Tim Burton directs Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Michelle Pfeiffer, Danny Devito and Christopher Walken in this pair of big budget blockbusters, from a time before superhero movies were the norm.
In the summer of 1989 the Bat signal was everywhere. Every cinema lobby, every bookshop window, every t-shirt chest and baseball cap front. Whereas with Star Wars, the merchandise came almost a year after the queues around the block formed, and for Transformers, Masters of the Universe and Turtles, those movies were spin-offs greenlit off the success of the toylines, Batman 1989 was so preordained a hit on its release that the demand and supply for branded paraphernalia, specifically for the movie and not its comic source, was at critical mass before the film even sold a ticket. 1989 was also the first summer I realised just how into movies I was. I had the Batman toys and the Batman trading cards and the Batman computer game but being two years short for the blockbuster’s UK 12 certificate I had to wait for video to actually see a film I’d already lived a hundred time through its Prince soundtrack and tie ins. And that gutted me.
The big box VHS I eventually bought was so dark on my parents’ old wooden coffin of a telly that much of Anton Furst’s perfectly designed Gotham was hidden in pitch blackness on early viewings and it was a shock when in the mid 90s I finally got a new video recorder in my own bedroom to discover that the credit sequence took place as a camera flew around the contours of a stone Bat logo rather than just over a murky black background. But even the badly lit, small screen, spoiled by all the spolierific merch I had willingly consumed in the six month wait between UK release and my videoshop purchase version I saw did not diminish what a perfectly crafted piece of Wow-Cinema Tim Burton’s Batman was and remains to be.
That Warner Brothers risked all their big budget eggs in this particular basket was and is still a shock, as on paper at the time it was a basket that seemingly full of holes and weaknesses. Tim Burton was a director fired from Disney for being too weird, who had only modest hits with a dark kid’s film and a quirky horror comedy (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure 1985 & Beetle Juice 1988 respectively). Burton went on to cast a comedy actor with no action experience in his back catalogue (Michael Keaton) in the role of Batman, prompting fans to write the film off in a way that these days, in the age of the internet and comicons, seems commonplace but back then caused the studio’s stock price to drastically dip. And the name star cast to play the villain was to get top billing, free reign and a large percentage of the box office and merchandise and any potential sequels profits – madness.
Yet these gambles paid off, the basket held eggs and hatched a masterpiece you feel would never have been incubated in today’s studio system. Burton constructed a fast moving, iconic take on the legendary hero and his manically grinning adversary; it looks great, it has heart and it thumps with excitement, subversion and colour in every frame. Keaton imbued Batman with right level of derring do, witty intellect, psychotic drive and, most surprisingly of all, romantic appeal – no one has ever been a better screen Bruce Wayne.
While Jack Nicholson‘s The Joker is funny, disturbing, unpredictable and the stuff that captures geeky little boy’s attentions. Of all the films in Burton’s canon this Joker’s diabolical schemes, a series of prank genocides, resemble his later flop Mars Attacks both in creative form and nasty humour. This foe is all about desires of domination and vain recognition, therefore he kills with extravagant, inventive elan and does so with an unbridled glee shared by a director who sees nothing sacred, nothing safe in the perfect vista he has painted. Nicholson performance is indelible on the memory and meshes perfectly with the twisted, dystopian landscape Burton gives him the full run of. Batman merely is a product of this violent narrative, The Joker feels more like its God. “You ever dance with devil in the pale moonlight.” Whenever he walks into shot he overpowers the movie like a warehouse fire or a chemical burn. There are at least six scenes ‘introducing’ him that would be used as stand alone teaser trailers in modern tentpole movie marketing. Star power magic takes place before your eyes.
Does this Batman have flaws? The action is treated like an afterthought, the belltower finale in particular seems like an anticlimax. The fashions and soundtrack are so of their particular month of 1989 that they tarnish the timeless feel Burton was clearly aiming for. Yet some dirty pop and a few oversized berets cannot kill what a spirited, enjoyable and visually complete experience Batman remains to be.
I’d want to close by saying family blockbusters have rarely been so unique and daring… but all Batfans know Burton’s even kinkier follow up was in the post and Nolan’s reboot trilogy even further in the distance. For all its various descendants’ excellent qualities (even the bad third and terrible fourth entry when Burton took a back seat) this original take on Batman wins for being the risk taker, the game changer. Thanks to Burton turning out a big budget cash-in that’s equally as inspiring as satisfying as a night at the movies can be.
