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

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)

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three star

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I’ve been gushing a lot lately about superhero media that dials the clock back to before the adult-marketed era The Dark Knight has unwittingly spawned. Titles like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows & Roger Corman’s infamously discarded Fantastic Four adaptation have been a comforting return to the Saturday morning cartoon era of superhero media for me, a time where kids’ stuff was actually made, you know, for kids. The recent animated feature Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders brilliantly, deliberately calls back to the superhero movie’s goofy past that I miss so much. Especially in the face of Zach Snyder’s glowering realm of DC Comics adaptations, this kind of campy kids’ media is the exact breath of fresh air the world needs before it suffocates on its own doom & gloom. There were four feature films in the Batman universe released in 2016. Two of those films (Dawn of Justice & The Killing Joke) were tonal nightmares of ultra macho self-seriousness. The other two got by on the entertainment value of so-bad-it’s-good camp. Of that enjoyable half, only Return of the Caped Crusaders can claim to have been bad on purpose (with Suicide Squad‘s mild guilty pleasures seeming much more unintentional). I think it’s fair to say, then, that this silly, animated trifle was the best Batman movie of the year, which is an unlikely distinction, considering the crowded field and its dedication to camp & frivolity.

As with most bankable successes in recent years, Batman or otherwise, Return of the Caped Crusaders is a property that survives entirely on nostalgia. Its voice acting crew is a reunited cast from the original 1960s Batman series, featuring Adam West as the titular Caped Crusader and an ancient Burt Ward as his young . . . boy ward. Much like in the original series, the film’s overloaded with Batman & Robin saturating each line with unnecessary puns & alliteration. When they find a sheet of aluminum foil at a crime scene, they exclaim “We’ve been foiled!” They don’t operate regular civilian weaponry, but cleverly named artillery like “the batzooka.” They refer to Gotham’s A-list villains as “felonious fiends” and to Catwoman in particular as “that dominatrix of deviltry.” When Catwoman fights back by poisoning Batman with a substance she calls “batnip,” she gleefully brags, “His mass muscles will be mine to manipulate.” The whole movie is overwhelmed by these over-written punchlines and by the time Batman admonishes Robin for jaywalking with the line, “No one’s above the law, even when you’re trying to enforce it . . . To the crosswalk!”, it’s easy to wonder if the film is maybe a little too silly & self-aware. Think back to the Adam West performance in The Batman Movie (1966) in those moments. Is anything in Return of the Caped Crusaders really at all sillier than the physical comedy gag where Batman’s attempting to ditch a bomb; but ducks, nuns, and children keep getting in his way? The over-the-top goofball sense of humor in this profoundly silly cartoon match the energy of its source material exactly, right down to the “BOFF!”, “OOMPF!”, and “SPORK!” interjections that color its fight scenes. We’ve just gotten so used to a glowering, no-fun-allowed Batman in the last decade that this feels like a bit much; in truth, it’s exactly what we need.

If I could bother to complain about any one aspect of Return of the Caped Crusaders, it’d be easy to fault the film for having too loose & inconsequential of a plot. The episodic story beats of this animated production feel like a several installments’ arc of a new television series instead of a proper feature film. Batman’s unholy trinity of treacherous traitors are all present here: Catwoman, The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler (Julie Newmar, Jeff Bergman, William Saylers, and Wally Wingert, respectively). They each get in a scheme to stop Batman and each fails in due time, usually because Catwoman is in love with the billionaire brute. This parade of failed crimes leads to some interesting novelty locations (a circus, a blimp, an American Bandstand knockoff, a TV dinner factory, outer space), but the story mostly just serves as an exercise for more puns & more alliteration. The only decidedly modern aspect to the film is that characters openly & frequently imply that Bruce Wayne & his young ward are a romantic couple, mistakenly believing that to be their reason for secretly sneaking off at night. Everything else feels like a low-ambition return to 60s Batman camp, a silly indulgence in returning to a time where Batman was fun and delighted both young children & stoned college students alike. Some of that 60s vibe doesn’t translate well into a modern context (especially in the multiple scenes of characters being drugged & “seduced”), but for the most part it’s a welcome return to the over-the-top absurdity I wish we’d see more of in our modern superhero movies. Return of the Caped Crusaders doesn’t amount to much more than a nostalgia callback, but it’s a callback to a gloriously silly time in comic book aesthetic we should have never left behind.

