Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Batman 25 Years Later: An Appreciation

The past few days have been kind of hectic, so pardon the lack of my normal reviews, especially since it was a strong week. You should check out the first issue of the final Fables arc, the first issue of the new Kill Shakespeare series, Mask of Night, the new issue of Batman: Eternal with some great art that is nothing like the DC house style, a BPRD story featuring Kate Corrigan and flashbacks with a young Hellboy, and new issues of both Manhattan Projects and Fatale from Image.

But now we're here to discuss something completely different. We're here to talk about this movie:

Yes, yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the release of the 1989 Batman movie. I want to talk about this movie because it was, for nine year old Matt, a transformative film. Before this movie came out, I read the occasional comic. I liked Super Friends cartoons, Super Powers action figures, and syndicated episodes of the classic West/Ward Batman TV series. But this movie? This thing blew me away.

While it's not as popular to badmouth this movie as it is to badmouth say Batman and Robin or the 60s Batman show, there is a growing fanbase on the internet (which means it could just be three people with lots of accounts) who look at it and just see faults, mostly in relation to the recent Nolan Batman films. It's cheesy at times, Batman is seriously messed up in the head, and it feels often like a Tim Burton film more than a Batman film, although not as much of a Tim Burton film as its sequel, Batman Returns. But let's strip it down to its nuts and bolts and look at it for what it was: the beginning of a new cultural phenomenon.

While the classic Superman film with Christopher Reeve spawned three sequels, that was pretty much all it did. We didn't see a massive stream of superhero movies after that. And while X-Men was still eleven years down the line, and Spider-Man thirteen. Blade was nine years away, and is in many ways the cultural descendant of Batman: dark, brooding, with an anti-hero and a dark sense of humor. And both Dick Tracy and Rocketeer, both under appreciated in my opinion, are garish, big period comic book based pieces that would not have gotten as far as they did if Batman hadn't been then hit it was. And it was a hit, ushering in a new wave of Batmania. That summer, everywhere you went, you saw Batman. It was glorious.

My boss at the comic store has often said that movies and TV shows don't really effect comic sales, with a couple of exceptions. The Walking Dead is one of them, and so was this movie. I feel like a lot of the speculator boom of the 90s comes from exposure caused by this movie; that or this movie hit a rising wave just at the right moment to crest it. But as I said, this movie got me reading comics. I got all the toys, all the trading cards, all the books. It was the first PG-13 rated movie I got my parents to let me see. And I got the VHS tape for Christmas. And a few weeks after I got that tape, I went into a comic shop for the first time, and bought Batman #445, the first comic I ever bought for myself. Now? It's twenty five years later and I haven't missed an issue since.

So that's a lot of reminiscing, but what about the movie itself. Not even knowing about this particular upcoming anniversary, I stumbled upon Batman playing on BBC America a couple weekends back, and happily found out I could still pretty much recite every line of dialogue, even though I hadn't watched it in a couple of years. Shows you how many times I watched that fabled VHS tape.

The plot of the movie is a combined origin for Batman and his arch foe, the Joker. It does more to tie their origins together, something that is completely removed from the comic, but for building a new cinematic world, it works fine (something similar has been done by Brian Michael Bendis by tying Spider-Man's origin to Oscorp in Ultimate Spider-Man). The movie's Batman isn't precisely that Batman of the comics. He walks the razor's edge of sanity a little closer than Batman does. His sort of mad reaction when he confronts Joker in Vicki Vale's apartment, and his sleeping hanging upside down like a Bat are both things Batman wouldn't do. And it can be argued that his reaction to Joker in Vale's apartment is all a ploy, but I feel there's a character beat in there as well.

But despite these issues, Michael Keaton nails Bruce Wayne in the initial party scene. When he confronts reporters Alexander Knox and Vicki Vale, and sort of quips his way through the encounter, it's a great piece of acting. The private Bruce is somewhere in between that face and the Batman, which is an indication that this Batman's persona is either still forming or is more fragmented than the persona in the comic. There's a vein of psychology I feel writers Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren are mining in this movie.

And that is where, for all its failings, this movie succeeds: it presents Batman in multiple dimensions. This isn't either the golly shucks gee Bruce Wayne in a cape on Batman '66 or the psychotically driven Dark Knight of Dark Knight Returns. It's actually closer to Steve Englehart's Batman from his brief run on Detective Comics, with Vicki Vale taking on the roll of Silver St. Cloud. It's a Batman who on some level wants some normalcy in his life and just can't find it. That's a theme that Christopher Nolan used in his Dark Knight trilogy as well, with Rachel Dawes as the object of Bruce's affection.

The other major performance of the film is that of Jack Nicholson as the Joker; Nicholson actually received top billing, and the film is as much about his Joker as it is about Batman, something many Batman films would do afterwards. Nicholson's performance is not as frighteningly deranged as Heath Ledger's Joker, but it is actually very funny at times. This is a Joker who is as unpredictable as he is megalomaniacal, someone who states, "I want my face on the one dollar bill," and seems to really believe he can pull that off. The chilling moment when he first sees his face as the Joker is still one of my favorite cinematic scenes.

While people may argue about story and acting choices, the part of this movie that is next to impossible to deny is its gorgeous vision of Gotham City. The stylized, part forties-part now costumes and cars gives the movie a sense of timelessness, and is something taken even further, and perfected, by Batman: The Animated Series. But it's Anton Furst's gothic architecture that really was something else. Gotham was never the same after that, and the look was officially adapted into the comics in a three issue arc called "Destroyer" that ran through the three Batman titles at the time (remember when there were only three Batman titles? Those were the days). It gave the city a life of its own that has set the precedent for all superhero movie deigns sense.

So, now at the end, I sit back and remember nine year old Matt, playing with his Batman action figures and recreating scenes from the movie, and creating his own stories. I don't think he ever would have imagined, twenty five years later, he would still love Batman, be writing about him, and would still look forward to a fresh Batman comic every week. But maybe he did. One way or the other, I owe a lifelong passion to a movie from twenty five years ago, and I just felt like I needed to stop and reflect before I started off on the next twenty five years. Good times still to come, one and all. Hope you'll stick around for them.

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