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The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Written by Chris on Tuesday, March 29 2011 and posted in Archives

This week, Team Lex celebrates Gotham's 200th anniversary gala with a way-too-nostalgic look at Batman 89, and the murderous intersection of mobsters with writing instruments.


First of all, I'm immensely grateful to the terrific site Batman-on-Film and its articles on the Burton Bat-films and their conceptual relation to German Expressionism and Weimer Cinema of the 1920s for the basis of this article.

So I consider myself a wee Batman scholar. That's not too ambitious a thing to say, is it? I suppose I usually hold up fairly well in an argument about good Bat-stories and bad ones--only to get lost when you start trotting out the offbeat kinds of a Batman/Deathblow or Batman/Grendel nature. This means that this latest column is going to tackle Batmania, specifically a (well) very specific kind thereof, and that I'm going to be talking about a movie (not really a comic book, so if you dislike, then feel free to go read a thread by Punchy or something) that's very close to me, and which is very significant in the overall comic book film gestalt.

Smaller words. The comic book movie milieu. Setting? Atmosphere. That's the one. Atmosphere.

Batman '89.

You know. The one that featured Michael Keaton in the eponymous role yet somehow had Nicholson as top billing? Here at Team Lex we don't even care about that. Heck, we celebrate Nicholson's entire catalogue. Anyway.

Annoying Nostalgic Note: Batman ‘89, to a kid like me who was 3 when it first came out, was the movie. Along with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and to a lesser extent the Ghostbusters franchise, it was the movie of my childhood. Period. Small wonder then that I'm the pop-cultural, and frankly fabulous, Bat-nerd I am today.

Nowadays the film doesn't really hold up for one reason or another. Is it because Batman actively kills guys, or at least lets them die? Probably. Is it because we're so used to seeing a frankly doughy Nicholson parked at the Academy Awards every year that seeing him as Batman's nemesis is somehow out of place? Maybe. What I think is the case, or at least a small part of it, is that now we have a whole generation of film and comics fans who have been spoiled rotten by Chris Nolan. Not an indictment of Batman Begins or The Dark Knight--merely saying that if you understand that there's a filmic Bat-life outside Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, it more or less started in 1989, and here's why.

Batman ‘89 started it all. I don't mean to sound so bombastic, but it's more or less true. Before this, there was Superman: The Movie (a fine adaptation on its own merits) and, depressingly, Howard the Duck. That was about it--we're leaving out other sad things like Supergirl, which you're probably better off disregarding. So by 1989, here was Batman, dressed all in black, laconic, gothic and terrifying. A departure from previous comic book films, which were mostly lighthearted (1978's Superman: The Movie, which for all its bravado is still a fun forget-your-troubles movie), or in Howard the Duck's case--utterly pointless.

But here was Batman, and here was Gotham City; a soundstage, to be sure, but as alive as any other character in the film, and as filthy and crime-ridden as any other incarnation of the city. Here all is mood and shadow and grime. Gargoyles and impossibly tall churches. Cops that are persona non grata and what is arguably one of the Joker's coolest schemes yet--on par with The Laughing Fish, almost. In this Gotham, the Joker is gleeful and murderous--hearkening back to his ‘70s self (again with The Laughing Fish or his own Five-Way Revenge)--while Batman is laconic and (used to perfect and terrifying effect) everywhere.

Among other things, Batman ‘89 is revolutionary on a few levels:

--Directly inspired Batman: The Animated Series (which, tangentially, is the first step on the long road to Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and Batman Beyond in both tone and musical score. Even if some of the villains were somewhat downgraded for cable (but that's for another day).

--Batman ’89 gave us a sequel in which things really were worse than ever; not in execution or quality of film, but in concept and theme. A sewer rat Penguin--also an invention of the films, and having more to do with German Expressionism and Dr. Caligari—rises as a public darling, as Batman falls deeper into the role of social pariah, which in this writer's humblest opinion, is when he functions best.

To some extent, Scott Mendelson outlines the distinctive nature and legacy of Batman ‘89 in his Salon.com blog. Excerpts:

It made opening weekend king. Most people don't realize this, but the opening weekend record was actually broken three times in a single month in the summer of 1989. The summer kicked off over Memorial Day weekend with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which grossed $29.3 million over the Fri-Sun portion of its five-day opening. Just three weeks later, Ghostbusters II just barely edged past with $29.4 million over its maiden days [...] It ended the weekend with a $40.4 million. It was the first mega-opening weekend for an industry that would eventually concentrate almost exclusively on those first three days as the cornerstone for a movie's success. Pure opening Fri-Sun insanity didn't completely take hold until summer 2001 [...] but Batman was the first to already be an unqualified smash hit after those first days. It surpassed its $35 million budget by Sunday. It crossed $100 million in ten days, crossed $150 million in nineteen days, and told Hollywood that short-term profitability was a possibility. Eventually, it would become the only goal.

