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Alcott’s Analysis: Batman (1989)


by Todd Alcott

The young people of today can hardly be expected to understand the impact that Tim Burton’s Batman had on movie-goers in the summer of 1989. The general audience of 1989 knew Batman only as the campy, self-conscious, broad-daylight superhero of the Adam West TV show. Nothing in movies prepared viewers for this radical re-thinking of the character, the weird darkness of the themes, the dense, oppressive production design or Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker. All of it was alarming, electrifying stuff back then. (Of course, it was all familiar territory for people who had read The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke, but that’s another story.)

I happened to see it at a press screening in New York a week or so before it opened. I knew absolutely nothing about it going in, and let me tell you, it bent my brain. The very concept of the Nicholson Joker, that he wasn’t wearing a mask, that that was his face, and the fact that they got one of the greatest movie stars of all time to look like that, that idea sent a perverse, thrilling chill into the audience of 1989 and still holds considerable power today. I remember walking out into the dense, humid air of the summertime New York night feeling like the city had somehow changed to fit the movie. Although Batman doesn’t treat its subject matter as seriously as 2008’s The Dark Knight, it was seriously freakin’ serious for its day. Thematically strong and narratively weak (like many of Tim Burton’s movies), it still stands as a milestone of Hollywood superhero narrative.

The screenplay has an interesting strategy: it wants to keep its title character mysterious and elusive for as long as possible, in order to increase the viewers interest and awe. Both Batman and his alter-ago Bruce Wayne are presented as cold, remote and unreachable. Female lead Vicki Vale asks “Why won’t you let me in?”, as well she might. Bruce Wayne takes a long time to emerge as a protagonist in Batman, and Batman himself takes even longer. For the longest time, Bruce/Batman is pursued, tangled with and drawn out, and the effect is to turn him into a kind of mythological figure, or even a fetish object. Which is a very interesting turn indeed: the 1966 Batman strained to keep its title character as transparent and uncomplicated as possible.

Since the screenplay takes a long time to develop Batman into a protagonist, it gives us a number of other protagonists to follow while we’re waiting. Act I offers no fewer than four different protagonists, some of whom are more interesting than others.

First we meet Harvey Dent, Gotham City’s new District Attorney, who pledges to clean up Gotham City’s corruption. For a moment it looks like maybe Batman, like The Dark Knight 19 years later, will develop into a Batman/Joker/Two-Face story. But Harvey’s crusade against corruption in Batman barely receives another mention before being swept aside by more colorful, more dynamic forces.

Next, the screenplay offers us Alexander Knox, a reporter who seems to be the only “civilian” in Gotham City concerned about the existence of a vigilante dressed as a bat. Civilians don’t take “the Bat-man” seriously, and the powers that be are unconcerned; it’s only street criminals who fear and mythologize him.

Knox’s interest in Batman draws in Vicki Vale, a serious photojournalist and a knockout bombshell, who is also, we are told, sexually attracted to bats. Once the movie grants us a gorgeous blonde woman who’s sexually attracted to bats, we kind of lose interest in poor Alexander Knox, who continues to hang around the narrative, but is relegated to sidekick and functionary for Vicki.

In addition to these three, we have Jack Napier, a high-ranking gangster in a crime syndicate run by boss Carl Grissom. Jack is a dandy and a thug, not unlike ‘80s then-mobster-of-the-moment John Gotti. Jack is in trouble with Grissom because he’s been making whoopie with Grissom’s moll. Out of all the characters who emerge in Batman’s first act, Jack is by far the most interesting, partly because he’s played by the only bona-fide movie star in the picture, and partly because he’s not particularly interested in Batman. Jack’s problem is Carl Grissom, whose problem is Harvey Dent. Dent and Grissom are unconcerned about the problem Batman presents, but Knox and Vicki are concerned solely about Batman to exclusion of all the other serious problems that seem to plague Gotham City, like pollution and corruption and crime and bleak, oppressive architecture and the lack of municipal services.

As much as Vicki obsesses about Batman, she finds herself also becoming attracted to Bruce Wayne. She does not know that Bruce Wayne is also Batman, but she is attracted to both. Why not? Bruce and Batman have a lot in common: they’re both mysterious, secretive and, well, a little weird. And I like the idea of a romantic triangle between Batman, Bruce Wayne and a female lead.

As Act I moves forward, Jack comes into clearer focus as a protagonist as he is sent by boss Grissom to go clean out the files of the Axis Chemical Plant, which is one of the businesses Grissom runs, and which is due to be under investigation by new DA Dent. For a little while, Batman seems to be developing into a serious crime drama on the level of The Dark Knight, but it takes a sharp left turn at the 30-minute mark as Jack goes to the Axis plant, finds the safe empty, knows he’s been set up by Grissom, and soon must deal with the police, who are there to arrest him, and also Batman, who makes a surprise visit.

Why does Batman show up at the Axis chemical plant? I know that Batman’s general goal is “to fight crime,” but why does he pick this night, at this juncture, to go to Axis Chemicals and confront Jack Napier? What is Axis, or Jack, to Batman? The first time we meet Batman, he’s beating up petty criminals in an alleyway, and is himself an outlaw. Why does he now take it upon himself to show up at Axis, in the middle of a police action, headed by none other than Commissioner Gordon? What does he hope to achieve?

