts his revenge on Grissom, shooting him from a number of wild poses like a homicidal Harlem Globetrotter.

There’s a question that’s difficult to avoid when rewatching any of Batman films nowadays: am I comparing Burton’s Batman to Nolan’s?  I think that I was, subconsciously.  It’s been said that Bale is the better Batman, but Keaton plays a better Bruce Wayne.  I don’t know if I agree with that, as they play him in very different ways.  Keaton’s acting and the script add far more mystery to Wayne than Nolan’s.  Michael Keaton so easily plays Wayne as enigmatic.  His absent-mindedness, those curious Keaton eyebrows, Bruce always seems to have something else going on, that he’s thinking about other things (as he probably is).  With Nolan’s, we’ve seen how Batman begins (in a film I can’t remember the name of).  But here, Joker has more backstory than Batman does.  We know that the murder of his parents caused Bruce to become Batman, but that’s all.  Whatever happened between then and now is a mystery to us.  Years are missing from his tale, much like that other fictional hero, Jesus. Whether the casting of a mysterious-looking actor in a role filled with mystery was deliberate or not, it certainly worked well.

Something had bothered me about the scene in the chemical factory, it lacked drama.  On this viewing I realised why.  Cops arrive to arrest a number of armed criminals.  They’re also tooled-up and ready to shoot.  Except Commissioner Gordon.  He stands there unarmed, dishing out orders with no sense of the danger around him.  He’s like a gamer playing a strategy game, moving his troops left and right while being seemingly untouchable himself.  He’s far from safe, of course, and Batman has to save him from Jack’s bullet.  Jack then turns this shot on someone else, Eckhardt, another cop wandering the scene without a care in the world.

There’s some questionable editing when Jack falls off the boardwalk.  Despite falling over backwards he manages to completely turn around in mid-air, and catches a hold facing forward.  I didn’t realise that Jack Nicholson was a gymnast.

If Nolan’s Batman films have a theme of building destruction, Burton’s Batman concerns itself with the vertigo-inducing height of these buildings.  Batman plays on the verticality of Gotham, of Batman’s use of such heights and the danger inherent in height and gravity.  In Batman’s first appearance he threatens to drop a mugger from a roof.  Napier falls to his de facto death from a catwalk.  Batman and Vicky winch from ground level to a catwalk in seconds to escape criminals, before Bats has to take the unaided plunge right back down again (because Vale is fat).  Height is particularly prominent in the vertiginous church scenes of the finale.  A church bell falls, crashing hundreds of feet to the ground, as Batman has to grip the walls to avoid it.  Batman is thrown from the belfry, managing to save himself before toppling a henchman to his doom, the camera dwelling on his fall.  Then there’s the hamstring-tightening roof scene in which Vicky and Batface dangle from the edge as Joker dances just inches from their fingertips, loosening bricks.  Batman attaches a gargoyle to Joker, who plummets to his death.  Then the duo fall also, only saved by a handy Bathook.  These scenes seem to deliberately play on our natural fear of heights.

I love Batman’s smoke bombs.  It suits this theatrical vision of Batman well to occasionally have him vanish, wizard-style, in a puff of smoke.  Also, it’s nice to hear on the official police report that Jack committed suicide.  The popo not only ignore any mention of Batman, but know that taking credit for killing Napier might bring more attention to the case than they would want.

Trivia: Tim Burton agreed to direct Batman as soon as he heard the ‘Goth’ part of Gotham City.  Gotham is a dark city lit with punches of neon.  This darkness contrasts nicely with the Joker’s lurid colour scheme.  His white face, green hair and red lips are magnified further with his multicoloured attire.  It seems like, as the 80s died, one of its last big films soaked up all the colour of the decade and splashed it all over Jack Nicholson’s suit.

I’ve always loved the newsreader scenes in Batman.  One reporter is affected by Smilex while on air, causing her to giggle through a morbid news segment.  The next time we see the news show, the anchors look rough as they’ve avoided using toiletries, due to them possibly being poisoned.  It’s a nice, well played moment, though it seems a bit ridiculous (are we to believe that Vicky doesn’t use any beauty products?).

You know realism has crept into action films when I’m questioning how Joker gets CIA documents, how Wayne gets police files.

Vicky phones to say that she’ll be ten minutes late meeting Bruce at the museum.  This is the only unrealistic moment of the entire film; what woman would do that?  As a man, you’re lucky if a woman is only ten minutes late. Only expect a phone call if she’ll be more than half an hour.

The devil’s in the details.  Props to the, eh, props department, for making a gas mask that’s as colourful as Joker’s wardrobe.

Prince’s soundtrack is maligned, but it fits the film nicely.  It’s not hard to imagine the purple-clad Joker listening to purple-clad Prince.

