Welcome back 80s fans! We sent up the signal for someone to write this week’s 80s Movie Challenge and our good friend Francis Fisher answered the call, turning up in his spandex and rubber. We said that the costume wasn’t necessary and Francis just said “What costume?”
Joking over, Francis took on the mantle to take us back to 1989 to look at something relatively new and different (well, back then at least): a comic-book superhero adaptation, namely Batman!
Following on from his successful box office smash, Beetlejuice (which made over $70m on a $15 budget), Tim Burton was offered the job of directing something which (with a few exceptions, such as the Superman films) Hollywood rarely produced at the time: a superhero adaptation. Somewhat controversially, he also cast one of his main stars from Beetlejuice as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Little did we know at the time that there would be so many more to come by the time this film had hit its 20th and 30th anniversaries…
The film begins with, well, the credits, and again, from the perspective of someone watching this in the 2020s, this is quite refreshingly different. Jack Nicholson, cast as the main villain of the piece, is noticeably given top billing (rumour has it that this was one of several conditions that he imposed before agreeing to take the part). Elfman’s main theme for Batman, which is now widely considered iconic thanks to its reprisal in the 1990s animated series, is also front and centre.
It is interesting to note the way the film begins by presenting us with Gotham City in all its dark, gothic glory. More than 30 years and many other Batman film adaptations later, I would argue that we are still yet to see a Gotham with gothic architecture at its centrepiece as much as this film and its immediate sequel. Christopher Nolan’s films, for instance, and for better or worse, chose to instead focus on the more industrial and modernised parts of Gotham, largely because this better suited the plot of his films. The Schumacher films? Well, let’s just say that I prefer to pretend such things don’t exist…
Sorry, got sidetracked by unpleasant childhood movie memories from the ‘90s there. Ahem. While rewatching this movie, I found it amusing that the first characters to get spoken lines in the film are an unnamed tourist family looking for a taxi. This makes for a brief but entertaining red herring as I can imagine a lot of people watching this film for the first time (perhaps particularly in the 2020s, but also in the 1980s) would incorrectly assume that this family of two parents and a small boy would be the Wayne family and that we were about to see Batman’s origin on the big screen for what would, in the 1980s, be the first time.
Any such assumptions/hopes are quickly torn asunder, though, when in the next scene we are taken to the rooftop and shown two clearly low-level villains discussing recent rumours of “the Bat” and his vigilante pursuit of criminals. Somewhat predictably, Batman shows up and quickly despatches them in as low key a fashion as you would probably expect for such clearly low-calibre bad guys:
“Who are you?!”
Origin stories for superheroes are, of course, a dime a dozen in this day and age, being included far more often than not, so it is noteworthy that this film does not feel the need to include one for its main character. The influence of this scene on Batman’s first deployment in Nolan’s Batman Begins is palpable as well; Keaton’s Batman lets one of the villains go free but makes it clear so that this is only so he can spread the word about the vigilante Batman among his criminal brethren, a trope which is aped with aplomb by Nolan.
What we do get, perhaps controversially, is an origin story for the film’s villain, the Joker. Looking back at the film now, I think that this was a misstep which the film got away with through good fortune as much as anything else. The Joker, be it in film or another medium, has almost always operated best as an enigma with no clear origin. The fact that the character’s origin here is such a simplistic and classically cheesy comic book one (falling into a vat of chemicals – really?) does not help matters.
Nicholson nevertheless puts in a fine performance as the Joker, though; it is often quite a hammed up, theatrical one (particularly his execution of Grissom and post-surgery scene), but in contrast to Keaton’s relatively restrained Batman, it works well. The darkly comedic elements (“Life’s been good to me”, “If you gotta go, go with a smile”) are also a treat and remind me of future Jokers that we would see many years later in The Dark Knight and Joker. This is a noticeably tamer Joker compared to Ledger’s, and even Leto’s for that matter. But society’s expectations/tolerance of controversial characters has changed since the late 1980s, for better or worse, and it would be unfair to blame this film and its makers for that.
On a related note, another element that I thought the film only just about got away with was its decision (retconned later in the series, to make matters worse) to make the Joker (or Jack Napier as he was known before his chemical bathing) the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents. I can see what they were trying to do in terms of forging a stronger connection between Batman and the Joker (“I made you. You made me first”), and it sort of works, but personally, I find that it also feels a little too contrived. The fact that it meanders so far away from Joe Chill in the comics also bothers me a little, but much less as I don’t mind movies putting their own spin on origin stories, etc., so long as these tactics work!
It must be noted that the action scenes in this movie, even by 1980s standards, are almost unbelievably tame. I find it hard to believe that any modern-day superhero movie would ever be allowed to have action scenes that are so lacking in combat as we see here. Perhaps these choices were budget related? I’m not sure that, with the exception of the final showdown between Batman and the Joker, you could even argue that they were going for a ‘less is more’ approach here. That said, the aforementioned final confrontation works brilliantly, giving both characters what they need /deserve in terms of their respective stories being told.
Last, and very much least in a lot of ways, it’s worth pointing out that this film also had an influence on future Batman adaptations in much less subtle though still important ways. Firstly, with its frankly hilarious use (considering which film would see fit to pay tribute to this, I mean) of the AMEX card and subsequent line – later aped in Batman & Robin almost word for word, which we shall of course never speak of again here –: “Don’t leave home without it!”. Secondly, and much more positively, with its thrilling and iconic theme dune by Danny Elfman, later used with aplomb in the Batman cartoon of the early ‘90s, which remains one of my favourite Batman adaptations.
To conclude, then, this film remains an enjoyable romp, for me at least. Despite time being rather unkind to it in some ways, the quality of its worldbuilding, lack of now tiresome cliches such as an origin story that the entire audience already knows by heart combined with some interesting performances still make this one of the stronger Batman films for me. And the fact that Prince contributes to the soundtrack just makes 30-something-years old me enjoy it even more (bet you thought that I had forgotten to mention that, eh?).
Francis will be back in a few weeks to look at another late 80s fantasy adventure but come back next week as Paul Childs takes a look at a battle-of-the-sexes comedy with a difference, with Dustin Hoffman’s 1982 Oscar-nominated turn as the actress – that’s right, we said “actress” – Dorothy Michaels, otherwise known as Tootsie.