Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Batmania and the Burton Vindication


The mid '80s were a time of trickle-down travesties and trade union bashing.  It was all rather miserable and bleak and I was merely a child.  Despite the doom and gloom two things were happening in sunny Los Angeles: Jack Nicholson turned chewing scenery on screen into an art form and Tim Burton became attached to possible Batman movie.  Burton, an animator, had been faffed about by Disney and stumbled into success when Pee-Wee's Big Adventure inexplicably became a box office hit off a tiny budget. Further success came with the sublime Beetlejuice and Warner Bros decided to greenlight Batman with Burton at the helm.  Then the problems began.

One of the best graphic novels ever
Now, as we learnt from Superman a comic book movie can't have a smooth production.  The '80s had seen the rise of the graphic novel with Frank Miller and Alan Moore giving Batman a grittier, bleaker flavour, truly The Dark Knight.

When Michael Keaton was cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman it seemed that the new movie would be completely at odds with this.  Burton was known for cartoon colour whilst Michael Douglas changed his name to Keaton (after Buster) and shed the taxi cab for comedy.  Now think back to Batman's previous big screen outing in 1966.  Were Warner Bros making their version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  Unfounded omens didn't look good and Warner Bros responded by hiring Bob Kane as a consultant who approved of the project.

Burton bristled against the producers as he tried to cast Brad Dourif as The Joker whilst they had already approached Nicholson for the role amidst rumours of David Bowie and Willem Dafoe.  Who else but Jack could be The Joker?  Well on the way to legendary status and one of the few remaining hellraisers of Hollywood, Nicholson would bring Oscar laden credibility to the production.  He'd done big, hammy characters with The Witches of Eastwick and The Shining and long shouldered the burden of stardom from Five Easy Pieces onwards. Not that bagging Jack would be easy.  An incalculable fee that made the Guinness Book of Records and a contract that would make it easy to be louche were minimum requirements.  Let's face it Jack can do what he bloody well wants and we'll all approve at the smallest glint of that grin.  Factor in a horse riding accident and an oddly predictable writers' strike and cameras were almost ready to roll.  Filming at Pinewood was secret and such was the clamour building that police had to be called when footage went missing.

Batman was a changing beast.  It was changing from a superhero movie or a comic book film into a revolution.  The marketing alone changed the nature of the summer blockbuster.  Teaser posters were everywhere.  Spring sunshine was soaked up by black posters bearing only the symbol of the bat.  Merchandising became omnipresent, from the usual novel to the slightly unusual cereal.  I've still got my Mattel Batmobile knocking around.  It needs a lick of paint and those eBay prices make you faint.  Batman had two soundtrack albums with a Prince soundtrack cementing Batman's place in the zeitgeist.

Batman saw a change in the approach to traditional origin story telling.  The Wayne tragedy occurs in flashback and whilst there are a few liberties taken with the comics it's true enough, establishing just enough of Bruce Wayne's pathos without becoming cloying.  Unfortunately, we also have an origin for The Joker when the ambiguity and mystery of the comics make him all the more fearful by not giving him a definitive past.

Our opening scenes produce a neat and clever twist as comic book fans are invited into the Wayne's mugging only to be displaced.  This displacement is largely down to the film's tone and setting.  Our perceptions of time are being played with.  Burton's retro-futuristic Gotham is an homage to Fritz Lang yet it's populated by ageless automobiles and muggers taunt us with the very '80s American Express.  The '50s curves of the Batmobile caressed the ugliness of the city in a way Nolan's and Schumacher's never did. Amongst the seediness is an elegance and colour is supplied by Burton and exploited by The Joker.  Green and purple collide with newsprint and darkness throught the film.

Our main players are introduced and sub-plots established.  A jealous love triangle, police corruption and Mob betrayal give way to the chaos of The Joker as he attempts to eliminate Batman at the bicentennial parade.  There's a pace to the story that is hampered by the writers' strike as the middle section of the film becomes a number of set pieces loosely connected.  The Joker's mime act lacks build up and the unexplained disappearance of the Gotham City Police Department is jarring as is Batman's attack on Axis Chemicals.  It's a shame there hasn't been a director's cut to add some flesh to these bones.  There's plenty on show that is glorious, from the pure glee on Nicholson's face after joy buzzer deployment to the excellence of Keaton's performance of the fractured Bruce Wayne,  looks like Burton got that one spot on, from the model cathedral to the parade balloons leaking Smilex gas.  The juxtaposition of the manic Joker against Bruce Wayne/Batman's (probably more dangerous) pathology is as potent as it ever will be.

It'll be twenty years before an unnecessary argument over whose Joker is better: an argument that can't be settled by the way.

It'll be twenty years before the breaking of Bruce Wayne is explored again and Batman's position as a necessary but flawed hero is restored.

Before then there's some PVC, nipples and neon and too much pantomime but Batman will return.