Burton had popped into the frame in 1986, and a less-likely man to helm a big studio blockbuster would have been hard to find… Burton was “never a big comic book fan”, he said. He also had “real trouble with vigilantism”. Nor did he like action movies (“I don’t like guns”) or big studio productions (“I’m for anything that subverts what the studio thinks you have to do”). You have to ask, therefore, whether a big studio action movie about a comic book vigilante was ever going to be an exact match for Burton’s talents. — Tom Shone, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer
The problem is that with the summer tentpoles, there is an untold but obvious truth: these films aren’t that good. Sure, you’ve got your Wall*E‘s and Dark Knight’s, your Knocked Up‘s, but the majority of summer films are like the rest of cinema: hyped up nonsense. These are films not meant to stand the test of time, and are all about opening weekends. Does anyone still watch The Perfect Storm or The Patriot? Shrek 2 or The Day After Tomorrow? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Mr. and Mrs. Smith? These are films that do huge business, but are mostly a con. At best three star films without great personal vision. — Andre Dellamorte, Chud.com
In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind’s vaguely sleazy chronicle of American cinema in the ‘70s, the author lays the blame for the fall of art-house cinema and the rise of summer blockbusters entirely at the feet of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for the one-two punch of Jaws and Star Wars. It’s an interesting theory – and there’s no doubt that most of the film buffs and critics who despair over the never-ending parade of dumbed down summer flicks believe it – but it isn’t true.
Whatever you might think of those two movies, or the smash hits of the ‘80s like Top Gun, E.T. and Back to the Future, they all made their money the old-fashioned way: their box office increased with each weekend as strong word of mouth kept luring in new filmgoers who wanted to see what the fuss was all about. No, the real template for the modern summer blockbuster is 1989’s Batman, which makes it, for better or worse, the most-influential film of the last 25 years.
It’s become a cliché lately to complain that summer blockbusters are critic-proof, but the truth is even scarier: these movies are audience-proof, in the sense that they can make piles of money even when most moviegoers agree that they’re terrible. Case in point: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull earned over $300 million in the US alone, despite the fact that I have yet to meet anyone who actually liked it.
Today’s blockbusters are just following the playbook set down by Batman producer Jon Peters, who realized that with a pre-sold source material like a comic book and an advertising campaign that provided months of hype, you could turn your movie’s release into a long-awaited event and practically guarantee a huge opening weekend. But the downside is that these movies became completely disposable; hype and curiosity fade quickly, and there’s no time to find an audience when there’s another can’t-miss film coming out next weekend.
The strange dichotomy of Tim Burton’s Batman is that although it helped create the modern summer blockbuster, it doesn’t really resemble the rest of them. Whatever you might say about it, it’s definitely not an impersonal or shallow film.
Like the rest of Burton’s work, Batman is fundamentally about the relationship between an eccentric outsider and a conformist society that both fears and is fascinated by him. Consider Jack Skellington, who is beloved by the citizens of Halloween Town but whose obsession with Christmas baffles everyone’ or Edward Scissorhands, who is seen as a freak by the same dull-eyed suburbanites who marvel at his garden sculptures’ or Ichabod Crane, a skeptical rationalist charged with solving a series of murders in a village ruled by ancient traditions and superstitions.
Nearly two decades after Burton’s film, director Christopher Nolan would reframe the confrontation between Batman and the Joker as a sociological experiment in The Dark Knight, asking if Batman’s quest to rid Gotham City of corruption without resorting to bloodshed is possible, or if the Joker is correct that civilization is just a few terrorist attacks away from tearing itself apart.
For Burton, such questions are irrelevant. Batman and the Joker don’t represent different sides of human nature in his film, because the common masses are depicted as mindless and hopelessly dependant on Batman for their survival. When the Joker announces on television that he plans to give away “twenty million in cash” during a parade, huge crowds of people show up to fight for banknotes floating through the air. Nobody, apparently, thinks that it might be a bad idea to trust handouts from a psychotic clown who was recently accused of committing mass murder by poisoning food products (sure enough, the Joker uses the opportunity to try to gas everybody).