Whatever Batman’s reason for being at Axis, Jack runs into him during the police raid and remains unimpressed. Batman, for his part, is also unimpressed with Jack. He goes on his merry way, doing what I’m still not sure, and then circles back later to have a separate confrontation with Jack a few minutes later, a confrontation that ends with Jack being mutilated by his own bullet and falling into a tub of goo.

At this point, Batman takes its sharp left turn from “crime drama” to something much stranger and grander, more operatic. Jack snaps into focus as the act drives to its close and Jack emerges from the tub of goo as The Joker. And so we see that all the other plot lines — Batman’s war on crime, Knox’s interest in pursuing Batman as a newspaper story, Vicki’s interest in pursuing Batman as a sex object — are all subservient to the real point of Act I, which is the story of how Jack Napier becomes The Joker.

So, to review:

ACT I (0:00 – 40:00) sets the scene (Gotham City is a squalid, corrupt dystopia), establishes Batman as an element of that scene, and introduces two major protagonists: Jack Napier and Vicki Vale. Vicki Vale pursues the truth about Batman because, well, she has a thing for bats, and Jack Napier finds his world coming unglued. Events conspire to put Jack and Batman in the same room together, the result being that Jack falls into a tub of goo. The tub of goo turns Jack’s skin ghostly white, a plastic surgeon botches Jack’s reconstructive surgery, and Jack emerges as the Joker, a dyed-in-the-wool homicidal maniac, disinterested in profit (it’s unclear how he keeps a staff of goons loyal to his cause) and bent on the destruction of Gotham City. Meanwhile, Vicki Vale, in her pursuit of Batman, gets sidetracked by an attraction to Bruce Wayne. As Jack becomes The Joker, Vicki beds Bruce. As The Joker cements his credentials as an “agent of chaos,” Vicki finds love, or something like it, in the arms of Bruce.

As Act II progresses, Vicki shifts her attention from Batman to Bruce Wayne, and her detective work in pursuit of his mystery drives a good chunk of the act. As the Vicki/Bruce love story develops, Bruce himself slowly comes into focus as a protagonist in his own right and the narrative shifts from her point-of-view to his, a nice narrative sleight-of-hand.

Now then, The Joker. What does The Joker want? At the end of Act I, Jack announces his new persona, kills Grissom and takes over boss Grissom’s crime syndicate. Great! He’s doing what a bad guy should do. He’s got a solid plan and he’s executing it. He kills all the other Gotham crimelords in broad daylight, on the steps of City Hall no less, and that’s all very straightforward.

But as Act II develops, The Joker’s motivations become hazy. Apropos of nothing, he falls in love with Vicki Vale, and the movie spends a little time developing this improbable love story. As he pursues Vicki, he also commits a genuine large-scale crime — he contaminates consumer goods with his deadly Smilex chemical. And he seems intent on killing Batman, his stated reason being that Batman is stealing his publicity. (The Joker dislikes Batman because he represents “decent” Gotham — as much as a masked vigilante dressed as a bat can, I guess — and Jack, before he even changed, has averred that “decent people” shouldn’t live in Gotham.)

So in Act II The Joker has three goals: he wants to contaminate consumer goods, he wants to woo Vicki Vale, and he wants to kill Batman. Coincidentally, these goals turn out to be related. It’s Bad-Guy Plots like this that give rise to Bad-Guy Plot Rules: one Bad Guy with one goal is best, one Bad Guy with two goals is weaker, two Bad Guys with one goal can work but is often problematic, two Bad Guys with two goals is weaker still, and so on. Here you have one Bad Guy with no fewer than three separate goals (contaminate consumer goods, woo the girl, kill Batman) and they don’t fit together well. And it’s only Act II, The Joker will change his goals yet again before the movie is over. If a screenwriter wishes to have a bad guy pursue a number of different goals, it’s best to make all the different goals part of One Grand Scheme.

(Not that any of that is easy! Having worked on many different superhero-related screenplays in my own career, I can tell you, it’s the hardest goddamned thing in the world, which is why so many superhero movies have such severe logic problems. When I see a superhero movie that manages to simply get all of its plot right, I forgive it a lot, because the plots of these things are so goddamned hard, even with everyone on the project working to have it make sense.)

The Joker sees a photograph of Vicki and instantly decides that he’s in love with her and must pursue her. He goes to great lengths to set up a date with her at an art museum, then arrives with his goons, destroys all the art (except for the Francis Bacon), kills all the museum patrons, then proceeds to pitch his brand of woo to Vicki.

Batman arrives, grabs Vicki — and leaves, taking her with him back to the Batcave. Why? What does Batman want? The Joker has just destroyed a museum of priceless art and killed dozens of people, and Batman’s sole concern is to grab the dame and high-tail it out of there, leaving the Joker to do whatever he feels like doing?