-Brandon Ledet

Suicide Squad (2016)

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three star

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I don’t know if it was the two weeks of brutal, tear-it-down reviews or the flattering comparison points of Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel, but the much-maligned third entry in the so-called DCEU (a title that certainly has not been earned at this date) actually wasn’t all that bad. High praise, I know. Suicide Squad is not the winning success the budding DC Comics film franchise desperately needs to turn its frown upside down, but I left the theater in a much better mood than I did with the two Batman & Superman films that preceded it. A lot of the narrative surrounding Suicide Squad‘s critical shortcomings centers on the idea that the film’s messy tone is a result of post-production studio meddling in which DC & Warner Bros. attempted to right the ship by punching up Zack Snyder’s nü-metal glowering in Dawn of Justice with some edited-in comedy after seeing the wonders a sense of humor did for *shudder* Fox & Marvel’s successful Deadpool gamble. The frequent comparisons of Suicide Squad with the MCU’s dark-but-fun Guardians of the Galaxy in particular (most of them citing Suicide Squad as a cheap knockoff) are not off-base, but I do think that the wrong lesson is being learned in the two films’ contrast. To me, both Suicide Squad & Guardians of the Galaxy stand as clear advocates for the virtues of major studio meddling, particularly for the way it can reel in certain directors’ most unseemly sensibilities while still maintaining their sense of style for an amalgamated compromise that affords the resulting films a better chance at wide commercial appeal & likability. Suicide Squad is not nearly as good or as enjoyable as its best MCU comparison point, but it’ll do in a pinch.

The director of this major studio film-by-committee byproduct is one David Ayer, perhaps best known for penning the less-than-subtle exploitation thriller Training Day in the early 2000s. Ayer is ex-military and it shows in his aggressively masculine action schlock, typified in works like the bull-headed tank movie Fury & his nasty Schwarzenegger drug running monster Sabotage. After the dour boredom of Snyder’s two DC entries, though, a subtle hand is the last thing the franchise needed & I have to admit I sort of appreciated Ayer’s bull in a china shop approach to the material here. In a lot of ways Suicide Squad is just as bloated & tonally inept as Dawn of Justice & Man of Steel. It’s never boring, though, and thanks to some studio meddling it actually allowed for some interesting moments & decent performances to shine through all of Ayer’s trashy genre film bravado. If the MCU’s dreaded “house style” had not tempered the sadistic sensibilities James Gunn brought to his other comic book movie, Super, there’s no way Guardians of the Galaxy would be nearly as watchable or endearing as it is. Likewise, the studio meddling of Suicide Squad, with its joke-heavy re-shoots, shoehorned-in neon color palette, diminished screen time for Jared Leto’s Joker, and Guardians-aped soundtrack was much more haphazard & disharmonious, but it at least made the troubled material a decently fun action picture. In an ideal world I wouldn’t necessarily want to see Ayer’s Sabotage (a film I described as “oozing with scum” & “garbage water pessimism” in my review) reworked as a superhero spectacle, but Warner Bros. found a way to make that formula remarkably palatable. Kudos to the studio for reigning in Ayer’s bad taste & aggression just enough to make the movie work while still allowing it to breathe new, testosterone-corrupted life into what was previously a drab, depressive franchise.

