Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Batman (1989)

Sets A High Standard For Other Superhero Films

- Sturgeon's Law states that "90% of everything is crap." I find this statement to be quite accurate in general but Sturgeon's Law must be extended another 5-9% when it comes to the superhero film genre. The vast majority of superhero films strike me as built from the bottom-dwelling up with cheap thrills and lifeless acting, completed with an added bit of overtired film clichés, cheesy jokes, and lame overall atmosphere, made simply in poor quality to top it all off. However, the nice thing about Sturgeon's Law is that the percentage of great things tends to overshadow the 90% of crap that surrounds it. Tim Burton's Batman (1989) is not the average superhero movie crap - it is a fantastic action/thriller with strong atmosphere and character.

One of the biggest reasons that Batman is such a great film is the great ensemble cast. Michael Keaton stars as Batman/Bruce Wayne and was a risky casting choice. Having never done an action film before, and being noted mainly for his physical comedy (film fans of the day scoffed at the idea of "Mr. Mom" as Batman), Keaton would have been one of the last thought actors for this role. However, I think that there has never been a better Batman than Michael Keaton. With a cool, collected and confident swagger, Keaton has the perfect mix of qualities for Batman and he does a great job convincing as Bruce Wayne as well, an ordinary guy with a noticeable amount of mystery and stuff going on underneath it all.

Kim Basinger does a good job as Vicki Vale in the film as well. While there is not much to the character besides being the damsel in distress and the name "Vicki Vale" does sound like a really bad Quentin Tarantino character, Basinger is an elegant screen beauty and also gives an overall enjoyable performance. Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Michael Gough, Billy Dee Williams, and Jack Palance are all very memorable in their small-to-tiny roles.

Jack Nicholson's performance as the Joker in this film could be his most entertaining performance to watch. Before Heath Ledger, Nicholson defined the character - and still does for me. Even though Nicholson is playing "the Joker," he is not just goofing around for two hours; he is seriously into his character. It just so happens that the character is very funny and just far-out crazy, which brings out Nicholson's creative and out-there side that is an absolute delight to watch - but Nicholson's Joker is still a dangerous dude (so don't mess with his rhubarb). Nicholson may be best remembered in Hollywood and history for this statue-winning performances in films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and As Good As It Gets (1997) - but for me, Nicholson's performance as the Joker in Batman is (outside of his performance in Chinatown (1974)) as good as it gets.

Apart from the great acting, Batman is just a very well made film on really every technical level. Arguably more than a mere "superhero" or "action film," Batman includes many memorable action sequences but is not completely focused on that aspect. Instead, Batman is focused more on the film's characters and style. It is interesting though: despite Wayne/Batman being the most focal character in the film (being the hero and all), he almost plays a supporting role to the Joker in his own film. While that might sound bad, to not give Batman a monopoly on screentime in a film entitled "Batman," this actually could not have worked out better for the film. By highlighting the Joker character a little bit more than Batman in the film, Batman becomes a more shadowy and mysterious character and subsequently a more imposing force in the film since the spotlight is not focused on the character 24/7 - the audience feels the presence of Batman more because he is not around so often. And, of course, with more screen time for the Joker, we as the audience get to see more of Jack Nicholson's awesome performance - which does nothing but good things for the film.

The film's overall story is not incredibly interesting in and of itself.... You know the drill: the bad guy wreaks some havoc and the good guy tries to stop him. This really does not hurt the film at all - simple can be good too after all - and the story provides opportunity for the characters (and the wonderful performances) to take center stage over events or gimmicks. Plus, the Bruce Wayne and Joker characters are written so well that the audience forgets how simple the plot is (if they cared in the first place).

However, one thing the story does particularly well is bring out the humanity of Batman; one of the reasons that Batman is such a great and popular character, especially for me, is because of his humanity. Instead of being an unreachable and untouchable "super-human," like so many screen superheroes are, being human - damaged, driven and vulnerable - makes the Batman character relatable and is a huge, fundamental part of who he is.  Michael Keaton and the film's script bring this dimension out very well and the audience is able to invest more of themselves into the character and entire film as a result.

While the film does focus primarily on the characters, there are some great action scenes as well. Batman gets his gadget on during this film, none of which are too over-the-top; it is easy to believe that Batman throws this stuff together in the cave next to his giant computer and waffle iron and that they would really work in real life. The most memorable gadget of the film is of course the flashy Batmobile that looks cool, unique and stylish enough not to look overdone - unlike the other pimped-out Batmobiles of the later films.

But one area of Batman really separates it from the rest of the superhero pack: its style. Thanks to Tim Burton's visual genius, Roger Platt's lighting and Anton Furst's one-of-a-kind art direction, Batman has an incredibly unique and interesting look equipped with dark atmosphere, very creative art direction, fantastic makeup and great costumes. Burton takes his signature style and infuses it with a classic gangster/film noir look and Furst's divergent art direction to create a visual presentation that cannot be duplicated. The resulting film world for Batman is pretty ambiguous as far as architecture and what time period the story is set, which holds a realistic yet other-worldly quality at the same time.

Also, I cannot end a review of Batman without mentioning the unforgettable score by Danny Elfman. The score for the film is exceptional, adding an incredible amount of power and feeling to each scene. Two decades and many Batman films later, no other Gotham-set score says "Batman" quite as forcefully or definitively as Elfman's score.

Sturgeon's Law notwithstanding, 1989's Batman gives the superhero genre a good name. Nicholson, Keaton, Burton, Elfman, Furst - what a job well done. When I think of the genre, Batman is part of the elite handful of superhero films that stands the test of time and begs for more re-watches. Few superhero films leave as strong a sense of character and as mighty an impact visually as Batman does. However, with all the awesome performances and Tim Burton's stylistic talent that go into the film, Batman is not just a great "superhero movie," it's a great "film."

CBC Rating: 10/10

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