Ever since seeing “The Dark Knight,” I have been shying away from revisiting the Tim Burton “Batman” films. Partly because the new movies are so good, it would almost seem blasphemous to go back to how things were before. And besides, how well could those old clunkers ever hold up now?
But then, I thought maybe I was being unfair. After all, had the original “Batman” not been such a huge success in 1989, we would not have the admittedly far superior franchise of today. You have to start crawling and stumbling before you can hope to walk or run, I guess.
And looking back on those older movies now, it really is not fair or true to say that they completely lack ideas and subtleties that are worth discussing and are maybe even at times thought-provoking. The issue that can be debated is whether, in the Burton films, these themes and ideas were conceived deliberately or instead are there more as a sort of accidental by-product, like the way boiling water throws off steam.
Take the Joker, for instance. Both Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger give us memorable interpretations of the character, although in many ways they could not be any more different. Yet what I found interesting, when I sat down to watch the 1989 film again, is something they have in common that plays out in different ways. In both films, the Joker’s agenda involves wanting to bring the people of Gotham City down to his level.
Ledger’s Joker, as we’ve seen this summer, is all about making the other characters — specifically Batman and Harvey Dent, but more broadly the whole city via the microcosm of the people on the ferries toward the end — discard their own moral and ethical standards and thus sink to his level. When the chips are down, he argues, people’s crude, baser nature will assert itself and any claims of nobility or being civilized will basically go out the window. For the most part, though, he is proven wrong — except for corrupting Harvey, the rest of his plan ultimately fails. And even in regard to Harvey, Batman finds a way to keep that from giving the Joker a victory.
With Nicholson’s Joker, though, it’s an agenda much more about aesthetics. From our first sight of him, it’s clear that Jack Napier (by contrast, Ledger’s Joker has no previous identity or alter ego) is a vain man who is obsessed with his looks and the way he dresses — something of a dandy, I guess. The way he preens himself in the mirror when he is with his mistress, and she tells him “You look fine” — and the subsequent put-down, “I didn’t ask.” Here’s a guy driven by ego, to whom appearance and self-image mean a lot.
Once Napier has that taken away from him — via his transformation into the Joker from both the bullet ricocheting into his face and the subsequent fall into the vat of chemicals — it’s clearly more than he can handle. What could be more devastating to a ladies’ man who gets by on his looks than to have all that taken away and to be perceived, literally, as a clown?
So then the Joker’s scheme is basically that, if he can’t be held up as a standard of what is attractive — something he begins to expound upon while talking to Vicki Vale at the museum but that, sadly, the screenplay did not develop quite enough — then he’ll just remake everyone’s aesthetic standard in his own image. Hence the Smylex gas, which causes its victims to develop hideous, grinning visages, and also the acid job he does on Jerry Hall’s face. And putting his own face on the $1 bill. How much more egocentric can you get? Demolishing the works of art at the museum depending on whether they appeal to him or not.
And there is something of the theme of showing people’s true natures here, when they all turn out in droves for the climactic parade and the chance of grabbing handfuls of money — money that of course turns out to be fake and superficial, like many people’s ideas of beauty and the way such values are used to confer status on others. If only the script had worked on these ideas and themes a bit more, the movie would have been better for it.
But this whole train of thought actually made me enjoy the 1989 movie a lot more than I had previously. And there are other ways in which Burton’s films have some of the depth and subtlety of Nolan’s. In both franchises, Gotham City seems to exist as a distinct character and presence. Nolan accomplishes this by weaving a story that shows how the actions of the main characters ripple at every level of the city’s society: the criminal underworld, the politicians, law enforcement. Though this is much more evident in “The Dark Knight,” because “Batman Begins” was really much more about one man, Bruce Wayne.
In the Burton films, though, Gotham has something of the same social structure. There is a criminal underworld of mobsters and lowlife street thugs, and there are politicians — though the mayors, and even Commissioner Gordon, in the Burton films seem much more helpless and ineffective, largely depending on Batman to do their dirty work. In “Batman Returns,” the moment the Penguin’s goons start raising hell in Burton’s version of Rockefeller Center, Gordon’s immediate reaction is to light the Bat signal. Clearly the police are not able to handle the criminals, though again this is an idea that should have been developed more thoroughly and convincingly.
But Burton’s Gotham City, being less realistic and more obviously existing on soundstages, takes on more of the role of a Greek chorus that reacts to the actions of the major players. In both his films, Burton uses quick little montages of newspaper headlines to show developments like the public reaction to Batman figuring out the Joker’s deadly chemical cocktails, or the perception of the Penguin’s rise as a public figure and the gradual fall of Batman in the public estimation, both in getting whupped by Catwoman and later in appearing to have gone on a murderous rampage.
The idea of Batman becoming perceived as the bad guy is an interesting theme that is very well summed up in dialogue in “The Dark Knight” — “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” — and yet it is also one of the more interesting elements of “Batman Returns” that, frustratingly, remains very underdeveloped.
Part of it is the big difference in story — “The Dark Knight” develops its numerous plot threads so well and so meticulously that in the end, the only way for Batman to be the hero that Gotham deserves is to put on the mask of the villain and, presumably, beginning to engineer his own downfall, because that is what the city needs — for him to be the goat. It would be more devastating for the truth about what Harvey did to be known. (Though one thing that bothered me a bit was the presumption that Gordon’s wife and children, who were threatened at gunpoint, would have to go along with the charade.)
The problem in “Batman Returns” is that, first of all, the way Batman is set up and framed is not convincingly explained. Where the hell did the Penguin get the blueprints for the Batmobile? Did he run down to Home Depot? They could have at least made an effort to provide some sort of explanation — maybe Max Schreck, with his wealth and connections, had some sort of industrial spy who was able to tip him to the use of certain resources at Wayne Enterprises, in retaliation for Bruce Wayne not investing in his power plant. That at least would have given the story a little more meat and made things more interesting.
Visually, the framing of Batman is an exciting, very well done segment of the movie, with the bats erupting from the Christmas tree once the Ice Princess falls into it after being pushed off the skyscraper, and the subsequent mob gathering in the streets to chase Batman, and the careening, out-of-control Batmobile being chased by all those cop cars. Again, if there were a bit more thought behind the story, the movie could well stand as a classic.
But it is also interesting that Batman is not really redeemed in the public eye by the end of the film, at least not that we ever see. He manages to show the city the Penguin’s true colors, but there is no sense of Batman being vindicated. Was this intended, or just a plot hole they never got around to addressing?
You get the sense, especially from the dialogue in the scene where Michael Keaton dances with Michelle Pfeiffer at the costume party — which from a writing standpoint is the best scene in the movie — that Wayne is tired of being Batman and wants to lead a normal life, something we see again in “The Dark Knight,” and that he is hoping Selina can be his chance for that life, just as Christian Bale’s Wayne hopes Rachel Dawes can be his.
And in both cases, Batman’s actions have played a part in denying him that normal life. In “The Dark Knight,” Batman’s plan with Gordon and Dent to draw out the Joker has deadly consequences for Rachel. In “Batman Returns,” Selina’s issues of being victimized by the men in her life, including Batman when initially it is he who has to save her from the Penguin’s goons at the beginning and then later, when he knocks Catwoman off a rooftop during their fight, prevent her from being able to live with herself by going back to being the person she was before.
So, in rediscovering Burton’s Bat-films, I was pleased to find that there was a lot more substance than I had previously given the films credit for. The frustration is knowing that with some more thought, effort and polish, those movies could have been so much more.