Thematically, we could say that Bruce/Batman rescues Vicki and leaves the Joker as an dramatization of the protagonist’s inner conflict — he wants to fight crime, but he also wants to experience a healthy love-life (just as The Joker wants to commit crime, but also wants to experience an unhealthy love-life). But then we find out that, after Batman has grabbed Vicki, driven her out of town and taken her to the Batcave, all he does is give her the evidence she needs to solve the Joker’s Smilex crimes, and then steal the film of some pictures she’s taken of Batman’s identity being revealed. Did he need to take her all the way to the Batcave to do that? Why couldn’t he have rescued her, gotten her to safety, then dealt with the Joker then and there?

And what does the Joker want with Vicki anyway? Why her? She’s beautiful, okay, and we see that he likes to destroy beauty, so she fulfills that impulse. But why her? I mean, narratively speaking, why her, except that it is convenient to the narrative? She is connected to Batman/Bruce, but the Joker doesn’t know that — when he shows up in her apartment late in Act II and finds Bruce there, he’s totally surprised. His attraction to Vicki is coincidental to his conflict with Batman.

Even stranger than Batman snatching Vicki away from the art museum without dealing with The Joker, The Joker comes to Vicki’s apartment, finds Bruce Wayne there, shoots him, and then leaves without taking Vicki with him. He murders a squadron of ganglords on the steps of City Hall in broad daylight, he destroys an art museum and kills dozens of art-lovers without suffering the slightest repercussion, why does he flee the scene of a murder without taking the thing he came to get?

(As you might have noticed by now, the problems of the Batman screenplay all swarm around its second act, when the plot tries to get too much out of its characters and motivations become blurry.)

What is the Joker’s goal, really? His Smilex plan, to contaminate thousands of consumer goods in a way that will kill millions is evil enough, but it’s unclear what it has to do, specifically, with Gotham City — it seems to me like it would be a national, or even an international, problem. Are we to believe that Gotham City has an entire host of local consumer goods — makeup, soap, eye shadow, hairspray, etc? And if his plot is not specifically against the citizens of Gotham City, why should we care about it? The world of Batman concerns Gotham City, not “the world.”

So The Joker hates Batman, Vicki loves Batman, The Joker loves Vicki (although I kind of have to take his word on that, I’m not sure I buy this movie as a tale of the eternal triangle). It would be nice if the Joker knew that Vicki loved Batman, but all he knows is that Vicki has a relationship with Bruce — whom the Joker kills, or thinks he does, late in Act II.

But Bruce is not dead, and he silently flees Vicki’s apartment (as is his wont), and it falls to Bruce’s butler Alfred to do the thing that Bruce cannot — tell Vicki that Bruce Wayne is Batman.

Near the end of Act II Bruce figures out that the Joker is the guy who killed his parents in that long-ago dark alleyway. This plot-point, which is kind of important in the scheme of things, is handled rather gracelessly (Batman, the World’s Greatest Detective, should really need something a little less obvious than a bad-guy’s catchphrase as a clue, especially since the bad guy only uses the phrase twice in the movie, and for absolutely no reason whatsoever — honestly it feels like some studio person pitched it in the room as “the bad version” — “How shall we establish that the Joker killed Bruce’s parents?” “Well, here’s the bad version — he’s got a unique catchphrase that he recites every time he kills someone.” “Like what?” “Like anything, it doesn’t have to make sense, it could be ‘Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?’” “Really? You think people will fall for that? It’s really fake and contrived.” “Well, like I say, that’s the bad version, we’ll think of something better later.”)

So, again, to review:

ACT II (40:00 – 1:27:00) The Joker murders all of the crimelords in Gotham, and investigates whatever Batman is, and sets into motion his fiendish plot to contaminate consumer goods with Smilex, and pursues a romantic liason with Vicki. That’s a whole bunch of agendas for a bad guy to have, and the movie will squeeze in one more by the time the Act III rolls around. A bad guy with four agendas in one act is a lot for any narrative to include, but Act II of Batman also pursues Vicki’s agenda of getting to know Bruce Wayne.

As Act III begins, as Batman finally comes into focus as a protagonist, Vicki is demoted from Protagonist to Damsel, and Alexander Knox is demoted from Protagonist to Clerk, a sap whose job is to do Vicki’s research for her. All of which is perfectly okay with the viewer, since Batman is a far more interesting character than Vicki, and about a billion times more interesting than Knox.

ACT III (1:27:00 – 2:03:00) His Smilex plot foiled, the Joker launches into a new plot, to present himself as the true leader of Gotham City — not the mayor, not Harvey Dent, not Batman, but himself. The city fathers, who have been planning a bicentennial festival since the beginning of the movie, have been greatly discouraged by the whole murderous crime-wave thing, and have cancelled said festival. The Joker, steamed from the ruin of his Smilex plot, announces that he will stage his own festival, one with balloons and parades and jarring, out-of-place funk music. At this festival, he will give away millions of dollars, take his place as the true leader of Gotham City, then kill everyone in the area.

