Monday, June 24, 2019

Batman at 30

Just like thirty years ago, I held off watching this 1989 movie until this weekend. I wanted to build anticipation and excitement. It worked.

Dork that I am, I gave serious thought to waiting until 23 June to re-watch Batman, but opted for a family movie night on the 21st with the wife and the boy. The wife doesn't love superhero movies. She saw Batman in 1989 largely because of Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. Her favorite superhero movie is The Dark Knight, and Christian Bale and Heath Ledger her favorite actors in a Batman film. The boy also doesn't love superhero films like I do, but these last few Marvel films and Wonder Woman and Shazam he's enjoyed. 

All of that is just to set the stage for us breaking out our VHS copy--yes, VHS copy--of the 1989 film. Like they did with Superman last year, I had hoped I could again see Batman on the big screen, but here in Houston, that chance was May. We couldn't make it, so original VHS tape on the flat screen.

The first two things on the tape were the Diet Coke commercial with Michael Gough's Alfred and an animated segment with Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny talking about ordering a catalog to purchase Warner Bros. merchandise. I had that catalog and I ordered stuff. Ball cap for sure, but the rest is lost to time.

Then, the movie started.

The Theme

Visually, the opening credits are only there to let you read the major players who got this movie made--thanks Michael Uslan!--but the real star is the theme. Danny Elfman, then known as the front man for Oingo Boingo, was the composer. Like director Tim Burton, an interesting choice. Actually, many of the choices for this film were interesting and out of the box. Those choices are what makes the film special.

Elfman's Batman theme is second only to the Superman theme by John Williams for me. It is dark and propulsive, with a good mix of strings, high brass, and mellow horns. It was an instant hit in my mind thirty years ago, and it remains one of my favorite themes of all time. As good as we have it now for superhero movies, the musical cues are fairly unmemorable. The Avengers theme is the only one I can recognize when I hear it, but I can't for the life of me hum it. The Dark Knight's music by Hans Zimmer is great and moody, but it's mainly whole notes. Elfman captured the spirit of Batman in music not only in this main theme but also throughout the film.

The Opening Shot

There are moments throughout Batman cinema that are truly magical and have stood the test of time. I'm thinking the moment when Keaton's Batman first sees Michelle Pheiffer's Catwoman. Bale's Batman makes his first appearance in Batman Begins. The heist scene to open The Dark Knight. Or the motorcycle chase in The Dark Knight. The warehouse fight in Batman v Superman. Even the museum escape in Batman '89.

Nothing trumps the opening scene in Batman. Say what you will about Burton's choices for the rest of the movie, but he nailed the introduction of a dark and serious Batman in five minutes. Gone was any whiff of Adam West's TV show Batman. Here was a man, dressed all in black, who could get shot and rise again. If I had to pick a single favorite Batman moment on screen, this is it.

The Voice

"I'm Batman." Those are the first words we hear Keaton utter from behind the cowl. It's a deeper voice, but nothing like the growl Bale used. In many ways, it's very much like the choices Kevin Conroy did for the animated series. By using a slightly higher pitch for the Bruce Wayne voice, Keaton was able to merely deepen his voice for Batman. Plus, in the re-watch, for the first half of the film, he doesn't speak many words as Batman.

Still, Ben Affleck's Batman using a voice modulator is probably the best way to go.

My Favorite Bruce Wayne

I've written many books since the last time I saw this movie--I honestly can't remember how long it had been--but I appreciated how one of the central mysteries for the characters of Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) and reporter Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) was to find out more about Bruce Wayne. They get themselves into the party at Wayne Manor to ask the mayor and Commissioner Gordon about "the six-foot bat in Gotham City" but then end up meeting Wayne himself.

Of all the actors who have played Bruce Wayne to date, my favorite Wayne is Keaton. I have always thought he walked the knife edge of genuine crazy. If each one of Batman's rogue's gallery is a distorted mirror version of Batman/Wayne, then Keaton's version shows you how close he really was to the edge.

He's distracted, but remembers everything. He's unassuming in a natural way, not like the put-on Bale has to do. To outward appearances, he seems normal.

Which is Bruce Wayne's way of deflecting. Keaton does this wonderfully.

Nicholson's Joker

How have I gone this long without talking about Jack Nicholson. If you follow Michael Uslan on Facebook--the man responsible for bringing a darker Batman to movie theaters--then you'll have seen his newspaper page talking about The Shining and how he took white-out and a green and red marker and drew over Nicholson's face in the famous "Here's Johnny" scene. Back in 1989 before I saw the movie or the trailer, I was partial to Peter O'Toole because he already had the grin. But the prosthetics they put on Nicholson was better.

And man did he chew up the scenery. Yes he was funny and over the top, but on the re-watch, something struck me again, especially since Ledger's Joker is more recent. Nicholson's Joker actually seems crazier than Ledger. Nicholson's version seemed to have everyone on edge. I mean, he out and shoots his "number one guy" Bob just because Batman stole the balloons in the finale. Ledger's Joker is an agent of chaos, but an agent who plans out everything. Nicholson plans out how to distribute Smilex gas and how to disrupt the city, but in his inner circle, I think working for him would be scarier.

Here's what age does to a person. The museum scene where Joker and his crew deface the priceless paintings: now I cringe where in 1989, I just smiled. It's a real crime he perpetrated, a crime against history, and honestly worth more than anything he could steal.

How Does It Hold Up?

Like James Bond films, everyone has their favorite movie Batman. Everyone has their favorite movies. Is Batman '89 the greatest film ever made? No. Is it the best Batman film? Maybe not. The Dark Knight is darn near perfect. It prompted the Oscar folks to expand the choices for Best Picture, so much so that Black Panther got a nomination.

But Batman '89 holds an honored spot. It was the first movie Batman (not counting the serials). It showed the world what was already happening in the comics: the character had grown and matured, darkened for a new decade. Nearly every choice made while crafting this film was bold and interesting: the casting, the director, the art director, the music, the marketing. Let's not forget about the marketing.

Sure, as a storyteller, I can poke holes in the story and I can grouse about how many times Basinger's Vicki Vale screams, but what's the point. Batman '89 was a cultural phenomenon and remains one of the most important superhero films of all time.

The Ongoing Legacy

And it remains of the most important films of my lifetime. It came at the perfect time. I was twenty, in college, and working my first real summer job (at a movie theater!). I've often said that my lifetime in comics these past fifty years was a great time. As I grew up, so did comics. I was the perfect age for Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns to signal a new era in comics. It made Batman '89 possible in the minds of executives and the public.

In 2019, when superhero and genre stuff seem to rule the box office, the TVs, and the culture, 1989 was the year in which all the non-geek folks came to appreciate stuff we geeks had loved all our lives. With Batman '89, we could finally say "See? This is good stuff."

I know Michael Uslan, the man who bought the film rights for Batman in 1979, had many sleepless nights in the 1980s as every door in Hollywood slammed in his face. No one wanted or understood the idea of a serious, cinematic Batman. But I am so glad it took as long as it did, culturally, to get our first dark Batman movie. I can't imagine the film having the impact it did in 1989 if it were released, in, say, 1986. It would have just been a movie geeks saw. Thanks, Mr. Uslan, for persevering and staying true to your vision.

Batman '89. I have so enjoyed reading all the articles and posts about this movie this month as we celebrate its 30th anniversary. I'm glad I got to experience it when I did, at the age I did, and I still love it. I will always love it no matter how many more Batman movies they make.

Come back Wednesday for my take on the comic adaptation by Dennis O'Neil and Jerry Ordway

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