Friday, July 6, 2012

Batman (1989) (1st review of 11)

      Every legend begins somewhere and as for Batman, his true fame began with the classic 1989 motion picture “Batman”.

     Fans who grew up with this film couldn’t praise it enough, and often it gets regarded as a favorite movie in cinema. I wouldn’t go that far but I can imagine what a huge impact this had on the superhero genera. Before this film, Batman was just part of campy, 60’s culture. Of cores he already had a fan base with the 30’s serials and the 60’s show that lunched “Batman The Movie”, but this was the film that introduced the dark, complex and ass kicking superhero fans have been waiting for. Earlier, there was a graphic novel called “The Dark Knight Returns” and it showed the dark realism of getting old and going through tragic events. So it was about time the hero was shown the way he was meant to be and the director was the dark visionary mastermind, Tim Burton. He did movies like no other, with dark and elaborate looks and themes, so he was the perfect choice for this film. However, Tim Burton has never been one for telling a story, his movies have been built on amazing visuals and strong atmosphere and in this regard the film works. It’s not one of my absolute favorite superhero movies or one of my favorite Batman movies but it definitely ranks as one of my favorite Tim Burton movies.  

     The opening credit scene is one of the best openings of the series, the camera travels through a lot of dark tunnels, which is later revealed to be the batman symbol, it gives me chills every time. This also introduced us to the classic score by Danny Elfman, easily one of Batman's greatest musicale themes because it fits the character perfectly, and it’s been used for him in several other adaption’s, including the 90’s animated TV show. Every classic trade mark of Batman was perfected in this film. Gotham City is grand and larger than life, with buildings that look like they can reach the stars. The bat-mobeal looked slick, cool and dangerous, just the perfect portrayal of the Batmobile. The bat cave was also perfected in this film, it had less technology and more of a massive cave appearance, with a lot of bats flying around and every detail is just right on the dot. The only thing missing is that giant penny that’s always seen in the comics and TV shows. 


    Then there's “The Night Wing”, I don’t know if this film is what introduced use to the night wing but it did introduce me to it and it looked amazing. That shot of it flying in front of the moon is something I’ll always remember, certainly more memorable than in “E.T. The Extraterrestrial”. The night wing will be featured in three more Batman films, “Batman Mask of the Phantasm”, “Batman Forever” and "The Dark Knight Rises". Some may argue that it’s to unrealistic to have Batman flying something that “NASA” hasn’t been able to construct yet but all the same, it's a trade mark vehicle of the character and probably my favorite of his. Now about the plot, well, there really isn't much of one and that's the films only real weakness. The real strength of the picture comes from its strong atmosphere and creative visuals. My favorite scene is when Batman and Vicky Vale are ridding in the Bat mobile, there's hardly any lines, the shots combine with the music beautifully and it fully allows you to just relax and let the music and atmosphere sink in. 

        Now let’s look at the characters, Batman is played by Michael Keaton, who stared in Tim Burton's previous movie “BeetleJuice”. Fans where very upset with this decision because he was an actor who did comedies like “Mr. Mom”, people wanted action stars like Sylvester Stallone, but Burton wanted someone unassuming for the role and it works very well. As far as casting goes, Keaton was hands down the best Batman. As Bruce Wayne he was sly and unassuming and as Batman he was hard core and he brought true life to the character. The costume also looked really good, fitting the classic image of Batman while still looking very threatening. I also feel that this version is truer the the source of the character then any other rendition because when he goes out fighting crime, he's really battling his own personal daemons. There's also a confidence and mystique to the character that thrills me every time he's on screen. Unfortunately, while his mystery elements work great, we never really get to know him as an individual. He doesn't say much, isn't really developed and he’s not given as much attention and screen time as the villain. Some may argue that Batman is best left in the shadows and in mystery, which is true, however, when I watch a superhero movie I want the story to center around the hero and have everything else in the film weave around him. This is something that the later "Dark Knight" films would master perfectly. 

    It's interesting to note that this is the only Batman film to date that only features one villain and surprise, surprise, it’s The Joker played by Jack Nicholson. Unlike Michael Keaton, this was a very obvious casting choice but Jack is still great in the role, he’s completely crazy, entertaining, unpredictable and unintentionally funny at times. It may seem strange that a clown is Batman’s greatest enemy but if you think about it, there a perfect match. One is a noble and pure hero who hides in a dark and monstrous form while the other is a dark and heartless monster that hides in a bright and colorful form. Sense he’s the only villain, there’s a lot of room for a good hero villain conflict. It’s a very standard setup with Batman learning Joker killed his parents and Joker is angry at him for ruining his plans and former life. It’s nothing new but it’s a good hero villain relationship all the same. My only problem with the Joker is that he’s the main focuses of the film, has more scenes then Batman and has a bigger character story. Actually, he doesn't even have any real motivations, he just dose what ever he wants, and kills when he thinks it's a fun time to kill. His most memorable kill is with his hand buzzer, that he uses to electrify one of his enemy's. Not only dose the guy get reduced to an electrified skeleton, the joker talks to his corps afterword and then strangles him with a neck tie for good measure, now that's crazy! All in all, the joker can be an entertaining villain but his week motivations make him one of Batman's least interesting adversaries.     