Suicide Squad‘s opening credits smear the screen with a presumably after-the-fact splash of neon color that recalls recent works like Nerve & The Neon Demon. Each of its “bad guy” characters is then individually introduced like an overstuffed roster of pro wrestlers. You learn one quick fact about them (what wrestlers would call a gimmick), their corresponding theme music plays, and then you move onto the next contender in this year’s Royal Rumble. The only participants in this endless parade of heels that register as even halfway interesting are the stars of Focus (Is it time for me to churn out a Buzzfeed-worthy “fan theory” about how this film is an unofficial sequel?): Will Smith as the reluctant assassin/sad dad Deadshot & Margot Robbie as the damaged sexdoll/homicidal Jersey Girl clown Harley Quinn. Knowing very little about their characters’ comic book backstories & judging them solely by what’s presented onscreen, I can at least attest that the actors are just as entertaining as a pair here as they were in their comedic conjob thriller past and what’s particularly smart about Suicide Squad‘s post-production meddling/editing is that the movie seems to know it. All other members of the titular squad go by in a wash, outside an occasional flashback to their horrific pasts, but their collective presence as a team of single-gimmick anti-heroes reminded me of the “Attitude Era” of the WWE. For instance, I didn’t need to know any more about Killer Croc other than he’s a crocodile man who likes to watch BET and scuttle into dirty water to enjoy seeing him exterminate faceless baddies and the movie didn’t feel the need to supply me with much more information than that anyway. Smith & Robbie have an interesting father-daughter/killer-murderer dynamic; everything else is background & attitude. The movie does a decent job of letting that formula work itself out onscreen in what I assume mostly came from a damage control-focused editing room.

Besides its cartoonish pro wrestling simplicity, Suicide Squad also reminded me of a very particular campy art piece from recent memory: Southland Tales. Much like Richard Kelly’s technophobic mess of a sci-fi action comedy, Ayer’s comic book movie is a work of sheer excess & a pummeling sense of pace. No idea in either film is allowed to fully sink in before the next dozen line up to bludgeon you in the head in rapid succession. After the endless wrestler gimmicks are introduced, you’re sucked into a standard doomsday device plot in which an ancient witch & her sleepy brother plan to blow up the world with a literal doomsday device because “Now [humans] worship machines, so I will build a machine that will destroy them all,” or some such bullshit. You’d never guess it was as simple as all that, though, not with the nonstop assault of betrayals & abuses from Viola Davis as the shady federal agent Amanda Waller (a steely performance that’s just as much of an oasis of competence as Smith’s or Robbie’s), Ben Affleck’s cameo-relegated Batman (who we were generously kind to in our Batman rankings on the podcast), Jared Leto’s half-Nicholson/half-Ledger with a sprinkle of Spring Breakers Joker (more on him in a minute), lovelorn army officials, and bubble-faced goons made of witchcraft tar. Just like with Southland Tales, I had to struggle to grab hold onto any single idea or individual player in Suicide Squad during its massive flood of content until I just sort of gave up & let it sweep me away. By then, I realized that the movie was already 2/3rds over and it became clear how smart it was for the studio to employ Ayer’s brawn over brains battering ram to get through all of this glut & bloat in the first place.

