Monday, November 19, 2012
MOVIE OF THE WEEK: Batman
This week I watched 1989's "Batman" for the first time. That may come as a surprise, but somehow I missed both of Tim Burton's entries into the franchise (nope, I haven't seen "Batman Returns" either). While watching the film, I was obviously forced to compare it to Nolan's interpretation of the story. By sharing the same central villian (The Joker), the film is perhaps best matched up with "The Dark Knight".
In this 1989 version, it's amazing to see the early development of an auteur's signature style. "Batman" was only Burton's 3rd film, but it showed a visual panache more associated with a confident, seasoned veteran. This is a true Burton film, dark and quirky. These qualities really come through in the art direction, a trademark that we have now come to expect from his films. The architecture seems to be a character itself, with tall doors and high ceilings creating an intimidating atmosphere, while the grey colour palette suggests the underlying evil always threatening to surface. It's really a fascinating work of set design, seamlessly blending different styles of architecture. This Gotham looks very gothic with its arches, spires and statues but the tall angular structures also recall the art deco style seen in films like "Metropolis". It all comes together for a very unique artistic vision, while still managing to tip its hat to its cinematic influences.
Of course, no Burton film is complete without a touch of whimsy. In the true Burton way, the darkest elements are often the most colorful (in both a literal sense and in personality). In this film, the Joker brings this whimsy, with a dynamite performance by Jack Nicholson. When I watched "The Dark Knight", I obviously had no idea of the high standard that Nicholson had set for Heath Ledger to emulate. Now that I've seen Nicholson's performance, it's easy to see why people had their doubts. While Ledger certainly rose to the occasion, this interpretation was quite impressive in its own way. Even though Nicholson was much older when he played the character, he brought an amusing childlike quality to the role. This was clearly a combination of the actor's instincts and the director's vision, as it's a common trait throughout Burton's filmography. Thinking especially of Willy Wonka and Edward Scissorhands, Burton plays up the creepy nature of immaturity. Nicholson definitely understood this concept and works it thoroughly with his multicoloured outfits and eccentric behaviour.
Given the film's title, you also need to have a good Batman for the film to work and Michael Keaton is more than adequate. He is less "emo" than Christian's Bale understanding of Bruce Wayne, but it fits within the tone of this story. The rest of the cast is decent too, but it definitely showed up a weakness when compared to Nolan's work. Nolan really knew how to manage his ensemble cast in his films, with Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman et al. proving incredibly valuable to the success of those films. Burton's supporting players however take a real backseat to Nicholson's larger-than-life performance. As a result, these characters are completely forgettable. From a story perspective, the script also falls short of the deeper philosophical gravitas of Nolan's films. "Batman" is more of a routine "kill the bad guy" superhero movie, but that's fine. The film is still well-crafted and a lot of fun.
Is "Batman" better than Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy? Perhaps not. However, it is an essential component to the Batman film canon, entertaining us in its own way. Tim Burton takes the idea of the comic and accurately lightens up on the seriousness. After all, Batman is at its core, a very wealthy man playing dress up.
This film is part of my List of Shame.