     The supporting cast is small but functional, the butler Alfred is played very well by Michael Gough, who continued his role as Alfred throughout “Batman Returns”, “Batman Forever” and “Batman and Robin”, just like the reliable butler that he is. Pat Hingle also continued his role as Commissioner Gordon throughout the 4 Batman movies but he just doesn't stand out in any appreciable way and is more often then not an extra. Now unlike Superman or Spider-Man, Batman has never had a single girl friend, in fact the girl friends change in every movie, much like James Boned women. Our lead girl friend in this film is Vicki Vale played by Kim Basinger. She’s a fun character and a perfect, cliched, damsel in distress, always in need of rescuing, always losing her shoes and always screaming. Despite being such as obvious cliché, she was also insightful and kind while also being quick and coming. Vale was supportive but she had her limits, making her a fun and sometimes interesting character. Also I really like Vales wardrobe, most of Batman’s girl friends are always in black attire but Vale was always in white and that was a much cooler contrast to Batman and the dark, gothic surroundings.

    Billy Dee Williams, who's best known for playing Lando Calrissian from the Star Wars series, makes a few small appearances as Harvey Dent. This is the man who would later become Batman’s arch foe Two Face. Unfortunately the actor became less and less popular and for whatever reason he never returned to the series. But let’s not get into Two Face right now, we still have a few films to get through before we need to talk about him.

   Now excuse me for getting off topic for a moment but there are a few connections between Batman and Dracula that I thought would be fun to mention. First of all, Michael Gough (Alfred) also starred in “Horror of Dracula” and in that film he aided Van Helsing with slaying vampires. Interesting, he went from vampire killer to serving a man who dresses up like a bat, coincidence or a clever choice by Tim Burton. In 2005 there was an animated crossover movie titled “The Batman vs. Dracula” and the lead girl in that film was none other than Vicky Vail. In the sequel “Batman Returns”, there’s a character named Max Shrek, which was also the name of the actor who played Dracula in the oldest existing vampire movie “Nosferatu”. Also, doesn't the opening title of the 1931 “Dracula” look a lot like the chapter openings to the 1930’s Batman serials, which coincidentally featured Vicky Vail. Here’s another fun bite of trivia, in a latter Tim Burton movie “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, Wonka's dad works at a dental place called “Smilex”, this was the name of the poison the Joker used to kill people with permanent smiles.

     The film climbs to a relatively strong climax, with each scene building on top of the other. Even though this finally is short on action, it still feels like a spectacle, with a heavy atmosphere, mood and one of the most memorable villain deaths in the Batman series, with the Joker falling from a helicopter and dropping to his death. It’s one of the most common conventions that a villain dies from dropping like that but the Batman movies actually make a tradition of it. Ignoring how Max Shrek and Bane are defeated, every other Batman villain dies from falling. In “Batman Returns”, the Penguin crashes through a window and falls, he doesn’t die immediately but it was the drop that killed him. In “Batman Forever”, Two Face is standing on a pipe but he trips and falls to his death. In “Batman Begins”, Rawzowl Goul was in a train that was derailed and it fell down and exploded, so technically it still counts as falling. In “The Dark Knight” Two face died again by getting pushed off an edge, falling and breaking his neck. Then finally in "The Dark Knight Rises", Talia al Ghul is defeated when her vehicle falls off an edge and crashes.  

     Overall, This is what I like to call an experience film, I love being submersed in this comic book style world and experiencing all the visuals, the sets, the music, the clichés, the film noir and just the whole artistry of how the film is brought to life. It doesn’t need a strong script or intense character depth, it already makes for a worthwhile film on its own merits. Now that’s not to say that I don’t care about strong scripts and character structure, I love all that stuff too, but sometimes I just like to take a break from all of that and just experience something that’s technically brilliant. Finally, that closing shot of Batman on top of the building with the bat signal in the background is one of the most memorable and triumphant closings to a superhero movie I've ever seen. For all its problems I still look at this movie as a classic and a great entry in the series, it’s not a masterpiece but it doesn’t need to be and it still did its job making an icon out of this character. I give “Batman” 4 stars.  

          Stay tuned for part three, things are going to get darker as we look at “Batman Returns”.

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