That brutish sense of cannonball pacing is what Ayer’s aesthetic brings to the table, but I don’t think the film would’ve worked at all if it weren’t for the studio’s after-the-fact meddling that tempered it. The value of the studio-director compromise is not only readily recognizable in the tacked-on jokes & bright, fluorescent colors. It’s also deeply felt in the narrative throughline of the Harley Quinn-Joker romance. In the film Harley Quinn is a flirtatious sadist with clown makeup, a baseball bat, and wildly fluctuating accent. She takes a shining to Will Smith’s occasionally-masked assassin Deadshot, whose wrestler gimmick is aching to be a father figure to someone, anyone, but her closest association is obviously with the wildcard Leto character The Joker, whom she lovingly calls Mr. J. In both the comics & the film, Harley was an intelligent, mentally-stable doctor who lost hold of her sanity when she fell in love with The Joker, a patient. In the comics & the much beloved Batman: The Animated Series, their relationship is portrayed as abusive, both physically & spiritually damaging, with the once self-sufficient Quinn now unable to tear herself away from the psychotic brute and becoming a glutton for his punishment. The movie, which already features two shots of women being punched in the face without that domestic abuse element, smartly trades up in the Quinn & Joker romance angle. Instead of portraying one of the few enjoyable characters in its roster suffering repetitive abuse, Suicide Squad instead re-works her love affair with Mr. J as a Bonnie & Clyde/Mickey & Mallory type outlaws-against-the-world dynamic, one with a very strong BDSM undertone. Affording Harley Quinn sexual consent isn’t the only part of the studio-notes genius of the scenario, either. The film also cuts Leto’s competent-but-forgettable meth mouth Joker down to a bit role so that he’s an occasional element of chaos at best, never fully outwearing his welcome. Not only does this editing room decision soften Leto’s potential annoyance & Ayer’s inherent nastiness, it also allows Harley Quinn to be a wisecracking murderer on her own terms, one whose most pronounced relationship in the film (with Deadshot) is friendly instead of romantic. I know you’re supposed to root for an auteur’s vision & not for the big bad studio trying to homogenize their “art”, but Suicide Squad was much more enjoyable in its presumably compromised form than it would have been otherwise.

Look, Suicide Squad isn’t some overlooked indie production that needs someone to stand up for it. It made a killer profit in its opening weekend despite its brutal critical reception and I feel like its inevitable sequel would’ve been automatically greenlit even if it didn’t, so the movie’s doing just fine. Besides, there’s plenty of things I did hate about it: the aforementioned woman-punching (at least one instance of which was played for a laugh), its relentlessly on-the-nose soundtrack (which included the distasteful likes of Eminem, my eternal pop music enemy), a continuation of Deadpool‘s inane inclusion of unicorns for easy gender-contrast humor meme points, its big bad killer witch’s stupid undulating dance moves, etc. Enough complaining has already been piled on this movie already, though, especially considering that overall it’s just okay, Grade C, trashy action movie fluff. With Dawn of Justice, the DCEU tried to do a dozen MCU films’ worth of bricklaying in a single go, building an entire franchise’s foundation on the back of an overstuffed, overworked snoozefest helmed by one of Hollywood’s least interesting big name directors. Suicide Squad was tasked with the same groundwork-laying burden of setting up future storylines at breakneck speed, except in this case the director’s aesthetic was both more suitable & more entertaining for the job at hand. Ayer does what he always does here & delivers a grimy, trashy action flick with an overtly sexual fetish for firearms & ammunition, as well as human cruelty. The studio that hired him found a way to hitch its thankless superhero workload to that director-specific, hyper-masculine schlock vehicle and after cleaning up some of its rougher edges the resulting product was an easily digestible two hour movie trailer with a handful of memorable performances & a few opportunities to sell some Monster Energy drinks & HotTopic fashion line tie-ins along the way. I’ve paid to see much worse than that in the theater before and one of the most glaring examples came just a few months ago from the very same studio & franchise. If every one of the DCEU’s missteps were a little less depressive glower Snyder & a little more tactless brute Ayer the idea of following this series of bloated action fantasies would be a lot less exhausting. Then again, it just took me 2,000 words to defend a film as “not all that bad,” so maybe exhaustion is just a natural part of the territory.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #4 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Devils (1971) & Seven Decades of Batman Cinema

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Welcome to Episode #4 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our fourth episode, James & Brandon discuss all ten actors who’ve played Batman on the silver screen since the 1940s with illustrator Jon Marquez. Also, James makes Brandon watch the sacrilegious Ken Russell epic The Devils (1971) for the first time. Enjoy!

Production note: The musical “bumps” between segments were provided by the long-defunct band Trash Trash Trash.

-James Cohn & Brandon Ledet