50/50: Batman (1989)

Introducing 50/50!

Greetings, and welcome to the newest segment on my site called 50/50. This is a special undertaking for the year 2020, where I pick apart fifty films that I consider engaging, intriguing, and fun to discuss. All in the span of fifty weeks.

This is not a countdown where one film on the list is pitted against the other in hopes of seeing which film is the best. No, these are just insights into movies that act as food for thought. So cutting back on the chit-chat, I hope that you will enjoy this cinematic buffet with me!

#1. Batman (1989)

Or, The Caped "Film Noire" Crusader...

“You're watching it again?” I remember my mother saying, exasperated that a 9-year-old me is popping in the tape of Batman, one more time, into our Sony VHS player.

Looking back, I am surprised my mom let me watch the movie at all: Batman is dark, violent, brooding and I love every dingy, film-noir inspired moment of it—with all of my fanboy heart. I cannot discuss this adaptation without bringing up the Dark Knight and, in all sincerity, I believe Tim Burton's Batman is the superior version of the two. Yes, go ahead and cry into the keyboard, but aside from Heath Ledger's superior performance of the Joker (sorry Jack Nicholson, I'll sing your praises later) The Dark Knight was more of an exercise in philosophical discussion than a caped crusader film. Nolan is just not as talented of a director as Burton is.

Please breathe before going on a tirade, the Dark Knight is an impressive film. But Batman feels more, well, like a superhero movie.

Visually, the film is stunning and has aged very well. Gotham City is like a smokey, depressing, and dark painting. Shadows and shady people lurk in every corner. It would have been so easy to choose a metropolis like New York, Detroit, or Chicago (as the Dark Knight did) and just slap the Gotham City Limits sign onto it. But Burton took it a step further and made Gotham City from the ground up, creating an urban dystopia with a life of its own. The atmosphere of the place is a city on edge—crime runs rampant, government corruption runs amok, and the rule of law is the law of the concrete jungle. That is until Batman takes matters into his own hands. 

This is not your grandparents Batman or even the current day Batman who is decidedly against capital punishment. This is a Batman who is not afraid to use lethal force. Growing up, call us little sadists, but my sister and I were always irritated when watching Batman: The Animated Series because the Joker and other villains would cause so much pain to Gotham. Batman would throw them in Arkham Asylum—only to have them escape and continue the cycle of insanity; rinse and repeat. When we watched the movie together, my sister was not nearly as enthralled as I was with the overall production, but she did voice the sentiment “well, at least he killed the Joker in this one!” It is this dark edge that always drew me to this adaptation. Every fight scene has a visceral realism to it, not polished or saturated with choreography like action movies today. When Batman threw a punch, it could be felt and he was not afraid to take out the trash.

Speaking of trash, the villain in this film is the Joker—the long timed nemesis of the dark knight,
played brilliantly by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson was one of the best in the business and truly brings his own zany touch to the clown prince of crime. Cracks jokes and takes lives, and is an overall destructive maniac. When watching the film, the viewer can tell that Nicholson is having a ball playing the bad-guy bozo. One scene which exemplified this villainous fun was when the Joker and his goons take over the museum. While, admittedly, Prince's Partyman was a little too goofy, even for my younger sensibilities, I still grin at the scene. All of Prince's songs in Batman are so deliciously dated, with corny eighties goodness!

While on the topic of music, the score for Batman is an evocative joy to listen to. Danny Elfman has become a staple of anything Tim Burton makes. He has also, in a way, become the Randy Newman of symphonic film music, utilizing over repetitive stylings that have (for better or worse) become ubiquitous with his name. The bouncy, almost carnival-feel usage of horns—to the choral singing that consists of nothing but the use of vowels. But the Batman score is iconic, so much so that the central theme has been utilized in other sources of Batman media ever since such as Batman: The Animated Series. The score oozes a moody style, and my nine-year-old brain was blown when Batman takes Vicki Vale to the Batcave, all while Elfman's Descent Into Mystery blared. While hitting my eardrums like a hopeful anthem of dark heroism, my spine tingled with excitement. 

Honing into the various characters, Vicki Vale is a no-nonsense reporter who has a bit of a traditional damsel-in-distress left over. Forty percent of her dialogue is multiple pitches of screams—her lungs alone should receive a check for the amount of overtime they clocked in on set! While not the greatest of female leads in a film, there is more to her than meets the eye. She depends on Batman, but she can also hold her own when looking for the latest scoop. She cares about others but also calls out the varying degrees of their bullshit when she sees it. As a female lead, she could have been one dimensional. Still, Burton put more care and attention into writing her.

Batman/Bruce Wayne—played with adroit subtlety—by Michael Keaton is the definitive version. He is fueled by quiet desperation to avenge the wrongs inflicted upon him in childhood and comes off as—at times—an awkward and broken man. The way Wayne interacts with those around him seems aloof, coming across as an eccentric introvert and less of a playboy billionaire like other representations of the rich vigilante. This is how I viewed Bruce, a sad man who is trying to cope with childhood trauma. It is only when he dons the black cape and cowl that he becomes more confident. Keaton's use of a calm and cold voice while bashing bad guys makes the whole dark persona complete. Not at all like the goofy, growling voice that was utilized in the Dark Knight trilogy. That version of the caped crusader sounds less like Batman and more like Bruce Wayne smoked several packs of Newports, daily, for many years. 
Also, Bob. Be like Bob. Bob was awesome.
Dark, gritty, and moody—Batman is the best representation of the comic book legend that has ever hit the silver screen. 

(Batman is under the property of Warner Bros and Tim Burton.)


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