Here we are again on Fishing in the Discount Bin, where I blog about a movie I own. Right now, I'm making my way through the entire Batman franchise, and we get to the one that really kicked off this current run...Tim Burton's film from 1989. This is originally in my notes at April 16, 2016.
So what finally sparked this trip through the Batman franchise was I recently got the super-duper big boxed set The Batman Motion Picture Anthology 1989 - 1997, which contains all the Batman movies of that era. I got it on DVD for Christmas many years ago, but Amazon had the Blu-Ray upgrade on sale for $25, and I was like, "Dude...that's the cheapest I've ever seen it." So I got the Blu-Ray upgrade. And now, we crack into that boxed set with 1989's Batman, which has kind of picked up the unofficial title Tim Burton's Batman.
There was much anger over Tim Burton being announced as the director. Much nerd rage over Micheal Keaton being cast as Batman, too. The legend is Warner Brothers got over 50,000 pieces of hate mail protesting Keaton. It was the pre-Internet Batfleck rage. And you could see why they were worried. DC Comics had spent the past 15-20 years at this point trying to ditch the campy image of Batman that the 1960s TV series had caused, and were moving to get Batman back to his Dark Knight roots. it all climaxed with the release of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, released just 3 short years before the film. Needless to say, fans were afraid all that hard work would be tossed aside and the camp brought back, seeing as to how Burton and Keaton were primarily known for comedies at that point. But they had nothing to fear. Burton said what finally got him to sign on board for the project was when someone slipped him a copy of The Killing Joke. That and DKR were what Burton cited as his two biggest references when making the film.
I don't think people really remember just how huge this movie was when it came out. It was everywhere. You couldn't turn your head without catching a glimpse of that bat-logo. First time superhero T-shirts were really en vogue, as everyone was wearing that bat emblem. I even remember one article in the Edmonton Journal about a U of A graphic design student who painted it all over her car. "The Year of the Bat," was the title of the article. That Prince song Batdance was always on the radio. IT...WAS...EVERYWHERE. And one guy who got swept up in it all was...my brother.
The film was almost my birthday movie that year. As I've mentioned many times before, my first fandom is always Star Trek. So, forget Batman, the big blockbuster of 1989 that *I* wanted to see was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. When my birthday rolled around, we went to the theatre, but there was a mix-up, and the theatre wasn't showing Final Frontier anymore. Looking at the other films playing at the cineplex, I narrowed my choices down to two: Batman or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Still being childlike and more into the Disney life, I went with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. But my brother went, "Eff that," and when to see Batman instead.
My brother came out of that theatre a changed man. For the rest of 1989, he was all about the Bat. He got the soundtrack, and played Batdance non-stop. He had every book about the film: the novelization, the "making-of" book, even a couple of the graphic novels. He was always building model kits when we were kids, but the assorted jet fighters and helicopters got pushed aside for the Batmobile. He got a Batman watch for his birthday. He got a pair of Batman suspenders...which I'm pretty sure he still wears with his formal wear to this very day. Batman was one of the first films with a really short gap between when it was in theatres and when it was released on video. He got the VHS for Christmas, which is when *I* finally got to see it. I watched it and though, "This is so much better than Honey, I Shrunk the Kids."
My mother tells the story of when my brother fell out of love with Batman. He got the film on VHS for Christmas. Every day, when he came home from school (and assuming me or my sister hadn't beat him to the TV), he would pop it in the VCR and watch it. He got it for Christmas, so this began in December of 1989. It was around the start of April of 1990 when my brother got home, put the tape in, watched about the first 20 minutes, and then turned it off. "What's wrong?" asked Mom. "I think I've just watched it enough," said my brother.
But the damage was done. He'd passed the curse on to me, and thus my lifelong obsession with Batman had begun.
It was kind of funny watching it tonight, and so soon after the 1966 Batman. Kevin Smith has remarked in several of his podcasts that, when placed along said the Christopher Nolan trilogy, the Tim Burton films really do come across almost as campy as the 1960s Batman. And it really does. It does! No wonder my friend felt that way about Batman Returns when he had The Dark Knight Rises fresh in his mind. I was picking up on little homages. The Joker's lair seemed reminiscent of the hideouts of the 1960s. Nicholson's Joker laugh had a touch of Caesar Romero in it.
What really helps is the...heightened reality this film takes place in. Gotham City is not a real city. It was all built just for this film on the famous Pinewood Studios backlot in England. And enhanced with some very 1980s-style matte paintings...it almost looks dreamlike. It's a very bleak dream, to be sure, but it does. Thanks to such moves like that, the film almost achieves a timeless quality, but then something very 1980s pops up to break the spell...usually when a Prince song starts playing.
I think you remember the plot: world famous photojournalist Vicky Vale comes to Gotham City, to do a story on this mysterious Bat vigilante that's begun terrorizing the underworld. But soon, she finds herself drawn to Gotham's equally mysterious and eccentric billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. Meanwhile, in the underworld, high-ranking mobster Jack Napier is caught fooling around with his boss's girlfriend, and the boss tries to have Napier killed. But, Batman intervenes, Napier takes a dip in vat of toxic chemicals, and is reborn as the Joker. The Joker begins taking over the mobs and carrying out a reign of terror throughout Gotham to draw out and get his vengeance on Batman.
Much fuss was raised at the time over how much more the film focuses on Jack Nicholson's Joker than Michael Keaton's Batman, and in a way, that works. This film was supposed to take place early in Batman's career, when he was this dark, mysterious force plaguing the underworld. The fact that he is in it so little makes him even more of an enigma to our villain. And of course, Jack Nicholson is still amazing as the Joker. The film is almost a slow decent into madness, as he starts getting more and more psychotic as the adventure goes on.
The rest of our trinity is good as well. Michael Keaton defied expectations as Batman. Kim Basinger is also really good as Vicky Vale, just trying to make sense of the insanity of Gotham City.
And that music! That wonderful Danny Elfman score! One of the first score albums I ever bought. I still think of Elfman's Batman theme as THE Batman theme. And you have to love that finale. That closed my college radio show back in the day...until the Star Wars: Special Editions came out. Then I replaced it with the Ewok "yub yub" song.
The special effects are...OK. The effects were handled by Dereck Meddings, who made his name doing Thunderbirds back in the 1960s. And you're got to admit, there is a bit of a Thunderbirds vibe to the Batwing and its flight.
Man o man, there's just something special about Batman compared to the films that came after it. It almost feels like the fantasy films of the 1980s than the action/adventure films. It struck a nerve at a certain time, and just really captured the public's imagination. I hope to someday do some kind of coming-of-age tale, set in the summer of 1989, just so I can have the film everywhere in the background. And even have a character like my brother, who frequently quotes the film like arcane wisdom. Have they done that as an episode of The Goldbergs yet? It's probably in the works.
Tim Burton's Batman. No longer as dark and gritty as we remember, but still dark and gritty enough.