Monday, July 8, 2013

Beetlejuly: Batman

Tim Burton was immediately hired to direct Batman after the success of Pee Wee's Big Adventure and although the project wasn't greenlit until after Beetlejuice hit theaters, the juices were cooking for the first live action Batman film in several years. When the 1980s rolled in, gone were the days of Batman being a campy, POW punching chum with a sidekick that said HOLY something every time they were in peril. Batman was becoming a much more serious, more adult character and this couldn't be more evident than in Frank Miller's groundbreaking comic series The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's graphic novel The Killing Joke. When the time came for Batman to be adapted into a motion picture, Burton and his crew would no doubt follow in the same dark footsteps and make Batman as dark and contemporary as possibly, the way Bob Kane originally wanted the character to be. Admittedly though, Burton was not much of a comic book reader, but he liked the image of Batman and the Joker and was ready to mold them in his own unique fashion. The result was one of the greatest hero and villain relationships ever put to film in one of the greatest superhero films ever constructed. Batman was not only one of the greatest hits of all time, it was the very film that sparked a resurgence in superhero related films and one of the very reasons why the genre is still up and running today with Christopher Nolan's most recent Batman trilogy as well as this summer's smash hit, Man of Steel. Batman was Burton's biggest success and launched him as a highly profitable director. So, it could very well be that without Batman, there wouldn't have been Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood or even The Nightmare Before Christmas. 

And I'm just going to come out and say it, I like it better than Christopher Nolan's trilogy. Don't get me wrong, I still love those films to death and Heath Ledger's Joker is one of the greatest movie villains in history, but one thing I never really liked about them is that they were too grounded in reality. Nolan aimed for a more realistic fashion with his trilogy and made Batman and his foes as if they could exist in the real world. Not that there is anything wrong with that, being grounded in realism can be interesting and at times very cinematic, but the Nolanverse doesn't really look like a place you can really escape to when you wish to leave the real world and enter a world of make believe. It looks too much like the world we live in at this very moment. The world of Tim Burton's Batman REALLY looks like a place you could retreat to and indulge yourself in when the going gets tough. It's a fantasy world at it's finest. Just look at Gotham City. To quote Anton Furst, We imagined what New York City might have become without a planning commission. A city run by crime, with a riot of architectural styles. An essay of ugliness. As if hell erupted through the pavement and kept on going. 

Michael Keaton is probably my favorite Batman, along with Kevin Conroy of course. In fact, Batman: The Animated Series was heavily inspired by this film as well as the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s. When people heard he would be playing Bruce Wayne/Batman, they protested and couldn't see him in the Caped Crusader's boots. That's exactly the reason why I like him so much, it's because you just can't see him in the role. That's what makes Bruce Wayne/Batman so mysterious, that this guy in a rubber bat suit could be anybody, even a shy, humble, down to Earth billionaire. When Vicki Vale finds out that Bruce is Batman, she questions him and when she asks him to explain the whole Batman ordeal, he says that he can't and that he has to be Batman because nobody else will. That is brilliant layering to Bruce's character and makes him all the more interesting to watch. Not that Christian Bale's Batman wasn't like that at times, but you could really tell that deep down, he had some problems he couldn't sort out. With Keaton, you couldn't see a single trace that he was dealing with something much bigger than himself. He was casual, polite, well mannered and an all out gentleman. He also didn't have that ridiculous raspy voice Bale's Batman had, instead having a more casual, yet still very intimidating voice that scared the bejesus out of all of Gotham's criminal thugs.

Batman: I want you to tell all of your friends about me. 

Thug (terrified): WHAT ARE YOU?! 

Batman: I'M BATMAN!