His third-act plot proceeds just fine, Batman shows up to foil it, which causes the Joker to abscond with Vicki to the World’s Tallest Bell Tower to make his escape. This all works just fine (although I’m a little shocked to see Batman, who has a gadget for everything, sigh and trudge up the stairs of the bell tower in pursuit of the Joker — where’s his grapple-gun when he needs it?). It almost feels like maybe we didn’t need all that back-and-forth in Act II. It’s a pity that Vicki slides from Major Protagonist to Damsel in Distress, but then nobody showed up to see a movie called Vicki Vale. There’s a big climactic fight at the top of the bell tower (where the Joker’s goons come from is a mystery to me), The Joker does his best to try to kill Batman and Vicki, and Batman turns the tables on the Joker at the last moment, sending him plunging to his death.

All of which, as I’ve said, was absolutely mind-blowing in 1989. Since then, we’ve seen superheroes be given screenplays containing much more logic and narrative cohesion. Batman, like many of director Tim Burton’s movies, works best as a kind of “lives of the artists” drama — the Joker even calls himself an artist at one point. Burton is interested in the Outsider, the bent individual who cannot fit into society and is thus feared and reviled. The Joker, a homicidal maniac, is “created” by Batman, whom he sees as a symbol of “decent” society, and thus must pursue his revenge upon decency. What he doesn’t know (or maybe he does) is that Batman is also an outsider, “created” by Jack years ago when Jack killed his parents. At the apex of this triangle is Vicki, yet another artist (a photojournalist) who passes for straight in the public eye but who is secretly obsessed with darkness and, well, bats. Vicki has a mask of beauty, Batman has a rubber mask, Bruce Wayne has a mask of impersonality (there’s no indication that Bruce is “playing” at being preoccupied, he’s genuinely preoccupied). It’s fitting that, in this iteration of the Joker story, he’s the only character without a mask — he must put on a mask of makeup when he wants to appear slightly less freakish to the public. Burton seems to be saying that, without a mask, Bruce Wayne, or Vicki, or any of us, would devolve into the homicidal maniac that is the Joker.

Text © 2010 Todd Alcott. All rights reserved.

  1. Wow, John, don’t you think you’re being a little hard on someone who just provided you, free of charge, an interesting piece of movie analysis? I don’t see YOU doing this sort of thing in your free time. Personally, I’m enjoying these articles.

    You point about Nicholson is wrong, too. Billy Dee Williams and Keaton had been in some popular movies but neither one was actually a “star” like Nicholson. And Jack Palance, though much-beloved in Hollywood, and kind of well-known on Television, was usually a supporting character actor or bad guy. Well known but hardly a “star”. (He wouldn’t be a real movie star until a couple of years later with “City Slickers”). None of these three could, in 1989, bring fans to the theater on the strength of their names, like a “movie star” could.

    Nicholson, on the other hand, was someone who, just by being in a movie, would bring in fans. He’d already starred in some of the most important films of the era, like Chinatown, Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, Broadcast News, Prizzi’s Honor and many more, and won the Best Actor Oscar for a little movie you might have heard of called “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”.

    Nicholson was the only real “movie star” in the cast. So if you’re going to attempt to criticize these articles, read up on a little film history first.

  2. (Hmm – I really was replying to a comment that was there before, but now it’s gone and I look like I’m ranting at nothing. Which, I’ll admit, I’ve been known to do, but *not this time*, honest!)

  3. Very interesting piece! (Obviously not the same John whose deleted comment Patrick’s referring to, BTW.)

    I’ve always felt there’s a track that Burton follows in the film, from the human and the routine to the inhuman and superhuman. So he carefully establishes all the players in what would be the “mortal” drama of Gotham City — Grissom, Dent, Knox, and Gordon — and proceeds to sweep them away as the larger forces take over. Only Vale lives in both worlds, although, as we see, she only barely functions in the other one. To that end, Burton’s second movie sort of follows, with the grotesque taking over more of the city; Cobblepot’s campaign speech about how Gotham is turning “normal” people into crazed Catwomen, etc., would seem to be in line with this thinking.

    To address one of the more puzzling moments the piece mentions: The scene where Joker arrives at Vicki’s apartment and leaves empty-handed is an artifact of a subplot that was eliminated from the final film.

    Joker actually does steal Vicki away, taking her through the daylight Gotham Bicentennial ceremony — and Bruce, recovering from the shot, changes in the limo to Batman and runs out to rescue her, at one point riding a policeman’s horse.

    This is the material that made it into the novelization, and I’ve read production commentary saying they did do some initial work on the sequence, only to give it up when it was found that the Batman suit looked terrible in daylight. (Consequently, we only ever see it in the dark.) I don’t have any of the earlier scripts myself, but this seems to make sense.

    The replacement sequence with the poem is indeed puzzling, but it did lead to the biggest laugh in the entire movie — the roses popping up from the box. Audiences roared.

    For its many flaws, the film was a welcome change for comics fans — some of my own reminiscences of the before-and-after are here: http://blog.farawaypress.com/2009/06/comics-confessions-my-summer-of-batman.html

  4. The summer this movie came out was the summer I turned 13 and also happened to be the summer of my family’s one great road trip. I wanted — needed — to see this film more than any before, but as we lived in the country, I didn’t have the means to get to the movie before we packed up the camper and hit the road. My foster brother, three years older, did, so even though we didn’t get along at all, I was a rapt audience as he talked about the movie and how incredible it was. While my parents weren’t about to interrupt our pacific coast trek to salmon fishing grounds to see costumed heroics, they did allow me to buy the novelization, which I ate up; armed with these new plot details (and plenty of bits not actually in the movie) I harassed my foster brother even more. When we got to our final camping destination, the F.B. (a just-over-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks type), proclaimed his love for Batman in a way that sent my moral compass spinning — by tagging the bat symbol with spray paint on a concrete bridge support. Meanwhile, I did my best to build a Batplane out of the pieces of a $9.99 Blacktron LEGO set. When I finally did see the movie (2 or 3 times at least), I loved the heck out of it, but it was that month of waiting that really made memories.

