Sunday, 19 May 2019

Review: Batman

Batman (1989, 30th anniversary screening)
Cert: 12A / 126 mins / Dir. Tim Burton / Trailer

Well, it was my birthday last week and as if to hammer the point home, time is teaching me I'm now of an age where I can go to 30th anniversary screenings in full nostalgia mode, having attended the cinema to watch the movie the first time round, too. Tim Burton's Batman ushered in the age of me regularly Going To The Pictures with my friends*1. I didn't live particularly close to a cinema, and movies before this tended to either be family outings or even just waiting for the VHS (and bear in mind that back in those days, the journey to the small screen took around a year).


Batman also drew me into the multimedia marketing machine surrounding its release. The specially produced comic adaptation featured scenes and character likenesses based on stills from the film, and along with the high-contrast, tonally-blended, full colour printing it was leagues ahead of the rapid-fire, block-colour-and-halftone pulp Marvel fare I'd been used to previously. I loved comics anyway (mainly Marvel, although that stands to this day), but this was in indicator that they could be more.

And that score. Danny Elfman's iconic work here was the first time outside of John Williams' Star Wars that a movie soundtrack had really excited me, one I could listen to separately and still clearly evoke the imagery inside my mind. It was the album which made me understand the role that the right music can play in enhancing a film while adding to the overall identity. A far cry from Williams' equally superb work for Superman, there were no romantic overtones to this new Batman theme, just a pounding, dynamic urgency.


Prior to 1989, our superheroes had arrived onscreen clad in brightly coloured spandex (a reflection of their comic origins, to be fair). Batman rocked up in black, bulletproof rubber body armour, patrolling the streets of a Gotham City which looks for all the world like Blade Runner's Los Angeles if it had become run-down before the off-world boom. There's very little daylight in the movie, every character seemingly a nocturnal creature or one who just doesn't need to sleep. With 1980s tech meeting 1940s wardrobe and a self-awareness which that's ahead of its time, Burton's work is a great foundation for the Nolan retelling.

Along with writers Warren Skaaren and Sam Hamm, Burton brings a theatrical, borderline pantomime, classically gothic take on the anti-hero, flamboyantly dark and knowingly playful (a point which went over my head when watching this as a youngster). There's a lightness of touch that rarely feels the need to rely on outright gags, but coasts along with a wry subversiveness. The film broods but it never wallows. I'm looking at you, DC.


Michael Keaton may not be the most fearsome Batman, but he's the most accessible Bruce Wayne and is far and away the best combination of the two. He brings a fragility to both halves of the role that other actors have been unable to accomplish - or worse still, just haven't attempted. We shouldn't sympathise with either a billionaire businessman or a surly vigilante, but we're on this guy's side all the way through. Keaton shows us Batman's vulnerability and determination, not his inflexible strength. As well as showing us how Batman does his thing, Keaton gives us a window into why.

It's also worth noting that Keaton and Michael Gough make the most endearing Bruce/Alfred combination to date. There's genuine warm emotion there on both sides, and we understand their relationship instantly. Y'know, rather than having Michael Caine trying to remember how to cry while Christian Bale looks faintly embarrassed*2.


And put your hand up if you're old enough to remember the clamour of "yeah, this new movie Batman is DARK like it's meant to be, man! This is how grim the original comics were!", while Jack Nicholson prances around in a purple suit with Prince playing in the background. Nicholson is terrible of course (his usual form), but his performance as The Joker is definitely what this movie needs. It only really tips over in the scenes he shares with Jack Palance, where they're trying to out-overact each other onscreen and are somehow both succeeding.

The pacing of the first half is masterful, perfectly formed and spinning the plates of its main characters with care and precision. The story begins to run out of steam once the setup is accomplished, dragging its heels in bringing everything to the cathedral-top conclusion, but it's so much fun that this doesn't matter. On the whole, it's still a hell of a lot more focused than a lot of other Batman appearances, even (let's face it, especially) within its own series.


And the remastering on display for this presentation is absolutely gorgeous. Crystal clear and with vivid colours, the care which has gone into this is a credit to all concerned. Even when you notice the very-obvious miniatures (ie when the chemical plant is exploding), the craft which has gone into assembling them is still evident, first and foremost. There are a couple of very brief shots which don't seem to have been re-touched, but the optimist in me things that this is to reinforce the amazing work throughout the rest of the film. That said, it's been a long time since I watched this (to my shame), so those moments may always have looked terrible.

Batman 30th anniversary screenings and vintage marathons are happening across the country via the major chains and a few of the independents. If you can, do

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Er… Batman films?
I mean it's definitely also Tim Burton™, but that aspect is far more restrained here than other work where he's allowed free rein. If anything, this makes Tim work harder to produce a better film, but there we go.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
If you get the opportunity, hell yeah.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is.
(even though I don't have this at home as noted, so who am I to make recommendations?)

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Quite possibly, for the major players here.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
No, because obviously you love this film as well.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
No, you'll have to watch the sequel for that.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Well…
Lando Calrissian is in this.
And Biggs Darklighter is in this.
And Jek Porkins is in this.
And Lt. Renz is in this.
And Uncredited Rebel Pilot From The Empire Strikes Back is in this.

Which is pretty good going, I think.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 There were a few sporadic others before this - Spaceballs being one, although we don't talk about that film here - but Batman was the opening of a door, so to speak. [ BACK ]

*2 Look, I do love the Nolan films and I respect the Caine's canon as much as anyone, but he's generally not a good actor. He can act well, he just usually chooses (and is somehow permitted) not to. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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