Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 25: Batman (1989)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Batman (1989) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 155 of the first edition hardback, Ebert describes a notorious, boisterous publicist who worked for Warner Bros. named Frank Casey. In one anecdote about the larger-than-life character, he recounts, “It was of my opinion Casey had never seen a movie all the way through. Unlike other publicists, who mostly used screening rooms, Casey liked to take over a theater like the World Playhouse for the Chicago preview of a big movie like Batman and invite all his friends from the worlds of business and politics. Only at a Warner Bros. movie were you ever likely to see Mayor Daley, several alderman, and various Pritzkers.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The Gotham City created in Batman is one of the most distinctive and atmospheric places I’ve seen in the movies. It’s a shame  something more memorable doesn’t happen there. Batman is a triumph of design over story, style over substance – a great-looking movie with a plot you can’t care much about. All of the big moments in the movie are pounded home with ear-shattering sound effects and a jackhammer cutting style, but that just serves to underline the movie’s problem, which is a curious lack of suspense and intrinsic interest. Batman discards the recent cultural history of the Batman character – the camp 1960s TV series, the in-joke comic books – and returns to the mood of the 1940s, the decade of film noir and fascism.” -from his 1989 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

There have been four major live action Batman franchises to hit theaters since the cartoonishly campy days of Adam West in the 1960s. All of them have Tim Burton’s greasy fingerprints all over their basic DNA. Burton’s 1989 Batman adaptation was such a highly stylized smash hit that Gotham has never looked the same onscreen since. His highly specific production style of gothy art deco gloom mixed with subtly campy sadism has shaped everything Schumacher, Nolan, and Snyder have done visually with the Batman property in the decades since, and even launched an entire, highly-acclaimed animated TV series. Every Batman adaptation since Burton’s seems to like have inadvertently mirrored more than just that seminal work’s high-end Hot Topic gloom, however. They’ve also adopted his pattern of when to intensify personal vision instead of bending to corporate-minded marketability with each respective franchise.

Tim Burton’s Batman has a striking visual palette & overall tone to it that’s directly tied to the director’s personal wheelhouse as an auteur. Still, there’s something about the relatively vanilla romance at the film’s center, the shoehorned-in Prince soundtrack, and the blatantly brand-conscious imagery of the bat signal that reeks of movie-by-committee studio interference. Batman ’89 feels like Burton delivering exactly what studios want (with a strong personal spin, of course) so that he can prove himself worthy to fully take the reins in a second, wilder, more personalized feature. 1992’s Batman Returns is pure Tim Burton, an untethered, perverted goth kid rampage that broke free from studio exec influence, a much more striking & idiosyncratic work than its predecessor. Every live action Batman adaptation since has seemed to follow this pattern. Joel Schumacher’s jokey-but-tame Batman Forever isn’t nearly half as memorable as the oversexed camp fest of its far superior Batman and Robin follow-up. (It’s time we all admit that’s a great movie; don’t @ me.) Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is widely recognized as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of the last decade, while its predecessor is a much more muted drama about Batman’s salad days at ninja school. Even recently (and I’m expecting even more flack for this than the Schumacher praise), the Zach Snyder-helmed Batman films got a lot more lively & delightfully weird in Suicide Squad than they started off as in the punishingly dull Dawn of Justice. Burton has laid out a clear blueprint for any & all would-be Batman auteurs arriving in his wake: try to keep it somewhat calm & familiar in the first film, then swing for the fences with the follow-up.

I don’t mean to imply here that Batman ’89 is in any way a bland, forgettable film. It does feel homogenized around the edges to meet major studio blockbuster expectations, but the weird little heart at the center of the film is still unmistakably Burton. The stop motion retractable shields on the Batmobile are pure Burton aesthetic, a visual calling card also matched in the film’s matte paintings & miniatures. He also frames a lot of the film with an excess of Dutch angles, which is not only a natural aspect of adapting a comic book property for the screen, but also consistent with the childlike tone of his then-contemporary works like Beetlejuice & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Besides the visual calling cards that let us know as an audience that this is A Tim Burton Joint, you can also feel the director’s personality strongly reflected in the casting. Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne as a reclusive billionaire weirdo is a smart deviation from the square-jawed, American Hero caricature Adam West (expertly) brought to the screen before him, bringing a calmer version of his demonic Beetlejuice performance to the role. Where Burton really finds his footing in leaving a personal stamp on Batman as a product wouldn’t be with the titular hero at all, however. The director’s talents were much better suited for bringing to life the cartoon cruelty of the Caped Crusader’s sworn enemy, one of superhero comics’ most infamous villains.

Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker is the key to understanding Batman ’89 both as a Burton film and as a monolithic influence on the adaptations that would follow. Burton is obviously more interested in the villains of the Batverse than he is in Bruce Wayne himself, except maybe when the billionaire weirdo is exposed to be just another oddly kinky monster terrorizing the city he supposedly protects. A large part of what makes Batman Returns feel more like a pure Burton vision than its predecessor is that the director just fully gives himself into this impulse, wilfully allowing Batman to become a background character while total freaks like Danny DeVito’s Penguin & Michelle Pheiffer’s Catwoman run amok. Nicholson’s The Joker is a great preview of that future Utopia of gothy camp. He is as genuinely terrifying here as he is in his career-making role in The Shining, especially in scenes where he covers his clown-white face with flesh-toned make-up. He turns the character into a sadistic form of clowning, filling the squirting flower of his lapel with a corrosive acid & staging a sinisterly warped version of the Macy’s Day Parade with poison-filled balloons. To do Batman exactly right, you have to mix a little camp theatricality in to lighten the gloomy glowering of an otherwise depressive property. This is exactly why Heath Ledger’s own unhinged Joker performance exalted The Dark Knight and also why the utterly joyless Dawn of Justice put many theater-goers to sleep. Nicholson’s performance as The Joker is the first sign that Burton understood the need for that balance. You can hear it in his half-goofy, half-chilling catchphrase “You ever dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight?” You can feel it in a sequence where he defaces fine art with bathroom-quality graffiti to a funky Prince track and somehow makes the tone fit the film, despite all odds. In a lot of ways Batman ’89 feels like a dry run for better things to come in Returns, but everything Nicholson does onscreen in the mean time is just as timelessly entertaining as the best of what was to follow.

Roger Ebert wasn’t a fan of either of Tim Burton’s Batman productions. He praised the director’s work as “a triumph of design” & atmosphere, but ultimately dismisses it as a style over substance affair. Personally, I always value style over substance. I agree with Ebert on some level that the Bruce Wayne narrative arc never matches the eccentricity of Burton’s vision in Batman, likely due to the homogenizing effect of studio influence, but I can’t dismiss the value of that vision in & of itself. Burton’s mixed media visual accomplishments in Batman are stunning to this day, a distinct personal artistry that doesn’t require a strong narrative to justify its for-its-own-sake pleasures. Although he wouldn’t make his most fully personal Batman film until Returns, you can still feel his own idiosyncrasies creeping in through the influence of Nicholson’s goofy-scary Joker and an overall production design unmistakably of his own. I’ll always hold Returns in higher regard than Batman ’89, but I still greatly respect this landmark work for the ways it fights to be memorably bizarre despite studio influence, the way it envisions an entirely new & instantly definitive look for its hero’s playground, and the way it serves as a basic blueprint for all Batman cinema that followed.

Roger’s Rating: (2/4, 50%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: Galia (1966)

-Brandon Ledet

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One thought on “Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 25: Batman (1989)

  1. Pingback: Doomed!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4 (2016) | Swampflix

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