    Anyway, another great narrative breakdown by Alcott. I wonder if he’ll cover Mask of the Phantasm in the future, perhaps the only Batman film that doesn’t play sloppy with structure (or at least it seems that way in my rose-tinted memory).

    One major element of this Batman that Todd didn’t hit on (as it’s only barely relevant to the script) is the use of music. Prince’s purple shadow hangs over this film in a way that dates it, yes, but also cements it as a pop art classic.

  5. The sudden appearance of the goons in the cathedral is probably just a blown plot element, but there’s a chance it could relate to a conversation we didn’t hear — perhaps during the “I’m going to need a moment alone” scene after Bob is shot. Since Joker doesn’t tell the helicopter pilot exactly where to pick him up, the implication is that it was a planned rendezvous.

    (In 1989, my movie group took that thread as a sequel springboard — that Joker had additionally planted a drugged-and-surgically-altered double on the ledge under the thinking that, having killed a million people as he’d planned, he might need to appear to be dead afterward. A pretty extreme extrapolation, sure enough, but that was the sort of thinking it inspired in teenage moviegoers at the time…)

  6. STILL the only comic book movie that works.

    That Nolan stuff is ludicrous as it tries and make ‘Batman’ realistic.

  7. I remember coming away from this enjoying it for the most part- I was already a Burton fan and I liked what he brought to it for the most part. I remember thinking the animated series was better. But one thing is true- the impact this movie made was huge.

    Then I read a couple of articles, reviews perhaps- I forget who write them, but one was in the Comics Journal, the other (I think) was in the New Yorker (not sure), which pointed out what seemed like a thousand and two internal inaccuracies/incosistencies and logic gaps and after that I was a bit less impressed.

    One scene that drove me nuts from the beginning was how, in the third act of the film, Batman’s flying his plane straight at the Joker, who proceeds to pull out a revolver with a barrel that appears to be at least three feet long, and fires a bullet out of it, bringing down the Batplane! I don’t know physics all that well, but I just don’t think it’s possible to fire a bullet out of a gun with a barrel like that, at least not have it travel out with any kind of force and certainly not enough to damage a sophisticated advanced kind of pseudomilitary aircraft! I’m sure someone can pull out an explanation of some sort, and I know rifles fire like that, but that would seem to be a altogether different setup.

    I know, I know, it’s only a movie. I get told that a lot…

  8. I gotta say, when I watched the movie for the first time I was enjoying it a lot, but the big handgun bringing down the Batplane for no apparent reason lost me. Completely. I literally could not enjoy the rest of the movie after that piece of monumental stupidity and camp.

  9. That scene was a common complaint — starting with all the earlier shots from the Batwing missing him. I seem to recall the novel got around it by suggesting Joker had loaded up on military technology after the museum episode. (“Where does he get those wonderful toys?” was followed with the line “Don’t just stand there — go find out!” or words to that effect.)

    Interesting element relating to Prince: The song intended for the parade scene was “200 Balloons,” the eventual B-side to “Batdance.” (The line in the song spoken by Joker — or at least the Prince version of Joker — is “Who’s going to stop 200 balloons? Nobody!”) As we can see, of course, the sequence is about 196 balloons short. Burton rejected that song and another choice that was replaced by “Partyman.” (Fans of the film should seek the long form of that video, which is set in the museum and likely one of the few 80s pop videos to end with mass murder.)

  10. I didn’t like how they made the Joker the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Once the Joker died, Batman has no more reason to exist.
    Hollywood thinks audiences are so stupid all the loose ties have to be made simple and closed.
    That’s one reason Nolan’s The Dark Knight is the best Batman movie yet. It credits the audience for having intelligence.

    And don’t get me started on the gross miscasting of Michael Keaton. He looks like he can’t run 4 blocks without fainting.
    Ironically he was better then George Clooney who you can tell didn’t want to give his best.

  11. I agree it’s an unnecessary tacked-on element — and it led to one of the bigger logical flubs in the film: “I was a kid when I killed your parents.” Huh? Since Joker doesn’t know Batman is Bruce Wayne, he has no reason to connect Batman with people Napier killed years earlier — and he’s probably killed plenty of people’s parents since then. Including a bunch just in the past week!

    But I think it all ties into Todd’s larger point. While it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny that well — then or now — the difference in tone from past comics-themed movies, and the public’s response to it, is its real legacy. It’s one of the steps Hollywood apparently had to have to go from making films like SUPERMAN IV to something more serious.

  12. “I didn’t like how they made the Joker the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Once the Joker died, Batman has no more reason to exist.”

