By Matt Fleming. This is RetroGrading, where we look back and find that ‘dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight’ can still make for a great Friday night.
THE FILM: Batman
THE TIME: 1989, with roots in a 1983 script by Tom Mankiewicz. This is the comic book film that would bridge the gap between ‘80s action and ‘90s camp in a way nobody saw coming.
RECOLLECTIONS: Batman arrived on the scene during an era where PG-13 still meant that four-letter words were peppered throughout, violence was slightly less graphic than your standard Schwarzenegger flick, and sex would almost certainly be implied. That already seems like a strange burden to shoulder for a comic book movie, which until that point had mostly been a mix of Donner-era Superman and campy, made-for-TV schlock. Even The Man of Steel wasn’t drawing a crowd the way he used to. Enter Warner Bros.
After spending most of the decade in that wonderfully-named realm called ‘development hell,’ Warner was getting antsy about this particular intellectual property, which, you’ll remember, was best known for the swingin’ Sixties ABC series. Turns out that was as good a primer as any for the film that would bring the Batman back into relevance. Tim Burton and crew managed to find that perfect space that lay between absurdity and shadow, and nestled themselves deep inside of it. Thanks to Batman, we got another (possibly better) Burton-helmed sequel, as well as the all-time classic Batman: The Animated Series, which entertained many pre-teen afternoons.
THE DIRECTOR: Tim Burton. His early successes with such bizarre fare as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice made Burton a pretty daring choice to bolster an already-shaky venture, but the guy took Batman and created a gothic aesthetic that fit the character — as well as his own artistic proclivities. Looking back at his early work in animation, it’s quite obvious that German expressionism had enough influence on Burton that he could temper the oppressive nature of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns into a Bat-film that could appeal to a mass audience.
Burton’s touch on the franchise would outlive his tenure, as he would ultimately take his Goth-ball and move on to hypnotizing Johnny Depp (and his hat-covered face) for years to come. For better or worse, he will always be remembered as the guy who made Batman a staple in theaters forever and ever. His art department won many awards, including an Oscar, and Danny Elfman permanently shed his legacy as “that guy who wrote that song from Weird Science.”
THE CAST: For years to come, Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson were the definitive Batman and Joker, respectively, thanks in large part to their outstanding ability to act mostly with their eyebrows. Keaton navigates the contrasts between Bruce Wayne and his late-night counterpart quietly at times, and his performance without the cape is subtle (until it quite suddenly isn’t). Keaton’s Wayne remained unrivaled until Christian Bale put his stamp on the role many years later. Nicholson, though many people may never admit it, is pretty damn perfect as The Joker. His entire arc — from weasly criminal sidekick to unhinged, nigh-operatic lunatic — is as compelling as anything in a superhero movie, and there’s a sick joy to be found in watching him perform without the iconic makeup. We may not have a canonical origin story here, but is was definitely one that Jack was able to navigate beautifully. Heath Ledger certainly nailed his turn with the grin, but he certainly owed some change to Nicholson.
Pat Hingle and Michael Gough became icons in their old age thanks to their turns as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth, roles they stuck to as the franchise peaked, fizzled, and imploded. Here, Hingle’s Gordon is laughably inept, whereas Gough was easing his way towards becoming the Alfred we’d come to love. You know you’re important when your replacement could be none other than Sir Michael Caine.
The rest of the cast is just kinda… there, I suppose. Jack Palance was poised to gain a late-career relevance with the two City Slickers films following Batman, but he’s a strange fit as mob boss Carl Grissom. Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale character was so eclipsed by Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns (she merits but a single namedrop in the sequel) that you kinda wish she had run off with Robert Wuhl. Billy Dee Williams never returned as District Attorney Harvey Dent, ultimately a criminally missed opportunity to seeing his interpretation of Two-Face. Kudos though to Tracey Walter, Nicholson’s off-screen pal, who created an iconic cinematic henchman with Bob the Goon.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE: Much like Richard Donner’s Superman, Batman defines and reflects an era in cinema and culture alike. The explosion of “Batmania” was the biggest of its kind (until George Lucas decided he would return to Star Wars ten years later). Even if the then 30 years old Tim Burton didn’t quite know what he was getting into, his take on Batman managed to create a template for superhero movies that would be aped time and time again, until Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man injected into the framework some much-needed sunshine. It’s operatic, thunderous and more than a little weird. Hollywood would do well to attempt this kind of magic again, even if this kind of sorcery only comes once in a lifetime.
RETROGRADE: 8 out of 10