The shocking news that the next Caped Crusader could be played by Mr. Glitter Vampire shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the genre. The entire Batman enterprise has been in a downward spiral for years. Much of the problem stems from the fact that Hollywood isn’t interested in stories so much as spectacles. Plot, pacing, character development are all secondary traits and comic book characters have moved from “popular literature” to “intellectual property,” which is being ruthlessly strip-mined for every dollar that can be extracted from it.
Still, thirty years ago, way back on June 19, 1989, the horror of such clunkers as Batman Forever still mercifully lay in the unguessed future and in June of ’89 one could simply be content to take in the majesty and the magnificence of a now-overlooked classic.
Let’s Talk About Music
Before we get rolling, let’s pause to savor the soundtrack, particularly Prince’s contribution. This is some of the artist’s best work and it is deployed brilliantly.
To be honest, I find Danny Elfman’s music tiresome and repetitive, but the integration of Prince’s work is genius. Contrast this with the busy, bombastic, horn-honking, bass-thundering of both The Avengers and the endless drone of Hans Zimmer’s DC scores, and Elfman looks like a Mozart by comparison.
No Formula, Just Story
The most interesting element in Batman is how it completely breaks out of the standard superhero formula that is so common these days. You know what I mean: the origin story, the first encounter, the growing strength of the hero, the setback, the recovery, the big showdown, and the set-up for the sequel.
Batman uses some of these elements, but alters the order and in the process makes itself more interesting. For example, the film begins with what many people seeing it for the first time think is Bruce Wayne’s origin story, only to find that Batman is already in business. It’s a nice twist that I’ve come to appreciate.
Another aspect that sets this film apart from virtually ever other superhero movie is its focus on the origin and personality of the villain – Jack Nicholson’s Joker.
For much of the film, Nicholson dominates the screen – as he should. Much was made of the late Heath Ledger’s ‘edgy’ portrayal, but I found the whole thing rather tedious (in fact, all of the Nolan movies were a half-hour too long).
Nicholson shows us who the Joker was before and explains not only why he became even more violent, but also how he managed to build a criminal empire so quickly. It’s a very efficient way to tell a story.
By the way, the fact that an actor like Jack Palance could do a bit part in this film shows just how diminished Hollywood is today.
Wait, is that Character Development I See?
The other element that sets Batman apart is its sensitivity to character development. Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is much more interesting and accessible than the successors. Keaton is painfully shy, self-deprecating, but also very, very angry.
Keaton sells this perfectly – you believe he would love nothing better than to beat the Joker to death with his bare hands.
The way his relationship is shown with Vicky Vale is indicative of this sensitivity to detail. Lesser films would have emphasized the physical element of their relationship (especially with a hottie like Kim Basinger), but director Tim Burton focuses almost entirely on the emotional aspect. A quick and efficient set of images illustrates the fact that Bruce Wayne is emotionally stunted, which actually humanizes the character in a way that most superhero movies fail to do.
Also of note is the fact that this portrayal dispenses with the “reluctant hero” trope so common in today’s films. Am I the only one sick of watching heroes try to get out of being heroic? In some films it feels like half of the running length is wasted in persuaded the main character to get on with it.
There is no hesitation here. Wayne is an enthusiastic participant and if anything, his behavior – particularly the beating he administers to the Joker near the end – is darker than anything that has come since. In fact, Wayne’s decision to prolong the violence is what actually puts him in danger – a nice twist on the dangers of obsessive revenge.
Sadly, this represented the high point not of the genre, but in particular the franchise. Each successive film was worse than the one before it, turning the whole enterprise into a more modern (and less entertaining) version of the campy 1960s television classic.
But for a brief moment, Batman showed the way to make superhero into a relatable human character. Modern filmmakers would be well advised to watch it and learn from it and younger audiences should treat themselves to an overlooked gem. And I can think of no better time to do so than on the 30th anniversary of this seminal film.