When it comes to sequels to mega hits or bridging entries in franchise trilogies, everyone always seems to aim dark. Empire Strikes Back is the touchstone – the team is split up, Luke is left battered and maimed, the forces defeated in the first film are on the ascendant again by the cliffhanger to be defeated in again the finale – it makes narrative sense. Plus the film makers have more freedom after box office success than than their establishing kid’s film had in unproven appeal. The audience wowed by the first entry are going to naturally be a little older and a little maturer. You kinda have to go a little darker. Tim Burton’s follow up to Batman (1989) however wasn’t just a little darker it… well… a freak child in a cage eats a cat and is dumped in the sewer… that’s your opening minute.
Clowns burst out of a box and set alight to passers by with fire juggling sticks, a spin doctor has his nose bitten off, a tycoon is given the hand of his old business partner, all the first born babies of Gotham are rounded up to be put in cages and dumped in toxic waste, a rapist has his face slashed six ways then the rescued victim is blamed, the line “Just the pussy I’m looking for” is screamed at the camera. Not enough a secretary is thrown from a penthouse window, somehow survives, fashions a skin tight vinyl cat costume, whips and pounces on every man in sight, who all try to kill her… she becomes the romantic interest.
You have to wonder at what scene did McDoanlds executives watching in 1992 decide they were going to pull their Happy Meal tie in deal or whether the henchclown who suggest The Penguin might be going too far this time is a scene of wish fulfilment mirroring Burton’s meetings with Warner Brothers suits? He gets shot for his objection, shot dead like this is the only appropriate response. And the teenage me, who turned up on opening night loved every nasty, kinky, fucked up moment of it. Batman Returns is a movie about costumed psychos going at each other from all directions, and in this respect, Burton shoots the clown with expert precision.
I’m not saying we have a perfect movie here, after the first hour of introducing the new big bads Burton kind of just meanders for the remainder of the running time until he can show off his army of penguins with rocket launchers strapped to their backs. Yet Batman Returns is the perfect evolution of the world envisioned by Burton in his near faultless first film and that world is not a family friendly one, so let’s let him off for scribbling outside the lines a bit.
It is telling the main writer of this sequel is Heathers‘ Daniel Waters as the dialogue has the same flip, self absorbed but eloquent edge as that murderous teen comedy. Just as he wrote for Winona Ryder and Kim Walker with bitchy passion and unusual depth for female characters, his Catwoman is the stand out in this cast of freaks. Michelle Pfeiffer might get an iconic costume but more importantly her Selina Kyle is perhaps the most sympathetic, shaded and unusual “villain” in comic book movie history. DeVito does fine work as the grotesque sewer baby turned tyrant interpretation of the Penguin but he seems more like comic relief than a threat for the new kitty in town.
The fact that Keaton’s Batman spends most of the first two acts of the film watching TV at Wayne Manor is disappointing but fits the arc well. He’s become a recluse. Only leaving the house to fight set pieces (sadly three times on the same set showing Burton’s continued distaste for action) or to thwart local tycoon Shrek. It is Catwoman, who becomes his hope at a relationship and a life away from the cowl. A traumatised woman who understands his need for vengeance and the power of a mask: Catwoman via Burton’s psyche is Bat’s first and only believable love interest in all adaptations of the comic. The chemistry between the two actors crackles and fizzes whether suited up or not, sparring or dismaying at the tragic courses they are on – in a strange way, with less screen time, Keaton breathe more life into his second and, sadly, last time as Bruce Wayne.
Beyond the spectacular mise-en-scene and the certificate testing violence, Burton has made his most loved up and sexy film in this tentpole summer flick. Also when viewed through adult eyes – his most humane. The expressions behind the costumes have doubts, feelings and desires, you care for them in a way that’s rarely seemed like Burton strong suit before or since. As an action blockbuster Batman Returns is often unsatisfying yet as a character piece, it is his most mature work alongside his more obviously adult drama Ed Wood. And these are classic characters of the 20th century, perfectly realised, realised darkly.
This blog was salvaged from an older review on another site.