Monday, June 23, 2014

Tim Burton's Batman At 25

It surprised me today to read that Tim Burton’s Batman is now 25 years old. How can that be? I remember that moving coming out when I was in high school, back in 1989, and just falling in love with it for so many reasons. That makes me 25 years older. That’s not even possible!

Batman wasn't just a movie, it was a machine of anticipation, hype, and preordained success. Its release followed an unprecedented wave of cross-promotional marketing saturation unlike the industry had ever seen…Those old enough to remember will recall the copious merchandise…” I remember Batman actually was the “victim” of a lot of counterfeit products, especially t-shirts because they were easily manufactured and sold. I had one beautiful Batman-comic styled t-shirt that I wore the shit out of. I was actually a little disappointed when I checked the manufacture’s tag on it and realized it was legit. Somehow, the idea of having something counterfeit seemed somehow more desirable to me. I don’t know why.

“Further free publicity came from the controversial casting of Michael Keaton in the title role, which caused “fan” outrage and arguably…the birth of angry film nerd that now seemingly dominates online film discussions. “ Oh God yes, I love Tim Burton for this aspect of his movie casting. I, for one, looked forward to Michael Keaton donning the cape and cowl. I was a fan of his, mostly for his comedies, but I knew he could do drama (well, Tim Burton’s style of drama and darkness) and do Bob Kane proud. He was the perfect choice for Bruce Wayne…he could be Batman. Before Batman, he was in Clean and Sober, The Dream Team (while not really drama, he did play a mental patient), and before he did Batman Returns, Michael was also in Pacific Heights and One Good Cop. He definitely had the chops for drama and serious acting. I think Robin Williams had a saying at one time about comedy not being that far off from being pain or drama, so that's why comedic actors were so good at drama, or something like that. I always thought of that when I’d read about people bitching about Michael Keaton being cast as Batman. Maybe those people bitching lacked imagination.

I remember one scene in particular that just really cemented Michael as Batman for me:

Interior: Axis Chemicals
Jack Napier was sent to rob the place with his thugs, make it look like industrial espionage. They find a safe that’s already been picked and gutted. “We’ve been ratted out, boys,” he says, “Watch yourselves.”

The scene continues, and at one point, we see the Batman on a catwalk. He’s just accidentally/didn’t care dropped Napier into the vat of chemicals. He dodges to one side to leave the scene. No good. The police are closing in around him. He dodges to the other side. Police coming up that way too, so he slams down a smoke pellet from his utility belt and escapes vertically with the bat grapling gun through the skylights, his black boots and the tips of his cape trailing through the smoke as he flies away.

The way Michael moved…it was perfect. Not a lot of wasted movements. Even though Michael couldn’t really turn his head or hear very well inside the cowl, it didn’t look like it. He was a seasoned vigilante crime fighter. He was a badass. Were we watching Batman’s physique or were we seeing his secret identity wearing a muscled suit? You just didn’t know, because we don’t get to see it, even though we can assume, as moviegoers, it was all suit and Michael didn’t have to do any kind of work out regime like Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. But check out Desperate Measures, from 1998, to get a glimpse of what he could have looked like. Dude had it going on! But then again, Batman is, and has never been, all about the brawn. He’s about the brains too.

Batman was allowed to be a little bit of a wise-ass, with Vicky Vale (“You weigh a little more than 108 pounds.”) and with The Joker (“Excuse me, you ever dance with the devil by the pale moonlight?”) and then he just nails the shit out of him. It seemed to allow some of Michael’s own personality as an actor to come through. The actor wasn't lost behind the cowl.

And speaking of the cowl, I think the design of Michael’s cowl is beautiful and angular. It’s iconic, just by itself, with those longer bat ears on top . Christian Bale’s cowl was more utilitarian out of necessity for the character, but Michael’s was like a piece of art. My husband actually bought me a cowl one year for Christmas (he bought it before Halloween at a costume store) that I keep on my desk, on a glass head, just for looks.

With Michael’s batsuits, I felt like the costume designers were going with a “less is more” kind of look, and it definitely worked. Christian Bale’s batsuits look too busy and complicated. There’s too much detail in his batsuits to try and see when Batman is shown in the dark. With Burton’s batsuits, what you saw was what you got. Your eye was attracted to that bright yellow oval with the black bat silhouette. It was stark.

And let’s be honest…for a character where you really only see his mouth, didn’t Michael have the perfect lips for Batman? I think the only other actor that could pull that look off today would be Chris Pine (I never cared for Christian Bale). And as Bruce Wayne, he was so expressive. Those eyebrows could probably act without him!

Bruce Wayne was quirky and eccentric and would have been completely lost without Alfred, probably that way because well, the poor soul saw his parents murdered. That would fuck up anyone, wouldn’t it?

I don’t remember hearing people bitch about Jack Nicholson being cast as The Joker. I loved it…thought it was absolutely inspired! You take someone who is known as a serious, dramatic, no holds barred, no shit ACTOR and you cast him as a maniacal, probably mentally impaired, disfigured criminal with a face like a Halloween mask…and it just worked (at least for me). It was just such a great casting choice that I could overlook the blatant raping of The Joker’s original (non-movie) origin. (But I have to give props to whoever convinced Marlon Brando to be Jor-El in the original Superman movies…even as a kid, that always struck me as kind of a coup.) After watching Heath Ledger as The Joker, I just feel like Jack Nicholson made more dangerous version in that character, but more dangerous in a small picture kind of way: he killed or maimed individuals. He wasn’t going out, trying to kill large numbers of people at once. It seemed a little more believable to me.

“The picture’s stunning German expressionism meets film noir art direction (Anton Furst won an Oscar for the film), its iconic performances from Keaton and Nicholson, Danny Elfman’s iconic score, and the superb special effects separated the rousing adventure from the pack no matter what you thought of it relatively plot-less script. It was arguably style over substance, but good lord what style!” It was a beautiful movie to watch! Even if you didn’t want to listen to the score or the plot, just turn the volume down and LOOK at it, the way you’d study art hanging in a museum. It was dark and brooding, with larger than life sets (even though they were actually miniatures, in some cases), which to me, hearkened back to the days of movies like Cleopatra or Gone with the Wind. It was a large scale picture, without using painted glass panes or heavy CGI. This was art deco in nature, and seemed to be a precursor to Fox’s Batman: The Animated Series that came along in the 90’s.

I thought Danny Elfman’s score was just stunning as the visuals. Before hearing his score, I hadn’t really ever listened to a movie’s sound track before. Sure, I had soundtracks from Footloose and the like, but they were the soundtracks of popular pop or rock music. I started listening to his Batman score and realized how beautiful, moving and large his soundtracks were, without words or without constant radio play. I went and bought his Batman scores. I even bough them for other movies, first on cassettes, and then on CD’s. His musical scores seemed to perfectly compliment Tim Burton’s version of Gotham City. Danny Elfman was the new John Williams. Emotions were conveyed through music in a way I had never experienced before.

I've always been a geek for this kind of stuff. My favorite toys when I was a wee little geek, even before becoming a Jedi geek, were my DC Comics action figures. But I think once you become exposed to something a new way, it really opens up your eyes to new facets of that same topic. For me, it was Batman in movie form, and then later on, it was all things Doctor Who for science fiction, it was all things Stephen King for horror goodness. You keep your geek or pop culture favorites, but you see new aspects of them. Me, I’ll always be a Tim Burton fan, but I do credit him for making me watch movies in a new light.



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