Into the Knight: A Batman Retrospective- Week 1

With Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises on its way, I think we’re due a refresher course on all of Batman’s cinematic adventures.  Personally, I came to love Gotham’s tortured detective through Tim Burton’s warped vision.  I certainly dabbled in a few comics about Batman, but my interest in his comic book exploits was sporadic at best. Under that pretense, it’s clear that Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin killed Batman for me.  The world that Burton crafted, the only Gotham I knew, thus it was canon for my vision of Batman’s universe, melted away under Schumacher’s penchant for acidic neon and distracting bat nipples. The Batman name was never going to cease to exist, but I’m sure fans of Batman wondered when one of the world’s most venerable and relatable characters would be resuscitated on film.  Thankfully, the stench that emanated from Schumacher’s bloated corpse of a film gets sterilized by the maestro known as Christopher Nolan, a tactful filmmaker that had zero action experience, but a firm grasp on character and cerebral narratives. Nolan’s vision for Batman laid the foundation for the current renaissance of comic book based films, as well as established a precedent for rebooting a franchise. Nolan’s handle on the character has been a huge high for the franchise, but Batman has experienced deflating film lows. So, for six weeks, I’ll recall Batman’s worst and finest cinematic treatments. And it all begins with Batman’s first legitimate foray into film (not including the 1966 camp film):

Batman (1989):

One could argue that Batman helped pave the way for superheroes getting a chokehold on summer affairs. Sure, Superman came before Batman by a few years, but Batman’s first big screen adventure was a brooding affair that launched Tim Burton into the upper echelon of directors. Considering this was Batman’s introduction to the film going populous, he dominated the summer box office and firmly entrenched himself in the pantheon of pop culture. Looking back at Batman, it’s Burton’s least visually interesting film.  This holds true when it’s compared to his previous efforts in Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, two films that demonstrate Burton’s interest in the macabre. Visually restrained, Batman is undeniably a film that found Burton trying to amicably work in the studio system.  Fortunately for Burton, he was playing with house money.

Namely, Burton had Jack Nicholson at the core of his film. Nicholson’s presence as The Joker has lost its effect on me through time, but it’s still a madcap, hilarious, and dangerous turn that nearly consumes the movie.The glee Nicholson exudes in the perverse, disconcerting nature of the Joker is intoxicating. After all, you have to respect a  performance that makes a cruel death deliver laughs.Counter balancing Nicholson’s presence is a subdued Michael Keaton. Keaton has a magnetic presence that is wonderfully served in quiet moments shrouded by shadows. Using Adam West’s campy bat persona from the 60’s as a reference point, Keaton was the first Batman to wear his troubled past on his sleeve. When placed in the same room, Keaton and Nicholson generate more explosions and energy than the various action sequences that litter the film.Admittedly, the film’s action sequences don’t hold up. Instead, much of Burton’s action dips in between spastic and lurching scenes. Even though they’re less than impressive, the film’s action doesn’t undermine the picture.

What really matters is Burton’s zest for darkness serves the brooding nature of our protagonist extremely well, and his penchant for dark humor gives the film an unexpected edge.  Amplifying the film is the tremendous score from Danny Elfman. The main theme is instantly recognizable upon its first horn. Brazen, bombastic and altogether wonderful, Elfman’s score still permeates to this day. Everlasting is something one can’t say about Batman’s effects. Obviously, I can’t harp on a twenty-three old film too much, but the special effects are beyond dated. If you want to see special effects defy time, take a long look at the Wizard of Oz. Outside of the special effects, Batman’s roots in the eighties are hard to circumvent, especially when we take into account that Burton shoehorns Prince into the film as a form of not so subtle product placement. Regardless of Prince, Batman is a memorable introduction to a tragic character and a despicable villain. Without Batman, who knows how we would have spent our summers in the multiplexes over the last twenty years.


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