I can’t figure out why Bruce antagonises Joker in Vicky’s flat, causing Joker to shoot him.  Did he think that Joker would leave Vicky alone if he had committed murder?  That seems quite rational thinking to assign to a maniac.  It couldn’t have been to allow Bruce to escape and change into his Batman costume, because he doesn’t give chase.  Ultimately it’s a bit of a risk to assume that Joker would aim for the heart, the bullet hitting a tray Wayne had hidden in his jacket.  The only point I can see to this confrontation is so the writers can reveal that it was Joker (well, Jack) who killed Bruce’s parents.

This is something the film seems to have problems addressing clearly.  In Vicky’s flat, Joker seems to have no recollection of killing Bruce’s parents.  I did entertain the idea that he remembered it, and that’s why he used the “pale moonlight” line, as if to say “I killed your parents, and now I’m going to kill you”.  That changes the Joker’s profile from more of a psychopath, murdering at random, to a cold-blooded and heartless killer.  It also doesn’t seem much of a stretch to think that Jack would read or hear about the death of a millionaire and realise that was who he murdered.  Although, I did watch the scene again, and there seems to be nothing to this idea.  Sorry for wasting your time.

However, when Batman tells Joker on the church roof that Joker had “made him” by killing his parents, Joker replies that he was “just a kid” at the time.  So Joker understands that, not only is Batman Bruce Wayne, but that he is responsible for the Wayne murders, right?  Right?  So this makes the apartment shooting scene ambiguous.  I don’t know what to think.  Sorry for the lack of conclusion.  Refunds are available at the door.

If you don’t know, Joker being the Waynes’ killer was a story element added for the film.  In the comics, they were killed by an unidentified robber.  It appears that I am a canon hypocrite.  I say I have no problem with films making alterations to the material.  Books are books, comics are comics, films are indeed films.  They work differently, and what works well in one may fail in another.  I have no problems with the Joker being the murderer.  However, I didn’t know it had been changed when I first saw Batman.  I may have responded differently if I had already been a fan of the comics.  V For Vendetta is my favourite comic of all-time, and when I heard that the film would make story changes (like alluding to V being in love with Evie), I was irked.  I can’t help but think I’m in favour of changes to the original when it’s not ‘my’ canon.  Feel free to step on other people’s stories, Mr Hollywood, just don’t tread on mine.Batman swoops into the parade and uses the Batwing’s pincers to remove the deadly balloons. Were these pincers added purely for this purpose, or did the ‘wing already have them?  How often would they come in handy?  The ‘wing continues its ascent, recreating the (yet unseen) Bat-signal by silhouetting against the moon, while chaos and death reins on Gotham’s streets.  That’s like Barack Obama spinning a basketball on his finger while terrorists take over DC.

Woman are of little use in Batman.  Jerry Hall cheats on Grissom, leading to Jack transforming into the Joker and Grissom’s death.  She’s responsible for those who died by Joker’s hand because she couldn’t keep her legs closed.  Vicky Vale is really there to scream and to be a pawn in the Batman/Joker power struggle.  She had a prime opportunity to kill Joker in the belfry.  As he sprayed acid on the church bell’s rope, she could have pushed him off and to his death.  Sigourney Weaver would have kicked Joker’s ass and thrown him to his doom.

It seems as if Joker didn’t plan on going up to the church’s roof until Batman crashed onto its steps.  If so, how were henchmen waiting for Batman up there?  Did a separate helicopter drop them off, and Joker chose to wait and watch the fight?  Or does Joker just keep goons in every building in Gotham, on the off-chance that they come in handy?

The film ends with Gordon’s announcement that the police are embracing Batman’s actions, and showing their fancy new Bat-signal.  I hope Batman was warned that they were only testing it and didn’t need his help.  I’d like a post-credits scene where he arrives at the press conference, exhausted after rushing to get there, thinking they need his help.  Then to be told that they were just showing off the signal.  He walks away irritated, cursing under his breath.

And it’s finished.  Batman does feel quite epic, particularly as we don’t even see Bruce Wayne for the first 15 minutes or so of the film.  From Jack to Joker to a laughing bag on the pavement, Batman packs a lot more into two hours than many newer films do in three.

Batman is an incredibly quotable film.  I can’t imagine any of these quotes coming from the comic, which makes the writing all the more impressive.  Besides the obvious “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”, here’s some other beezers:

“Wait ‘til they get a load of me”
“Love that Joker”
“Gentleman, let’s broaden our minds”
“You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs”
“I make art, until someone dies”
“Never rub another man’s rhubarb”
“My balloons.  Those are my balloons”
“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”
“I have a bat in my belfry”

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