    But the idea of Batman’s continued motivation can be a complicated one–in any medium–regardless of who killed his parents. If Bruce Wayne is motivated to be Batman because his parents were killed, then, logically, he would do nothing but try to avenge his parents. Whether the Waynes were killed by the pre-Joker Joker, or Joe Chill, or whomever else, Batman clearly spends time doing other crime-fighting than just tracking down his parents’ killers. So there has to be something more.

    Batman Begins did a nice job, I think, at developing Bruce Wayne’s motivation not just as about avenging his parents’ murder, but about preserving their legacy and their vision for Gotham City.

    The comics often present Batman’s motivation as his not wanting to see others suffer as Bruce Wayne has suffered, but there was an interesting period in the comics where some retcon held that Batman’s parents’ killer was never identified and never caught. This, I suppose, was intended to give extra texture and drive to Batman’s motivation, but instead served to underscore how Batman’s motivation to be Batman must be more sophisticated than simple revenge (and, of course, also drove continuity-minded readers crazy with another change-in-continuity to keep track of.) I believe this killer-never-caught element has been rediscarded in another retcon, Superboy-prime punch, worm-eaten timeline, of whatever else DC’s using to justify changing continuity nowadays ;-)

  13. Interesting stuff — I wonder if the narrative actually precedes the film itself via the trailer, which first showed the Joker and ran ahead of Bill & Ted. That (and the Prince CD) got my entire peer group into that theater. I think you’re right that it was shocking, but no one could say why.

    I had the lucky privilege of recently meeting and hanging out a bit with the wonderful Michael Uslan, who absolutely birthed this movie. I shared with him my favorite Bat-1989 moment that showed how much the film redefined Batman in pop culture: that great commercial (over July 4?) that showed an empty mall parking lot, an empty beach, and an empty park — the voice says: Where has everyone gone? Cue the Bat-signal.


  14. @Patrick: “None of these three could, in 1989, bring fans to the theater on the strength of their names, like a ‘movie star’ could.”

    Not just fans either. Superhero movies were not the hot genre at the time (Superman III, Supergirl and Superman IV might’ve dampened people’s enthusiasm) and it had been 20+ years since the last Batman movie. If I remember correctly there was some concern that no one BUT fans would be interested in a Batman movie, hence the frontloading with Nicholson (a “real” actor and legitimate movie star who could bring in non-fans and let people know this wasn’t 1966 all over again) and Prince (y’know, for the kids).

    BTW Heidi, I love Todd’s stuff, so please keep it coming!

  15. I remember getting into friendly arguments about this movie. A couple of friends would argue that this was the “definitive” Batman, and I would argue back that it focused so much on the Joker that it may as well have been called “Joker” instead of “Batman”. With this thought-out analysis, now I can see why parts worked for me but huge sections did not. I look forward to analysis of the later movies!

  16. The kicker is that this was not really Tim Burton’s vision — it was the vision of screenwriter Sam Hamm, who penned the scrennplay that got everyone excited. BATMAN had been in development hell for years until Hamm wrote a script that was heavily influenced by Steve Englehart and Frank Miller’s comics.

    After the success of the movie, Warner gave more control to the director, and Tim Burton gave us BATMAN RETURNS. I’ve read one of the earlier drafts of the screenplay by Sam Hamm (again) and it was far superior to what was finally filmed.

  17. “The kicker is that this was not really Tim Burton’s vision — it was the vision of screenwriter Sam Hamm, who penned the scrennplay that got everyone excited. BATMAN had been in development hell for years until Hamm wrote a script that was heavily influenced by Steve Englehart and Frank Miller’s comics.”

    Miller yes, Englehart maybe. Steve Englehart claims to this day that the movie script was based on a treatment he wrote, which in turn was based on his run. Sam Hamm has always claimed that he never read any treatment or previous versions of the script before writing his script and only read Englehart’s run on the comics after he turned in his first draft. Hamm’s stated that the only comics he was given before taking the assignment were the Dark Knight, Year One and some of the O’Neil/Adams Comics from the 70’s. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

    And you’re right about everything that worked in the movie was from Hamm’s script. I read an earlier version of the script that was much better then the one filmed. Everything fan and critics complained about in the movie was not in that script including the “batplane shot down by one bullet” scene. Hamm also came up with a neat origins for the Bat Signal and Robin that never made it into the final film.

  18. 1989 was probably the apex of Hollywood blockbusters.

    Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade opened May 24.
    Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, June 9.
    Ghostbusters II, June 16.
    Batman, June 23.

    Each of those movies (aside from Star Trek, which could have, if the plot had been better) set a box office record the weekend each opened, topping the movie before it.

    Batman ended up grossing $250 Million in the US in 1989. It was the first movie to screen at Midnight (which is how I saw it). Jack Nicholson made millions from the merchandising, which was EVERYWHERE. (Hmmm… anyone have the link to the Beatrix modeling Batmania gear?) Could Prince’s Batdance be considered the first viral video?

    Yeah… the Batplane scene was the only thing I was critical of when I first saw it. Most of this other stuff, I never really considered that much. I was more critical of “Batman Returns”. And yes, I have seen *choke* every Batman movie.

