Sunday, November 9, 2014

Batman (1989)

AMC is once again responsible for me missing new films in the theaters to revisit an old film that I loved. This week it is the Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson version of "Batman" directed by Tim Burton. It is twenty-five years after the movie opened, there have been three sequels to this series and a reboot version that had three films in it's history. A year and a half from now, we will be getting a Batman vs. Superman film. So it seems that Batman is all the rage. It was not always that way.

After the pop cultural phenomena of TV's Batman, the concept lay dormant for twenty plus years. The comic book world did not forget, but nearly everybody else did. When the project was announced, i read an analysis of character brands by popularity and the desire of advertisers to be affiliated with them. Batman was near the bottom of the list. When it was announced that Michael Keaton, who had just played a deranged ghost in Tim Burton's previous film, was cast as the caped crusader, the outcry was loud. And then a funny thing happened. The trailer you see above was put into theaters. It is actually kind of crude, it has no temp score, no voice of doom narration and there is not a story hook in sight. Despite all of it's failing, the trailer was a stupendous success. People were going to movies that the trailer was playing with, just to see the trailer [remember, no internet my friends]. The look of the movie, the malevolent smile of the Joker, and the much parodied but nonetheless iconic intro, "I'm Batman", lit a fuse that has not been seen much since.

As a cultural touchstone, the original Burton "Batman" was the last of a phenomena. There are certainly films, including super hero films, that have made a gazillion dollars and been exploited on tee-shirts and lunch boxes since this movie came out, but nothing reached the enthusiasm that this movie projected. The closest we've come in the years since have been the Harry Potter films, but it is not the same. The logo, the soundtrack, pictures and toys were overwhelming. On opening night, there were lines and parties. At the Orange Cinemadome that I went to for the opening night screening, there were beach balls bouncing around the geodesic shaped dome and the whole audience was doing "the wave" from front to back and then side to side. I had collected the trading cards like they were cash, and the popularity of the film lasted all summer. This was a four quadrant hit that brought in money at a rate that had never before been seen. Today, the first weekend take of fifty one million would look like a meager take, but in 1989 it was a record. The world is a different place now, multiple screens and advance shows are the norm. "Batman" created a world where that could happen. 

The film does not have the emotional heft of the "Dark Knight" movies of Christopher Nolan. Those films create a reality based vision of Gotham that is too real sometimes. Tim Burton's Gotham is all back alleys and overcrowded skyscrapers that expand as if they are pyramids turned on point. Even in the daylight the city is dark. All the gangsters and cops wear hats and the Mayor looks like Ed Koch. The batmobile from this movie is the car of every kids dreams. The tumbler from the Nolan films is practical and very cool, but it looks like a tank. This batmobile looks like a rocket with wings that might be flown by someone really scary or really cool. The color of the film pops at times in just the right ways to evoke the comics, but without becoming the neon and pastel joke that the Shumacher films became.

It will be an continuing debate as to whether Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson did the superior job in the role of the Joker. Ledger had a better writer but Jack had the better costumer and make up artist. Both rip into their parts with gusto. I was just surprised at how much I liked Jack's take on the material in this film. They are different universes and today, Jack Nicholson filled his version of it. I think I can say that Michael Keaton is the more fun Bruce Wayne. He is not tortured like Christian Bale's Wayne is. His pain comes from a different kind of psychosis and it is more fun to watch. Nolan's Batman may be a better action figure, but Keaton is the more likable alter ego.

Comparing Apples to Oranges is possible when you reduce them to their lowest common denominator, but why would we want to do that?  A glass of orange juice is perfect at the right time, and the fact that I had O.J. for breakfast, doesn't mean I won't want apple pie for dessert. Today I got to enjoy a 25 year old movie that made me feel for a few minutes like it was 1989 again, and everyone would be talking about this at school tomorrow.


Eric F. said...

I wish I could add something of value to all of this, but you said it all and perfectly captured a moment in time that was the Summer of 1989!

Richard Kirkham said...

Thanks Eric. It really was a different time, and a lot of fun.

Eric F. said...

Best summer of movies since 1982!