More particularly, the film's legacy in its casting of the Joker remains a bit of a hot-button issue, but Mendelson addresses this as well:

3) It redefined the modern screen villain. [...] Batman took the next logical step and crafted a villain who was more memorable than the hero, and one who got top-billing above the protagonist and exceeded him in screen time. Jack Nicholson's Joker made it cool for major actors to take villain roles in popcorn genre adventures. [...] Jack Nicholson broke the mold. Some may carp that it was just Jack being Jack in makeup, but we forgot how shocking this performance really was. There had never been a true comic book villain that was this over-the-top in cinema before. The nonstop cackling, the completely random and wholesale slaughter, and the genuinely perverse pathology, this was all new terrain for cinema. [...] The success of Batman and the critical raves/popularity of Jack Nicholson's Joker ushered in a whole slew of scene-stealing villains, sometimes portrayed by actors who theoretically wouldn't be caught dead in a comic book or action adventure film. These days, when high-profile genre pictures are green lit, audiences expect, nay demand, that high-caliber actors like Jeff Bridges (Iron Man) and Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man) be on hand to attempt to steal the film away from our stalwart heroes.

And really, isn't that the entire purpose of the Joker? To take all of Batman's press, in an idiom of Nicholson's own? How else does one account for the continued fan appeal and people who genuinely find the Joker funny? Comedic sociopathy, sure--and let's be fair, who among us didn't laugh when the Joker electrified that poor stupid mob boss? Or, nineteen years later, when Heath Ledger jammed a pencil into another poor dumb mobster's eye?

Sure the Joker is funny, and sure the film probably gives more time to him than it does to Batman or Bruce Wayne. But if you're trying to make a moody, gothic thriller about two guys beating each other up, with a whole city as their playground, what else to do with Batman except embrace the dark silent sociopath that lurks within? The one who doesn't carry a gun but still has no problem with letting criminals fall to their deaths or get blown apart in one hell of a factory explosion?

Keaton's Batman, then, hearkens back to a more prototypical Batman: the one that had zero problem killing guys, which in the context of the 1989 film, works. A kind of Batman that doesn't really exist anymore, since the character's use of a gun was quietly dropped in 1940.

It's almost a distillation of everything that makes Batman, well, Batman. And the Joker, the Joker. There's a Bat-signal, and -plane, and –mobile, and the Joker at his most gleefully murderous. A climactic parade through the heart of Gotham with all of Gotham at stake (whodathunkit?). A climb to the top of an impossibly tall cathedral, in a scene ripped right from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. The Joker's eerie death, and eerie post-death grin. And the final scene, later evoked at the end of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, of our hero waiting for the next fight--accompanied by, in the words of my old stand-by tvtropes.com, “music that makes even crossing the street sound epic.”

Yeah, this is Batman. An older Batman, one we maybe might not recognize on his own merits these days, but one worth a second glance.

The Good:
--''This town needs an enema!"

--Batman utterly owning the two introductory crimes at the beginning. Keaton wins us over with the customary "I'm Batman"

--Bob the Goon. How this treasure of a character, this Apollo of thugs, hasn't found his way to the comics when Harley has is a mystery.

The Bad?
--The lack of a working respect between Batman and Gordon, but since this Batman is a vigilante in the strictest application of the term, the absence of their rapport makes sense, and it really isn’t that important to the story.

--Kim Basinger's scream. Nuff said?

The Ugly...
--Alicia at the Museum. Just look at her.

So, all in all, friends, a worthy if now underrated and sadly overlooked contribution to the Bat-mythos, responsible for more additions and adjustments to the Gotham we love than perhaps we credit it. Some columns ago, I wrote of another sadly underrated and somewhat unknown story--none other than Frank Miller's Born Again, the essential Daredevil story. I wrote of Born Again that, if you had gone away from it or hadn't read it, then perhaps it was time you came back to it. Good stories, reliant to some extent on the passage of time to enhance their notability, often pass us by. Born Again is one of them. Batman ‘89 is another.

And if you haven't seen it in sometime, get some popcorn and beer and rediscover a little bit of its gothic magic.

Next Time: Five Great Supervillains. Or Why I Want to Like Green Lantern (you decide!)

Written or Contributed by: Chris
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