  19. It was also the first movie to sell tickets weeks in advance, at least in the bigger cities. There were several stories about it in the press at the time that one of the major chains was selling advance tickets. I can remember my friends and co-workers at the time thinking that was stupid, after all if the movie was sold out you just go another time. Now buying tickets ahead of time, online or though the phone is quite common.

    A few other firsts, it was the first time a trailer for a movie got buzz, in the pre-internet days there were reports of people going to see the movies and leaving after the Batman trailer was shown. People didn’t want to see the movie, they wanted to see the trailer. That never happened before. Nowadays we have websites that crash the first day a trailer for an anticipated film is put on line, and we accept that as normal.

    Also it was the first time a major movie was released on video less then six months after it’s release in the theaters and before it was shown on cable. This is normal now but at the time it was a big deal, the movie was on video by November 89. Up till that time most movies waited a least a year before coming out on video and the bigger the movie was box office wise the longer the wait before it came out on video. Some of the trade papers announcing the video release date had to put “no joke” in the headline because up till that point it simply wasn’t done.

  20. I love the two Tim Burton “Batman” films (especially the second one). They’re gothic fairy tales, just like every film he does, and they fit right into the little universe he’s created. Narrative inconsistencies? Sure. But his vision is so beautiful (loved his show at MOMA) that I’m willing to forgive the weaknesses in his films.

    That said, years ago I read one of the earliest drafts of the screenplay and I have to say the story was noticeably better when Robin was still in it. It just added an extra spark to the second half of the story (which I think drags a bit, especially compared to the first half hour which I think is pretty brilliant).

  21. Also we had LETHAL WEAPON 2 and LICENSE TO KILL that summer. Seeing BATMAN so many times, we kind of memorized the trailers.

    I consider the first film “descendant” of Burton’s BATMAN to be DARKMAN later that fall, which had a similar flavor and all the elements of a comic book origin story, if not based on an actual comic book character.

    And we also saw others aping the bat-symbol marketing very soon after: 1990’s DICK TRACY teasers were just a picture of the character’s head, and 1990 TV’s FLASH teased with just the logo. The deeply regrettable CAPTAIN AMERICA theatrical teaser poster was also just a shield, if I recall. Only saw it when it went to video (I think, directly); tried to forget everything about it!

  22. Disney tried very hard to copy the marketing strategy Batman had used on Dick Tracy and while it wasn’t a complete failure it wasn’t as nearly successful. Legend has it that there was a memo going around Disney at the time that read something like “Batman worked, Tracy didn’t, we have no idea why.”

    Another thing Batman made responsible, Danny Elfman scores. Elfman had done scores before Batman but after Batman he was everywhere and for a few years seemed to do any movie or TV show having something to do with comics.

  23. Batman doesn’t kill people, that includes blowing up chemical factories full of thugs. Even at 15 I was adamant about this.

  24. Great read, like your Batman:The Movie. About Axis Chemicals, I’m sure this has been addressed within the comments, but I’m at work (I’ve been trying to read through every comment) anywho, Batman shows up at Axis because he catches Gordon on security tape at Wayne Manor getting a tip that Napier is “cleaning out Axis Chemicals”.

    Plus I guess the party was dull for him anyway.

  25. Heroes and their villains: Whether a hero appears in movies or in comics, a villain who has the distinction of being the hero’s defining villain, greatest villain, or ultimate villain should only be used two to three times (to allow for a trilogy) at the most. Even if the schemes vary, the villain is still the same character , his motives will be the same or overlap, and repeated losses (n>3) to the hero cheapen both characters. The only or final encounter with the villain should be a life-changing encounter for both.

    Is there anything more to be said in stories that have Cap versus the Red Skull, Dr. Doom vs. the FF, or Batman vs. the Joker? Even if new readers are unfamiliar with the characters, the characters know each other, and a natural response to being told that ____ has concocted a new scheme would be “Oh, God. Not him again!”

    Aside from stories in which the hero and villain serve purely symbolic purposes, are there any stories in which the hero and villain meet for the nth time that can be called literature?


  26. For me the key phrase in this piece is “Thematically strong and narratively weak (like many of Tim Burton’s movies)” — BUrton has often come right out and said he isn’t interested in narrative, per se. Sam Hamm’s original script was much admired in Hollywood at the time, but as those who have read it point out, Burton often altered it just to make…what? A more exciting or satisfying scene for him?

    I can’t wait until Todd’s commentary on BATMAN RETURNS. I’ve often thought that Selina Kyle’s story arc is one of the msot fulyl realized in any superhero movie…but the rest of the film is such a hideous mish mash of story that the scenes could be shown in any order and it would make the same amount of sense.

  27. It’s interesting, regarding Batman and Dick Tracy… There are numerous parallels between the two characters.

    Bizarre rogues gallery
    Grotesque but cartoony drawing style (Sprang vs. Gould)
    Cheesy Sci-Fi period (Moon Maid, Prisoners of Three Worlds)
    Blockbuster motion pictures, as well as multiple media adaptations and merchandising
    Strong creator control, but owned by a corporation

    (oog… I looked at today’s Dick Tracy strip. So sad…)

  28. All I ask a superhero movie is that, if you’re going to put the guy’s origin in there, for cryin’ out loud get it right! “Superman” The Movie” did it. “Iron Man” did it (with a bit of updating time-wise). “Spider-Man” pretty much did it (if you can get past the whole organic web-shooter thing). A hero’s origin is the bedrock of his character. Why do people thing it’s OK to screw around with it?