Now let's talk about the Joker, played by Jack Nicholson. Many have said in the past that Nicholson easily steals the show and that the movie focuses more on him than it does Batman. And the more I think about that, the more I realize that it is somewhat true. The Joker is actually more out in the public than Batman is, but here is the way I see it. The whole point of Batman is to be this mysterious, shadowy entity that comes out at night to put a stop to crime. The whole point of the Joker is to make himself known throughout all Gotham City, gaining the people's trust and manipulating them before he eventually tricks them. The Joker, in his own strange way, has to take center stage for it makes you feel just how big an impact his character has on the story. He's supposed to be the big guy, the dark twisted menace with a grand plan, unlike Ledger's Joker that just wanted to watch the world burn. Jack Nicholson is spot on as Jack Napier/Joker and even though he is the antagonist, he is still likable and funny as heck. He's like Beetlejuice, just an out of control goofball with tricks and treats at every head turn. He makes the movie fun to watch and his methods of taking lives are really ingenious. Sometimes, he electrocutes people with a hand zapper, other times, he makes them laugh themselves to death with laughing gas. In one scene, he kills a crime lord by stabbing him with a feather quill.

The pen is truly mightier than the sword!

Nicholson is truly a marvel as the Joker and proves that the villain can not only be menacing, but also a likable schmuck who just wants to have fun.

The overall look, feel and design of the movie comes next. As I said before, the universe of Burton's Batman really looks like a place of pure fantasy and if you would take one look at Gotham City, you would immediately be sucked into it. Inspired by silent films like Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Burton and company really made Gotham look like a place you wouldn't want to be around at nightfall. It's dark, prudent and powerful with it's blazing skyscrapers and buildings and with the night sky looming in the background, it makes for an atmosphere straight out of a dark fantasy. The look of the Batsuit, the Batcave and the Batmobile are also nice to gaze at with their sleek, stylized patterns and smooth surfaces. The scene where the Batwing is silhouetted against the moon sticks out in my memory as the film's most iconic moment. And who could forget the look of the Joker's parade balloons. Believe it or not, Tim Burton actually designed a balloon for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It's only fitting that he would have some neat looking balloons in this movie! Danny Elfman once again scores a Burton film and his theme for Batman fits with the character beautifully. It's an overpowering composition and it gives me gas in the stomach every time I listen to it. It's just as legendary as John Williams' Superman theme and sets the tone for a dark, brooding, more compelling superhero ready to get down to business. Every time I watch this movie, I get Elfman's score caught in my head for hours on end. It surely is a riveting, arresting composition that makes Batman feel epic.

A lot of people don't like that Jack Napier/Joker killed Bruce Wayne/Batman's parents. I think it's brilliant. Because of this plot point, we are able to feel the tension between the protagonist and antagonist and understand their motivations a whole lot better. It's also brilliant that the Joker created Batman and Batman created the Joker and that they are trying to get back at one another for making each other what they are. As Burton put it, it's a duel of the freaks and in the end, only one will come out on top. It's been argued on countless occasions that Batman doesn't kill. I think that Batman goes out realizing that just killing someone right away won't really solve anything and that killing should come as a last resort when the battle gets too intense, either as a means to save himself or save someone he cares about. And in the earlier comics, Batman killed criminals all the time, so this part of his character harkens back to the days when the character was just getting introduced to the world. In the end, it really doesn't trouble me. I like to think of this movie as the ultimate superhero flick, a flick that shows that heroes can not only be handled on the big screen, but handled well and the audience can relate to them and compare them to themselves. And Burton and his party have handled Batman and everything associated with him quite well, giving us what is often argued as the best Batman movie. It deals with personal struggles, spiritual struggles and struggles at the heart. It also shows how a hero can fall in mud, get back out, clean himself up and eventually overpower the enemies that try to push him back into the mud, avoiding the deep dark thoughts that dwell in his brain, the thoughts that taunt him. Bruce Wayne/Batman finds it in himself to end the wrath of the Joker and save Gotham City from a ghastly fate of laughing gas and fake money. But his duties as Batman are far from over. He would return to fight a cat and a penguin in the only sequel Burton ever made.

But that's an article for another time. Tune in next time and we'll talk about my favorite Tim Burton film, the first Burton film to star the Depp man.

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