My hiatus on Podcaster Disassembled was cut short the moment it was announced we would be talking about Batman. While Batman isn’t my superhero numero uno, Tim Burton’s Batman does hold a very special place in my heart. While I know it was not the first movie I ever saw in a theater, it’s the first one I can remember vividly. It’s one of the first films I remember getting swept up in the marketing for. It’s the first film I remember getting on VHS almost immediately after it was released, which was rare at the time because movies didn’t release to home video in the same way it does now.
You see, back in them days, VHS tapes could run you upwards of $50 to $100. Studios weren’t in the business of consumer marketing. They mainly focused on selling retail to rental shops, which is another relic of the past we’ve mentioned here before. But I digress.
I remember seeing advertisements for Batman and getting pretty excited. Prior to this film, Batman, to me, was this campy character with an annoying sidekick. Not only was I exposed to Adam West and Burt Ward’s version of the characters, but also the animated Super Friends versions that were equally campy. And because of that perception, no one wanted to make the dark Batman movie that executive producer Michael Uslan was pitching around Hollywood. Richard Donner’s Superman showed viability in superhero films, but the film also contained campiness in its own way, further driving the point that Batman couldn’t be dark.
But those opinions changed in the 80s starting with the release of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, which took the character back to a dark and gritty tone not seen in decades. Then came Alan Moore’s the Killing Joke which explored the relationship of Batman and the Joker, all while paralyzing the original Batgirl Barbara Gordon, and torturing her father Jim Gordon. If you thought Miller went dark, Moore can and usually does go even darker. Between these two titles, the perspective shifted and Warner Bros. decided to give a darker take a chance.
While I’ve heard there were detractors against the casting of Michael Keaton, I was not among them, mainly because his body of work was not well-known to me at this point. Sure, I knew him as Beetlejuice… which come to think of it I saw in theaters as well, and there was another film or two of his I’d probably seen. But if the movie said, “he’s Batman,” then I accepted it. Kind of like other films telling me that Dolph Lundgren was the Punisher or He-Man. It was accepted.
I think Keaton is great as Bruce Wayne and Batman. He developed the vocal pitch difference between the two which makes absolute sense in trying to hide your identity. Even if I had not grown-up with him as one of my first Batmen, I still believe I would regard him as one of the better actors to portray the character.
Jack Nicholson was definitely someone I knew at that point in time and him as the Joker was a no-brainer. That said, I want to peek into the alternate Earth where Tim Curry was cast instead just to see what that looked like. Nicholson portrays the Joker in the way that I usually prefer, unhinged and unpredictable. His characterization feels in line with that of the animated series, where he cracks wise one minute and can kill you the next. I will say that I’m not a huge fan of the facial prosthetics. With a man having such a devilish smile already, what need was there to “enhance” his look. It’s not something that nags at me. Just a curiosity to me.
Michael Gough was a wonderful Alfred and was always a welcome sight in subsequent sequels, despite a dip in quality. One might argue that him letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave was a WTF moment for the character. But I think it was spot-on considering he told Bruce to be honest with her earlier and was attempting to push them together, until Bruce forced his hand. Then again, if Bruce wasn’t into it then that’s his business. But seriously who wouldn’t be into Kim Basinger? I had the biggest crush on her. Then I stumbled upon that Playboy centerfold with her a few years later… my god… BUT I digress. In all seriousness, Basinger was great as Vicki Vale. My only gripe is that screech of a scream she has.
I also want to acknowledge Robert Wuhl as Alexander Knox. He may be a forgettable character for some, but I like him. The one guy in the city that believes in a “bat man”. It was great seeing him again in Crisis on Infinite Earths, even if it was a minor cameo. Here’s hoping we might see him pop up in The Flash. It’d be a great way to tie it all back around if you ask me.
Tim Burton was not a name I knew at the time, even though I had seen and was a huge fan of his two other feature films. It’s funny going back and watching the film now and seeing all the little Burton-esque choices made for the film. I’m not sure the film would have been as successful without him. Any director could attempt to be dark, but his sensibilities made it feel like a comic book come to life. Things are just a little bit off, you know. Not too realistic, yet not too far outside the realm of possible.
And you can’t talk about this score without mentioning Danny Elfman’s now iconic theme, which may not be the theme he intended after learning that, according to Elfman himself, audio engineers botched the final mix of his score. Makes me wonder what a proper mix would have been. It may not be all that different but Elfman himself said he’s not a fan of what they did to it.
The film does a modest job looking at the idea of Batman and what would have led someone down that path. Trying to ground what genuinely is a ludicrous idea can be tricky but it’s been done to resounding success in other films than this one. Furthermore, the idea that Jack Napier killed Bruce Wayne’s parents is not a farfetched idea, but the odds that they would once again cross paths as Joker and Batman are slim. I don’t hate the idea but I’m not a fan of it either. I feel that even if the Joker had survived the film, it completely changes the dynamic between the characters.
Tim Burton’s Batman, along with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the following year, proved that comic book films could still be viable in a market flooded with utter shite. For the next decade, Hollywood produced such comic book hits as the Crow, the Mask, the Shadow, the Phantom, Barb Wire, Spawn, Steel, Judge Dredd, Tank Girl, Mystery Men… ok ok so once again the market saw diminishing returns because Hollywood suits didn’t learn a damn thing. And boy does this original run of films drive that point home.