    And the whole tragedy with Joe Chill killing Bruce Wayne’s parents (and the unidentified guy that killed Peter Parker’s uncle) is that it WASN’T a supervillain. It was just some thug.

    (And I blame somebody seeing “Batman” too many times for retroactively making the guy that became the Sandman responsible for Uncle Ben’s death. AAAUGGHH!)

    Can you tell this is a bit of a sore spot for me? :-)

  29. Torsten,
    Max Collins wrote a proposal for a Batman/Dick Tracy meeting back in the early 90’s, (around the time the Tracy movie came out). DC apparently wanted to do it but the company that owned Tracy had no interest so it died, another one of those comic projects we can only wish about but will never see. Another similarity you didn’t mention, they both had young assistants that they constantly put in danger, (Junior Vs Robin).

    The big difference between the two is that in Tracy’s world the bad guys usually died, (and those that didn’t either went to prison for a long time or reformed). Imagine how different history would be if the Joker, Catwoman and all the rest died in their first encounter with Batman and never came back.

    BTW, Last year I was reading the IDW Tracy reprints at the same time I was rereading the original James Bond novels. Doing a side by side comparison I suddenly realized there was lot that Ian Flemming borrowed from Chester Gould. Many of Bond’s villains, (in the books) could have been dropped into Tracy’s world without seeming out of place. I really started to wonder if Dick Tracy was printed in England when Flemming was growing up.

  30. BATMAN RETURNS … I read Sam Hamm’s early draft of this, and it is a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT story. There are some elements that made it to the film, but Hamm’s script involved The Penguin’s theft of priceless bird statues from the descendents of Gotham’s Founding Fathers. The Catwoman was his hired hand.

    Tim Burton stated somewhere that BATMAN RETURNS had to be “his vision” … and thus, we got a Gotham City-styled “Edward Scissorhands” with the Penguin.

    You can probably find a copy of the original script online, and though it’s enjoyable, it will probably just make you sad to think what might have been.

  31. I read both of the original Hamm drafts years ago. SPOILERS, I guess, but the main thing I remember about them is that the Joker and the Penguin are killed off in the exact same Disney-fied manner in both scripts. The finished films are certainly better in that regard, IMO.

  32. If I recall an interview with Tim Burton I read many years ago, in response to a question about why ALfred would reveal Bruce’s secret identity to Vicky, a relative stranger, he said that so many suits from Warner Bros. were making suggestions/offering notes/interfering while shooting the film, that he just gave up and did whatever they asked.

    I get/got that feeling from watching the movie — it’s as if he started making a coherent, structured film, and then just gave up after Act 1. This was a nice first try, but as is the case with many “comic book” movies from the late 20th century (Superman and especially Star Trek, for example), I think the sequel was the best of the series.

  33. Really enjoyable read, it’s nice to read some discussion on the earlier Burton films, which I still really rate.

    Looking forward to your take on ‘Batman Returns’, which is still my favorite. Sure there’s no argument that the Nolan films have better scripts, but something about Burton’s gothic vision for the character’s world just visually works on screen in a way that few comic-book films have managed since.

    I can forgive a lot of the script issues from ‘Batman’, as if you’ve seen the excellent doco on the recent DVD re-release, you find that just about everyone from the producers to Nicholson on down were changing the script on a daily basis. It’s to Burton’s credit that he managed to pull it all together into a (mostly) cohesive film.

  34. Gene Siskel said that BATMAN RETURNS was “an opera about loneliness,” which is my favorite line about it. Bruce Wayne starts depressed, and ends depressed.

    That’s one where digging into the earlier scripts is really important: disregarding the bizarre Wayans-as-Robin-but-not-quite bit which was wisely removed, the previous iteration had Max Schreck as the Cobblepots’ firstborn, thus tying into the whole Moses theme and making his character’s connection to Penguin make sense. That element went, along with actually having the babies arrive at the underground lair; the studio wanted no part of that, as I understand it.

  35. No worries Todd, watched the living hell out of Batman when I was a kid when it came to video. Had the movie memorized, even the Warner Brothers magazine and Diet Coke commercials that proceeded the movie.

  36. Not all of this film makes sense, but I don’t care. I have seen this movie about 500 times on the glorious VHS release. It’s the most important film of my entire life.

  37. To resolve an issue for the uber-literal minded…

    “Burton’s film has a great (but often dismissed) scene in which the Joker faces down Batman’s speeding Batplane. The Joker reaches into his pants and grabs the handle of a small handgun. He pulls it out and the gun barrel keeps coming, and coming, and coming, like a clown pulling out an endless string of tied-scarves, until he’s left with a tiny gun handle with a ridiculously long barrel. It’s amusing enough in itself, a great joke as the Joker’s own uber-phallic symbol, and gets the narrative where it needs to go. It’s not really worth ruining the fun by wondering how he’d walk properly with that in his pants.”

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