Sunday, 21 October 2012

Super Sunday: Batman (1989)

Sit down, relax, have a drink...
Super Sundays
Batman (1989)
Written between 18th and 20th October 2012

Batman, as a character, is legendary for simply how awesome he is. He dressed up in dark clothes and goes off into the night, striking fear into the hearts of Gotham's undesirables and fighting the schemes of Gotham's ridiculously large array of insane supervillains. While he's perhaps not as awesome as Iron Man, he takes the same tropes and puts them to rights in a way that asks the viewer simply whether they're man enough to face the world's darkness and hit it with a batarang. Tim Burton's version of the character and the series is a rather interesting one for many reasons, one of the biggest being his attitudes towards the central character and some of the questionable decisions his obsession with the gothic leads him to make.
      Gangster Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is about to take over his mob, and for good. He is made restless by the appearance in the news of a strange, Bat-like figure known only as The Batman. Batman's true identity is the charming billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who, after entertaining reporter Vicki Vale, rushes off to stop a raid on a factory by Napier and his men. While there, he knocks Napier into a vat of acid. He doesn't die instantly, but his private Doctors are forced to suffer when it turns out that the experience has turned him into the Joker - a permenant smile, green hair, paper white skin and something seriously wrong in his brain. Batman must fight The Joker to the end to rid the town of his menace, and on the way identifies Jack Napier as the man who killed his parents in childhood and led him to becoming the Batman.
     The story's most unique take on the Batman mythos is the humanisation of Jack Napier; Nicholson's Joker isn't just deranged, he's also someone who is very clearly developed from a more ruthless but logical persona. Instead of being something that the already-insane Joker gave to himself, this Joker's appearance has been forced upon him and is often detrimental to his plans. What this results in is a very methodical, extravagant Joker who seems to relish in the newfound freedom that the persona creates. He performs to his audience and he likes it. While this part is great, I did disagree with the way that Burton twisted the story to make Napier his parents' killer, because it creates an Archenemy structure that disagrees with what Batman's about. Batman's is not a quest for vengeance, but for justice, and he never explicitly seeks out his parent's killer but instead sees him as an example of a trend in society that he needs to stop, with the authorities' help or otherwise.
Michael Keaton makes a decent Bruce Wayne but
as Batman he's less than I'd hoped.
      I think my ultimate problem with Batman in general is that while the story is very much able to say things about our society, it ultimately collapses into a standard, "morality is grey and so are our curtains" tale of death and destruction that most of the time I'm just not in the mood for. It stops being about justice and power and about wondering exactly who is more of a complete and total dick. Of course, Keaton's Batman is effing whiter-than-white, creating a clearer hero/villain structure that conflicts with the ambiguity the character is known for. I think Keaton makes a much better Bruce Wayne, and you certainly would have no suspicision that he was a crime-fighting superhero, but in a way he seems too nice, too normal. Bruce Wayne as a character is an inherantly fucked up guy - he's got such mommy and daddy issues that he dresses up as a bat, goes around beating people up and then doesn't care what happens to them afterwards. And this Batman isn't really as imposing a presence as he could have been, for the sole reason that, as we see in the sequel, Burton much prefers gothic villains to accepted comic-book heroes.
     I suppose at the end of the day, my problem with the film is simply that it's a little too full. I think Burton realised his bias very early on in the writing process and did his best to give Keaton interesting stuff to do, but what that results in is a film that's two hours long and contains long, long chunks where nothing of any value really happens. Well then, I could have gotten behind the messages and themes of the film, surely - oh, wait, sorry, Burton has taken those themes and packaged them for Hollywood. The film was still very entertaining and I enjoyed some of the aesthetic choices and ideas that Burton used, but I've come away from it without much feeling, without emotion. It didn't give me anything, and it didn't leave me wanting to watch it again.


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