Just as Bruce Wayne/Batman is another one of Burton’s freakish protagonists trying to connect to humanity, so too is Gotham City a fantasy-like milieu that’s one step removed from the real world. Batman has access to modern technology (which in 1989 means mini-TVs and a hologram that hides the entrance to the Batcave), but the gangsters dress in pinstripe suits, the men all wear fedoras and the entire city has a distinctly 1930s Art Deco vibe. Credit must be given to production designer Anton Furst for his outstanding work, but Burton also imbues the sets with a psychological depth – the Batcave is both Batman’s base of operations and a metaphor for the primal, obsessive mind of Bruce Wayne.
When the casting was first announced, Batfans were aghast at the idea of Michael Keaton – then known primarily as a comic actor – portraying the Dark Knight, but he’s a fascinating choice for the character and gives Batman a haunted, internal quality. Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan let their version of Bruce Wayne act like a foppish playboy in public, but Keaton shows us a man who has almost forgotten how to act like a regular human being at all (an early draft of Sam Hamm’s screenplay describes him as “reading his compliments off cue cards”). Keaton’s Batman wanders around awkwardly at a party at his own mansion and tells the beautiful Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) that he isn’t sure which stuffed shirt is Bruce Wayne.
And while it’s become fashionable lately to deride Nicholson’s work – both in comparison to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight and because Batman started Nicholson on the trend of playing over-the-top versions of himself – his take on the Joker is still terrific, equal parts flamboyance and menace. Ledger’s performance is indeed the greater accomplishment, because he grounds the soulless monster in very human details like the awkward shuffle of his walk and the snake-like way he licks his lips. But Nicholson has a lot of fun with the Joker as a larger-than-life character without a shred of humanity, and it’s the right choice for Burton’s depiction of an urban war between good and evil.
The biggest criticism of Batman when it was first released was that Burton was far more interested in the Joker and that he shortchanged Batman himself. An examination of the movie does lend weight to this argument: although Batman attacks a pair of street punks in the opening, it takes 18-minutes for the film to introduce us to Bruce Wayne. And during the final act of the movie, a full 20-minutes elapse during which Bruce Wayne/Batman doesn’t have a single line of dialogue. Batman is a little unbalanced between its two leads when it feels like every other scene cuts to the Joker uttering one-liners to his minions or muttering to himself about how much he hates Gotham City.
Nor has the film aged perfectly. In a post-Matrix, post-Bourne Ultimatum cinema, the fight scenes in Batman look surprisingly amateurish; some of them consist of little more than thugs lining up to run into Batman’s fists (weirdly, the Batman franchise has never been in the hands of a director particularly adept at composing action scenes). And while Burton’s genius for mood and atmosphere makes his Gotham City an evocative setting, it can also feel pretty artificial, almost claustrophobic. Even when the Joker is standing atop his gigantic parade float in the middle of a crowd of people, it’s pretty obvious that the city street we’re looking at is on a studio back lot.
Is Batman still worth revisiting, then, now that the hype has long since expired? I think the answer is yes: Keaton and Nicholson’s performances, Danny Elfman’s exhilarating score (the only truly iconic film score of the past 20 years) and Burton’s twisted dream logic give this comic-book film an unnerving subterranean pull. When Bruce Wayne sees the Joker murder a rival mobster on the steps of City Hall and gunfire rings out, watch Keaton’s muted expression as he advances toward his archenemy, not even flinching as a bullet nearly clips his shoulder. Is that look on his face one of single-minded determination or obsession bordering on madness? Is Batman a noble hero or a man whose mind has become almost as deranged as the Joker’s? Burton could never bring himself to champion a hero who isn’t a freak at heart, and the odd result is a blockbuster with a soul.
Most of the special features on this set have been recycled from previous releases, and put together they’re a mixed bag. On the negative side, Burton’s commentary track is dull and suffers from long silences, and the music videos for Prince’s Batman soundtrack are pure ‘80s cheese. But there’s also a touching clip of Batman creator Bob Kane touring the film set, a documentary on the history of the Caped Crusader and a collection of short features that examine specific aspects of the production like Elfman’s score and Nicholson’s transformation into the Joker.
The centerpiece is an hourlong making-of doc entitled Shadows of the Bat, which traces the film’s 10-year journey from conception to release, and while there’s an awful lot of praising of Burton’s direction, it does provide a fascinating look at what it takes to get a movie made.